Muhammad Ali and the Beatles

The images have become some of the most iconic of the 20th century: A ferociously mugging Muhammad Ali (then still known as Cassius Clay) putting some mock whoop-ass on the four Beatles, who good-naturedly oblige by cowering before the fighter. The event has often been celebrated as a de facto summit meeting of the greatest artistic/sports/socio-political figures of their era. Yet, viewed from its proper historical perspective, it was but a chance interaction between two ambitious, promising forces who hadn’t yet conquered their respective worlds, let alone ours.

Indeed, it was a meeting that wasn’t supposed to have happened at all.  

Muhammad Ali and the BeatlesIt happened on February 18, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida, where the Beatles were wrapping up their whirlwind first visit to America. In the previous nine days, they’d 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. With Meet the Beatles and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” dominating the U.S. charts and airwaves, the Beatlemania that had already gripped Britain for a year was in its first weeks of exploding worldwide, rivaling the mass furor Elvis Presley had stirred the previous decade—before pushing the envelope considerably further. But for the next week the Beatles would keep a low profile as they rewarded themselves with a hard-earned vacation in and around Miami.

Cassius Clay, on the other hand, was working his body hard in Miami Beach his mouth even more feverishly. The 1960 Olympic champion had risen steadily through the heavyweight ranks, racking up a 19-0 record with 15 knockouts. But even if his 1963 victories against Doug Jones and Englishman Henry Cooper had been less than spectacular, Clay had earned his shot at the title—and at the menacing Sonny Liston, who’d earned the championship in 1962 by flooring Floyd Patterson in the first round of their title bout.

While Liston trained in the relative splendor of a North Beach community center, Clay went through his paces at the decrepit Fifth Street Gym in what is now South Beach. As was becoming his style, 22-year-old Cassius took delight in needling his opponent, going so far as to take his entourage by bus to Liston’s training headquarters to heckle the champion. Clay’s favorite euphemism for Liston became “big, ugly bear.”

The Beatles—or someone in their entourage—reportedly pushed for a photo-op with heavyweight champion Liston. Fleet St. photographer Harry Benson, who was traveling with the band on their first American trip, promised to set it up. But the grim Liston, even grumpier from his ongoing harassment by Clay, wanted no part of such nonsense. Robert Lipsyte, then a 25-year-old second stringer covering the fight for the New York Times, recalls Liston rebuffing the request by asking, “Who are these little sissies?”

So Benson tried the next best thing, dropping the Beatles off at the Fifth Street Gym for a hastily arranged session with Clay, whose own press agent was eager for publicity. Ticket  sales were slow for the upcoming title fight. While Cassius’ few early admirers found his jawboning amusing, most fight fans thought the increasingly irritated Liston would shut his mouth for good.

Even the Beatles weren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of posing with a 7-to-1 underdog as they tromped up the gym’s decaying steps. They were indeed Fab, and the only one proclaiming Clay “the Greatest” those days was Cassius himself. Even John Lennon reportedly referred to the young challenger at one point as “that loudmouth who’s going to lose.”

Muhammad Ali and the BeatlesCassius was late arriving, and with Benson staking out good angles in the gym for his photos, the band was getting increasingly impatient and annoyed. “Where is he?!” demanded an angry Ringo Starr. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Lennon muttered and headed for the door. Instead, the promoter had a couple security guards herd the band into a dressing room, where reporter Lipsyte found the now-captive quartet fuming and cursing Harry Benson’s name.

Suddenly the door was thrust open and the startled bandmates looked up to see Clay’s massive, toned frame filling the doorway. “Hello there, Beatles!,” bellowed Cassius. “We oughta do some roadshows together. We’ll get rich!”

The five of them soon headed into the gym, where they improvised slapstick for the cameras like veteran vaudevillians, with the press-savvy young boxer posing in both his street clothes and trademark white trunks. Clay mimed knocking the Beatles down like dominos. The Fab Four obligingly sprawled on the canvas in mock defeat before the towering young fighter. At one point Clay picked Ringo off the floor effortlessly and tossed him in his arms like an infant. “Man, you guys are the greatest!” Cassius enthused. “The whole world is shook up about you!” According to a UPI reporter, Clay even invented 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!"

But as the Beatles piled back into their limo, they had a considerably different opinion of the meeting. They reportedly told Benson that they’d never speak to him again, with one grousing that the whole experience had been “degrading. You made a fool of us!”

Muhammad Ali and the BeatlesBack in the gym, Clay completed his workout, then stretched out in his dressing room for a rubdown and a little more verbal sparring with the press. After scolding a nearby reporter who doubted his chances against the fearsome Liston, Cassius eventually turned to Lipsyte with a puzzled look and asked about the four long-haired young Englishmen he’d been clowning with for the cameras earlier: “Who were those little sissies?”

A week later Sonny Liston failed to come out for the seventh round of the title fight and Cassius Clay—who’d soon change his name to Muhammad Ali—became heavyweight champion of the world, a title he’d hold on three separate occasions over the next 15 years. 

And a hastily-arranged, much-resented photo op with the soon-to-be-champions of the pop music world would become the stuff of pop culture legend.