Books: Ali, Liston, And “The Phantom Punch”

The Phantom Punch: The story Behind Boxing’s Most Controversial Bout

By Rob Sneddon

Down East Books

Muhammad Ali’s fight with Sonny Liston on May 25, 1965 is one of the most remarkable fights in boxing history.

Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won the fight halfway through the first round when he knocked Liston to the ground with a vicious punch.

Ali’s right hook was so fast that many spectators never saw it, and and it was quickly dubbed the Phantom Punch because of that.

Rumors began to swirl that Liston threw the fight, as he did in his first fight with Clay in Miami Beach in February 1964.

Author Rob Sneddon does an amazing job of looking at the events leading up to the second Clay-Liston bout, which confirmed Ali’s place as Heavyweight Champion.

Sneddon writes of Ali heading into his first fight with Liston, “Ali has been regarded as ‘The Greatest’ for so long that it’s hard to conceive of a time when he wasn’t even considered a true contender. But that was the case before his first fight with Sonny Liston. at Miami Beach Convention Hall, February 25, 1964. Liston was generally regarded as invincible, with good reason. At the time some ‘heavyweights’ were less than six feet tall and weighed as little as 175 pounds –  not even the size of an average major league shortstop today. Liston stood 6′ 1″ and had an ideal fighting weight of around 212 pounds. Just as important was how his height and weight were proportioned. Liston had oxlike shoulders. His fists were fifteen inches around – so large that he needed custom-made gloves. His punches were like blows from a jackhammer, striking with maximum force every time. And he delivered them without remorse.”

Sneddon wrote of the lead-up to the first fight in 1964, “Clay, just twenty-two, had insinuated himself into the heavyweight title picture as much through his antics as his fight acumen. He had earned the nickname the ‘Louisville Lip’ for his boastful ways 9he was already proclaiming himself as ‘the greatest’) and a bit of show-biz shtick: predicting in rhyme the round in which he would KO his opponent. Few boxing experts took him seriously. The odds were the same as they were for the second Liston-(Floyd) Patterson fight, 7-1.

“In the days leading up to the fight Clay tormented Liston mercilessly. Everyone could see that he was putting on an act. The class clown was tweaking the class bully. But nearly everyone – including Sonny Liston – missed the point. Most observers concluded that Clay’s brashness was an overcompensation. At the weigh-in – where Clay pushed his outlandishness to new heights – the Miami Beach Boxing Commission’s chief physician, Dr. Alexander Robbins, said, ‘This is a a man who is scared to death. He is living in mortal fear.’

“Liston clearly believed that. He’d become so accustomed to knocking out his opponents without breaking a sweat that he had barely trained for the Clay fight. Which is just what Clay had hoped he would do. Liston expected to win an easy sprint. Instead, Clay made him run a grinding marathon.”

There were rumors that a fix was in that let Clay win the fight, and Sneddon writes of that, “Many people suspected a fix. This was a backhanded show of respect for Liston. How could America’s most intimidating ex-con get his ass kicked by a slapstick comedian? But it was also a product of the zeitgeist. Stories of Liston’s criminal past, and of congressional investigations into boxing’s sordid power structure, had dominated fight coverage for years. A deep cynicism had taken hold, similar to the public’s attitude toward major league baseball in the wake of the steroids era. Any fight that didn’t go according to form in the 1960s raised eyebrows, just as the performance of any baseball player who puts up outsize statistics does today.”

It took over a year for a rematch to happen, and the location for it was Lewiston, Maine, and Sneddon writes of it being a motivation for the book, as “an opportunity to explain how the fight ended up in Lewiston in the first place, a vital part of the story that’s never been fully told before.”

Sneddon says of Lewiston, “It was fitting that I would channel Rodney Dangerfield. In fight circles, Lewiston got no respect. Never mind that the city had punched well above it weight and landed a world heavyweight title fight – the smallest town to do so since Shelby, Montana hosted the Jack Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons bout on the Fourth of July in 1923.

“But Lewiston’s coup was spun from the start not as an accomplishment for the town but as a a diminishment of the fight. Even some local residents felt that way. ‘Lewiston is really nothing,’ a restaurant counterman named Ray LaCompte told the Boston Globe. ‘We’re out in the sticks. A fight like this belongs in a big town like Boston, in a big building.’

“The fight was supposed to have been in Boston, but Massachusetts politicians ran it out of town, citing many of the same vague improprieties that had plagued the Clay-Liston bout in Miami Beach. When the second fight ended in a travesty that confirmed America’s worst suspicions, Lewiston became guilty by association – the horse the fight rode in on. ‘Everybody kind of blamed it on us,” said John Michael, whose father, Sam Michael, was the local co-promoter who had brought the fight to town. ‘It was a shoot-the-messenger kind of thing.'”

There is more about Lewiston’s boxing history, the closed-circuit television system used to distribute the fight, and how hard it was to promote the fight.

“Neither fighter, as portrayed in the media, was remotely likeable. Liston was a thug. Clay was a loudmouth whose boasts were out of all proportion with his accomplishments. How was the ticket-buying public supposed to root for either of these jerks?,”  writes Sneddon.

Sneddon wrote of the lead-up to the fight and what went down, “A self-fulfilling prophecy had come to pass. All the bad prefight publicity – the Mob owned Liston, Ali was a Black Muslim, Lewiston had no business hosting a world heavyweight title fight – led the closed-circuit TV people to fret about ticket sales at theaters nationwide, which in turn led them to fan a rumor that radicals connected with Malcolm X were going to kill Ali during the fight, which may well have frightened Sonny Liston to the point where he faked being knocked out so he could escape before the bullets flew, but which looked to the fans at ringside like he was taking the anticipated dive for the Mob, which led them to immediately chant ‘Fix! Fix! Fix!’, which enraged Muhammad Ali to the point where he refused to go to a neutral corner, which caused the celebrity referee to lose control of the bout and make it appear that the whole thing was a horribly orchestrated put-up job, held in a small town that wasn’t up to the challenge of hosting a world heavyweight championship.

“So yes: The Ali-Liston bout in Lewiston had the most chaotic conclusion in heavyweight boxing history. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the outcome was contrived.”

This is a great for anyone wanting to know more about The Greatest and one of the fights that built his legend.


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