Monday, February 24, 2014

A look back at the 1964 Clay-Liston closed-circuit telecast

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the 2/25/1964 heavyweight boxing match in Miami between challenger Cassius Clay (now known as Muhammad Ali) and defending champion Sonny Liston.

Theater Network Television, Inc (TNT). produced the closed-circuit telecast of this fight and carried it live at 10 pm ET on a Tuesday night. The announcers on that telecast were Steve Ellis and former heavyweight champion Joe Louis. The production was shown in over 350 theaters and arenas throughout North America. TNT also made the telecast available via satellite to Europe on a tape delay of a few hours.

ESPN Classic will replay this telecast on Tuesday 2/25 at 7 pm ET (with three repeat showings at two-hour intervals).

Per newspaper reports from 1964, tickets for that theater telecast ranged from $4 to $10 (compared to $20-$250 for those who attended the fight in Miami). More than 1.1 million theater seats were available across the USA. Many of the locations were movie theaters including some drive-ins. The telecast was also offered in some large capacity stadiums such as the Los Angeles Sports Arena and Cobo Hall in Detroit. And some community pay-TV networks provided an in-home feed for $3.

Theaters had to agree to provide non-racially segregated seating in order to stage the telecast. Some theaters in the south refused to agree with that contract provision and therefore could not show the event.

The match was also broadcast live by ABC Radio with Les Keiter handling the play-by-play and Howard Cosell contributing commentary between rounds and conducting interviews. Ex-boxer Rocky Marciano and active pro football star Jim Brown were also part of the radio broadcast crew.

This clip begins with the weigh-in and then contains the original TNT telecast of the fight starting around the 2:22 mark.

The telecast seems rather primitive even by 1970s standards, but it is great that such original boxing TV footage exists from a time period where relatively little survived from the major team sports. The production contained multiple awkward sequences. In round 3 after a flurry from Clay (around the 20:25 mark), you can hear a few bizarre incomplete statements from Ellis and then about 20 seconds of "dead air" before he resumes the blow-by-blow. As round 7 is about to begin around the 36:10 mark, Ellis exclaims "They might be stopping it!" and tells Louis to go up to the ring. But then the telecast leaves viewers hanging with almost 90 seconds of images with no announcer audio before we finally see Ellis and Louis together in the ring. Ironically, during this period of silence, you can see Cosell getting a radio interview with Clay before the TV crew is able to do so. During the chaotic post-flight scene, Ellis and Louis often spoke simultaneously. Whenever Louis appeared on-screen, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid looking at the camera.

Here are some clips which include portions of the original radio broadcast. This one covers the first round with Keiter calling the action.

And here is the finale with the radio audio starting at 0:48 on the clip. Once the match ended, the radio broadcast seemed to upstage the TV production as Cosell definitively told listeners about the match result, and then landed interviews with both fighters while TNT never aired any words from Liston. You can also see how quickly Cosell was able to get into position to talk to the new champion while TNT fumbled around.


  1. There was no stationary-orbit TV broadcast satellite then.

    As a result, only about 20 minutes at a time could be fed between North America and Europe.

    I would think that European broadcasters would record each feed (likely containing four rounds each), splice them together, and play back the entire fight once all parts of it had been fed.

    In Europe, the telecast probably aired at midday (Europe time) on the 26th.

  2. Was it aired by satellite for other cntinents? Or,within the USA,tresstrial??

  3. Who was the referee in this fight?