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FBI files add to mystery of Sonny Liston, but Ali's legacy untarnished

Sonny Liston is buried at Davis Memorial Park in Las Vegas. His gravestone reads:

1932 – 1970

A man.

There also lies the mystery of Sonny Liston, at one time the baddest man on the planet — the feared heavyweight champion of the world — and what happened that historic night in Miami Beach on Feb. 25, 1964, when a young, loudmouthed, but seemingly overmatched Cassius Clay stopped Liston after seven rounds.

Clay — his name before he announced the change to Muhammad Ali after that fight — became a national force of nature after that fight, someone who by his own declaration, “shocked the world,” and kept doing so for two decades, until he reached his current status of worldwide icon.

But what if Liston took a dive? What if it was a fixed fight?

Would Clay go on to become Muhammad Ali if he had not “shocked the world” and beaten Liston that night?

What would have happened if Liston won that first fight?

FBI documents show the law enforcement agency believed that a Las Vegas gambler and hood named Ash Resnick — a close associate of Liston’s — was involved in fixing not just the first Liston-Clay fight, but the rematch as well, as disclosed in a story in Tuesday’s Washington Times.

That May 1965 fight in Lewiston, Maine, was filled with controversy the moment Liston went down on the canvas in the first round from what has been called a “phantom punch” from Clay. But it didn’t put a dent in the Ali legacy or mystique, since he had already seemingly beaten Liston in the first fight, when Liston quit on his stool before the eighth round.

Liston appeared to be a beaten man, with Clay landing combinations in the sixth and seventh round with ease. There has been speculation about why Liston quit — the medical reports said he had an injured shoulder — but boxing observers have noted that Liston, a tough ex-con, had fought through tougher circumstances.

There was an investigation by local officials, as well as a Senate investigation after the fight. No evidence was reportedly found to indicate any wrongdoing in the outcome of the fight. But FBIdocuments concerning Resnick — a friend of Liston’s with close ties to mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo — call it into question.

An FBI memo dated May 24, 1966, concerning a Houston con artist and gambler named Barnett Magids, who had some dealings with Resnick, describes Magids’ discussions with Resnick before the first Clay-Liston fight.

“On one occasion, Resnick introduced Magids to Sonny Liston at the Thunderbird (one of the Las Vegas hotels organized crime controlled),” the memo states. “About a week before the Liston and Clayfight in Miami, Resnick called and invited Magids and his wife for two weeks in Florida on Resnick. Magids’ wife was not interested in going, but Magids decided to go along, and Resnick was going to send him a ticket.

“Two or three days before the fight, Magids called Resnick at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami to say he could not come,” the memo states. “On this call, he asked Resnick who he liked in the fight, andResnick said that Liston would knock Clay out in the second round. Resnick suggested he wait until just before the fight to place any bets because the odds may come down.

“At about noon on the day of the fight, he (Magids) reached Resnick again by phone, and at this time, Resnick said for him to not make any bets, but just go watch the fight on pay TV and he would know why and that he could not talk further at that time.

“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 upResnick 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 proof that Liston took a dive. But the FBI believed that Resnick was involved in sports fixing, from basketball to boxing — and that Resnick was part of a fix in the Clay-Liston rematch as well as the first fight.

There is no evidence that Ali had any knowledge of Liston taking a dive or was involved in any way.

“AR [Ash Resnick] is the fix point of two heavyweight title fights — both Liston…he had always been and will continue to be a corruption source for professional sports until he is stopped,” the report states.

What if Ali couldn’t have beaten Liston? Most of the sports world believed the challenger had little chance. But maybe, given his speed and unique boxing skills, Ali could have beaten Liston, fixed fight or not. The questions surrounding the outcome, though, are greater because of these FBI documents.

I got to know Ali a little near the end of his career. His legendary training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., was about an hour from where I worked at a weekly newspaper, and I went to his camp often. I got to interview him on numerous occasions, and even once got a private tour of his camp from Ali himself. This wasn’t an easy story to write.

His three fights with Frazier, his remarkable win over Foreman in Zaire, along with his fight against the draft and the Vietnam War have all contributed to Ali’s revered stature now, even though he has been silenced by Parkinson’s syndrome. If it all began with a fixed fight — a dive by Liston — that stature may not be diminished, particularly if Ali had no role in it.

No, this is on Liston — and the answers are buried in that Las Vegas grave, along with “a man.”

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