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50 Years Ago: Ali-Liston and the Mystery of the Phantom Punch

Longtime boxing fans would be quick to tell you that the recent Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight was not the first bigtime bout that failed to live up to its hype. One of the best examples of this happened 50 years ago this month when Muhammad Ali took on Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine in a highly anticipated rematch. Those expecting an epic battle were instead served a two minute fiasco which resulted in Ali being credited with a 1st round knockout. Half a century later, experts are still debating what happened in Lewiston on the night of May 25, 1965. Although there are many unanswered questions, it really boils down to two…was Liston really knocked out by a solid punch or did he take a dive?

Sunny-Liston-vs-Muhammad-AliThe road to Lewiston actually began 15 months earlier in Miami Beach, Florida on the night of February 25, 1964 when heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston entered the ring a 7-1 favorite to defend his title against the 22 year old Ali, who was still known as Cassius Clay. Liston, coming off two straight one-round knockout wins over Floyd Patterson and considered unbeatable, was totally outclassed for six rounds. When the bell rang for Round 7, Liston, claiming an injured shoulder, refused to leave his corner, thereby forfeiting his crown to his jubilant opponent. Immediately, much of the sporting public became suspicious of the fight’s unsatisfactory ending. While some accused Liston of throwing the fight, a charge made reasonable considering Liston’s ties to organized crime, the probable truth is that Liston was overconfident and undertrained for the fight.

A rematch was scheduled for November 16, 1964 at the Boston Gardens. After their first meeting, Cassius Clay had joined the Nation of Islam, and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, instantly becoming the most controversial figure in sports. Liston, apparently stung by the loss of his heavyweight title, trained furiously for his second fight with Ali, reportedly getting down to 208 lbs, ten pounds lighter than he was at Miami Beach. But three days before the fight, Ali suffered a hernia, resulting in a six month postponement of the fight. Liston, claiming to be 32 years of age, but probably at least three years older, was disheartened…he had gotten himself in shape for nothing, and now would have to do it all over again.

Rescheduled for May 25th, 1965, the political climate surrounding the fight started to get dicey. The assassination of Malcom X revealed that the American Islam community had become split into warring factions, and some feared Ali could become a target for revenge. The financial entity staging the fight, Inter-Continental Promotions, had been found in violation of contract rules by including a return bout clause with Ali, should he win the first fight, which actually gave Liston, a partner with Inter-Continental, an incentive to lose the Miami Beach contest. Three weeks before the fight, Inter-Continental, rather than battling with the Massachusetts Athletic Commission, pulled the fight out of Boston Garden, and moved it to Lewiston, Maine’s 4,500 seat Central Maine Youth Center…Ali-Liston II was already obtaining a small town carnival atmosphere.

Only 2,434 fans were present as the referee, former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott, gave Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston their pre-fight instructions. The evening had already begun in bizarre fashion when singer Robert Goulet forgot the words to the National Anthem. Ali, fighting at a surprisingly trim 206, started fast by landing a good right hand seconds after the opening bell. Liston, weighing 215, immediately began stalking Ali, but was unable to land anything effective during the fight’s opening minute. After taking another solid right to the head, Liston followed Ali towards the corner and attempted to connect with a long left-jab. While avoiding Liston’s punch, Ali came over the top with a quick right that hit Sonny’s left cheek, sending him to the canvas at the 1:43 mark. As Liston lay on the mat, Ali stood over him, taunting him to get up. Walcott tried to push Ali to a neutral corner, but Ali paid little attention to him, and after looming over Sonny, he took a victory lap around the ring. In attempting to rise, Liston made it to one knee, 5d88a47cbbd84e65b0cc576bd70bafe8-5d88a47cbbd84e65b0cc576bd70bafe8-0rolled over to his back again, and then managed to get to his feet at 2:01, his time on the canvas clocking in at around 18 seconds. As Walcott wiped off Liston’s gloves, his attention turned to ringside, where Ring Magazine editor Nat Fleischer, who was sitting next to timekeeper Frances McDonough, was calling Walcott over to his side of the ring. Leaving the fighters, Walcott, ran across the ring and briefly conferred with McDonough, who informed Jersey Joe that he had counted Liston out, and the fight should be over. Meanwhile Ali and Liston resumed fighting, with Ali raining punches in Liston’s direction but missing virtually all of them. Walcott quickly returned to separate the fighters, declaring Ali the winner at 2:11 of the first round, setting off an immediate storm of protest and disgust from the media and the rest of the small crowd. Cries of “fix”, “setup” and “sham” were heard throughout the arena, with Ali’s winning right described as a “phantom Punch.” For many days and weeks, the fight was discussed, rehashed and debated, while the video of the fight quickly became boxing’s version the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination. Over the years, the second Ali-Liston fight has inspired many different theories, involving everything from a mob fix to Liston being threatened by members of the Black Muslims. But there are a few, including me, who feel the fight was on the level, or at least started out that way, until the 1st round knockdown turned the event into one of confusion and chaos.

