Muhammad Ali KOs Sonny Liston This Day in Boxing May 25, 1965
Ali scores shocking 1st round KO with phantom punch
Sonny Liston 215¼ lbs
Muhammad Ali 206 lbs
Location: St. Dominic’s Hall, Lewiston, Maine, USA
Referee: Jersey Joe Walcott
Judge: Coley Wallace
Judge: Russ Leonard
Judge: Joe Colvin
World Heavyweight Title (1st defense by Ali)
Shortly after Muhammad Ali—then Cassius Clay—upset Sonny Liston to win the World Heavyweight Championship on February 25, 1964, it was discovered that the two boxers had a contract which gave Inter-Continental Promotions, Inc., a firm organized to promote Liston’s fights, the right to promote Ali’s first fight as champion—if he should beat Liston—and pick his opponent (Liston, of course). This was in a second contract, kept secret and not part of the main fight contract. It was phrased as it was because the World Boxing Association did not allow fight contracts with rematch clauses. On August 21, 1963, the WBA voted to suspend any member state approving a contract with a return bout clause. The regulation was inspired by the contract Liston was forced to sign to get a title shot against Floyd Patterson, whom Liston would twice knockout in one round. Delegates described it as the worst ever seen in the boxing business. Patterson was not only guaranteed a rematch, but retained the right to dictate the terms.
Gordon B. Davidson, an attorney for the group sponsoring Ali, said, “We felt we would be better advised not to have a guaranteed rematch clause. We felt this was more in the spirit of the WBA rules than a direct rematch, which was clearly outlawed.” He agreed that it was “subterfuge.” When Ali and Liston signed to fight a rematch, the WBA voted unanimously to strip Ali of the title and drop Liston from its rankings. However, the World Boxing Council, the New York State Athletic Commission and The Ring magazine continued to recognize Ali as champion.
Pressed by the WBA—which included every U.S. state except California, Nevada and New York—state boxing commissions throughout the nation were reluctant to license a rematch between the two controversial fighters, and it was difficult to find a venue. Ultimately, Massachusetts agreed to host the bout, which resulted in the suspension of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission by the WBA. The fight was set for November 16, 1964, at the Boston Garden. Liston was immediately established as a 13-5 favorite. However, three days before the fight, Ali suffered an incarcerated inguinal hernia. He was rushed to Boston City Hospital and underwent immediate surgery. “It was such a marvelously developed stomach, I hated to slice it up,” said one of the attending physicians.
The fight was rescheduled for May 25, 1965. But as it approached, there were fears that the promoters were tied to organized crime, and Massachusetts officials, most notably Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne, began to have second thoughts. Byrne sought an injunction blocking the fight in Boston, claiming Inter-Continental Promotions was promoting the fight without a Massachusetts license. Inter-Continental said local veteran Sam Silverman was the promoter. On May 7, backers of the rematch ended the court battle by pulling the fight out of Boston.
The promoters needed a new location quickly, whatever the size, to rescue their closed circuit television commitment around the country. Governor John H. Reed of Maine stepped forward, and within a few hours, the promoters had a new site: Lewiston, Maine, a mill town with a population of about 41,000 located 140 miles north of Boston. Inter-Continental obtained a permit and made an arrangement to work with local promoter Sam Michael. The venue selected was St. Dominic’s Hall, a junior hockey rink. Lewiston was the smallest city to host a heavyweight title bout since Jack Dempsey fought Tommy Gibbons in Shelby, Montana (population 3,000) in 1923. It remains the only heavyweight title fight held in the state of Maine.
The atmosphere surrounding the fight was tense and sometimes ugly, largely due to the repercussions of Ali’s public embrace of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, who had a public and bitter falling out with Elijah Muhammad, had been assassinated several months before the fight, and the men arrested for the slaying were members of the Nation of Islam. Rumors circulated that Ali, who had publicly snubbed Malcolm after his break with Elijah Muhammad, might be killed by Malcolm’s supporters in retaliation. The FBI took the threats seriously enough to post a 12-man, 24-hour guard around Ali. Liston’s camp, in turn, claimed he had received a death threat from the Nation of Islam. The Fruit of Islam—the omnipresent, bow-tied paramilitary wing of the Nation of Islam—surrounding Ali only added to the sense of foreboding and hostility. Security for the fight was, for that time, unprecedented.
