Sonny Liston got knocked out by Muhammad Ali — but not by J. Edgar Hoover
Despite the FBI’s fixation on whether the infamous Liston-Ali fights were fixed, no evidence was ever found
FBI documents released last week about the infamous 1965 title fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston tell only part of the story about the bout and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s ongoing obsession with its participants.
As part of an ongoing release of material about Ali, the documents show that Hoover was desperate to prove what most boxing skeptics thought: Liston took a dive.
But according to a report from Deadspin, Hoover was frustrated when his field agents couldn’t find evidence that the fight was fixed. Perhaps most tantalizing to Hoover was the “vague and nonspecific” rumor sourced to “a close friend of Sonny Liston who has part interest in a casino” that the whole thing was elaborately orchestrated.
The memo doesn’t identify the rumor’s source. But anyone who’s followed Liston would immediately suspect Ash Resnick, the veteran bookmaker at Liston’s side during his two fights with Ali who became a founder of Caesars Palace when it opened in 1966.
FBI documents that I obtained while researching my book, The Murder of Sonny Liston: La Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights, detail Hoover’s obsession with Resnick. In one memo, the jowly ex-Brooklynite was referred to as “the fix point of [the] two heavyweight title fights. He had always been and will continue to be a corruption source for professional sports until he is stopped.”
Far from closing his investigation into the Ali-Liston fights in 1965, Hoover kept it open long enough to stumble into a strange and murky story involving Resnick, which I detail in my book and will boil down here:
Resnick was famous for luring high rollers to his casinos, and one of the high rollers he lured was a Texas real estate swindler named Bernard Magids, who would eventually go to prison for bilking banks out of $2 million.
Magids wasn’t the kind of person who did jail well. An FBI report warned — all in capital letters — “he should be considered as having suicidal tendencies.” Not surprisingly, Magids was eager to barter whatever he could to gain his freedom. So he decided to barter Resnick.
The two had been close enough that Resnick invited Magids as his guest to see the first Ali-Liston fight in Miami on Feb. 25, 1964. As it happened, the swindler never made it. Still, Magids had every intention of betting on Liston as the 7-1 favorite. Resnick even assured him “Liston would knock Clay out in the second round.”
On the eve of the fight, though, Resnick called Magids to reverse course. “Don’t make any bets but just go watch the fight on pay-TV,” he said.
Much has been made of this warning. In 2014, The Washington Times got ahold of the same records I got and reported that the FBI suspected Resnick of fixing the 1964 fight.
But there’s a much simpler answer: Liston hurt his shoulder while training and needed cortisone treatments for bursitis in both shoulders the day before the bout. That no doubt accounted for Resnick’s frantic advice to Magids, hours before the fight, to hold his money. And as the sixth round ended, Magids was grateful for the tip. Liston, who’d expected an early knockout, could barely raise his shoulder and quit.
Even though Liston was reviled as a quitter, the mechanics of his no-mas finish made sense. Since he’d arranged an under-the-table deal to control the rights to Ali’s next fight, he knew he’d be setting himself up for an even bigger payday.
And had the rematch come off as planned in November 1964 — when Liston had regained his muscular essence — he may well have taken his title back. But it didn’t. Ali had to be hospitalized with a hernia in Boston before the fight, and it was famously put off until the next spring in Lewiston, Maine. The result: Liston went down in the first round from what Red Smith famously labeled in The New York Times a “phantom punch.”
Magids’ information never did get Hoover the results he wanted. On the last day of 1968, a high-ranking Justice Department lawyer typed out a memorandum that concluded, “There is not sufficient evidence obtained to justify seeking an indictment in this matter.” In other words, Resnick was in the clear.
The mystery of the second fight, however, endures.
In my book, I argue that Liston did indeed take a dive, and it was in exchange for a piece of Ali’s future earnings. It is based on the never-before-heard recollections of a former NAACP president in Las Vegas, who told me that he was a young man when he heard Liston drunkenly boast that he was going to get a piece of Ali’s purse with Joe Frazier in 1971 as a result of the 1965 fight.
One can only wonder: What would J. Edgar Hoover have done if he’d heard that!