Before there was Muhammad Ali, there was Cassius Clay, a bombastic young boxer who was expected to lose to Sonny Liston when the two fought in 1964—but he didn't. A startling report sheds new light on that stirring bout early in Ali's career and the FBI investigation that was launched to determine its legitimacy.
The Washington Times' Thom Loverro pored through documents released to the paper "under the Freedom of Information Act."
What Loverro found was the FBI launched an extensive investigation following the first bout between Clay (who would later change his name to Ali) and the seemingly unbeatable Liston. What they uncovered is the very real possibility of a fix implicating Liston and Las Vegas gambler Ash Resnick.
Before we continue, it's important to stress the term possibility, because nothing was ever proven. It's best to simply quote The Washington Times' sports editor Mike Harris, who states in a video on the report's page, "They never found any conclusive proof."
As Harris notes, documents did reach as high as J. Edgar Hoover's desk, but in the end, it's left to meander on in history as rumor and sensationalized scuttlebutt.
Loverro's report centers on Resnick and some discussions the gambler had with Barnett Magids, a man described as a "Houston gambler."
Magids, who died in 2007, gave an interview to the FBI and discussed peculiar circumstances prior to the Liston-Ali fight that would end with Liston losing in the seventh round on Feb. 25, 1964.
Magids and Resnick discussed the fight a couple of days before the bout, debating when Liston might take down his then-22-year-old opponent. However, on the day of the fight, Resnick reportedly told Magids to hold off on placing any bets and merely to watch it all unfold.
“Magids did go see the fight on TV and immediately realized that Resnick knew that Liston was going to lose,” the document states. “A week later, there was an article in Sports Illustrated writing up Resnick as a big loser because of his backing of Liston. Later, people ‘in the know’ in Las Vegas told Magids that Resnick and Liston both reportedly made over $1 million betting against Liston on the fight and that the magazine article was a cover for this.”
It’s not definitive proof that Liston took a dive, but it was enough for the FBI to continue to assert the suspicions internally that Resnick had fixed the fight.
And then came reports that Resnick was heavily tied into the Las Vegas mob scene. Loverro cites a 1968 FBI Philadelphia report that states, "He allegedly is a friend of Meyer Lansky and Vincent Alo [“Jimmy Blue Eyes”] and Charles Tourine."
In a 1972 Los Angeles FBI office report, Resnick is said to have had "major mob ties." And there are even some juicy little tidbits for basketball fans out there. The report offers Resnick was quite friendly with NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain.
The document states Resnick "was deeply involved with Wilt Chamberlain during the 68-69 big year—when Chamberlain performed poorly—Wilt was Ash guest (sic) at [Caesars Palace] almost every open weekend when the Lakers were at home or Phoenix."
The rest of the report establishes rumors about the rematch between Ali and Liston and the now-intriguing shoulder injury Liston suffered during the first foray the men had with one another.
The report does stress that at no point in the various reports is Ali ever mentioned to have known about any possible fix for any of the fights with Liston.
As for that shoulder injury, Deadspin's Barry Petchesky spotted the following quote that is all the more apropos today: "But David Remnick spoke to one of Liston's cornermen for his book, King of the World, and was told the shoulder 'was all BS...cooked up on the spot' so as not to jeopardize Liston's rematch with Clay."
For the moment, there isn't an ounce of closure on what was the amazing turning point in Ali's early career. Despite what seems like voluminous documents, the rumors about any scandal behind the scenes will have to remain just that.
Liston died in 1971 and Resnick passed in 1989, so the entire story will remain open to speculation for sports historians, which hardly diminishes a long, storied career for Ali, one of boxing's most beloved and controversial figures.
As Loverro reminds, Ali would follow the two Liston bouts with momentum, slicing through the heavyweight division before refusing to go to Vietnam, a decision that cost him his championship belt. Ali returned to the sport in 1970, delivering no fewer than three iconic fights, including 1974's "Rumble in the Jungle."
On the anniversary of what could be considered the start of his premier years in the sport, it seems all the more fitting that fans get one more spectacular story.
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