So, true confession: I dreaded our Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston project, with the same fear and anxiety that accompany a root canal or aversion therapy that involves reptiles or rodents.

Overreact much? Probably. The golden anniversary of this infamous shindig coming to Lewiston was worthy of hip-hooray and ballyhoo, of course. But there’s a diminishing returns principle involved in shouting “Extra! Extra!” every time that anniversary year ends in a zero.

The transition from 40 to 50 is especially scary, because — how can I say this delicately? — an alarming number of people who knew and remembered the most received their ceremonial 10-count in the interim. Dead men tell no tales, and as anyone who has digested the Ali-Liston story with a modicum of enthusiasm over the years is aware, the tales have grown beyond recognition over the years.

As you might have noticed by now, we survived, and I think we did OK. If you haven’t done so, please, do get a copy of Sunday’s Sun Journal or visit our special multimedia project at www.sunjournal.com/phantompunch50 and be prepared to kill some time.

Those stories? They’re new, or they’re fresh. Like the spring adjacent to Liston’s makeshift training camp of yesteryear, they don’t dry up. People come out of the woodwork and want to, need to, love to, talk about it in all its dubious glory.

You can’t name another event in Maine history with that level of staying power. I guarantee it. No, not just Lewiston history. No, not even Maine sports history. Our state has known nothing of this sort, before or since.

That’s a tribute to many things.

A) The magnitude of boxing’s heavyweight championship at the time. If you know that a Klitschko brother owns that distinction today, you’re doing well. If you know which one, you belong to an even smaller minority. In 1965, it was the only title in sports that really mattered. The thought of it being defended at our hockey rink in our town was laughably ludicrous.

B) Muhammad Ali. How many adjectives have been attached to that name over the years? Somehow, in politically volatile, too-often-hateful America, a Black Muslim who refused to go to war for the country became one of our most beloved figures. It’s a tribute to the power of the man. He is more recognizable than a hundred world leaders combined. He hasn’t spoken a word publicly in two decades and is still one of the most powerful ambassadors on the planet. And he was here in our midst. Unthinkable.

C) Complete, utter mayhem surrounding the event, before, during and after. None of this would happen today. Boston would never be selected to host a heavyweight title fight, and the paranoid whims of one man surely wouldn’t be enough to get it canceled. Even if all that did inexplicably occur, a mill town of 41,000 residents wouldn’t be the second choice. Local-yokels wouldn’t be given every significant secondary officiating job. There would be no “guest referee” of any fight not promoted by Vince McMahon.

And here’s the main thing: In a world where the nightly news and the White House press secretary lead with blanket coverage about a missing pound of air pressure in a football, we would never, ever, need to debate the veracity of Ali’s knockout punch, because it would be shoved in our face with a trillion times more force than it landed on Liston’s. There wouldn’t be a one-angle, back-to glimpse of the glancing blow, akin to the Zapruder film or Watergate tapes. Imagine if Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao had hit the deck at 1:30 of round one after we all paid $99 for the privilege of seeing it. There would be a federal investigation of 62 different camera angles in high-definition, and 24-hour coverage on 24 agenda-driven news networks.

Fifty years ago next Monday night, there was none of that. Instead, we, or our parents and grandparents, got to stew about it for the night. For a week. For a month. For a year. And like Woodstock and other seminal events of the era, the legend grew. The number of people who were “there” increased exponentially. The number of ways to have “missed” seeing the punch (hot dogs, dropped purses, bathroom breaks, etc.) grew in kind. Little sidelights, such as our perception of anthem singer Robert Goulet’s sobriety or which other celebrities were or weren’t in attendance, took on a life of their own.

There is a level of mythology attached to the fight that simply could not exist today. It was a perfect storm colliding with a most imperfect event, producing infamy that knows no limit.

Not sure what I was worried about. The finished product, like the snafu that inspired it, was one for the ages if I may so myself. My colleagues and I are pretty proud.

That being said, if I’m still around when it’s time to light the 60th candle, shoot me up with some Novocain and lock me in a cellar with the rats.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: