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  • Steve Hunt

How the WBA stripped Muhammad Ali of the world heavyweight title TWICE in the 1960s

Every boxing fan will know that Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing induction into the United States military. Ali’s stance resulted in him losing his title and his right to practice his profession as a boxer. He was exiled for three years, before returning to the ring in October 1970.

What is less well known, is the fact that this was not even the first time that he had been stripped of the heavyweight title. That’s right. Ali, who only won the world title from Sonny Liston in February 1964, had been stripped of the world title twice in the space of just over three years.

To be more precise, he was stripped of a version of the world heavyweight title. And to be exact, it was the World Boxing Association (WBA), who were seemingly determined to do their best to avoid proclaiming Muhammad Ali as heavyweight champion of the world.

When the 22-year-old Ali won the title from Liston, he was recognised by the two sanctioning bodies of the time, the aforementioned WBA and the World Boxing Council (WBC) as heavyweight champion of the world.

Within a month, this status seemed to be at risk. Not long after his victory over Liston, Ali announced that as a result of joining the Nation of Islam, he no longer wanted to be known by the name Cassius Clay, but instead Muhammad Ali. Most of the media of the time did not respect this decision. When using quotes in this article, the precise wording of the speaker will be used and so in those instances, Clay is used instead of Ali.

Ed Lassman was the president of the WBA at the time. On 23 March, he was reported as saying that he expected the WBA heavyweight title to be vacated within a week.

“This is a most unusual case in which the conduct of the champion before and after he won the title has caused my office to be deluged with letters of torrid criticism from all over the world – to say nothing of the unfavourable reaction of newspapers in this country and elsewhere.”

“I consider Clay to be detrimental to the boxing world. Clay’s conduct is provoking worldwide criticism and is setting a very poor example for the youth of the world. In addition, in signing with Intercontinental Promotions Inc., a Liston firm, to promote his future fights, he was directly violating our rules.”

It’s clear from his statement that Lassman’s main issue with Ali was his “conduct”. The secondary issue mentioned was the promotional contract with Intercontinental. Seemingly, in advance of his world title challenge to Sonny Liston, Ali had signed a contract with Intercontinental, which would give them the rights to promote his next contest and choose the opponent. Liston was a stockholder in Intercontinental. The deal would, therefore, appear to guarantee Liston an immediate rematch in the event of him losing to Ali. Although not a straightforward return bout contract, in essence, it provided that for Sonny if he wanted it.

WBA rules forbade return bout contracts in title fights. Professional boxing was only beginning to emerge from the era of Mob control. It doesn’t take a genius to see that contracts guaranteeing rematches could be abused by nefarious forces when the outcome of fights was not always solely in the hands of the two men in the ring. Imagine how much money could have made if one had advance knowledge of the unexpected outcomes of the two Ali-Liston fights?

It did not automatically follow, however, that Ali was involved in anything untoward or requiring the threat of being stripped of the title. If the WBA pursued this course of action, Ali would be the first heavyweight champion to have lost the crown by withdrawal of recognition.

Lassman would not just be satisfied with taking the title away from Ali. He intended to have him removed from the WBA rankings. Sonny Liston was also in his firing line. As a result of Sonny recently having been arrested in Denver on charges of reckless driving, resisting arrest and carrying a concealed weapon, the WBA were suspending Liston indefinitely.

Lassman explained that he expected the next WBA rankings, due the following month, to only feature eight fighters, instead of the regular ten. Ali and Liston would be excluded.

Ali was confused but defiant.

“I hope that WBA won’t act like a coward and take my title away from me just because they have the power. If they do, I’ll win it right back. One thing is certain, I won’t lose my title any other way. I’ll fight three men, all on the same night. And if one of them is big enough to whip me, he’s the champion. I’d like to fight Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston and Doug Jones or Eddie Machen on the same night.”

On hearing that Lassman was accusing him of setting a poor example to the “youth of the world”, Ali, perhaps only partially joking, blamed a case of mistaken identity.

“He must be thinking of Liston. He couldn’t be serious about me. Hundreds of kids follow me up and down the streets every day. Parents tell me they are glad to have a champion like me and that I’m a perfect example for their children. I’m the saviour of boxing. I’m a beautiful model for youth. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’ve never been caught stealing. I don’t run around with women and carry pistols. I’m an Olympic gold medal winner for this country. And I won the heavyweight title, fair and clean. Honestly, I’m so clean and peaceful, I’ve never been in any kind of trouble. Lassman’s thinking of Liston.”

Things change quickly in boxing and less than a week later it was reported that Lassman had undergone a change of heart. On 1 April he told the New York Daily News that he had previously been concerned by Ali’s bragging and his conduct at the weigh-in for his title fight with Liston. He also referred to the $2,500 fine imposed on Ali as a result of that weigh-in chaos, which remained unpaid. He then went on to say how he was troubled by the “hidden deals” between Ali and the promoters of the first Liston fight.

Despite those previous, and very recent, concerns that were so strongly felt by Lassman as to prompt his wish to strip Ali of the title, the WBA president now felt confident that Ali “will comport himself as a true champion that all the universe can honour and respect.”

What can have brought about this change of heart? It was reported in the same article, though no link was suggested, that Lassman had received threatening phone calls in response to his declaration that the WBA would likely strip Ali of the title.

One caller reportedly warned, “If this is not discontinued, you will get the same thing as JFK.” The assassination of Kennedy had taken place in Dallas just five months earlier and would go on to have almost as many conspiracy theories as the Ali-Liston rematch!

