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The Phantom Punch Hits 50: Ali, Liston & Boxing's Most Controversial Fight Ever

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMay 25, 2015

AP Images

In the immediate aftermath, as chaos reigned, the small crowd of just over 4,000 fight fans in Lewiston, Maine, let their voices be heard. The most famous punch in boxing history had just secured Muhammad Ali's claim to the heavyweight championship, stopping Sonny Liston in the first round—at least in the official narrative.

Fans in the building, the most paltry crowd ever to witness a title fight in the modern era, were not convinced.

Cries of "fake" and "fix" echoed through the Central Maine Youth Center, and even Ali wasn't sure quite what to make of his own handiwork. After screaming at the press and fans at ringside, the champion told announcer Steve Ellis that it had been either a left hook or a right cross that did the trick.

"I would like to see the video tape," he asked. "If you have it."

No one was sure exactly what happened, even with the benefit of the era's rudimentary slow-motion replay. So began the legend of the "Phantom Punch," the right hand that felled the Big Bear, Sonny Liston. Or, alternately, a punch that hit nothing but air and sullied boxing's already dark reputation forever.

It's a debate that continues to this day, one that will likely continue as long as men fight in a ring.

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No matter how many times you stare at the tape, shot from multiple cameras on May 25, 1965, there is no clear answer. Boxing is supposed to be binary. One man wins; the other man loses. This fight is the exception. Ambiguity, not certainty, prevails.

As Allen Barra explained in the New York Times on the eve of the fight's 35th anniversary, video analysis provides little concrete evidence to support either side:

The broadcast tape provides no help; the cameras were placed in both fighters' corners, in such a way that the punching action was never clearly seen unless both men were broadside to one of the lenses. The film is only marginally better. It was shot from above the ring and from an angle that completely obscures Ali's right hand and the left side of Liston's jaw as the knockout punch was delivered. Both for what it does and doesn't reveal, this has become boxing's Zapruder film.

The case against a fix starts with the fight's absurd ending. Would a fixed bout really culminate in such a farcical manner?

The fight started simply enough, with Ali backpedaling away from a stalking, persistent Liston, pure poetry in motion. Fewer than 10 punches landed and only one mattered: a single right hand.

"I saw that punch and it couldn't have crushed a grape," sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, sitting ringside, said on ABC's Wide World of Sports. Yet down went Liston for just the second time in his career—odd, considering Ali would never be known for his one-punch power. But it was nothing compared to the weirdness to follow.

Associated Press

"Liston collapsed slowly, like a building, piece by piece, rolling onto his back, then flat on his stomach, his face pressed against the canvas," Robert Lipsyte wrote in the New York Times the next day, describing what Liston biographer Nick Tosches believed was a fight not quite on the level.

"The halting, unnatural, and awkward choreography of a man who is performing a fall rather than the sundering spontaneity of a man knocked down unawares," Tosches wrote. "The fight was not merely a fix...it was a flaunted fix."

Ali's celebration was immediate and iconic—the image of the champ, standing over his opponent yelling, "Get up and fight, sucka," captured by Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leiferresonates. Because of Ali's excited celebration, however, the referee, a former heavyweight kingpin named "Jersey" Joe Walcott, never even started his count, too busy trying to corral the ebullient champion.

Liston, whom national sports columnist Red Smith compared to a "beached whale," seemed unsure of what to do. He nearly made it to his feet, then gently lay back down on the mat as Ali circled him with his hands in the air, Walcott in hot pursuit. 

"It was a sneaky punch—a right hand I only partly saw," Liston told reporters after the fight. "I didn't want to jump right up. The referee never started the count. I didn't know when to get up."

x/Associated Press

The referee finally got Ali to a corner, if not a neutral one, and Liston lumbered to his feet. 

"I was down but not hurt, but I looked up and saw Ali standing over me,Liston would say two years later, per author Thomas Hauser in Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. "You know Ali is a nut. You can tell what a normal man is going to do, but you can't tell what a nut is going to do, and Ali is a nut."

With the referee temporarily in charge, the fight began anew, Ali looking immediately for the kill. Walcott, unbelievably, then left the two fighters to their business, turning his back on the action to walk across the ring, where he saw Ring Magazine publisher Nat Fleischer yelling at him, arms waving. 

"He's out. He's out," Fleischer told him, per the St. Petersburg Independent's Milton Gross, indicating Liston had been on the mat for more than 10 seconds. Though the journalist had no official authority over the match, Walcott felt obligated to act on this information, rushing across the ring and stopping the fight. 

Chuvalo had his shot at Ali in 1972
Chuvalo had his shot at Ali in 1972Anonymous/Associated Press

"Bedlam, chaos and confusion." That's how the legendary Howard Cosell described the scene on ABC, confusion reigning. Future Ali challenger George Chuvalo, set to be Liston's first opponent if he had won, charged into the ring. He shoved Ali and loudly decried the fight was fixed.

