The "Kennedy Assassination of Boxing"

The "Kennedy Assassination of Boxing" —Ali v. Liston II, 1965

The second fight between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, on May 25, 1965, was controversial even before it took place. It wasn’t as if all the questions surrounding the first fight—held February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach—had been answered. Liston’s promotional company had a contract with Ali’s people calling for an immediate rematch in the event that Cassius Clay, as Ali had been known before fighting Liston, won the first fight. Some saw this as evidence that the first fight had been fixed, or at minimum that it lessened the incentive for Sonny to get off his stool after the sixth round, where he had surrendered the title, claiming a damaged left shoulder. The shoulder was indeed injured, but Liston’s capitulation was unprecedented in heavyweight annals—comparing it to Jess Willard’s in Toledo in 1919 was a great injustice to Willard, who had taken a savage beating. At minimum, Sonny was guilty of quitting, about as shameful a deed as any champion can commit—unless he threw the fight, which would be even worse. That’s what some alleged then and some still do today, but nothing has ever been substantiated to prove these claims.

The rematch was set for November 1964 in Boston Garden, but a few weeks beforehand, Ali suffered a hernia that required immediate surgery. (In fact, had Ali not been transported to the hospital quickly, he might have died.) The fight had to be postponed until May 1965, a major blow to the aging Liston, who had worked himself into peak condition for his comeback try. Now he would have to start over. Watching news of the postponement on television, the well-trained Liston poured himself a screwdriver.

In the interim, the long-festering war between the Nation of Islam and its great apostate, Malcolm X, finally reached its climax. Malcolm, who had formally broke with the Nation shortly after the first Clay-Liston fight, knew that his days were numbered, but he remained fearless to the end. On February 21, 1965, speaking at a rally for his new organization at the Audobon Ballroom in Upper Manhattan, Malcolm was gunned down as he stood at the podium. He was 39.

Ali, who had been close to Malcolm before the break and had then cut off the friendship on Elijah Muhammad’s orders, had made his choice and would have to live with it. Somewhere in his un-militant heart, he must have grieved the loss of a man who had meant so much to him. Years later, he reconciled with the Shabazz family, praised Malcolm as a great leader, and expressed sorrow over what had happened. “Turning my back on Malcolm,” Ali said, “was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.” 

But in early 1965, reconciliation was far in the future. With the rematch with Liston looming, Ali found himself a central focus of the assassination’s aftermath. Malcolm’s murder put police and the FBI on alert for reprisals, and Ali was now the most prominent public face of the Nation. One worry was that Malcolm’s breakaway group might try to retaliate—and who better as a target than Malcolm’s unfaithful friend, Muhammad Ali? And where better than in out-of-the way, under-resourced Lewiston, Maine, where the fight had been moved?

A city of about 40,000, most of French-Canadian extraction, Lewiston had a rich local boxing tradition but had never hosted a heavyweight championship fight and never has since. Only in boxing could an event for the championship of the sport be licensed and managed in a venue so poorly equipped to handle such things. And though fights for the heavyweight title usually command the best referees in the sport, the commission picked as referee Jersey Joe Walcott, the popular former champion who had scant experience as the third man in the ring and had never before officiated a title fight. 

The action of the fight went this way:

Ali came out and threw a right at Liston immediately, then began circling and dancing, gliding around the ring. He was more mobile than he had been in the first fight, but he wasn’t throwing punches, not even putting his jab out. He dangled his arms at his sides. Liston came after him, following him around the ring in a circle, firing the occasional left jab or right hand, most of which fell short. About a minute into the round, Ali stopped and fired a left-right combination that scored. Then he went back to floating around the ring, as Liston, looking eager but not overly so, continued to shadow him.

Liston was backing Ali toward the ropes when the champion, moving backward and with his weight on his back foot, threw a right so short and quick that few saw it. The punch caught Liston coming in. His knees buckled and he dropped to the canvas as Ali missed a follow-up left hook. Liston first went down on his haunches and then rolled over on to his back. The small crowd gasped. What had happened?

Ali wondered, too, and his perplexity took the form of a rage: the famous photo shows an infuriated Ali, his right fist cocked, standing over Liston, looking down at the former intimidator with disgust and beckoning him to get up. The referee, Joe Walcott, rushed to pull Ali away and direct him to a neutral corner, but Ali kept pulling away from Walcott and standing over Liston, berating him. Walcott seemed to have gotten Ali away, but then Ali returned, doing a kind of war dance around the ring, his arms raised above his head. Finally Walcott succeeded in getting Ali to follow the rules.

