Last night six voluble contributors (in photo, right, from left to right: Colum McCann, George Kimball, Pete Hamill, Leonard Gardner, Robert Lipsyte, and Mike Lupica) to The Library of America’s new anthology, At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, gathered at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble in Manhattan to celebrate the book’s publication. Of the many colorful boxing-related yarns spun, Robert Lipsyte’s account of covering the first Liston–Clay fight in Miami delivered the knockout punch:
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. I did that—if any of you ever get into trouble in South Beach, call me, I can tell you how to get there. I did it and drove to the Fifth Street Gym where Cassius was training. He was not there yet.
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’re being pushed up the stairs, I’m a little ahead of them. When we get to the top of the stairs, Clay’s not there. The leader of the group says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. “ He turned around, but the cops pushed all five of us into a dressing room and locked the door. That’s how I became the fifth Beatle. [laughter]
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. Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He glowed. And of course he was much larger than he seemed in photographs—because he was perfect. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.”
And then—if I hadn’t known better I would have sworn it was choreographed—he turned and the Beatles followed him out to the ring. You can see this now on YouTube [see below]. They followed him out to the ring and they began capering around the room. 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. Cassius Clay works out. At the end he’s back in the dressing room being rubbed down after the workout. He and I had yet to meet. He beckoned me over because he had seen me in the dressing room, and he said, “So, who were those little sissies?” [laughter] And then the best thing in the world happened. He won and I became the boxing writer.
At the Fights includes includes Robert Lipsyte’s piece “Pride of the Tiger” and accounts of Clay–Liston I by Murray Kempton and George Plimpton.
Video: Robert Lipsyte describes the Cassius Clay–Beatles encounter for American Experience