For as long as there has been sport there has been betting, and with betting comes the potential for corruption. The ancient Romans loved to gamble a few hard-earned denarii on the outcome of gladiatorial combat, but with backstage backhanders common at the colosseum and across the empire, it wasn’t just ill-fated gladiators who lost everything. 

In recent times many sports have been tainted with both accusation and proof of cheating. The “noble” art of boxing has often been revealed as ignoble, with many a pugilist taking a dive more perfectly executed than Tom Daley’s multi-somersault tuck off the ten-metre board.

Arguably the most notorious and controversial “dive” of them all, was the one allegedly performed by the formidable heavyweight Charles “Sonny” Liston when he faced Muhammad Ali in their 1965 world title rematch (pictured above). Liston had claimed the heavyweight crown three years earlier, battering Floyd Patterson to humiliating defeat in just two minutes and six seconds.

Their second encounter lasted a whole four seconds longer, with Patterson clobbered to the canvas three times before being counted out. After such comprehensive demolition jobs, contenders weren’t exactly queueing up to face Liston. British champion Henry Cooper said he didn’t want to get in the ring with him, while his manager, Jim Wicks confessed: “We don’t even want to meet Liston walking down the same street.” 

Then along came the young, brash, loud-mouthed Cassius Clay, who had won gold as a light-heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games and was undefeated as a pro, with nineteen victories to his name. Few though, gave him a chance against Liston.

Former champs and commentators were almost unanimous in the view that Clay would lose, probably within a round. Of the 46 sportswriters ringside, all but three had picked Liston to win by a knockout, and the bookies had Clay as a seven-to-one underdog. The fight took place at Miami Beach on February 25, 1964, and for six brutal rounds it swung one way, then the other. But the boxing world was stunned when Liston remained perched on his stool and refused to come out for the seventh.

He later said an old shoulder injury had prevented him from continuing but claims of “fix” resounded. It didn’t help that for much of his career Liston’s contracts had been operated by the Lucchese family, who controlled the Mafia’s boxing interests. 

Further controversy erupted just days later when the new champion provoked shock and outrage by announcing he had joined the “Black Muslims” organisation. Within a month Clay had been renamed Muhammad Ali by Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad. But Ali’s longstanding nickname, the “Louisville Lip” stuck and in the build-up to the rematch he continued to taunt and hurl abuse at Liston.

Despite contractual delays and reported death threats on both sides, Ali and Liston finally stood face-to-face in the ring again in Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965. What followed remains the most debated event in boxing history.

Little more than a minute-and-a-half into the first round, after a left jab by Liston, Ali threw what became known as the “phantom punch”, a fast right. Many reckoned it was so fast they didn’t even see it, or that if there had been a punch it didn’t connect. But Liston went down.

The timekeeper started the count as referee Jersey Joe Walcott struggled to push Ali to a neutral corner. Liston got to one knee, then fell back again. When he finally struggled to his feet Walcott allowed the fight to continue, but timekeeper Francis McDonough was waving his arms and yelling that the fight was over, after a mere two minutes and twelve seconds. He had counted Liston out. The screams of “fix” have echoed ever since. 

Boxing is far from alone in terms of sporting dodgy dealings. English football was rocked in the mid-1960s when Jimmy Gauld (a former Scottish youth international and Swindon Town, Plymouth Argyle and Mansfield Town player) was revealed as the brains behind a syndicate in which players conspired to lose matches and bet against their own teams.

Numerous footballers were involved, including Sheffield Wednesday’s Peter Swan, David Layne and Tony Kaye, an England international who moved from Wednesday to Everton soon after a “thrown” match against Ipswich Town and helped his new club win that season’s Football League. Ten players subsequently went to prison, with Gauld receiving the heaviest sentence of four years. 

The cases of “fixed” races in the “Sport of Kings” are too numerous to list, while ingenious methods of turning dead-cert winners into also-ran losers make illuminating reading. Jockeys can “pull” their mount to stop it running to its full potential, trainers might dope horses to the same effect, and owners have been known to switch horses with lookalikes – in some cases even using paint or dye to cover up or create distinguishing leg markings.

Multi-million-dollar betting syndicates ensure that horse racing remains the most targeted sport for fixes, but tennis served up its own scam last year when six Moroccan players were fined and banned for taking bribes for match-fixing. These days, with multiple cameras capturing every move from every angle to be instantly played back and analysed, it’s ever harder to get away with cheating. But the sports fraudsters won’t stop trying. You can bet on it. 

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author and scriptwriter. His sport-themed fiction includes the novelisations of the “Goal!” movies and the four official London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics novels for children

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