Why Boston drove Ali fight out of town

District Attorney Garrett Byrne showed political courage

HE CALLED HIMSELF Muhammad Ali because his given name, he said, was “a slave’s name, and I’m no longer a slave.” In 1965 he was still called Cassius Clay, his father’s name, a name he would willingly give up as he made his own way in life as a boxer of global renown. He was that year more than a boxer — he was a celebrity distinguished for his unrivaled brash self-confidence and for the elegance of his boxing style. He was such a celebrity, it was unthinkable that any city would walk away from the opportunity to host one of his fights. But that’s exactly what Boston did when its district attorney, Garrett Byrne, decided that regardless of Clay’s celebrity there was something not quite right about the proposed rematch with Sonny Liston, and stopped the fight from taking place here.

That fight was ultimately moved to a small town in Maine, and many people (including the Boston sports reporters) could not believe that Boston gave up the opportunity to host the fight. But Byrne’s decision to push the Clay-Liston fight out was neither trivial nor reckless. It was an example of political courage, a rare thing in all times, and I wrote about it in my book, The Vidal Lecture.  

We have recently lived through the rejection of the proposed 2024 Olympic games and the IndyCar race, both largely as a result of a potent combination of public pressure and promoter reliance on non-existent public subsidy. There have subsequently been many calls for Boston to reconsider its alleged hostility to grand events. I have written, and I believe, that Boston’s citizens are not against grand ideas; they are against poorly formed ideas that will not improve the quality of their lives. Sometimes political leaders support them in this; more often they are left to their own devices. In 1965, the Suffolk County district attorney stood up and led, and was not deterred by media opposition or beguiled by Cassius Clay’s considerable fame. 

In memory of Muhammad Ali, and in memory of former district attorney Garrett Byrne, who single-handedly drove a championship boxing fight out of Boston, here is that story:

Garrett Byrne’s knack for the headline-making, dramatic event was never more vividly on display than when he ran Cassius Clay, Sonny Liston, and the world heavyweight boxing title fight out of town in the late spring of 1965.

Cassius Clay—later known as Muhammad Ali—became world heavyweight champion in February 1964 when he beat Sonny Liston in a controversial match in Miami. At the time of the match, Sonny Liston was under contract to Inter-Continental Promoters, Inc.  Prior to the title bout, Inter-Continental signed a secret agreement with Clay mandating that, in the event he beat their man Liston, Clay’s next fight would be a re-match promoted by Inter-Continental. Clay, the underdog before the fight, was paid $50,000 for signing the agreement. Clay’s secret contract and the manner in which he won the fight (Liston sat down on his stool and complained that his shoulder was bothering him) fueled suspicions that the heavyweight champion match was rigged.

Miami District Attorney Richard Gerstein, who uncovered the details of the secret pre-fight contract, found that a well-known gambler and bookmaker had visited Liston’s dressing room the night of the fight, and that Liston knowingly went into the ring “with a lame or sore arm” without informing the Miami Boxing Commission of his condition. A growing number of observers believed the fight was fixed.

Byrne and others in Boston should have been suspicious when the agreement to hold the rematch in Boston was signed at Logan Airport on September 14, 1964. Boston Globe sports columnist Harold Kaese had reported that while “other reasons may be invented, the real reason Boston is in line for the rematch is that other states do not want it.” But Byrne did not pick up on the implications of this statement, not until much later when Gerstein briefed him on his findings from the Miami investigation. As a consequence, Byrne acted only several weeks before the title fight was to take place, and his actions took everyone by surprise. On May 5, 1965, Byrne’s men went to Suffolk Superior Court seeking to enjoin the title fight as a “public nuisance.” Byrne’s timing and his motives were questioned by the press.

The essence of the complaint was that the fight’s licensed promoter, Sam Silverman, was a front for Inter-Continental, which was not licensed in Massachusetts. If true, the district attorney’s allegations meant that Silverman had illegally loaned his license to Inter-Continental. More important, the allegation that Inter-Continental had “alone, on its own behalf, negotiated and completed the sale or assignment of the so-called ancillary rights for radio, television, and motion picture coverage” meant that the Commonwealth would be cheated out of its share of the lucrative ancillary rights from the fight.