Due to the remote location and the fear of violence, only 2,434 fans were present in the 4,900-seat arena, setting the all-time record for the lowest attendance for a heavyweight championship fight.
The ending of the second Ali-Liston fight remains one of the most controversial in boxing history. Midway through the first round, Liston threw a left jab and Ali went over it with a fast right, knocking the former champion down. Liston went down on his back. He rolled over, got to his right knee and then fell on his back again. Many in attendance did not see Ali deliver the punch. The fight quickly descended into chaos. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott, a former World Heavyweight Champion himself, had a hard time getting Ali to go to a neutral corner. Ali initially stood over his fallen opponent, gesturing and yelling at him, “Get up and fight, sucker!”
When Walcott got back to Liston and looked at the knockdown timekeeper, Francis McDonough, to pick up the count, Liston had fallen back on the canvas. Walcott never did pick up the count. He said he could not hear McDonough, who did not have a microphone. Also, McDonough did not bang on the canvas or motion a number count with his fingers. McDonough, however, claimed Walcott was looking at the crowd and never at him. After Liston arose, Walcott wiped off his gloves. He then left the fighters to go over to the McDonough. “The timekeeper was waving both hands and saying, ‘I counted him out—the fight is over,'” Walcott said after the fight. “Nat Fleischer (editor of The Ring) was seating beside McDonough and he was waving his hands, too, saying it was over.” Walcott then rushed back to the fighters, who had resumed boxing, and stopped the fight—awarding Ali a first-round knockout victory. The official time of the stoppage was announced as 1:00 into the first round, which was wrong. Liston went down at 1:44, got up at 1:56, and Walcott stopped the fight at 2:12.
McDonough and Fleischer were also wrong in their interpretation of how the rules applied. Under the rules, the timekeeper is supposed to start the count at the time of a knockdown. The referee’s duty is to get the boxer scoring the knockdown to a neutral corner, pick up the count from the timekeeper and continue it aloud for the knocked down boxer. Under the rules of the Maine Commission, the referee was authorized to stop his count if a boxer refused to go to the proper corner. “It might have been better if Walcott had stopped the count (by the knockdown timekeeper) until Clay went to the neutral corner and then started again,” said Duncan MacDonald, a commission member.
“I did my job,” Walcott said. “He (Ali) looked like a man in a different world. I didn’t know what he might do. I thought he might stomp him or pick him up and belt him again.”
“If that bum Clay had gone to a neutral corner instead of running around like a maniac, all the trouble would have been avoided,” McDonough said. He acknowledged that Walcott could have asked him to start the count again “after he got that wild man—Clay—back to a neutral corner, but he didn’t, so that was that.”
When the fight ended, numerous fans booed and started yelling, “Fix!” Skeptics called the knockout blow “the phantom punch.” Ali called it “the anchor punch.” He said it was taught to him by comedian and film actor Stepin Fetchit, who learned it from Jack Johnson. In the ring after the fight, Ali told closed circuit commentator Steve Ellis: “Didn’t I tell the world that I had a surprise and if I told you the surprise, you would not come to the fight.” However, Ali was unsure immediately after the fight as to whether or not the punch connected, as footage from the event shows Ali in the ring asking his entourage, “Did I hit him?” Ali told Nation of Islam minister Abdul Rahman that Liston “laid down” and Rahman replied, “No, you hit him.” Rahman later said, “Ali hit him so fast, Ali didn’t really know he hit him….and It took a long time before even he saw the punch he hit Sonny with.”
Years later, Ali told biographer Thomas Hauser: “The punch jarred him. It was a good punch, but I didn’t think I hit him so hard he couldn’t get up.”
“It was a good right-hand punch,” Liston said after the fight. “It made me groggy. I got to my knees but fell the second time because I was off balance….I could have got up, but I didn’t hear the count.”
