Original publish date: February 21, 2019
Its February in Indianapolis. As I sit at my keyboard in 10 below zero weather, my power is out, the candles are lit and my compy is running on battery power. So…time for a happy warm memory. 55 years ago, on February 18, 1964 The Beatles met a young Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali at his training camp in Miami Beach, Florida. The Fab Four were wrapping up their whirlwind tour of America (including two shows at the Fairgrounds in Indianapolis) and Clay / Ali was prepping for his February 25 fight against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Although both events would change history, for that brief moment in time, they were just five kids goofing around and mugging for the camera.
In the previous nine days, the lads from Liverpool had performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York before a record television audience (and taped another program for later broadcast), played concerts at Washington, D.C.’s Coliseum and New York’s Carnegie Hall, then traveled south for their second Sullivan Show appearance at Miami’s Deauville Hotel. Their Meet the Beatles album was dominating the U.S. Billboard charts and their single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was blasting out of every transistor radio in the country. Beatlemania, which had already swept Britain for a year, was exploding worldwide. America hadn’t seen anything like this since Elvis Presley the previous decade. The band’s Svengali manager, Brian Epstein, decided the boys needed a rest and what better place to take a break than in Miami Beach?
The Beatles arrival in Miami is legendary and offers a great snapshot on the innocence of “Beatlemania” in South Florida. Some 7,000 screaming teenagers greeted the Beatles at Miami International Airport. The Fab Four were thrown in a limousine, raced across town, and rushed into the Deauville Hotel. The Deauville hotel was built in the mid-1920s, and was transformed into the Deauville Beach Resort in the mid-1950s. Towering over Miami Beach, the Deauville featured 500 rooms, on-site restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques, a beauty salon, swimming pool, an ice skating rink and it’s own radio station that routinely hosted Frank Sinatra and his rat pack. The Beatles stayed on the 12th floor, which has become a shrine to Beatlemania festooned with memorabilia and photographs on the hallway walls around the actual rooms where the Beatles stayed for those eight days in February 1964. There is a guard posted by the elevator and a sign that requests: “Silence.”. John and then-wife Cynthia Lennon stayed in room 1211. Paul, George, Ringo, manager Brian Epstein and others in their entourage shared rooms. There was no backstage in the Napoleon Ballroom. The band traveled from their hotel rooms, down the elevator, across a lobby packed with screaming girls to make their way into the ballroom and through the room filled with thousands of adoring female fans waiting to see them perform for millions more watching them on TV.
On the other hand, Cassius Clay was training hard in the ring and talking smack outside of it to anyone within earshot. The brash 1960 Olympic champion had earned his shot, raising steadily through the heavyweight ranks while racking up a 19-0 record including 15 knockouts. His 1963 victory over Doug Jones and subsequent drubbing of Englishman Henry Cooper rounded out his “Bum of the month” schedule and set up his shot at the title shot at the menacing Sonny Liston. While Clay / Ali was an intelligent technical fighter, Liston was a brute whose appearance, like Mike Tyson afterwards, screamed pain. Liston had won the championship in 1962 by flooring Floyd Patterson in the first round of their title bout. Ring experts proclaimed the lithe and lean Clay / Ali didn’t have a ghost of a chance against the mammoth brawler Liston.
Problem was, like a scene straight out of “Rocky”, while “the champ” Liston was training in the relative splendor of the North Beach community center, “the upstart” Clay / Ali was sparring hard at the decrepit Fifth Street Gym in what is now South Beach. Despite its run-down appearance, the 5th Street Gym was a boxing mecca visited by the likes of Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster during its heyday of the 1950-60s. The gym opened in 1950 on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach by Chris Dundee brother of Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Angelo Dundee. The rings were located on the second floor of the building and besides Clay / Ali, the gym was used for training by other champion boxers including Joe Louis, Carmen Basilio, Jake LaMotta, Willie Pastrano, and Sugar Ray Leonard.
