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

Everybody gets in line. An adult whispers a short, perhaps confusing message in the first person’s ear. He relays the information to the next person. She follows suit with her neighbor. By the time the tale reaches its ultimate destination, it has been twisted beyond all recognition.

Such is the case with Ali-Liston II. All we truly know is that it happened the night of Tuesday, May 25, 1965, in the venue now known as Androscoggin Bank Colisee, and that Ali, the reigning champion, successfully defended his title in less than a full round.

The rest of the event — no, seriously, everything about it — is shrouded in mystery; couched in conjecture.

Why was the fight relocated to Lewiston, textile town of 41,000 at the time, in the first place? How serious were the threats against Ali’s life? What was the extent of Liston’s connection with organized crime? How badly, and under what level of sobriety, did Robert Goulet botch the national anthem?

Was the punch real, and strong enough to knock out a man of Liston’s strength and stature, or was it a “phantom” blow? How long was Liston on the canvas? Did anybody administer an actual count, and would Liston have risen to his feet if he heard one? Who actually stopped the fight, and how long did all this foolishness officially take?

Talk to any two people with a strong connection to the fight, many of whom are widely touted as experts, others who fancy themselves rabid boxing enthusiasts, and no two answers to the queries are identical. It is an event long ago dwarfed by its urban legend, a victim of timing and location.

Ali-Liston II happened years before the ubiquity of sports highlights, available at any hour of day or night. It happened when the heavyweight champion was a larger figure than almost any world leader, before the explosion of team sports and a convergence of self-inflicted factors relegated boxing to the back page. It happened in a time of political upheaval and growing diversity. It happened in a day when truth was seen through individual lenses, most often shared by word-of-mouth.

And it happened right here.

******

It was the fight nobody wanted. At least the city of Boston and commonwealth of Massachusetts didn’t.

Nine months after dethroning Liston in Miami Beach — the champion, peppered by the substantially younger, startlingly quicker challenger, and hampered by a shoulder injury, quit on his stool prior to the seventh round — Ali granted him a November 1964 rematch at Boston Garden.

Fate fizzled the first attempt. Three days before the scheduled bout, Ali was rushed to a Boston hospital with what was deemed a strangulated inguinal hernia. He underwent emergency, though routine, surgery. The fight was off.

In the social climate of the day, the delay of six months might as well have been a thousand years. Hours after proclaiming that he “shook up the world” with his upset of Liston, Ali did so again outside the ring, announcing that he had become a Muslim and would change his name from Cassius Clay.

It immediately made Ali the most famous member in the Nation of Islam. And when three others in that organization were implicated in the February 21, 1965 assassination of black leader Malcolm X, it made Ali a high-profile, perceived target for a possible revenge killing.

Those concerns, combined with fears about ex-convict Liston’s alignment with the mob, fueled Suffolk County prosecutor Garrett H. Byrne’s quest to clean up the scene. Citing a mountain of evidence, how damning or vague we will never know, Byrne filed a motion May 5 in pursuit of an injunction that would shut down the fight.

Cleveland-based Intercontinental Promotions, Inc., and Sports Vision, Inc., left holding a $3.5 million closed circuit television contract, scrambled for an alternate site.

Less than three hours to the north, Lewiston’s chief qualification was that it was there. Also, it had Sam Michael, a fight promoter whose experience covered parts of five decades, dating back to his teenage years in Lowell, Mass.

“Why Lewiston? Because he went after it,” Doris, Michael’s widow, told the Sun Journal in 2005. “When he found out that they refused it in Boston, he called people down there that he knew and got the word out that he’d like to have it up here. He got a call (back) when he was at a meeting up in Oxford County, excused himself from the meeting and went right to work on it.”

On Friday, May 7, Gov. John Reed held a press conference to confirm the details. St. Dominic Arena — bleacher and floor combined capacity: 5,000 — was enlisted to replace Boston’s venerable Garden.

Lewiston would be the smallest city to host a heavyweight title fight in 42 years.

******

Training camps were well underway. Ali opted to stay in Chicopee, Mass., where thick police presence monitored his every move. Liston made the transition from Dedham, Mass., to the rustic Mansion House, built in 1796 on the grounds of Poland Spring Resort.

He was accompanied by a who’s who of pugilism, present and past. Joe Louis took his undersold talents as a scratch golfer to the neighboring course each day. Visitors to Liston’s daily workouts in the ballroom also caught daily glimpses of Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, Floyd Patterson, Jack Sharkey, Jose Torres, George Chuvalo and Rocky Marciano.

“Liston never said a word. They just brought him in. He did the jump rope and punched,” Al Harvie of Auburn said. “Then they would take this medicine ball, a big guy, just smashing it off his chest. That was a highlight to me. His chest was like a catcher’s mitt.”