Simply put, the real money to be made from the title bout was not the take at the gate, estimated to be nearly $500,000, but the television and other ancillary rights, estimated at a minimum of $4.5 million. Massachusetts law required that a promoter licensed by the State Boxing Commission must pay to the state treasurer “a sum equal to 5 percent of the total amount paid or to be paid for television or broadcasting rights.” But Silverman, not Inter-Continental, was the licensee, and Silverman’s take pursuant to his contract with Inter-Continental was limited to a lump sum payment of $15,000 dollars.

There was a real question whether the Commonwealth could ever successfully recover its share of the ancillary rights—some $230,000—from Inter-Continental. The men who promoted professional boxing in the United States were tough-minded businessmen, not to be trifled with. They made millions in an environment filled with unsavory individuals who represented the seamy side of the sport. But it was a mistake to underestimate Garrett Byrne.

Yes, he was over 60 years old and “husky,” and yes, he wore thick black-rimmed eyeglasses and smoked using a cigarette holder. But Garrett Byrne was no pushover. And in the courtrooms of Suffolk County, his world since 1933 and his domain since 1952, Garrett Byrne was one tough customer. It took courage for Byrne to take on the boxing world and to create an environment where Boston and the Commonwealth could lose the title fight. Inter-Continental knew this, and played its strong card almost immediately. The Clay-Liston fight was going to take place “in Boston, some other city, in a barn, or on a barge,” said Inter-Continental’s Harold Conrad, and if Boston lost out on this event, it would be Garrett Byrne’s fault.

The sports writers who were covering the story started to turn on Byrne, asking “who got Byrne thinking this way?” and questioning whether “somebody higher up put pressure on the DA.” The Boston Globe said in an editorial that it was Byrne’s timing “which is curious. Did his investigators indeed come up with some hot new information only weeks before the scheduled fight? This and related questions deserve an early public answer.”

Byrne was steadfast. “I want the public protected,” he said. “This is the first time, yes, that any thing has been done about the fight game, but there’s a lot of money in ancillary rights to protect. I want this fight run right.” Inter-Continental offered to put up the ancillary rights money as a bond and litigate the matter after the fight. Byrne rejected the offer and directed his men to move ahead. That was enough for Inter-Continental. Plainly wary of the scrutiny of a protracted judicial proceeding prior to the bout, they chose to change the venue. On the afternoon of May 7, Inter-Continental’s attorney announced that the fight was being moved from the Boston Garden to the Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston, Maine, population 41,000.

Inter-Continental wanted out of Boston, out of court, and out of Garrett Byrne’s line of fire. But the district attorney would not let go, responding to the news of the move by announcing a possible grand jury investigation of the entire affair. He had cost Boston and the Commonwealth over $120,000 in taxes and at least $1 million dollars in business, according to one report. “Maybe Byrne is doing this town a favor,” mused Boston Globe sports reporter Bud Collins. “But I think he has done the New Boston, which is trying to promote interest in its affairs, more harm than good.”

Byrne would not play the fall guy. When he finally went public with the details of his case on May 11, it was a bombshell of a story. Intimating that there may have been payoffs to Massachusetts political figures in an effort to grease the way for the bout to take place in Boston, Byrne minced few words. “The way the thing was going,” he said, “I was set up to be the patsy.” He noted that “every other big city and state turned [the fight] down, and we come along and accept it. The real question now is why the Boxing Commission let the fight come here.”

He explained why he had come so late to realize that the fight should be stopped. “When they made the rematch for Boston I didn’t pay much attention to it,” said Byrne, but when he “broached the subject of ancillary rights [with the state’s Boxing Commission] no one knew what I was talking about.” Byrne said that if the fight had gone forward as planned, “the Commonwealth would have been cheated out $230,000 owed on the television and radio rights.”

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He had no regrets, said the district attorney. “There was a stench about everything. I didn’t like the fight before and I don’t like it now. I make no apologies for what I did.” He saved his final words for the press: “And another thing, I wish they’d keep sportswriters out of court.”

James Aloisi is a former secretary of transportation, a principal at the Pemberton Square Group, and the author of The Vidal Lecture, from which a portion of this article is taken .