The Phantom Punch at 50

Interactive guide to our stories, photos, audio and video | Audio: Listen to the radio broadcast from the fight | Video: Can you see the punch? | Interactive timeline of the fighters’ careers | Newspaper coverage & readers’ memories from 1965

DIXFIELD — Watch the grainy video of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston a hundred times, and you may never see the disputed “anchor punch” or “phantom punch” that felled the former champion.

You will see Russ Leonard of Augusta, however. His pose — elbow propped on table, chin resting on hand — never changes. His gaze, fixed upon the flagging Liston and the taunting Ali, even as all hell breaks loose inside the ring and around him, never changes.

Leonard, one of the three judges tabbed for one of the shortest and most dubious title fights in history, makes a posthumous cameo in any documentary or pictorial display of the May 1965 event in Lewiston.

Neil Leifer’s timeless photograph unwittingly memorializes Leonard, as do Lewiston Daily Sun and Associated Press captures and moving clips of the two-minute tangle.

“He’s in almost every picture,” said Barbara Harris, Leonard’s daughter, of Dixfield. “They said there would be 27 cameras today that would take all those angles. This fight, there’s just that one.”

The local connection to the international sporting event is a unique one.

Fifty years later, well-known judges would be flown in from parts unknown to adjudicate a world title fight. Scorecards for Ali-Liston II were in the hands of three men from Maine. Leonard’s colleagues hailed from Portland and Rumford.

“He was sworn to secrecy. I was just 26. Dad called my brother-in-law, Dick Olum, the last minute and said, ‘I have an extra ticket. Would you like to go to the fight?’ When he got there, Dad told Dick it wasn’t an extra ticket, that he was a judge,” Harris said. “Dale (Barbara’s husband) had already left with friends from Dixfield to go all the way to Portland, because we didn’t know. Up until 20 minutes before, I didn’t know. I was messing with the radio here in the kitchen, trying to get it to come in.”

Barbara and Dale, are not explicitly boxing fans, but their link to Lewiston’s big moment has made them ardent collectors of anything related to the fight.

After her father died in 1993, Harris’ aunt, Breta, from Wethersfield, Conn., sent her a tape of the original broadcast from Mutual Radio Networks.

It features legendary baseball announcer Russ Hodges on the call, with full pre-fight and post-fight commentary. There is even a clear presentation of Robert Goulet’s historically panned version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” although his only actual slip-ups occur when he substitutes “night” for both “light” and “fight.”

“That was the joke on TV for years to come,” Harris said, “but his singing wasn’t too bad.”

Leonard, a salesman for Purex by trade, judged fights in Maine from the 1940s through the ’70s, scoring bouts for the likes of Maine favorites Lefty LaChance, Pete Riccitelli and Al Couture.

“Thanksgiving dinner, he would leave early to go to the fights,” Dale Harris recalled. “We would watch a TV fight together on a Friday night, and I won’t say it was Greek to me, but I just watched. He judged it, and he was right where the judges were. Even if it came to a unanimous decision, I couldn’t tell you who won it, but he could.”

“He didn’t hunt, didn’t fish. He never drank. He just loved his boxing on Thursdays,” Barbara added. “He became so good at it.”

Most of Leonard’s fights took place at Lewiston City Hall, Portland Exposition Building and Bangor Auditorium.

A quiet man, Leonard’s ability to keep a secret about the Ali-Liston assignment continued throughout his life. His daughter and son-in-law never knew how much, or even if, he was paid for the evening.

“He did talk about it, but not to any great extent,” Barbara Harris said. “Just always with a smile on his face. A lot of these clips and pictures we came up with after he died. It was in his folders.”

In the 1980s, Sports Illustrated released a commemorative book and a video of the fight for new subscribers.

Barbara gave Dale the reading material and presented the video to her father. He didn’t own a VCR at the time and needed to make special arrangements for a viewing party.

“We haven’t really talked to anybody about this through the years,” she said. “If I talked to anybody younger about my father being a judge, they would say ‘what fight?’ The kids don’t even care now.”

And the burning question: Was it a legitimate knockout?

Dale, who paid $6 for his closed circuit TV viewing rights that night, couldn’t get that out of his father-in-law, either.

“He just said he hit him hard, but that’s all he would say,” he said. “The first time people were walking in front of me. Then they replayed it. The way he hit him, you would need one more camera angle to make sure. I didn’t think he hit him that hard, personally, but he hit him just right.”

Right place, right time. Just like Russ Leonard’s unflinching view of history.

The Phantom Punch at 50: Interactive guide to our stories, photos, audio and video


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