Just how controversial was this particular clash for the heavyweight championship of the world? Let us count the ways. First, there was the fact that its prelude, Clay vs Liston I, had inspired more than its share of controversy all on its own as the defending champ, an overwhelming betting favorite, quit on his stool at the end of round six, this after his corner likely tried to sabotage the bout by putting liniment on Sonny’s gloves which got into Clay’s eyes and rendered the challenger blind for much of round five.
Then there was the fact that the boxer who defeated the seemingly unbeatable Liston in February of ’64 had since become one of the most maligned, divisive and, yes, controversial figures in all of America. After winning the heavyweight title, Cassius Clay announced his allegiance to the Black Muslim cult and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, before changing his name to Muhammad Ali.
After much contractual wrangling stemming from the fact that an immediate rematch only added to the suspicions swirling around the first bout, a return was eventually set for November in Boston. But just days before the match, Ali suffered a hernia which necessitated surgery. In the meantime, a bitter and public quarrel was unfolding between the leader of the Black Muslims and prominent former follower Malcolm X, one which forced the new champion to choose sides. Ali remained loyal to leader Elijah and on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. Speculation ensued that Ali would be the target of retaliation, a threat taken seriously enough that the FBI elected to guard Ali around the clock with a squad of armed officers.
Organizers of the rematch settled on the unlikely locale of Lewiston, Maine, but the fight itself only led to more controversy. The atmosphere of tension and violence surrounding the event was blamed for a paltry crowd of some 2500 fans at Maine’s first (and last) heavyweight championship match, and when Liston collapsed midway through round one, almost no one saw the blow that put him there; the clout that decided the contest would soon come to be known as “The Phantom Punch.”
With Liston on the canvas, Ali shouted at him to rise before circling the ring in a manic victory dance. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott, preoccupied with trying to corral Ali, failed to communicate with the timekeeper and thus never administered a count. A seemingly disoriented Liston climbed to his knees but then collapsed again, before eventually getting to his feet and attempting to resume the fight. Walcott was then informed that Liston had indeed been on the canvas for more than ten seconds and he finally halted the match and declared Ali the winner.
Ever since theories have abounded as to what exactly transpired. Films show that Ali did connect with a chopping counter right hand to the side of Liston’s head — he later dubbed it his “Anchor Punch” — and the challenger then toppled forward before rolling onto his back. But while a punch did land and appeared to precipitate a flash knockdown, the blow hardly seemed powerful enough to incapacitate the durable Liston. Indeed, Sonny later stated to more than one writer that the reason he didn’t get to his feet was because 1. Ali was hovering over him, and 2. he didn’t hear a count. But his swooning after getting to his knees suggests that either he was legitimately dazed and confused, or he decided “To hell with it” and quit.
Some speculated Liston wanted an early exit for fear of being killed by an errant bullet if a follower of Malcolm X tried to assassinate Ali. Others concluded the fight had to be fixed, though it’s difficult to imagine a more clumsy way to execute a dive. And if that was Liston’s intention, why would he get up and then try to resume fighting? To this day some believe Liston, an ex-con and former mob enforcer, threw both fights with Ali, though hard evidence to bolster that idea has never surfaced. The bottom line is the mysterious and bizarre Ali vs Liston rematch has never not been controversial in all the years since, and it will forever stand as a surreal episode of infinite weirdness, indeed, the most controversial match in the long history of the prize ring.
The bottom line is we will never know for certain the true story of Ali vs Liston II. But if many feel they are on solid ground when they assert that there’s no way that the seemingly innocuous “Phantom Punch” could have upset the tough Liston’s equilibrium, I feel equally confident in stating that this bizarre fight is not so much about a boxer executing a dive, as it is about an aging pugilist, intimidated by the daunting task of facing an opponent who had already inflicted a humbling and painful defeat, finding himself on the canvas and deciding he was done for the night. — Robert Portis