Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston II
"the phantom punch"
May 25, 1965
Exactly fifteen months earlier, Muhammad Ali had delivered on his promise - one mocked by many of boxing’s foremost experts - to defeat Sonny Liston and claim the WBC and WBA heavyweight world championships. It had been messy, but Cassius Clay (as he was then known) was the new heavyweight champion of the world.
The press went nuts. Until this point, the boxing media considered Ali’s trademark style - hands down, leaning back, showboating - as critical flaws. They were certain that Liston, a worthy champion if not a popular one, would expose these flaws, and all of America waited expectantly for the hated braggart to fall. Instead, Ali practically steamrolled Liston, a man so terrifying that many top contenders refused to face him for fear of permanent damage. But the fight - the mysterious substance that blinded Ali in the fourth round, the injury that ended the fight after the sixth, and Liston’s incredibly poor conditioning (Liston himself expected an early knockout and neglected his training) - was so controversial that the WBC ordered a rematch.
What followed was a series of events as ludicrous as the fights themselves. The WBA’s rules prohibited immediate rematches, so when Ali chose to comply with the Council, the Association stripped him of his title. Three days before the scheduled rematch, Ali underwent emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia. The fight would be postponed six months. Suddenly the city of Boston refused to host the rescheduled match, claiming that the proper paperwork was not in order. The fight was moved to a remote location in Maine to preserve the promoters’ closed-circuit TV contracts. As for Ali, he did no mocking rapping and made no boorish comments. He was uncharacteristically sober, and not because winning the championship had matured him. Four days earlier, his former friend and mentor, Malcolm X, had been assassinated by members of Ali’s own Nation of Islam…
Tensions had risen between Malcolm X and the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, over Muhammad’s affairs with his secretaries and his sudden turnaround opinion on Clay. Before the Liston bout, Muhammad had decried Cassius as a disgrace to the nation of Islam, a profiteer of a filthy profession, but after his victory, he reversed direction and praised Clay unceasingly. He even bent the rules of the Nation to give Clay the name of “Muhammad Ali”; members of the Nation were supposed to bear the surname “X” until founder Wallace Fard Muhammad returned from his voyage.
Malcolm came to view his superior as a hypocrite and became increasingly dissatisfied with the rigid rules of the Nation’s order, including Muhammad’s refusal to allow Malcolm to work with other civil rights leaders. Both before and after his public break from the Nation of Islam in March 1964, death threats and assassination attempts were made on his life by members of the Nation. Malcolm, who converted to Sunni Islam soon after his break with the Nation, decided to embark on the Hajj - a pilgrimage to Mecca required of every able Muslim. The heat did not die down while he was away. His house was seized and burned by the Nation.
Both Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad asked Muhammad Ali to take their side in the feud. Ali was torn. Malcolm had led him to Allah and had been a dear friend to him, but Elijah was the central figure of his religion, the man who had given him his name. He could not choose until he saw Malcolm in his new Muslim garb, wielding a staff and looking suspiciously like a prophet. He decided it was a slap in Elijah Muhammad’s face; when Malcolm went to greet his old friend, Ali turned his back, making his break with Malcolm public. Ali would later call it “one of the mistakes I regret most in my life.”
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot by three gunmen while preparing for a speech. He would not survive the twenty-one bullet wounds he suffered. The crowd seized and beat his murderers; all three were members of the Nation. All were convicted of murder.
Four days later, Muhammad Ali faced Sonny Liston for the second and final time. The atmosphere was tense. Many believed that Ali’s life was in danger, suspecting that Malcolm’s followers might attempt to assassinate the Nation’s highest-profile member in retaliation. Liston’s camp claimed that Liston had received a death threat from the Nation. Security was pumped to unprecedented levels despite a small turnout of 2,432 (out of an equally-small 3,700 potential seats). Those few thousands were to witness one of the most controversial fights in boxing history.
Midway through the first round, Ali danced and shifted to the right, baiting Liston to throw a punch. When Sonny jabbed at his off-center target, Ali switched directions, slipped suddenly to the left and countered with a short overhand right. Liston went down instantly - too instantly. Ali stood screaming “get up and fight, sucker!” over his downed target and later asked his entourage if he’d actually hit Liston. Liston made a half-hearted attempt to rise and hobbled back to the ground while referee (and former heavyweight champion) Jersey Joe Walcott attempted to corral Ali to a neutral corner so the count could begin. Liston rose to his feet long after ten seconds had passed, but Walcott hadn’t gotten around to counting. Walcott motioned for the fighters to resume boxing, and Liston ate four unanswered punches before Nat Fleischer, publisher of The Ring magazine, climbed unsolicited into the ring and called off the contest, “informing” the former champion that Liston has been knocked out. Jersey Joe bowed to the intruder’s expertise and ruled the fight over.
In fact, Walcott had been correct in his ruling. Before the count could begin, the scoring fighter must return to his neutral corner, preventing him from pouncing upon his injured opponent as soon as he regained his feet. The rule was the source of controversy in the famous “Long Count” between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney and by 1965 had been in effect for forty years. By showboating over his opponent, Ali had given up his knockout victory. But this was not to be the only source of controversy in the fight - not by a long shot. Speculation abounded that Liston had thrown the fight.
The punch that put Liston down - shown topmost - was not a hard punch. It was a chopping overhand delivered as a counter to a hard jab (Liston is theorized by many to have been a left-handed orthodox fighter). The press called it “the phantom punch” because many spectators missed it - it was that fast. While it might have been enough to put ordinary fighters down, Liston was renowned for his iron jaw. He’d been pummeled by Ali in their first outing, but he’d never been down despite his much poorer conditioning. Adding to the controversy was Liston’s rise. In plain speech, it looked fake. Liston was a hell of a fighter, but he was no actor. Ali may have believed him, but Sonny couldn’t convince me.
Why would Liston throw the fight? Did he bet against himself to pay his drinking and gambling debts? His wife denied it, even after his death. Did the Mafia demand it? Or, most likely, did Liston fear retaliation from the Nation of Islam in the immediate aftermath of Malcolm X’s murder?
Sports photographer Neil Leifer, standing at ringside, captured the moment in one of the most famous images in Western culture (bottom): Ali standing triumphant over Liston, fist raised, shadow-eyed, looking like a very wrathful god. Today, almost fifty years removed from that fateful night, the image of the fight is hazily remembered as an early demonstration of Ali’s greatness. Few see it for what it is: a scar on the face of the sport. The darkness in Ali’s eyes is the long shadow of the racist, genocidal Nation of Islam. Fearing for his life, Liston - a known servant of the Mafia - took a dive.