On February 18th, 1964, just nine days after the Beatles made their acclaimed American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, and a week before Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) won his first World Heavyweight Championship title, these two preeminent cultural forces of the Sixties converged at Miami Beach's 5th Street Gym. What might have devolved into a corny photo-op instead led to some of the most enduring images of the 20th century, capturing the moment these young, charismatic and supremely talented young men achieved total dominance in their respective fields.
On Sunday, as the world mourned the death of Ali at age 74, Ringo Starr sat down with Rolling Stone to share his memories of the day in 1964 when he stepped into the ring with the soon-to-be champ. He learned of the boxing legend's passing after performing Friday at Syracuse's Lakeview Amphitheater, the first stop on his 2016 summer tour. "We didn't know while we were on," says Starr. "When we came off, they broke into whatever was on TV. That's when I knew."
It's been said that Cassius Clay had no idea who the Beatles were when they showed up at his gym, where he was training to fight then-current title-holder Sonny Liston. Robert Lipsyte, a future Ali biographer who was covering the meeting for The New York Times, claims that Clay uttered a bemused "Who were those little sissies?" as soon as they were out of earshot. According to Starr, the feelings were mutual – minus the sissy part. "In all honesty, we didn't know one boxer from another," he recalls. "That's how it worked out – somebody set it up."
Even casual observers like the Beatles believed Liston to be the likely victor. Vegas odds-makers projected him winning by a sizable 8-1 margin, and the band initially grumbled that they were getting time with, in John Lennon's estimation, "that loudmouth who's going to lose." But they were quickly won over by Clay's magnetic charm and a comedian's instinct that rivaled their own. Soon they were all clowning around the boxing ring for photographers, with the Beatles playing the good-natured victims of Clay's lethal fists.
"Ali's cross to bear was that everybody you see him in a photo with – whether it's Mandela, on a talk show, anybody – it's always the punch photo."
The photos all look so perfectly choreographed, like a lost scene out of A Hard Day's Night, though Starr insists that they weren't staged in advance. "We did them on the day," he says of the poses. "His cross to bear was that everybody you see him in a photo with – whether it's Mandela, on a talk show, anybody – it's always the punch photo." He chuckles, adding capitals with his voice. "It's always 'The Punch Photo'! We were 'The Punch Photo'!" Photographer Harry Benson took the definitive image, which shows Clay sending the mop tops colliding into one another with cartoonish ferocity.
"And then he's carrying me. I don't know why, he just picked me up!" Starr says. "It wasn't like, 'OK, pick him up now!' He just suddenly did." Surely there must have been some sort of warning? "No, he just grabbed me and lifted me up! What was I gonna say? 'Hey, come outside. …'" The drummer raises his fists, but his mock-tough expression quickly breaks into a grin. "We only got out of the ring because he put me down."
When all was said and done that day, the Fab Four knew who they would put their money on. "We had it on him! He's the Kid!"
Starr would briefly cross paths with Ali over the years, and in 1973 he recorded the Lennon-penned "I'm the Greatest," which borrowed its title from Ali's infamous battle cry. But their most memorable connection will always be their first meeting in 1964, when both were new to fame and on the cusp of worldwide stardom.
"He was powerful. He was just physically and spiritually powerful," remembers Starr. "He was just great. He's a huge loss."