Elizabeth Taylor's Unexpected Role In Muhammad Ali's Near-Stunning Loss

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, currently, football is the most popular sport to watch on TV. In the 1960s, though, boxing was in its ascendency, as World Boxing News notes. Much of the popularity of the sport in that era was thanks in part to the dynamic three-time heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammed Ali in 1964, as Britannica explains. In 1963, though, despite his 18 and 0 boxing record, Clay had yet to truly make a name for himself in the ring as the boxer he would one day become. 

Still, the sports media nonetheless paid attention in 1963 when Clay traveled to the U.K. to face off with the popular English heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper. (Clay's first championship in boxing came one year later, via History.)  As The Guardian notes, Clay, who was 21 at the time, matched with an older boxer only once before. A win against Cooper, who was 29, could signal Clay's arrival. Though Clay won that 1963 match, in the fourth round, Cooper knocked him down. Cooper nearly bested him at that moment for an unlikely reason, as Clay later explained: The movie star Elizabeth Taylor.

Ali said he'd take Cooper down in the fifth round

As the Bleacher Report explains, Clay — who famously promoted his own skills and fights throughout his life, per Forbes — talked up how he'd beat Cooper in advance of their '63 match. According to the Sports Illustrated (SI) Vault, in the days before the pair entered the ring, Clay said, "It ain't no jive. Henry Cooper will go in five!" He also referred to Cooper's British nationality, adding (via the Bleacher Report), "You've got a Queen. You need a King. I am King." Though Clay talked tough, Cooper started the match strong, and it looked for a moment like Clay might go down early.

It was in the fourth round, in fact, which started strong for Clay, that Cooper landed a left hook on the future heavyweight champion, sending Clay to the canvas for a count of four, based on the Daily Mail reporting. Or, as the publication put it at that time, "Cooper dumped him on the seat of his scarlet pants." Soon enough, though, Clay recovered well enough to take to his corner to be attended to by his cornermen. Clay wasn't finished, and it was in the fifth round when one of his boisterous predictions regarding the Cooper match proved particularly prescient.

Ali won the match in the fifth round

Despite that fourth-round setback, Clay defeated Cooper in the fifth round, just like he said he would. Clay didn't score a Knock Out (KO) against Cooper, but the British boxer's eye was so badly mangled by Clay that the referee called the match and declared him the winner. So, despite emerging the champion, how did Clay explain that momentary sign of weakness in the fourth round when it seemed like Cooper might overtake him? As the Daily Mail explains, actress Elizabeth Taylor and movie star Richard Burton, whom she'd later marry, were spectators at the match. Taylor, a major star at that time, simply caught the boxer's attention.

As Ali himself later described (via The Sun), "I dropped my guard and glanced down ringside at a screaming woman — Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor ... Suddenly something exploded against my jaw. I was down on the floor." Ali continued, "I was dazed and numb. The stadium was roaring. The referee was counting. But before he said four, the bell rang." That Taylor was in the crowd that day was not surprising. She was a noted celebrity boxing fan of that era, according to the Orlando Sentinel.