The seriousness of Liston’s training is an elusive detail. Some national scribes felt that the challenger never recovered from the letdown of the November 1964 postponement and spent the ensuing six months slacking off.

George Mattor of Roxbury, who observed every minute of Liston’s camp as a hotel employee, saw it differently.

“When I first got there, we couldn’t keep sparring partners. Liston was laying them over the ropes,” Mattor said. “Then, about 10 days before the fight, Liston went a little bit cold. He trained for the fight (in November) and decided to keep training. He over-trained a little.”

Others speculated that Liston looked tired and wondered aloud if age was setting in. Liston had no birth certificate. He was listed in his early 30s, but had it not been decades before the day of the winking emoticon, one surely would have followed that number. Forty was closer to the truth.

“There were instances” in camp, famed sportswriter Jimmy Cannon penned, “when Liston was paralyzed by the most simple feint.”

Ali arrived at Auburn’s Holiday Inn on his personal, 10-year-old red bus, with trainers, sportswriters and hangers-on in tow, on Sunday, two days before the fight.

Hundreds of spectators awaited Ali as he entered the hotel before re-emerging on a balcony to address the crowd. “I am the savior of boxing,” Ali said that day, according to a 1979 Yankee Magazine retrospective. “You’re looking at history’s greatest fighter. There will never be another like me.”

At a muscular 210 pounds, renowned for his quickness, Ali’s 15-to-20-mile training runs were a breeze in Chicopee. Here, he was apprehended by Maine State Police. Having apparently missed or ignored the sign prohibiting pedestrians, Ali took a wrong turn onto the turnpike.

******

The fight night crowd was a bundle of contradictions.

Hundreds gathered in neighboring Marcotte Park, binoculars and cameras in hand. Many didn’t care about the fight inside the building or couldn’t afford the $25, $50 or $100 fare but simply coveted the once-in-a-lifetime glimpse at a celebrity or two.

Cords, trucks and satellite equipment dominated the Lewiston landscape as far as the naked eye could see. Inside, a phalanx of 600 local, national and international media assembled; comparable in size to the corps that covered World War II, dwarfing the small delegation that covered then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s downtown visit six years earlier.

Yet the crowd for a hastily arranged, lackluster undercard scarcely filled the hockey arena to one-quarter of its projected capacity. As Ali and Liston made their way into the building shortly after 9 p.m., so, too, did the remainder of 2,400 ticket-holders. Many found themselves trapped in lengthy lines outside while awaiting the rigorous security check, or they were held up in similarly deep queues at the snack shack after finally gaining entrance.

Later, hundreds would lament these delays as their reason for missing the disputed finish.

Reports of FBI and New York City police personnel on the premises, presumably to protect Ali, brewed an undercurrent of tension.

“Everybody was a little nervous,” Lewiston Journal reporter Paul Marcotte said. “I think a lot of things were kept quiet.”

The ring announcer introduced a peculiar crew of men in charge, by today’s buttoned-up, big-budget standards. Walcott, a retired legend of the ring, was guest referee.

“That would never happen now, but it was common back then,” Mattor said. “Way back in the late 1800s, Wyatt Earp refereed a heavyweight title fight, and it was a disaster.”

Locals landed the other prominent jobs. Judges, in the event the fight went the 15-round distance, were Coley Welch of Portland, Russ Leonard of Augusta and Joe Boivin of Rumford.

Francis McDonough, 63, a retired printer from Portland, was commissioned to count knockdown seconds. The official timekeeper, high school teacher Russell Carroll of Auburn, once kept the watch for a 10½-second knockout by Lewiston’s Al Couture that remains a Guinness world record in perpetuity.

Liston was introduced to cheers, likely for the first and last time in his career. Ali’s name, blared from a loudspeaker for the first time ever, coaxed a loud chorus of boos.

“When they came out and were getting the instructions from Walcott, I was looking at Sonny Liston and I literally cringed,” Harvie said. “That was the most ferocious thing I had ever seen. I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to kill Ali.'”

Goulet, a crooner with strong Lewiston family connections and a Franco-American name to match, was ushered to the center of the ring for his patriotic pause. A gap between the strains of an organist situated in the hockey press box and the singer’s unleashing of the first words is perceptible on the radio broadcast.

It is said that Goulet misplaced an index card with the lyrics scrawled upon it, or that he couldn’t read it in the dim light of the arena. In any case, his substitution of two wrong words followed him for the remainder of his career.

The confusion and absurdity were merely beginning.

******

Neither fighter landed a punch of consequence in the first (and last full) minute of the match. Liston unleashed a few jabs and swiping hooks, mostly lefts, which Ali later said brushed off his arms.

