It was and to this day remains one of Muhammad Ali’s greatest achievements. The night he beat Sonny Liston to win his first world title has become of the most iconic moments in sports history, and yet, 50 years after that fateful February night, the fight is being put into the microscope for all the wrong reasons.
According to the FBI, that fight at the Miami Beach Convention Centre on February 25, 1964. was fixed.
The agency apparently had enough reason to believe that the fight was fixed by a Las Vegas gambler, Ash Resnick, who had ties to organized crime and was suspected to be largely responsible for conniving with Liston to throw the fight. The FBI felt so strongly about this that their investigation became so sensitive that its memos were sent directly to then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Those memos were eventually released to the Washington Times under the Freedom of Information Act and in it contained some pretty interesting details of events that led to Liston’s loss.
As per those memos, the FBI had talked to a certain Barnett Magids, a Houston gambler who had discussions with Resnick before the first Ali-Liston fight. In their conversations leading up to the fight, Resnick initially told Magids that Liston would knock Ali out in two rounds buy advised him to lay off on making any bets until the day of the fight. But when the day arrived and the two got to talking again, Resnick had reversed course, telling Magids not to make any bets and just go watch the fight. Magids did and realized that Resnick knew Liston was going to lose despite being an overwhelming favorite against the 7/1 underdog who at that time, was still known as Cassius Clay.
Adding further credence to the FBI’s suspicions was the widely-known belief that Liston had ties to organized crime and could have easily been swayed to throw away the fight. But in an attempt to cover up the fix, the FBI believed that a Sports Illustrated article detailing Resnick’s massive losses from backing Liston was merely a cover-up and that in truth, both he and Liston made out with over $1 million because of that lost.
To be clear, the bureau did not have definitive proof that Liston threw away the fight, but it knew just how sketchy of a character this Resnick dude was, and that it was enough to assert the suspicions that he and Liston had an arrangement to fix the fight. “He had always been and will continue to be a corruption source for professional sports until he is stopped,” the memo stated.
Here’s the ultimate irony: the second fight between Ali and Liston in 1965 was actually the fight many believe Liston threw after going down in the first round from what has been dubbed as a “phantom punch”.
Now, it turns out that Liston could very well have been a two-time offender in match-fixing and had no problem being on the short end of the stick if it means collecting a sizable paycheck for his efforts, or apparently, lack thereof.