With the passing last week of Muhammad Ali, the world lost an icon, perhaps the most recognized man on the planet.
If any group has equaled, or perhaps even surpassed, Ali's fame and importance, The Beatles are one of the few that could make the claim.
And to think - in Miami Beach in 1964 - neither party knew of the other.
Veteran journalist and author Robert Lipsyte knew Ali for more than 50 years, and it all began in a Miami gym in the days leading up to then Cassius Clay's first title shot against the menacing Sonny Liston.
Clay was a big underdog in the fight; most expected Liston not just to win but to hurt the younger boxer.
Lipsyte traveled to Miami to cover the bout for The New York Times, upon which he happened to witness the first ever meeting of two of the world's most powerful forces: Ali and The Beatles.
The following is a transcript of Lipsyte's conversation with Tony Kornheiser last Thursday as part of The Tony Kornheiser Show on ESPN 980. Click here for full audio.
Tony Kornheiser: "When was the first time you saw Cassius Clay - when is the first time you saw him, the first time you talked to him?"
Robert Lipsyte:[laughing] “Right you know, of course that’s in legend, I was standing in a dressing room with four little guys around my own age with bad hair cuts and British accents, they were all wearing matching white cabana jackets. The Beatles had been turned down by Sonny Liston for a photo op.”
RL: “Yeah he took one look at 'em and said 'I’m not posing with those sissies.’”
TK: [laughing] “Good take.”
RL: "This is definitely 1964 the day that the 60s began. So, The Beatles get stuffed into a limo and get sent down to the Fifth Street gym remember that kinda old back 80 gym.”
TK: "In Miami, sure.”
RL: "In what is now the most expensive piece of real-estate down there- and I had just arrived from New York, I got the assignment to cover the Liston-Clay fight."
TK: "How did you get that assignment? How did you get that?"
RL: "Because I was unworthy, that’s true, Tony. So I mean, you worked at the Times you know how things operated. The real reporter, the boxing reporter, didn’t think it was worth his time to go down there it was going to be a one round knock out, Ali was a 7 to 1 underdog so it was decided to send the kid off to re-write. So they send me down and my instructions are as soon as I get to Miami Beach: rent a car, drive back and forth between the arena where the fights are going to be held and the nearest hospital so that I don’t waste any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care. So I do this, and I drive to the Fifth Street Gym and as I’m going up the stairs there are these four little guys. Who knew? I wasn’t a teenage girl at the time, I didn’t know who they were!"
TK: “Right, right.”
RL: "So somebody said that ‘Clay’s not here' and the four guys cursed you know and said ‘We’re the F out of here’ and turned around, but, some state troopers, kind of just pushed, I guess Clay’s people wanted a photo op too so they just kind of pushed all of us up the stairs and I went into this dressing room with these guys, I didn’t know who they were, I wasn’t intimidated. I’d figure I’d get a paragraph or something so the five of us - and I’m about to answer your question - so the five of us are in the dressing room and the door is locked, they’re screaming and banging on the door, they were very angry. I introduced myself importantly ‘I am Robert Lipsyte from the New York Times.’ And I figured out later John said, ‘Hi I’m Ringo,’ Ringo said, ‘Hi I’m George.’ And they started banging on the door and cursing and they were very angry at having been abducted. Then suddenly the door bursts open and the five of us in unison, we just gasp. I mean it was the first time, we had no idea how big he was, he filled the door way. He was just wearing boxing shorts, he glowed. He was gorgeous.”
TK: "He is the most beautiful, he is the prettiest guy ever, he is."
RL: "Yes yes yes, the most beautiful creature on the planet and we gasp and he’s laughing and he leans in and he says ‘Come on Beatles, let’s make some money.’ And they follow him out the door to the ring and I would have thought it was choreographed, except I knew they had just met. Actually what I’m describing now, wait till I’m finished please but dial up ‘Cassius Clay and The Beatles' on Youtube. It’s all there. There are these pictures of the five of them in the ring and The Beatles line up and he taps I think is George on the chin and they all go down like dominos and then they pop up and they form a pyramid and they try to get at his jaw and they taper around like that for five to 10 minutes and then the photo op is over and the Beatles go off to what ever happens to them.
Clay then works out and then he comes back to the dressing room for his massage and he notices me there and he kinda beckons me over and now the second part of the question is ’The first words we ever speak?’ He says ‘You were in the dressing room with them?’
I said, ‘Yes, I was.’
And he said ‘Who were those little sissies?’
And everybody after that walked into history. I just remember that the rest of that week waiting for the fight, just keeping my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t get hurt too badly so that he would fight again and I would have this much fun again in my life. It was wonderful, especially since the older reporters were really put off by him because he was breezy and disrespectful. He was not the grateful Negro that they were expecting to cover. He treated them in this sort of breezy disrespect and in the early writers the Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Dick Young kind of treating him kind of rather shallowly where as the younger reporters.”
TK: “There's a total generation divide on him. Let me just set this scene for people who are too young to understand this: This then was in The Beatles first trip to the United States where they were doing the Ed Sullivan Show, two in New York and one in Miami, this had to be obviously the one in Miami. And the way you are describing them is sort of the way they appeared obviously to Richard Lester, when he did a "Hard Day’s Night” and they were just buoyant and they in their way were as disrespectful to the authorities in England, as Cassius Clay - then Muhammad Ali - is disrespectful to the authorities in the United States so this is sort of, as you say they walk into history, you’re in a room with what is arguably, I guess you’d have to add Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, but certainly in the top five most famous work figures ever, right? Wouldn’t you have to say that Bob?"
RL: "Right, and they were in perfect sync at that moment. You could see it was not that they were fostering any kind of political revolution, it was this kind of absolutely breezy disrespect for everything that had gone before them."
[Ed. Note: Thanks to Evie Bird for transcription.]