MANY people claim that both Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston heavyweight title fights were undeniably fixed. Others still are totally convinced, without a shadow of doubt, that even if the first fight was legit, the second fight’s validity is nothing but questionable. There are not, however, too many boxing fans/experts/know-it-alls who are happy to accept that the two encounters were actually both on the level.
Things just do not sit right with a good many experts and fans alike with regards to the way Liston, who beforehand was thought of as practically unbeatable, meekly quit in bout number one, and then went down as though pole-axed in fight number two – and this from a punch that many never even saw. While most of those who did see it, and who were then and are now satisfied, when viewing the fight again on tape, that a blow did indeed land – profess how the shot had no way near enough force behind it for it to do what it did to the awesomely strong Liston.
But while one can fully understand the questions that these two fights have produced, there are those who believe both fights were in fact completely genuine.
As for fight number one, Sonny’s own recollections of the action should give a big indication of how the fight was real. He expressed his shock and surprise aptly when he uttered how he [Ali] “wasn’t the guy I was supposed to fight, that guy could punch!” And bear in mind the condition Liston’s face was in when he said those words – he was chopped to pieces, especially around the eyes.
The main reason people had, and still have, trouble with the fight’s ending, was due to Liston remaining firmly on his stool prior to the bout’s termination.
The fact that he quit with what he later claimed was an injured shoulder satisfied no-one, and immediately there were whispers – soon to be deafening roars – that expressed the belief that Liston went into the tank. The reason he did so, they claim, is because he was under orders from his mob controllers, who shortly after the fight made a huge amount of money in betting on the massive 7/1 underdog, Ali.
When one looks at the facts, however, this notion fails to hold up. Firstly, we can all see the punishment Liston took in the fight – both during a viewing of the action (and just imagine how rife speculation/conspiracy theories would be today had there been no film of this fight to study) and then later by looking at stills of the ageing fighter’s battered face. And as far as a huge gambling coup pulled off by the mob goes, the facts show that NO strange amounts of money were placed on Clay, as he was known then, at any time.
What really happened is this: Sonny had trained with all the intensity of a man expecting an easy one-round blowout against the young and inexperienced loudmouth he felt was in fact scared to death of him. But the guy he fought was both physically bigger than Liston had figured and he was also incredibly fast and hard to hit. And he could also punch with authority, as Sonny himself later admitted was the case.
These are the reasons Liston lost, not some fixed-fight conspiracy. And on one final point. If Liston went into the fight knowing full well he was going to lose as arranged, as ordered (possibly at gunpoint) then why, oh why would he throw everything he had in an all too obviously real attempt to get Clay out of there in the famous round when the young challenger was having serious trouble seeing?
Clay was blinded by something, perhaps something sinisterly and purposely put on Liston’s gloves, perhaps something that was administered to the champ’s face to treat his cuts and had then innocently brushed onto his glove or gloves as a result of the flowing sweat (as Angelo Dundee always said he felt was the case, not all-out cheating). Whatever the case, the fact that Liston came out like a wild man as he at last saw a chance of getting to the super-fast Clay simply does not jive with a man who is participating in a fight he has been ordered (possibly at gunpoint) to lose.
Fight number one was on the level.
As for fight number two, people have more trouble with the rematch than the first encounter. No less a respected figure than the legendary broadcaster Don Dunphy, who famously said, “if that’s a punch, I’ll eat it!” upon viewing the rematch on tape for a documentary, claimed wholeheartedly that the fight’s KO was bogus. And, admittedly, when one watches the tape of the knockout, it doesn’t look like it’s such a hard punch that Liston gets hit with. The punch does land though – Ali’s pectoral muscles clearly flex as he fires in the right hand to Liston’s head. And Sonny’s head can be seen to noticeably drop. He was definitely hit, of that there is no doubt. But, was the punch hard enough to have dropped Liston?
Dundee, Ali’s long time corner-man, believed the punch hit Sonny on the temple. Any boxer will tell you how messed up your equilibrium can become if you are hit with a shot to the temple. Instant dizziness and weakened legs are the order of the day. This is exactly what Liston experienced at the very moment Ali caught him coming in. The fact that Sonny was charging forward assisted the force of the punch. As a result there is the combined body weight of the two men crashing into Liston’s head. And on the weakest point there is – smack, bang on the temple (“there are a lot of nerves there, the doc can tell you that,” said Archie Moore when appearing on the documentary ‘The 15 Greatest Rounds in Boxing History’).
You can actually see Sonny’s foot being lifted off the canvas, such is the effect of the blow. And then he falls to the canvas. Liston then rolled around on the canvas in a none too convincing-looking reaction to a KO blow (this “act” by Sonny helping to convince many he was never really hurt). The former champion does make it to his feet though, only for the referee, former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott to stop the fight.
Was Liston really stunned, all but blasted out? Liston had, reports say, worked like never before for the rematch with Ali, getting his ageing body into fine shape. But then, due to a hernia op needed by Ali, the fight was postponed for many months. Has Liston lost all desire – and with it the ability/willingness to take a hard, sharp, unseen blow to the noggin?
We will of course never know for sure, but as Angelo Dundee once said, controversy is dynamite as it makes people want to see some more. To this day – some 53 years after the fights took place – the controversy the two Ali vs. Liston fights produced is the very kind the late, great trainer and cornerman was talking about.
As such, people will forever want to see more. More than is actually there.