Clay v Liston: the legal aftermatch

John McLinden

Fifty years ago this Tuesday Sonny Liston failed to emerge from his corner after 18 minutes of some of the most extraordinary fighting for the title of Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World the world had seen. 

In establishing his credentials the new champion, Cassius Marcellus Clay dumbfounded sportswriters, boxing fans and gamblers the world over. 

Incredible as it may seem now, the fight was a financial and legal farce for its promoter, William B MacDonald, a colourful Florida-based multimillionaire. 

MacDonald contracted to pay $625,000 for the gate receipts. However such was the price of the seats, described by Sports Illustrated as the most expensive sports event per patron of all time, and the public’s disbelief that Clay was a serious opponent for a champion who was seen as deadly as Mike Tyson in his prime, that instead of the event being a frenzied sellout the 16,000 capacity at the Miami Beach Convention Hall was well undersold.  

The gate was only $225,000 – almost $1 million less than the promoter had hoped.  

MacDonald paid the gate receipts to the fight organiser but was sued for the balance of some $400,000. 

He defended, pleading illegality.  He relied on a Florida law criminalising prize fighting save for boxing exhibitions “... held by and under the auspices of' certain named civic, educational and charitable organisations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars [VFW] …”

MacDonald's argument was that in reality the VFW had not put on the fight; he had simply paid a gratuity of $500 to the organisation and had comped tickets for 20 veterans to ensure their presence at the bout.  

Unlike the fight the litigation went the distance.

MacDonald initially saw the claim off on a strike out. However on appeal this was overturned. 

At the subsequent trial the claim succeeded. Then on 9 April 1971, more than seven years after the fight, the judgment was overturned on appeal. 

The Court held that “The conclusion is inescapable that the Liston-Clay fight was not held under the auspices of the [VFW]. The use of the organization's name was a mere fiction to avoid the prohibitory Florida statute, and representation on the printed tickets of VFW sponsorship was an obvious subterfuge designed to present a nominal compliance with the Florida law.”

The argument that MacDonald could not rely on his own misconduct to avoid the contract was rejected. The Court referred to Florida caselaw whereby agreements in violation of public policy were void because they had no legal sanction and established no legitimate bond between the parties.  The parties were therefore left as the court had found them. 

Seven years is a long time in boxing. 

By 1971 MacDonald and Liston were dead. Clay, as Mohammed Ali, had been convicted of refusing the draft and sentenced to five years' jail. 

On 28 June 1971, 11 weeks after the Fifth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals had finally laid the legal aftermath of the 1964 fight to rest, the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed the conviction. 

Ali had made history again.

See INTER-CONTINENTAL PROMOTIONS, INC. v William B. MacDONALD (1966) 367 F.2d 293 and INTER-CONTINENTAL PROMOTIONS, INC v MIAMI BEACH FIRST NATIONAL BANK and Fred R. Baisden, as Executors of William B. MacDonald (1971) 441 F.2d 1356. 

The fight is embedded below.

John McLinden is a former Wellington barrister and now London QC.


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