The eyes of the sports world — trained two generations ago never to miss a bout for the one, the only, heavyweight championship — were fixed upon Lewiston shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 25, 1965.

If those eyes didn’t blink, perhaps they saw the short, stabbing right hand of Muhammad Ali connecting with the temple of Sonny Liston, leaving a bear of a man sprawled across the canvas at the heart of Central Maine Youth Center.

Should those eyes have belonged to someone who shelled out the equivalent of a week’s pay or more for a ringside seat, they saw a sham, a travesty and a comedy of errors.

In any case, peepers were pointed at a mill town and a hockey arena far from the haunts we associate with unforgettable or ignominious moments in athletic history. That’s the juxtaposition that gripped author Rob Sneddon, and wouldn’t let go, when he first researched the infamous title fight in 2005.

“I was an Ali fan growing up in the 1970s, so when I read about his fights with Sonny Liston, I thought to myself, ‘OK, I get Las Vegas, I get Madison Square Garden, but how did we get to Lewiston, Maine?’,” Sneddon said. “When it came time for the 40th anniversary, I contacted Down East magazine and said I thought it might be an interesting story, and they said absolutely.”

Although the piece was a smash, Sneddon confided in the publishers that he felt there was more to the story than he could capture in a few glossy pages.

So they pitched the idea of a book. The result is entitled “Phantom Punch: The Story Behind Boxing Most Controversial Bout.” At 224 pages, it uses archival coverage from more than 20 publications, plus modern-day interviews, to transport the reader to that snapshot in time.

Sneddon, 56, of Somersworth, N.H., will discuss the book at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 31, in Callahan Hall at Lewiston Public Library.

His work illuminates the state, the city and its daring economic development director of the day, Sam Michael, far more generously than did the prevailing tone of the international press corps.

“I thought what he did was commendable, not contemptible,” Sneddon said. “I read a quote from Ferdie Pacheco, ‘The Fight Doctor,’ who said, ‘We were in a place that knew nothing about boxing.’ Well, Sam Michael was promoting fights before Ferdie Pacheco was born.”

In attempting to give readers a fresh look at an event that recently reaped another groundswell of coverage on its golden anniversary, Sneddon settled on three specific elements from the unlikely union of fight and venue.

First, he explored the much misunderstood history of the event’s postponement, and later banishment, from Boston Garden. It was scheduled for November of the previous year prior to Ali’s emergency surgery for a hernia suffered in training.

“The first time around, whenever I asked that question, the answer was always, ‘It’s a long story,’ or, ‘Long story short.’ I would say, ‘I don’t want the short version. I want the whole story.’ I couldn’t understand why it was still OK in November 1964 and wasn’t OK in May 1965,” Sneddon said.

He learned that Endicott Peabody, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts serving out the final weeks of a two-year term, was a fan of the fight coming to the commonwealth. His successor, Republican John Volpe, who took the oath of office in January, was not.

Those concerns likely were exacerbated by the wild rumors surrounding both combatants, from Liston’s alleged connections to gambling and the mob to threats against Ali as a result of his conversion to the Muslim faith.

“It was a new administration that wanted nothing to do with it,” Sneddon said. “One of the ways Maine gets short shrift is that it gets oversimplified. ‘Maine got the fight because nobody else wanted it.’ That’s not really true.”

The truth was embodied in the second focus of Sneddon’s book: Michael, whose involvement in boxing began in Lowell, Mass., in the 1920s. The writer described Michael’s acumen as Lewiston’s equivalent of “Cleveland naming Don King director of the chamber of commerce.”

“Other places wanted it but couldn’t clear all the political hurdles,” he added. “Sam Michael was the only person who had all the right connections in both politics and boxing to make it happen.”

Lastly, he explores the fight itself — namely the punch that Ali himself gave its famous moniker, not pejoratively, for being delivered so quickly that spectators could be no more certain they had seen it than if it were a ghost.

“The first time I ever saw a clip of the fight, I was dumbfounded. ‘What was that?’ After all the research, knowing the back story,” Sneddon said, “I can almost go frame-by-frame now. ‘OK, this is what happened here,’ or, ‘I recognize this guy at ringside, and that guy.’ It’s kind of a little mosaic with all these little pieces that you have to put together.”

Sneddon leans toward the camp that believes the knockout punch was legitimate. He pointed out that only Liston knows for sure, and he took the answer to his grave more than 40 years ago.

Guest referee Jersey Joe Walcott’s failure to direct Ali into a neutral corner, his flawed count and his initial decision to let the fight continue after Liston rose from the deck contributed to the furor that a fix was in.

The city, the state and the man who brought the fight to his adopted hometown bore the brunt of the criticism, Sneddon observed, and unfairly so.

“Walcott was the one the promoters and the two fight camps wanted, and he was the reason the fight degraded to the extent that it did,” he said. “It turned out to be a disaster, but that wasn’t Sam’s fault or Maine’s fault.”

Sneddon’s talk will be followed by a question-and-answer session. The book will be available for purchase and signing.

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The Phantom Punch at 50

Last year, we created a special section with audio, archived newspaper stories and interviews with the people who witnessed the fight. 


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