The Beatles had only been in America for 11 days when they found themselves herded into Miami Beach’s 5th Street Gym for a photo op with a 22-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay. It was February 18th, 1964, and the band was in town to film their second appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Clay was prepping for his big fight with Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston, but he was a 7-1 underdog and anxious to drum up ticket sales and press attention.
The Beatles were happy to meet a champion boxer and get their pictures in the papers, but the group let it be known they wanted to meet Liston and not, as John Lennon said, “that loudmouth who’s going to lose.” But Liston had no interest in wasting time with a rock group just one week before the big fight, so they agreed to settle for Clay. “Hello there, Beatles!” Clay said when he entered the gym. “We oughta do some roadshows together. We’ll get rich!”
As photographer Harry Benson furiously snapped photos, the five of them spent the next few minutes goofing around in the gym. Clay pretended to punch George Harrison, with the others looking like they were about to fall down like dominoes. The boxer lifted Ringo Starr into his arms, and then the entire band got on the ground like he’d just KO’d them all. The Beatles wouldn’t start filming A Hard Day’s Night for another few weeks, but they were already great at creating little slapstick routines.
“Obviously we were having an effect, because all these people were clamoring to meet us – like Muhammad Ali, for instance,” George Harrison said in the Beatles Anthology. “We were taken to meet him on that first trip. It was a big publicity thing. It was all part of being a Beatle, really – just getting lugged around and thrust into rooms full of press men taking pictures and asking questions. Muhammad Ali was quite cute. He had a fight coming up in a couple of days with Sonny Liston. There is a famous picture of him holding two of us under each arm.”
By the time of the big fight, the Beatles were already back in London and gearing up to record “Can’t Buy Me Love.” In one of the most shocking moments in boxing history, Liston essentially surrendered after seven rounds in the ring with Clay. “I’m the greatest,” said Clay, who would change his name to Muhammad Ali the following month. “I shook up the world!” (Nine years later, Ringo Starr would have a hit with a song called “I’m the Greatest,” written by John Lennon.)
“I saw the Liston-Clay fight,” Ed Sullivan said days after the fight. “This was a stinker of all time. I swear the Beatles could beat the two of ’em! No kidding!”
Watch Muhammad Ali’s remembrance here.