During all of this, Liston remained on the floor. He had gone down with his gloves touching the canvas, then flopped onto his back, then righted himself to one knee, then flopped over again. A palpable groan sounded through the house when Liston rolled over the second time. Finally, he got himself to his feet, just as Ali was approaching again, held back by Walcott. Liston had not received a count. The chaos perpetrated by Ali had tied Walcott up entirely, and for the whole agonizing sequence, Liston had been struggling on the floor without the benefit of a referee tolling the seconds.

Now Walcott stood before him, still holding Ali back with one arm. Ali was waving his arms up and down, mugging, eager to get at Liston. Then Walcott stepped away and the two men began fighting again, Liston backing away and trying to duck or slip the barrage coming from Ali. Walcott had left the two fighters and hurried across the ring to consult with two men at ringside: the timekeeper, Francis McDonough, and Ring magazine founder and editor Nat Fleischer. Both men insisted that the fight was over, that Liston had been down for longer than ten seconds. Walcott then rushed back to the two fighters, separated them, and raised Ali’s hand as the winner by first-round knockout.

Ever since the Long Count in Chicago, in 1927, it had been understood that when a fighter scores a knockdown, he is to retreat to a neutral corner—and that the count over the fallen fighter will not proceed until he does. Ali made Dempsey look hasty; where the Manassa Mauler had suffered a momentary brain freeze before shuffling away from Gene Tunney, Ali had purposefully stood over Liston, berating him, and then paraded around the ring, in violation of the rule. And there was another, even older rule: the referee was the authority in the ring. It was his job to administer a count over a fallen fighter, and it was his authority, and only his, that determined whether a fight was over. How could Liston be “counted out” if no one counted over him?

Those were only the procedural questions. Few people in the arena or viewing on closed-circuit TV saw the punch that had dropped Liston—at least, not while watching the fight in real time. Replays showed that Ali had, in fact, connected with a short right that landed on the side of Liston’s jaw. But replay was in its infancy in 1965; the broadcast had to play back the entire round to show the punch again, and not everyone stuck around to watch. Besides, Ali wasn’t known for his knockout punching power, and he had hit Liston with dozens of blows in the first fight. How could Liston, who had never been knocked off his feet, whose head had shattered nightsticks, be felled by a “phantom” punch?

Thus the conspiracy theories that surround the Lewiston fight to this day: that the fight was fixed, either at the behest of the Muslims or the mob or both, and that Liston “took a dive” because someone either threatened him harm or promised him lavish compensation (or both). Some said that a member of the Nation of Islam had visited Liston, warning him about dire consequences if he beat Ali. That was easy to believe. But wouldn’t the mob protect Sonny?

Nothing tangible has surfaced to substantiate a fix, leaving only more conventional explanations. Maybe Ali legitimately knocked out Liston with a punch so fast that it could be understood only on slow-motion film. Milt Bailey, one of Liston’s seconds, said that Sonny asked for smelling salts in the dressing room afterward. Whatever his real age, Liston was an old man by boxing standards in May 1965. Everyone close to him said that the postponement hurt him terribly. He looked bad in training. One good punch is sometimes enough against a diminished fighter.

The likeliest explanation for what happened in the ring in Lewiston, though, is not a conspiracy or Ali’s sudden discovery of knockout punching power, but Liston’s state of mind. Sonny went into the ring in bad spirits, whether feeling doubtful about his chances or frightened by the climate. Maybe’s Ali’s right hand stunned him enough to drop him, and maybe, as he fumbled on the canvas—waiting for the sound of gunshots?—he thought: the hell with this. As he had quit on his stool in Miami, he quit on the canvas in Lewiston. Ali himself believed this, at least in the moments after the fight ended, when he told his brother, Rahman: “He laid down.”26 (Only later did Ali mythologize his victory, attributing it to a special “anchor punch.”) Yet even Sonny’s surrender was confusing, since, in his defense, he had finally gotten up—even if he’d been down for more than fifteen seconds—and started fighting again. In short, Liston didn’t know what he was doing in the ring at any moment. He reacted spontaneously, and his reactions were hard to interpret, like much of the rest of his public life.

All in all, the Lewiston fight should be remembered as the strangest sports event ever held on American soil. It took place in the unlikeliest setting and under the most adverse circumstances, and it ended with the most contested sequence in all of sports, a series of images that devotees have gone over with the intensity that others would bring to analyzing the Zapruder film. No wonder boxing historian Don Majeski calls Ali–Liston II the Kennedy assassination of boxing.

The cloud that hung over the Lewiston fight obscured Ali’s growing maturity in the ring. Amid all the controversy, a quiet and respected voice was heard.

“That guy, Clay, is a pretty fair fighter,” said former champion James J. Braddock. “I have a feeling that he’s a lot better than any of us gave him credit for being.” 

 

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