In shades of taunts to come, 22-year-old Cassius was unmercifully needling his opponent, going so far as to take his entourage by bus to Liston’s training headquarters to heckle the champion in front of the media gathered outside. Clay quickly branded Liston as the “big, ugly bear.” For his part, Liston, who was 35-1 when he met Clay / Ali, remained relatively silent, furrowed his brow, bowed his back and brushed the loudmouth youngster’s taunts off summarily. Liston was known for his toughness, formidable punching power, long reach, and intimidating appearance and was widely regarded as unbeatable.
The Beatles-or more likely someone in their entourage-requested a photo-op with heavyweight champion Liston. Fleet street photographer Harry Benson, traveling with the band on their first American trip, tried to set it up. But the grim Liston, made even grumpier from the constant harassment by Clay, had had enough youthful enthusiasm and decided he wanted no part of Beatlemania. 25-year-old New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte, in town covering the lead up to the big fight, said Liston rebuffed the request by asking, “Who are these little sissies?”
So Benson made a detour to the dingy Fifth Street Gym with the Beatles in tow for a hastily arranged session with Clay, whose own press agent welcomed the publicity. Because of dire predictions by experts promising a short, unmemorable contest, ticket sales were slow, even though it was title fight. Clay / Ali was a 7-1 underdog and aside from his antics outside the ring, he was still relatively unknown. While fight fans found Clay’s smack-talk amusing, they also believed the increasingly irritated Liston would quickly dispatch the braggart and shut the upstart’s mouth for good. Even the Beatles weren’t exactly thrilled at the proposed meeting.
The optics of the trip did little to encourage the Fab Four’s hope as they rambled up the gym’s decaying steps. Even John Lennon referred to the young challenger at one point as “that loudmouth who’s going to lose.” The lads were ushered into the dark and dank warehouse where they waited in the stale air for Clay / Ali to arrive. The fighter was late and the boys clowned around the rings, bouncing on and off the ropes like subjects in a Charlie Chaplin film. Photographer Benson busied himself by scouting out the best angles in the gym for his photos. The lads were tired and ready to hit the beach and chase chicks. As the time ticked away, the band became increasingly impatient and annoyed. “Where is he?!” Ringo Starr angrily asked. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Lennon muttered as he headed for the door. Instead, Clay’s promoter had a couple security guards herd the band into a dressing room, where reporter Lipsyte found the boys fuming and cursing Harry Benson’s name.
Suddenly the door swung open and the startled band-mates looked up to see the biggest man any of them had ever seen framing the doorway. “Hello there, Beatles!,” Clay exclaimed. “We oughta do some roadshows together. We’ll get rich!” The Beatles were instantly mesmerized. Amid laughter, playful nudges and jostling, the five young men who would come to define their generation, headed into the gym. There they posed, mugged and improvised slapstick situations for the cameras like old time vaudevillians. The media image-savvy young boxer at first posed in his street clothes and then changed into his white trunks. Clay characteristically bit his upper lip and posed knocking the Beatles down like dominoes. The Fab Four dutifully lay on the canvas in mock defeat before as the young fighter towered over them. Clay suddenly picked the diminutive Ringo up off the floor and effortlessly cradled him in his arms like an infant. “Man, you guys are the greatest!” Cassius enthused. “The whole world is shook up about you!” One UPI reporter said Clay ad-libbed a little verse for the occasion: “When Liston reads about the Beatles visiting me / He’ll get so mad I’ll knock him out in three!”
The exhausted Beatles were thunderstruck by the encounter. As the dunned Fab Four fled the gym and piled back into their limo, they swore oaths to photographer Benson that they’d never speak to him again, with one unidentified Beatle carping that the whole experience had been “degrading. You made a fool of us!” The feeling was apparently mutual. Back at the gym, Clay completed his workout, then hit the dressing room for a rubdown as the press prodded him for details. Cassius turned to Lipsyte with a puzzled look and asked about the four long-haired young Englishmen he’d spent the morning clowning with earlier by asking, “Who were those little sissies?”
A week later Sonny Liston threw in the towel by refusing to come out of his corner for the seventh round of the title fight. Of the encounter, reporter Robert Lipsyte later wrote, “In 1964 my time was not very valuable. I was a utility night rewrite writer and speechwriter at the Times when Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time. The Times, in its wisdom, did not feel it was worth the time to send the real boxing writer. So they sent me down to Miami Beach and my instructions were, as soon as I got there, to rent a car and drive back and forth a couple of times between the arena, where the fight was going to be held in a week, and the nearest hospital. They did not want me wasting any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care.”