The two fighters clinched briefly. Liston lunged forward with his chin tucked, perhaps having momentarily lost his balance. As he attempted to regain a traditional fighting stance, Ali caromed off the ropes and fired a short right that — yes, arguably — landed flush on Liston’s jaw or cheekbone.

He crashed to the canvas. Ali, cementing his reputation as the “Louisville Lip,” stomped his feet and loudly chided Liston to “get up!,” a moment immortalized in photographs by Sports Illustrated’s Neil Leifer and the Associated Press’ John Rooney.

McDonough dutifully began his count. Perhaps stunned by the suddenness of the knockdown himself, then occupied with Ali’s famous failure to retreat into a neutral corner, Walcott didn’t begin counting.

Nor would he.

With the click of McDonough’s gavel echoing in his ear, Liston struggled to one elbow at eight, then flopped to his back more. Walcott continued his attempts to restrain Ali.

“There’s been so many stories about him throwing the fight. That’s not true. When you knock a man down, you don’t stand over him,” Mattor said. “The reason (Liston) didn’t get up, I heard him tell Patterson why he didn’t get up. He said he had to put at least one of his hands down on the canvas to get up, and (Ali) was standing over him with his fists doubled up. He said, ‘I couldn’t get up.’ The minute (Ali) didn’t go to a neutral corner, Walcott was so far over his head he didn’t know what to do.”

McDonough continued his count deep into double digits before order was briefly restored. Liston rose to his feet, and Walcott, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a knockdown took place or how much time elapsed, ceremonially dusted off the challenger’s gloves and signaled for the fight to continue.

It did, briefly, until Nat Fleischer, editor of Ring Magazine, rose from his seat, first accosting Carroll, then Walcott. The referee turned toward Fleischer for a moment while Ali and Liston resumed swinging. Then he stepped in, pushed Liston toward a corner and raised Ali’s fist in victory.

The outcry from unsatisfied fans was echoed within minutes by the media and boxing dignitaries, many of whom swore the fix was in.

“There was Liston on the canvas, floundering, like a beached whale,” Red Smith opined. “It hadn’t looked like a great punch Tuesday night. It still didn’t look great in slow motion.”

“The worst mess,” Jimmy Breslin chimed in, “in the history of all sports.”

Others, including Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, Bud Collins of the Boston Globe and Lewiston’s own Ted Taylor, proclaimed it a clean knockout.

Walcott’s magnificent mishandling of the knockdown gave the setting a predetermined, professional wrestling feel, perhaps contributing to public perception of a set-up.

“Fortunately I had a good seat, and I saw the short, stiff right to the jaw that crumpled Liston,” Collins wrote years later. “Certainly a legit knockdown. Walcott messed up the count, but it didn’t matter. The question is, did old Sonny, looking up at the taunting Ali, decide this was no time to rise? No one will ever know.”

Any official time of the proceedings will go forever unknown, as well. History books furnish three different figures in the range between one minute, even, and two minutes, 12 seconds. It is believed that Carroll clicked his stopwatch at least twice amid the hubbub, leaving no trace of an exact reading.

******

Liston was finished as a force in the heavyweight division, but he continued to fight for the paycheck.

“I was off balance, and he caught me with a stiff right hand,” Liston acknowledged later. “It rattled me. My head really hurt. It was a good shot.”

Four comeback fights in Sweden under the tutelage of Ingemar Johansson launched a lengthy winning streak. He suffered another knockout loss to Leotis Martin in 1969 before clobbering Chuck Wepner in 1970.

Liston’s wife, Geraldine, found him dead in their Las Vegas apartment in January 1971. Police deemed the death a suicide due to heroin overdose. His well-documented fear of needles and the fact that Geraldine had been out of town visiting relatives led others to speculate that perhaps, finally, Liston’s mob interaction was his downfall.

Ali, after briefly being imprisoned for religious objection to the Vietnam War, evolved into one of the most beloved sports figures in America and beyond. Epic wins over Joe Frazier and George Foreman solidified his place as The Greatest.

He returned to Lewiston, his speech and mobility slowed by the Parkinson’s disease linked to his years in the ring, as a ringside spectator for an Ali-Liston 30th anniversary celebration. A year later, in his most unforgettable post-retirement appearance, Ali lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

“I told you something was going to happen,” Ali hollered at ringside after his dismissal of Liston. “If I told you what it was, you wouldn’t have come to watch the fight.”

Actually, the fight came to us. And neither we, nor the world, will ever forget it.

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

Copies of  ‘Phantom Punch’ for sale

Paper copies of the 10-page, 50th anniversary print edition will be available for 50 cents at the Sun Journal offices in Lewiston.


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