Who would you put your money on? At the time, not a lot of people were putting it on Clay. Which was a mistake.
In fairness, The Beatles were yet to become the undisputed heavyweight champions of the pop world. Although Beatlemania had taken hold in Britain the year before, America had looked on at the phenomenon from afar, somewhat bemused.
But after touching down on U.S. soil in February 1964, and specifically with their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9th, the bemusement turned to amazement. At 8pm that evening, 73 million people — that is, two fifths of the entire U.S. population — watched the band play.
And after that, the publicity never stopped. British news photographer Harry Benson was travelling with the Beatles in the U.S. and suggested the group meet (and, naturally, be photographed with) the then-world heavyweight boxing champion, Sonny Liston.
Liston was building up to a match with a young underdog by the name of Cassius Clay. The smart money, though, was very much on Liston, who at 33 had more than 10 years on Clay.
Liston, however, declined to meet the mop-top quartet, and Harry Benson could only offer the Beatles time with the 22-year-old challenger. John Lennon scoffed at this, describing Clay as “that bigmouth who’s going to lose.” Still, the shoot was arranged, and the Beatles duly turned up at Miami’s 5th St. Gym on February 18th, where Clay was training.
Clay was late. The Beatles, left to their own devices in Clay’s changing room, lost their patience, swore, and decided to scram. But then, in the words of one journalist: “Suddenly, the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Cassius Clay.”
So who won? They both did. One week later, Clay upset all expectations defeating Sonny Liston, and was declared the new world heavyweight champion. He would later confirm his religious conversion to Islam, and adopt the name Muhammad Ali.
And the Beatles? Let’s put it like this. From 1964 until 1970, the group had the top-selling single in the USA one week out of every six and the top-selling album in the USA one week out of every three.