It Seems like Yesterday… The Beatles Met Muhammad Ali

Ali Stands Over Beatles Hands Up. Benson 1964
Ali Stands Over Beatles Hands Up. Benson 1964

Before he became Muhammad Ali, before he won his first world title fight against Charles “Sonny” Liston in Miami in February 1964, before he influenced a generation of young men to resist fighting in Vietnam, before he became the most well-known, revered, and respected athlete in the world, he was Cassius Clay.

I was in Miami with the Beatles for their second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, sitting in my hotel room watching television when I saw 22-year-old Cassius Clay shouting and spouting poems, preparing for his title fight with heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Sonny Liston. I thought to myself: that would make an interesting photograph, the Beatles and Clay, both in Miami, both causing a stir

I told the Beatles about my idea. John Lennon knew who Clay was and said he didn’t want to meet the challenger who was going to get beaten. The Beatles wanted to meet the champ, Sonny Liston. Later that day, I went to Liston’s gym and asked Willie Reddish (one of Liston’s seconds) if the meeting could take place. He told me I’d better ask Sonny himself. While tying his shoes, Liston didn’t even look up at me. He said he didn’t want to meet “those bums.” There was no point in trying to change his mind.

Later, I went back to the Beatles with a car and took them to the famous 5th St. Gym where Clay (who would become Muhammad Ali after he defeated Liston) was working out. Clay was ready for them. He completely ruled the day, ordering the Beatles around the ring, shouting, “Lie down. Stand up. Who’s the most beautiful?” He called Paul the pretty one but said, “You’re pretty, but not as pretty as me.” In the car on the way back to the hotel, John said, “That man made a fool of us, and it’s your fault, Benson.” The Beatles weren’t happy because for the first time someone else had outwitted them.

Afterward, the Beatles were mad at me for a month. It didn’t matter. They went back to London. I was off to Jamaica to photograph Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. Back in Miami I covered the Clay-Liston fight. By the time I met up with the Beatles again, everything was fine. 

No one knew at the time these five young men would become five of the most famous people in the entire world. Happenstance figures prominently in everyone’s lives, and I am glad I just happened to be watching television that February day in 1964.