Muhammad Ali and Nevada

Nevada was a co-conspirator in the blacklisting of Muhammad Ali.

The young boxer fought in Las Vegas in 1961 as Cassius Clay, defeating Hawaiian Duke Sabedong. By 1967, he was back as Muhammad Ali, now the heavyweight champ seeking to fight Floyd Patterson.

Ali by then had joined the Black Muslims and opposed the war in Vietnam. Patterson considered himself Christian redeemer against Ali’s Muslim faith (“He might as well have joined the Ku Klux Klan”; “The image of a Black Muslim as the world heavyweight champion disgraces the sport and the nation”).

Nevada’s Gov. Paul Laxalt, whose cronies included organized crime figure Moe Dalitz, called the supposedly independent state athletic commission to the state capital for an “emergency” meeting and urged them to cancel the Ali/Patterson fight. They did.

Novelist Budd Schulberg wrote of Ali, “He thought he had it made in Las Vegas, but at the last minute the governor decided it would not be in the best interest of the great state of Nevada. The Mafia, yes; Ali, no.”

Laxalt didn’t actually say he engineered the cancellation because of Ali’s views, of course—though his attitude was shown plainly by his refusal to call Ali by his name. Laxalt’s fig leaf was that he considered the impending fight to be a poor bout that might reflect badly on the state’s image because Patterson had fought poorly against Ali in their previous fight: “If Patterson should win, eyebrows would be raised all over the world.” Two weeks earlier Patterson had needed just one round to KO Bill McMurray in Pittsburgh—Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is, which is important to a later part of the story.

Sportswriter Roy McHugh: “If Patterson doesn’t belong in the same ring with Clay [Ali], who does?”

Years later, boxing promoter Bob Arum said the fight left Nevada because he stayed at Las Vegas’s Desert Inn, owned by Dalitz, and Dalitz told Arum, “I don’t want that [expletive] draft dodger in this town. It’s not good for the town.” In another version of the Arum story, billionaire Howard Hughes was involved in driving Arum to cancel the fight. These angles on the story have never been substantiated.

Patterson, who said he had fought his first fight against Ali with a back injury, was anxious for a rematch and a comeback and was unhappy about Laxalt’s decision. “Patterson doesn’t think this is a mismatch,” said fight promoter Al Bolan. “He was shocked when I told him about it. He said he couldn’t believe it.”

What is known is that whether the rematch between Ali and Patterson would have been a worthy bout was a call for the state’s boxing regulators, who are supposed to be left alone by politicians who want to pressure them for reasons unrelated to athletics.

From Nevada, the issue moved to Pennsylvania, where the fight had been approved five weeks earlier and where Republican Gov. Raymond Shafer (disclosure: second cousin to this writer) had signaled his approval. When the fight was scheduled for Pittsburgh, the two Republicans spoke on the phone and then Shafer ordered it be banned by a state commission, a reversal of his original position. “If it’s not good enough for Nevada, it’s certainly not good enough for Pennsylvania,” Shafer said.

Pennsylvania Athletic Commissioner John Vaughn said, “It just isn’t right. We’ve got the best two fighters in the world. How can anyone object to that? We told them that we would accept the fight. The whole commission has accepted it.”

Two years later, Laxalt tried to rewrite history about 1967. When Nevada was being considered for a 1969 Ali/Joe Frazier bout, Laxalt—still calling the champion by the wrong name—said he still would not allow Ali to fight in the state. “We were the first state to stop Clay from fighting after he refused induction into the army,” Laxalt said, which was not the case. Nevada was not the first state and at the time Laxalt arranged cancellation of the Patterson fight, Ali had not yet refused induction.