“As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him. They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.” He turned and the Beatles followed him out to the ring. They lined up. He tapped Ringo. They all went down like dominoes. It was a marvelous, antic set piece. And then it was over and they left.”
The Ottawa Journal newspaper of February 19, 1964 ran an article titled, “BRITAIN’S BUSH-HAIRED BEATLES MEET BOXING’S BARON OF BRAY” which reported, “Britain’s bush-haired Beatles met boxing’s Baron of Bray, Cassius Clay, Tuesday and it ended up in clowning, off-key pandemonium. Boxing and singing probably were set back 100 years when Gaseous Cassius teamed up with.. the four mop-haired singers during a break in training at the Fifth Street gym. “Man, you guys are the greatest. The whole world is shook up about you,” said Clay, apparently a longtime Beatle fan. The raucous meeting represented two firsts: Clay admitted that someone other than himself is “great,” for the first time, and he predicted that he will flatten Liston in three rounds, even though the brash 22-year-old contender is a 6-1 underdog at the moment. The Beatles, dressed in flashy sport shirts, snow-white vests and beach shoes, enjoyed the meeting as much as Clay. They entered the training ring with a “yeah, yeah, yeah” and pretended to attack Clay en masse. Clay shouted “no, no, no” and feigned horror. It was about what you’d expect from Clay – Beatle meeting: noise, poems and more noise. Photographers had a field day during the clowning, which didn’t end until trainer Angelo Dundee reminded Clay that he had a date in exactly one week. Before they left, Clay lifted Beatle drummer Ringo Starr two feet off the floor, tossed him up and wished him good luck.The other three Beatles, George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, watched laughing. For the Beatles, the confrontation with Clay was the kickoff of a leisurely day on the beach. They have no more appearances to make and are vacationing until Friday when they return to London. For Clay, it was a respite from the serious business of hard training. Loudmouth or not, Clay apparently realizes what he is here for. He snapped back into the routine as soon as the Beatles left.”
As for Liston, rumors circulated that the champ had been drinking heavily the night before the fight. Liston was still a world-ranked boxer when he died under mysterious circumstances at the estimated age of 39 (Sonny’s birth certificate has never been found). Almost a year after defeating Chuck Wepner on January 29, 1970, whose 1975 title fight with Muhammad Ali was the model for the “Rocky” films, Liston was found dead by his wife, Geraldine, in their Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971. Upon returning home from a two-week trip, Geraldine smelled a foul odor coming from the main bedroom. There she found her husband slumped up against the bed atop a broken foot bench. It was believed the champ was undressing for bed when he fell backward breaking the bench. Geraldine called Sonny’s attorney and his doctor, but did not notify the police until two to three hours later. Police found a quarter-ounce of heroin in a balloon in the kitchen and a half-ounce of marijuana in Liston’s pants pocket.
Following an investigation, Las Vegas police concluded that there were no signs of foul play and declared Liston’s death a heroin overdose. The coroner said Sonny’s body was too decomposed to be conclusive and officially declared the cause of death to be “lung congestion and heart failure” to save embarrassment for the family. The date of death listed on his death certificate is December 30, 1970, which police estimated by judging the number of milk bottles and newspapers around the front door of the property. Many people who knew Liston insisted that he was afraid of needles and never would have used heroin. Some claim Liston was murdered by the mob and a loan-sharking ring in Las Vegas. Others said Liston was murdered by drug dealers with whom he’d become involved. Underworld connections and his unrecorded date of birth added to the enigma.
For their part, that evening The Beatles went to a drive-in movie, where they watched Elvis Presley in Fun In Acapulco. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, “THE” heavyweight champion of a generation. It was a title he’d retain on and off for the next 15 years, twice as long as The Beatles lasted as a group. That hastily-arranged photo op of greatness from 55 years ago has become an iconic mixed-metaphor snapshot of the sixties. The participants are all shown smiling, jostling and cajoling each other in the ring, betraying no trace of the resentment being felt on all sides. Three of the five subjects are gone from this earth, but those images have achieved pop culture immortality.