Lewiston has a rich history in the sport of boxing, and it’s much more than the famous one-round Ali-Liston fight at the modest St. Dom’s Arena. That event became an unforgettable part of sports history for a number of unusual reasons.
It was May 25, 1965, when World Heavyweight Champion Muhammed Ali’s so-called “phantom punch” put Sonny Liston on his back midway through the first round. A lot of people said they never saw Ali land a solid punch.
Referee “Jersey Joe” Walcott further muddied the waters with a delayed count and a bizarre through-the-ropes discussion with noted boxing writer Nat Fleisher. In those seconds, Liston had regained his feet and resumed swapping blows with Ali before Walcott stepped in and stopped the fight.
Those disputed 10 seconds of delayed count on the knockdown were not the first history-making seconds to be counted in a Lewiston boxing ring.
That event took place at Lewiston City Hall on Sept. 24, 1946, when Al “Shiner” Couture floored Bangor’s Ralph Walton in just 10½ seconds, setting a world record for fastest knockout.
Couture, a Lewiston native, died in August 2000 at the age of 77 while vacationing in Maine. He had made his home in Glastonbury, Conn., for some time, and Fred Gage, Lewiston journal sports editor in 1988, wrote 25 years ago today about his memories of Couture.
Gage said he saw many of “Shiner’s” fights at ringside, and chatted many times with him at training sessions, recalling that the fighter was “a born humorist.”
Interviews in the Hartford (Connecticut) Courant when Couture was 65 said Al claimed to have been in 80 fights by the time he was 18. Couture said, “The first time I was ever knocked down in a fight, the referee stood over me and warned, ‘You better get up or you won’t get paid.’ Sometimes I got paid in clothes or groceries. A lot of the time we’d get nothing. The promoter would say someone held up the box office and stole the proceeds.”
Al Lara, writing in the Hartford Courant at the time of Couture’s death in 2000, gave “Shiner’s” account of that famous 1946 fight in Lewiston. Couture and Walton had boxed twice before. In one of the fights, Lara said, Walton was disqualified for kneeing Couture in the groin in the seventh round.
“In the rematch, we almost had it out in the aisle before we got to the ring,” Couture told Lara. “This guy wanted at me, and I wanted at him.”
Lara’s story said, “The bell rang and both men leapt out of their corners. But Walton had forgotten his protective mouthpiece. His corner man yelled, ‘Hey, Ralph,’ to him at the bell,” recalled Couture.
“He turned and froze. Bang, I nailed him.”
With Couture standing over the unconscious Walton, the referee immediately counted to 10, declaring the fight over at 10½ seconds after it started.
It was a record time that should stand forever. Under today’s boxing regulations, Couture would have been required to return to a neutral corner before the count would start.
“Shiner’s” record was no fluke. It was earned during an illustrious boxing career. He said he fought 296 professional fights, and his official welterweight tally was 61 wins, 41 losses and 15 disqualifications. He was once ranked sixth in the world in his division, behind Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta.
Manny Liebert, a Hartford boxing manager and promoter, said, “He was one tough devil. A fight with him was never easy.”
Couture’s boxing career ended when he lost sight in his left eye. He became a photographer for the Bridgeport Herald and was official state photographer in Connecticut for several years. In 1996, Couture founded the Neutral Corner Inc., a nonprofit charitable organization that raised funds for scholarships.
In 1975, Couture came back to the Lewiston Armory for a benefit exhibition fight with featherweight boxing great Willie Pep.
Al “Shiner” Couture is a name that will live forever far beyond Lewiston.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by email at [email protected]