May 25, 1965 — Muhammad Ali, still mostly known at the time as Cassius Clay, on this day landed a blow on the jaw of his opponent, Sonny Liston, that became known as “the phantom punch” – so called because few people at the event saw it.
The result was a highly controversial first-round knock-out, but official confirmation of Ali’s status as heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
The scheduled 15-round bout ended after 2 minutes and 12 seconds. It followed their first controversial fight in February, 1964, when Liston, as world champion, lost his crown by sitting on his stool and refusing to come out for the seventh round. It was said later that he had a torn shoulder muscle.
Before the 1964 fight few believed that 22-year-old Clay had any chance against the formidable champion with his menacing demeanor and vicious punching power.
Liston claimed to be 32 at the time of the bout, but many believed that his true age was closer to 40, perhaps even older. He had won the crown in 1962 when he knocked out Floyd Patterson after two minutes, marking the first time ever that a reigning heavyweight champion had been counted out in the first round.
Charles “Sonny” Liston was born in Arkansas sometime between 1929 and 1932 – nobody knows for sure. He was the 24th of 25 children fathered by an abusive alcoholic tenant farmer. As he grew up, Liston was arrested more than 20 times and learnt to box while serving time in prison for armed robbery. Paroled in 1952, he became a professional fighter in 1953.
Known as “The Bear,” he would go on to post a career record of 50 wins with 39 knockouts and only four defeats.
Few believed that the upstart Clay could beat Liston when they first met in 1964. In a poll of sportswriters before the fight, 43 of 46 predicted Liston would win. None of them considered for a moment that the almost invincible boxing machine that was Liston would retire hurt after six rounds.
If that defeat was controversial it was totally eclipsed by the first-round knockout of Liston in the return match at Lewiston, Maine, on 25 May 1965. It all happened so quickly that few of the spectators saw the knock-out punch and looked in disbelief as Liston lay stretched out on the canvas, an exultant and jeering Muhammad Ali towering over him.
Afterwards, many claimed that Liston had thrown the fight and taken a dive, perhaps following orders from the criminal gangs with which he was known to be associated. Ali insisted that his opponent had fallen to a special “anchor punch” that he had developed.
After the knockdown, instead of retreating to a neutral corner and allowing referee Joe Walcott to begin his count, the frantic champion stood over Liston shouting: "Get up and fight, sucker!" Walcott repeatedly pushed and shoved Ali away from the fallen challenger. Absorbed in this frustrating effort, Walcott never did start a count.
Interviewed after the fight, Liston said: "I didn't think he could hit that hard. But I couldn't pick up the count. I think I could have continued if I had picked up the count."
Referee Walcott said: "It didn't make any difference if I counted or not. I could have counted to 24. Liston was in a dream world and the only thing that could have happened was that he'd be seriously hurt."
Tex Maule, a writer with the magazine Sports Illustrated, watched from the ringside and said that the punch was hardly a phantom, but instead a perfectly timed blow that legitimately rocked the former champion.
He wrote that “the knockout punch was thrown with the amazing speed that differentiates Clay [as he was still called then by most in the media] from any other heavyweight. He leaned away from one of Liston's ponderous, pawing left jabs, planted his left foot solidly and whipped his right hand over Liston's left arm and into the side of Liston's jaw.
“The blow had so much force it lifted Liston's left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas. It was also powerful enough to drop him instantly — first to his hands and knees and then over on his back. More than 17 seconds elapsed before Liston could flounder to his feet, still only partly conscious.
“Even some 30 seconds later, when the referee finally stopped the fight after a wild flurry of punches by the almost-hysterical Clay, Liston was staggering drunkenly and had to be led to his corner by his trainer."
Maule added: “Clay knocked out big Sonny Liston with a punch so marvellously fast that almost no one believed in it — but it was hard and true."
Liston made a comeback in 1966 and in 1968 won 11 consecutive fights by knock-out. However, in 1971 he was found dead by his wife at their Nevada home. Officially, he died of lung congestion and heart failure, although there was evidence of heroin abuse.
Muhammad Ali, who became perhaps the most celebrated sports figure of the 20th century and hailed as one of the greatest boxers of all time was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984. Over the next few years he developed a tremor and speech became increasingly difficult. In 2016 he was taken to hospital with respiratory problems, his condition complicated by advanced Parkinson's. He died the next day, aged 74.
Published: April 23, 2019