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

LIVERMORE — Thousands of tri-county residents got within shouting distance of Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston during the lead-up to May 25, 1965.

Jim Kennison was close enough to reach out and touch the combatants in the heavyweight title fight that made Lewiston world-famous.

Wisely, the Livermore man settled for photos, autographs, and a lifetime worth of memories.

“I was driving home from Bliss College (on Lisbon Street) one day, listening to the radio. All of a sudden the bulletin came over that it was going to happen,” Kennison said. “I went down to buy a ticket. I was first in line.”

Kennison, living in his native East Monmouth at the time, immersed himself in the experience.

He attended Liston’s training camp at Poland Spring Inn. There, he struck up a conversation with Joe Louis and caught a glimpse of “Jersey” Joe Walcott, whose work as guest referee in the brief fight would be disputed for decades.

“You only had to pay a dollar,” Kennison said. “People were packed in.”

Kennison carried a camera everywhere he went.

During one break in the action, Liston, who enhanced his reputation for surliness during his short stay in Maine, walked past the tall, slender student and unwittingly turned toward him.

“I stuck the camera right in his face,” Kennison said. “I took a chance. He looked real mean.”

A devoted fight fan, Kennison closely watched the first Ali-Liston bout, one in which the younger challenger, then known by his birth name of Cassius Clay, administered a boxing lesson.

Ali took the title when Liston failed to answer the ball for the eighth round.

“He was no competition for Ali. I watched the first fight the year before, and he just dominated. He didn’t have a chance,” Kennison said. “(Ali) was just so fast and Liston was so slow. He just danced around and Ali pummeled him.”

The morning of the fight was two days before Kennison’s 21st birthday. He joined the crush around the ring inside St. Dominic Arena for the official weigh-in.

After snapping photos there for posterity, Kennison wandered over to Ali’s bus, where he eventually found himself face-to-face with the champion through a half-open window.

One click of the camera led to two, which led to a bold request for an autograph.

“Then a whole bunch of people came over and said, ‘Who’s in there?’ I said, ‘That’s Ali.’ They all grabbed for pieces of paper,” Kennison said. “I handed them to him and he signed every one until the bus left.”

That night, Kennison had to park a fair distance from the arena.

As he turned to make his way up the sidewalk along Birch Street, he encountered a familiar face: Joe Louis, who remembered him from Poland Spring.

“I walked down to the fight with him,” Kennison said. “I asked him who he thought was going to win. He said he hoped Liston, because he’d been in his camp. He said he was afraid that Ali was too much for him, too fast.”

Although he purchased a $25 seat in the far corner of the building, Kennison moved to the vacant center section to get a better view of the main event.

He subscribes to the theory of Liston choosing to stay on the deck as opposed to a phantom punch.

“Ali threw the first punch. He looked like he wanted to go down. I guess he figured he’d better wait a while longer. There was a punch, but it wasn’t hard enough to knock anybody down or keep him down,” Kennison said. “He was just there to collect his money. I was hoping he would put up a little fight like he did before.”

Kennison crossed the arena to jab a college buddy with whom he’d made a $10 wager. The friend claimed he didn’t owe the debt, because the fight was “fixed.”

Ali held an in-ring, impromptu press conference, during which Kennison again found himself within arm’s length of Liston, this time as he retreated to the dressing room.

“Everybody was hollering at him, ‘Fix!’ He just looked at the floor and kept walking,” Kennison said.

Straight into the history books. And at least one Maine photo album.

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


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