"His eyes were darting from side to side like this," he told Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule after the fight. "When a fighter is hurt his eyes roll up."

It was a finish that infuriated much of the crowd, not just Chuvalo—especially in the wake of the controversial first bout between the two men that saw Liston, the heavy favorite, quit on his stool in the midst of a tough fight.

The idea a title fight could be a fix was believable, in part, because of Liston's reputation. He was, as ESPN's Mike Puma explained, infamous in a sport that most considered dirty:

Liston had ties to organized crime. In 1952, after serving two years in prison, he was paroled to a team of boxing handlers with ties to John Vitale, a St. Louis underworld figure. Six years later, Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, top Mafia figures in the Northeast, became the majority owner of Liston's contract. Carbo was later indicted on conspiracy, multiple counts of undercover management of prizefighters and unlicensed matchmaking. Liston fought 12 fights under their control.

Liston's questionable character was at the forefront of most observers' minds as the fight unfolded, but it was hardly the only controversy plaguing the bout. The day after winning the title in the first fight, Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay, officially announced he was joining the Nation of Islam. 

Ali with Malcolm X
Ali with Malcolm XUncredited/Associated Press

Though it was hardly a surprise to boxing writers who had spotted Malcolm X around Ali's camp in the weeks leading up to the fight, it shocked mainstream America. Confusion turned to outrage when Clay abandoned his given name, calling it his "slave name," in favor of a name chosen by the Nation's leader, Elijah Muhammad: Muhammad Ali.

To suggest the boxing world was in an uproar is an understatement of epic proportions.

The old guard sports writers were quick on the draw, with the dean of boxing writers, Jimmy Cannon, telling readers of the New York Journal American (h/t Howard Bingham in Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America): "The fight racket since its rotten beginnings has been the red light district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of hate. ... I pity Clay and abhor what he represents."

While attending a fight at Madison Square Garden on March 20, 1964, Harry Markson, the Garden's boxing boss, refused to use Ali's new name. When the champion stormed out of the arena rather than be introduced as Cassius Clay, boos showered him. The World Boxing Association went as far as stripping Ali of world-title recognition.

Widespread criticism met Ali's conversion outside of boxing circles as well. Even Dr. Martin Luther King addressed the issue, telling the press: "When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims...he became a champion of racial segregation. And that's what we are fighting against."

As this battle raged in the mainstream, internal strife also plagued the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad split, with Ali choosing to stand with Elijah. When Malcolm was assassinated on February 21, 1965, it was feared Ali would be a target for those looking for payback.

"There were rumors Ali was going to be killed, maybe even in the ring, in retaliation," writer Jerry Izenberg told Ali's biographer, Thomas Hauser. "A lot of it was hysteria fueled by the press, but even so, the fear was there. Nation of Islam bodyguards were everywhere."

Every major player in boxing, from New York to Nevada, passed on the boutConsidering the two wildly unpopular fighters, the fear of a fix and the looming violence, it was little wonder no one wanted the fight. Originally scheduled for Boston, it was moved less than three weeks out when Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne sought an injunction to stop the contest.

The state of Maine had no such moral compunctions, so the fight ended up in little Lewiston. But few people forgot just how the most prestigious championship in sports found itself up for grabs in what boxing historian Nigel Collins called "a drab textile center."

Collins sides firmly with those who believe the fix was in. The question for Liston, he ponders in his book Boxing Babylon, is why: "The answer is fear. During training, he had been visited by a couple of tough guys claiming to be representing the Black Muslims. Their message was brutally simple: if Liston regained the title there would be a bullet waiting for him."

Liston's cornerman, Ted King, confirms this account, saying that Black Muslims found the former champion in Maine and told him, in unambiguous terms, to take a dive, per Sports Illustrated's William Nack.

"You get killed if you win."

Maule posited the simpler explanation immediately after the fight in Sports Illustrated: Whether he actually learned the flicking punch from 1930s comic actor Stepin Fetchit, as he claimed after the bout, the finish was the result of Ali's mastery. The magazine broke down the finish frame by frame and dismissed the controversy outright:

It is unfortunate for Clay that the end came so abruptly and amid so much confusion. During the brief time he was in action in this fight, he showed himself a more mature, stronger and smoother fighter than the Clay who had whipped Liston 15 months before. ... The few blows Liston managed to land reached Clay as he moved easily away, and all their sting was drawn. Clay may be now—and certainly can be in time—the best heavyweight ever.

Considering what was to come, and Ali's status as the greatest heavyweight of all time, this seems more and more likely with each passing year. But even Ali, great as he was, isn't more powerful than a legend. People love conspiracy theories—and the Phantom Punch is one that will never die.

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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