First of all, there was a punch. Ali’s right hand, thrown over Liston’s lead left, landed flush, causing Liston’s front foot the elevate a few inches above the mat. If it’s conceded that the knockdown was legitimate, the next question is how badly hurt was Liston? The key moment came when Sonny’s first attempt to rise was unsuccessful, as he fell back to a horizontal position. At that point, most people figure he was either too dazed to get up or was pretending to be hurt. But there is a third possibility. At the point that Liston is on one knee, Ali is racing around the ring, moving quickly behind Sonny. In later interviews, Sonny Liston mentioned that since getting off the floor involves using one’s hands for balance, any fighter would be vulnerable to being hit as they attempt to rise. It could very well be that Liston, seeing Ali approaching him as he was climbing off the canvas, deliberately sought the safety of the floor, and then got up seconds later when Ali was across the ring where he could see him. The fact that this meant being down for five or six extra seconds was entirely the fault of Ali, who was in blatant violation of boxing’s neutral corner rule, and referee Walcott, who obviously lost control of the fight.

In my view, Jersey Joe Walcott should not have stopped the fight when he did. Since Ali never retreated to a neutral corner, and Liston never received the benefit of a referee’s count, Walcott should have overruled the timekeeper’s judgement that Liston be declared counted out. It’s interesting to note that during the brief time that Ali and Liston resumed fighting, Liston deftly avoided all of the blows Ali threw at him, suggesting that Sonny was not in too bad of shape. But although I, or anyone else does not know what really happened, I think we can all agree on one thing…Liston was not going to beat Muhammad Ali that night, or probably any other night going forward.

Liston’s 1st round defeat did untold harm to his career. It would be three years before Sonny could obtain a license to fight anywhere in the United States, as most boxing commissions were a bit skeptical of Sonny’s performance the night of May 25, 1965. Ali would successfully defend his title eight more times, until his 1967 refusal to be drafted into the military resulted in him being stripped of the championship, and a three and a half year layoff from the ring. Ironically, it was during Ali’s hiatus that Sonny was able to put his boxing career somewhat back together, winning enough fights to place himself back into the heavyweight rankings. But time was not on his side…On December 6, 1969, Sonny Liston, now about 40, was knocked out in the ninth round by Leotis Martin in Las Vegas, ruining any chance for another shot at the title.

Liston and Ali’s paths crossed one last time in June of 1970, when Ali showed up in Jersey City, New Jersey to watch Sonny Liston face Chuck Wepner. It was Sonny’s 16th fight since Lewiston, while Ali had not fought in over three years. But their immediate futures could not have been more different. Muhammad Ali would be allowed to resume his career a few months later, and would eventually earn millions of dollars in huge bouts against the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton. Liston, receiving $13,000 for stopping Wepner in nine rounds, never fought again. On January 5, 1971, Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home by his wife, who was returning from a trip…he had been dead for a week. Although the official cause of death was a drug overdose, it has been speculated that he might have been murdered. But like his date of birth and his second fight with Ali, his death remains a mystery.

Notes: In Ali-Liston II, Liston got back to his feet at the 2:01 mark, which coincidently was the winning time for that year’s Kentucky Derby, won by Lucky Debonair. The fight, however, was about one minute shorter than what was the current Billboard Number One song, “Ticket to Ride” by the Beatles, which lasts 3:10.

3 thoughts on “50 Years Ago: Ali-Liston and the Mystery of the Phantom Punch”

  1. Fascinating. There’s something fishy about the whole thing but I agree it started out legit. Too bad the ref was inept. Ali wasn’t the greatest after all… not going to his corner when Sonny was down! Bad boy

  2. Brian, I enjoyed the introduction to the article you gave us on Saturday night. I like your twin theories that Liston stayed on the canvas to avoid a prancing Ali who should have been in his corner, and your other point (not really a theory), that Jersey Joe should have ignored the timekeeper. Walcott may have been out of his league refereeing this bout.

    1. Jeff: You are correct…Walcott was in over his head. The role of the boxing referee is usually not important, unless it becomes important. Former heavyweight champions and contenders performing as referees was a longtime boxing tradition going back many years…James J. Jeffries was one of the most prominent champs to frequently fill the role. If a fight goes smoothly, no one even notices the ref, but if a crisis occurs (a low blow, a punch after the bell, a cut, or just knowing when to save a beaten fighter from unnecessary punishment) the choice of referee becomes crucial. Knowing Ali’s unpredictable nature, along with the suspicious ending of the first Ali-Liston fight should have prompted a wiser selection than Walcott.

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