So, as of April Fools Day, it appeared that Ali would remain as champion of both the WBC and WBA. Sanity had prevailed, even if it had taken the threat of murder to bring about the unexpected U-turn.

It didn’t last long. On 29 August 1964, Harold Conrad, of Intercontinental Promotions Inc, announced that an Ali-Liston rematch would be taking place in mid-November. It would be held in the United States and several cities were under consideration to host the fight.

There was no word from Ed Lassman, but Abe J. Greene, permanent national WBA commissioner, responded by declaring that his organization was “prepared to consider a recommendation that Clay be stripped of his title if he defends against Liston. This is the first time in our organization’s 45-year history that it refused to sanction a contracted heavyweight title fight, and its refusal shall not be flouted.”

The WBA voted to veto the Ali-Liston return by an almost Putin-like majority of 27-2. The motion that triggered the vote was made by Robert M. Summitt, chairman of the Tennessee Athletic Commission. Yes. Tennessee. That well known hotbed of professional boxing.

There was no more talk about objecting to Ali’s behaviour or him being a poor role model. Summitt’s justification was strictly the champion’s contract with Intercontinental, which he argued was a return bout contract in all but name and therefore a “legal violation” of the WBA’s rules.

There was now a stand-off. If the Ali-Liston rematch was to proceed, would the WBA carry out their threat to strip Ali of the title? Of course they would.

 On 15 September, Ali-Liston 2 was announced for 16 November at the Boston Garden. Herman Greenburg, chairman of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission, told reporters that he been in touch with WBA officials in an attempt to placate them. With that in mind, one of the stipulations for the bout was that the winner would have to post a $50,000 bond guaranteeing that he would meet one of the WBA’s top four contenders within six months of this fight.

Such concessions were not enough. On the same day as the fight was announced, the new WBA president, Merv L. McKenzie, spoke to the press from his office in Toronto.

“The World Boxing Association is withdrawing recognition as champion from Clay, and the Boston bout will be considered as a non-title bout.”

(A non-title bout in the eyes of the WBA maybe, but the WBC still had Ali as champion and would sanction the contest as for the world title.)

For offering a home to the Ali-Liston rematch, Massachusetts would also be expelled from the WBA. Muhammad Ali had been WBA heavyweight champion for less than seven months. His backers contested the argument being made by the sanctioning body about the contract with Intercontinental, protesting that no rules had been broken.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the contractual dispute, there would soon be two world heavyweight champions. Those misguided fools who appear these days to almost celebrate the “four belt era” that we seem to live in now, should mark 15 September 1964 in their diaries as a momentous day in boxing history. A precedent was set in the splintering of the once greatest title in sport. I’ll pass on the prosecco, thanks.

The efforts made by the Massachusetts Boxing Commission to host the fight were completely scuppered on 14 November, just two days before the bout was scheduled to take place. It was reported that the fight was being postponed indefinitely as Ali had suffered an incarcerated hernia and would need immediate surgery. Dr Nathan Shapiro suggested that he thought it unlikely that Ali would be able to train for at least seven or eight weeks and unable to fight for around six months.

Ali-Liston was eventually rescheduled for 25 May 1965 and moved from Boston to Lewiston, Maine. The way the fight transpired, Ali could have probably achieved the same result while still in agony with his hernia. He stopped Liston in the first round with his infamous “phantom punch” that hardly anybody saw land. Chaos reigned, Liston was in disgrace, but Ali was still WBC champion.

The WBA had initially proposed to crown a new heavyweight champion through an elimination tournament including the top four heavyweights in their rankings. That came to nothing and on 5 March 1965, Ernie Terrell met Eddie Machen in a fight for the vacant WBA heavyweight championship. Machen had qualified for the opportunity by losing his previous contest to former champion Floyd Patterson.

Patterson would have been eligible for the shot at the WBA title, but he preferred to wait and face the winner of Ali-Liston, presumably hoping it would be Ali. Terrell outpointed Machen in a dreadful contest to claim the title. He went on to make two successful defences before meeting Ali in a unification fight in Houston in February 1967.

That fight is notorious as a result of the world seeing Ali fighting angry. Terrell insisted on referring to Ali as Clay. In response, Ali promised to give Terrell a humiliating beating and proceeded to do so, punctuating his punches with shouts of “What’s my name?”

Ali dominated the fight, winning comfortably on points, to once again become the holder of both WBC and WBA titles. But not for long. Only one more successful defence would follow, against Zora Folley in March, before Ali would find himself banished from the sport for three years. Unbeaten in the ring, but temporarily beaten by political forces outside of it.

In their treatment of Muhammad Ali in the 1960s, the WBA established a pattern of behaviour by the sanctioning bodies that was so disgraceful and self-serving that it critically damaged the sport. Their abusive treatment of the sport has been normalised to the point where fans of boxing are no longer shocked that the IBF have recently stripped Oleksander Usyk of their version of the world heavyweight championship. Try explaining the reasons for that to the casual sports fan. And let’s not forget our friends at the WBA. As I write this, in late June 2024, according to their website, they have two world heavyweight champions. Usyk is their “super champion”, and Mahmoud Charr is their “world champion”.

They have been at this type of nonsense for a long time now. Muhammad Ali remains the greatest heavyweight who ever lived. It’s exactly 60 years since he first shocked the world by beating Sonny Liston and almost immediately, the WBA were trying to find a way to take his title away. And they went and did it. Twice.

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