DESPITE hammering Sonny Liston so emphatically the public were not convinced by Cassius Clay. Particularly after the young braggart then changed his name to Muhammad Ali to conform with his evolving religious beliefs.
The rematch with Liston was originally set for November 1964 but Ali had to undergo emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia, forcing a postponement three days before the opening bell was due to sound.
This sequel was never destined to run smoothly.
The bout was re-scheduled for Boston, but less than three weeks before fight night, the city’s district attorney told the fighters to look elsewhere because the promoters were not licensed in Massachusetts. A youth centre in the creaking industrial city of Lewiston, Maine, somehow got the gig. Extra police were called to oversee the May 25 1965 bout when rumours persisted that extreme supporters of Malcolm X, who had been assassinated three months previously, intended to kill Ali while he was in the ring.
As a consequence of the escalating chaos, just 2,434 attended (of which 1,510 were complimentary tickets) making it the smallest ever audience for a heavyweight title fight. Some were amused, others disgusted, when Canadian singer Robert Goulet forgot the words to the national anthem.
The challenger, hoping to become only the second man in history to regain the crown, pointed towards Ali beforehand and said, “This time I am going to knock you out.”
Oddsmakers again sided with the slugger, declaring him a 6-to-5 favourite to restore his pride.
Novice in charge
Former world heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott, a former heavyweight champion of great standing, was handed the job as referee. The decision to appoint such an inexperienced official was destined for infamy. But for the first 90 seconds, as everything ran smoothly, Walcott had nothing to do.
And then Liston made a play. He stepped in with a delicate jab. Ali responded with a short chopping right that briefly nestled, rather innocuously, on Liston’s head. The challenger fell to the floor, initially on all fours, before rolling on his back. He made no attempt to rise, despite Ali standing over him and screaming at him to do so. Walcott tried to get the irate champion to a neutral corner, and as a result, failed to pick up timekeeper Francis McDonough’s count. By the time he was alerted to the fact that Liston had been on the canvas for more than 10 seconds, the heavyweights were behind him, exchanging blows. Walcott ran back, separated the fighters, and raised Ali’s hand.
Even the announcement of the result was bodged. Although the crowd were told the official time was one-minute, it actually lasted two minutes and 12 seconds.
The paltry crowd booed. Bewilderment ruled.
The fix is in
Cries of ‘fix’ could be heard throughout the arena. Without doubt, it was a suspicious finish. Timekeeper McDonough, blamed Ali for the confusion.
“If that bum Clay had gone to neutral corner instead of running around like a maniac all the trouble would have been avoided,” he said after claiming that Walcott did not look at him once when Liston was on the floor. But McDonough made little effort to make his count heard, failing to bang the canvas or motion a count with his fingers.
Walcott, who was clearly ill-equipped for the job, pledged his innocence.
“I did my job,” Jersey Joe said. “He [Ali] looked like a man in a different world. I didn’t know what he might do. I thought he might stomp him or pick him up and belt him again.”
The loser was also happy to deflect any responsibility for the farcical encounter.
“It wasn’t that hard a punch, but it partially caught me off-balance and when I got knocked down, I got mixed up because the referee never gave me a count,” Liston explained to The New York Times. “I was listening for a count. That’s the first thing you do, but I never heard a count because Clay never went to a neutral corner.”
The phantom punch
Debate raged about the punch that ended matters. Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo, an absurdly durable contender whose chin could withstand a speeding train, was ringside and claimed Liston threw the fight.
“His eyes were darting from side-to-side,” he said. “When a fighter is hurt his eyes roll up.” However, Dr. Carroll L. Witten, former Kentucky State Boxing Commissioner, responded: “Chuvalo is wrong. The side-to-side movement of eyes is commonly associated with temporary unconsciousness and is one of the first things you look for. It is called nystagmus.”
World light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres also validated the finishing blow, calling it a “perfect punch” and Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated wrote, “The blow had so much force it lifted Liston’s left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas.”
But only a few were convinced. Commentator Don Dunphy said: “If that was a punch, I’ll eat it,” he said. “Here was a guy who was in prison and the guards use to beat him over the head with clubs and couldn’t knock him down.”
In 1967, three years before his equally mysterious death, Liston allegedly told Sports Illustrated journalist Mark Kram that he took a dive over fears he might get shot by a bullet aimed for Ali.
The only thing that’s certain, all these years later, is that the conundrum of the phantom punch will never be solved.