AP Photo
All You Need Is Shove: With one phantom punch, Ali takes out the Fab Four in Miami in 1964.

Robert Lipsyte was 25, recently spat out of college, graduate school and the Army, serving as the Noon Goon (general assignment) and night rewrite reporter in the New York Times sports department when he got the assignment to cover Sonny Liston's defense of his title against Cassius Clay. It simply wasn't worth the time of a seasoned wordslinger. That decision, says Lipsyte, was the key moment of his career. By the time he turned 29, he became the youngest sports columnist in Times' history, and he went on to a distinguished career in television, as a Young Adult novelist and as a sports and city columnist at the Times where he returned in 1991. Lipsyte's personal affection for Ali is matched by his professional gratitude. Sometimes he thinks that if the real boxing writer had claimed his rightful assignment, Lipsyte would still be the Noon Goon. On the 35th anniversary of the "Fight of the Century" -- the first of Ali's three bouts with Joe Frazier -- Lipsyte reflects on 11 encounters he had with The Greatest that shaped both of their lives.

The first time ever I saw Ali, I was with the Beatles.

Now that stops conversation. People think: It doesn't get much better than that, a 26-year-old reporter hanging at the iconic center of the '60s, that defining decade of the 20th century. Like waking up with Rosetta Stone herself. Sometimes, reading myself write, I think so, too. Until I remember that on that February day I was clueless.

The New York Times had sent me down to cover Clay's first fight with Sonny Liston, because the paper's boxing writer didn't think it was worth his time. Cassius Clay was a 7-1 underdog.

The Beatles, who were on their first American tour, wanted a photo op with Liston, but the champ didn't think they were worth his time. "Who are these little sissies?" asked Sonny, who trained on the stage of a bright blue community center in northern Miami Beach. So the limo dropped the Fab Four off at the dingy old Fifth Street Gym in what is now South Beach. The Beatles were cranky before they even got up the splintery steps.

Clay was late and the Beatles tried to leave. But they had arrived, a sign of those times, with no hired muscle of their own, and the promotion's security guards pushed them into a locker room. Clay's press agent wanted that picture to boost sagging tickets sales. It was my first day on the story. I'd flown in the night before. My notebook and my mind were empty. Had I really known who these four little guys in matching white terrycloth jackets were, I might have been too shy to push my way into the locker-room with them. The Beatles, I thought then, were just another bunch of pop ups to make teenyboppers swoon. I was a cool scribe.

The Beatles were cursing the photographer who had brought them here, claiming they had been tricked. I introduced myself, a little grandly I think, invoking the majesty of the Times, and John gravely shook my hand, introducing himself as Ringo, and Paul as John. I knew they were putting me on and was faintly amused. I asked for their predictions. We all agreed that Liston would destroy Clay, the silly little over-hyped wanker. Then they ignored me to snarl among themselves, the silly little over-hyped wankers.

Suddenly, the locker-room burst open, and Cassius Clay filled the doorway. The Beatles gasped, and so did I. He was so much bigger than he looked in pictures. He was beautiful. He was laughing. He seemed to glow.

"Hello there, Beatles," he roared. "We ought to do some road shows together. We'll get rich."

The Beatles got it right away. They followed Clay out to the boxing ring like kindergarten kids. You would have thought they'd met before and choreographed their frolic. They bounced into the ring, capered, dropped down to pray Clay would stop hitting them. He picked up Ringo, the bittiest Beatle. Then they lined up so Clay could knock them all out with one punch. They fell like dominoes. That photo op is still a classic.

After the Beatles left, Clay worked out as Bundini hollered, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Later, stretched out on a dressing-room table for his rubdown, he silenced a crabby old reporter from Boston who implied that the fight was a joke by saying, "I'm making all this money, the popcorn man making money and the beer man, and you got something to write about. Your papers let you come down to Miami Beach, where it's warm."

I was thrilled. I thought: He's got our number and he's not afraid of playing with us. Too bad he's going to get his head knocked off. He would have been so much fun to write about as champ.

After his rubdown, Cassius took me aside. I'd like to think he had picked me out of the pack -- years later, he would say, "I always knew you were smart, Bob, because you a Jew and never ate pork, your mind is clear." But I think he had merely spotted me in the locker room. He asked, "Who were those little sissies?"