After the fight, George Chuvalo climbed through the ropes and shoved Ali, yelling, “Fix!” He was restrained, but later he said that he had seen Liston’s eyes while the challenger was on the floor, and he knew that he was not in bad shape. “His eyes were darting from side to side like this,” he said, darting his eyes from side to side. “When a fighter is hurt his eyes roll up.” However, Dr. Carroll L. Witten, former Kentucky State Boxing Commissioner, who had studied the reactions of knocked out fighters, said, “Chuvalo is wrong. The side-to-side movement of eyes is commonly associated with temporary unconsciousness and is one of the first things you look for. It is called nystagmus.”
There were some at ringside who believed the fight was legitimate. World Light Heavyweight Champion Jose Torres said, “It was a perfect punch.” Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote that it was “no phantom punch.” And Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated wrote, “The blow had so much force it lifted Liston’s left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas.”
Hall of Fame announcer Don Dunphy was one of many who didn’t believe the fight was on the level. “If that was a punch, I’ll eat it,” he said. “Here was a guy who was in prison and the guards use to beat him over the head with clubs and couldn’t knock him down.” But others contend that he wasn’t the same Liston. Dave Anderson of the New York Times said Liston “looked awful” in his last workout before the fight. Liston’s handlers secretly paid sparring partner Amos Lincoln an extra $100 to take it easy on him. Arthur Daley of the New York Times wrote that Liston’s handlers knew he “didn’t have it anymore.”
One ringside observer, former World Heavyweight Champion James J. Braddock, said the suspect Ali right hand merely finished up what an earlier punch had begun. “I have a feeling that this guy (Ali) is a lot better than any of us gave him credit for,” Braddock said. “It isn’t the knockout punch that sticks in my mind as much as a punch he let go (earlier)….It was a right to Liston’s jaw and it shook him to his shoetops. For all we know, it could have been the one that set up the knockout.”
Another former champion, Rocky Marciano, changed his view about the knockout punch after seeing videotape the next day. “I didn’t think it was a powerful punch when I saw the fight from ringside,” Marciano said. “Now (after seeing video) I think Clay, seeing the opening, snapped the punch the last six inches.”
Dave Anderson said he saw Liston in Las Vegas in 1967 and asked him what happened. “It wasn’t that hard a punch, but it partially caught me off balance and when I got knocked down, I got mixed up because the referee never gave me a count,” Liston said. “I was listening for a count. That’s the first thing you do, but I never heard a count because Clay never went to a neutral corner.”
Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger said Liston told him that he lost simply because “the timekeeper couldn’t count.”
Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated said Liston told him: “That guy (Ali) was crazy. I didn’t want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn’t hit.”
During a 1995 HBO documentary about Liston, trainer Johnny Tocco, who owned a boxing gym in Las Vegas, said he spoke with mobster John Vitale before the rematch and was told not to pay any attention to what he heard about the fight. He also told Tocco that he should be glad that he wasn’t going to Lewiston. When Tocco asked why, Vitale told him that the fight was going to end in the first round.
During the same documentary, former FBI agent William F. Roemer Jr. said, “We learned that there very definitely had been a fix in that fight.” He said Bernie Glickman, a boxing manager from Chicago with mob ties, claimed that while he was conversing with Liston and his wife before the fight, Liston’s wife told the ex-champion that as long as he had to loss the fight, he should go down early to avoid any chance of getting hurt.
In the wake of the controversial fight, there was an outcry by press and politicians for the abolition of boxing. Bills to ban the sport were planned in several state legislatures.
A promoter in San Antonio apologized to his theater TV customers and, on the basis that they had been defrauded by a “shameful spectacle,” donated his take to boys’ clubs. The California legislature, in session, received a resolution calling for an investigation by the state attorney general to determine if its closed-circuit viewers had been fraudulently duped out of their money.
For those who believe that Liston took a dive, there are a number of theories as to why, including: (1) The Mafia forced Liston to throw the fight as part of a betting coup. (2) Liston bet against himself and took a dive because he owed money to the Mafia. (3) A couple of members of the Nation of Islam visited Liston’s training camp and told Liston they would kill him if he won the rematch. (4) Author Paul Gallender claims that members of the Nation of Islam kidnapped Liston’s wife, Geraldine, and his son, Bobby. Liston was told to lose the fight to Ali or he would never see his family again. (5) Liston was afraid that he would be accidentally shot by followers of Malcolm X as they tried to kill Ali in the ring.
What really happened that day in Lewiston, Maine, is still debated to this day.