Ali vs Liston, a Heavyweight Fix?

Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston faced off in two of the most controversial fights in heavyweight boxing history.

While boxing, and particularly the heavyweight division does not enjoy the mainstream attention and notoriety of yesteryear, it must be acknowledged that the heavyweight championship of the world was once the most prized accolade in world sport.

Fighters such as Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson were household names and genuine global superstars, attracting huge ratings every time they stepped into the ring.

But these big time boxers also attracted big time crooks who were looking to take advantage and make some money off their fame. And what was the easiest way for a crook to make a quick dollar out of boxing? Match fixing.

Whether it was due to the mob, the promoters, the judges or the fighters, there have been numerous heavyweight fights which had a rather suspicious outcome throughout boxing history. Without doubt, the most high profile bouts that many people believe were fixed were the two heavyweight title fights between Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay), and Sonny Liston.

After a tough upbringing, Liston found himself in and out of prison, and would eventually link up with the mob and other organised crime gangs, and his boxing career could never truly escape this dark shadow. Ali was no stranger to controversy himself, but one could never question his integrity when he stepped into that ring.

Below, we take a look at both controversial, and possibly fixed fights.


Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston, 1964

Prior to changing his name to Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay faced the toughest test of his career in Miami Beach, against the heavyweight champion of the world - Sonny Liston. At the time, Liston was regarded as one of the greatest fighters in boxing history, but unfortunately, his reputation would soon be tarnished.

Liston headed into the fight as a heavy favourite and despite Clay's confidence and bravado, most experts were picking a one-sided victory for the current heavyweight champ, but that would soon change when Clay began to dominate the fight in the early rounds. What happened next was even more shocking.

At the end of the sixth round, Liston, sitting on his chair hearing advice from his trainer, spat out his mouthguard, and inexplicably quit the fight. He refused to come out for the seventh round, making Cassius Clay the new heavyweight champion of the world.

Clay boasted that he proved the world wrong and told reporters to eat their words, but mystery surrounded Liston's decision to quit on his chair. The now former champ claimed that he badly injured his shoulder and simply could not go on, despite the fact that his heavyweight title was on the line.

This sparked national outrage and accusations that Liston threw the bout. The fact that his contract was owned and managed by the mob meant people were quick to jump to conclusions, and rumours spread that an enormous amount of money was illegally gambled on the fight.

However, after months of investigations and constant innuendo, there was no hard evidence that the fight was fixed.


Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston, 1965

Following the controversial ending from their first meeting, it was revealed that both fighters had a rematch clause in their contract, meaning that the loser of the fight could demand a shot at redemption. This would immediately provoke more claims that the fight was indeed fixed.

Regardless of the accusations, the public were hugely anticipating the rematch, and the fight was set for the Boston Garden. But soon enough, it was also surrounded by controversy, well before the first bell was rung.

Liston, not for the first time, was arrested for a series of misdemeanours, and the fact that his promoters were involved with organised crime drew plenty of criticism from the mainstream media, who were questioning the legitimacy of the heavyweight title bout.

This resulted in Massachusetts officials declining to host the fight, as they were not comfortable with the fixing allegations, criminal links and all round mystery which plagued Sonny Liston.

Despite the ever-growing controversy, the fight immediately found a new venue, in Lewiston, Maine, a town with a population of just 41,000 people, and an arena capacity of 4,900. However, the fight was watched by millions of TV viewers all around the world.

Ali, who had changed his name from Cassius Clay following their first fight, was his usual confident self, and claimed he would once again make easy work of Liston. But not even he could have predicted how easy the rematch would be.

One of the shortest title fights in boxing history was finished barely two minutes into the opening round, when Ali struck Liston with what seemed to be an accurate, yet harmless punch.

Now known as the ‘Phantom Punch’, this immediately sent Liston to the floor, and when he got up, the referee surprisingly decided that the punch was enough to damage Liston and called off the fight.

The small, yet vocal crowd in attendance was outraged, booing, throwing objects into the ring and chanting “Fixed!”. Once again, Sonny Liston’s reputation was officially in tatters.



Why Would Sonny Liston Throw These Fights?

Similarly to their first meeting, months of investigating failed to come up with any hard evidence that the rematch was fixed. While it is safe to assume that Muhammad Ali was oblivious to any match fixing activity, many believe that Sonny Liston fixed not one, but both of his fights with Ali.

There are many theories as to why the former heavyweight champion of the world would deliberately lose his own fights, but his ties to the mob often rendered him guilty by association.

The two most common theories suggest that Liston was forced and threatened by the mafia to lose, as they had placed money on Ali, or that Liston took it upon himself to throw the fight as he had debts with several mob identities.


Liston’s Death

Just five years after the second and most controversial fight against Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home. It was confirmed as a heroin overdose.

Despite Vegas police stating that Liston died of an overdose, there are many rumours surrounding his death, with claims he was murdered by the mob.

Only five years ago, the son of notorious hitman James John Warjac claimed that his father killed Liston, with an enforced heroin overdose.

Similar to the fight fixing scandals, we will most likely never know what truly happened.

Keep reading. Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.


Anthony Ierardi


Anthony Ierardi


Anthony Ierardi


Grace Kirkby


Anthony Ierardi


Grace Kirkby