“Phantom Punch” — Mystery Solved
Two Muslims visited Sonny and threatened to kill him if he didn’t lose the bout. Things were getting worse for the ex-champ, but the worst was yet to come…
Every May 25th, the world gets to revisit the worst day of Sonny Liston’s life. To Liston’s family and friends, it’s called the Nightmare in Lewiston. To everyone else, it’s known as the Mystery of the Phantom Punch.
Sitting in his dressing room prior to his 1965 rematch with Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight champion of the world must have wondered how everything could have gone so terribly wrong. When Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson for a second time just 22 months earlier, he, like almost everyone else, believed that he would rule the sports world for as long as he chose to.
Then, he took the fighter known as Cassius Clay so lightly that he neglected to train for the bout. After his shocking and unexpected loss, many people figured the mob paid him to throw the fight. Losing his title was bad enough; having people think the title meant so little to him that he would sell it added insult to Sonny’s injury.
Forty-nine years ago in Lewiston, Maine, Liston found himself in the middle of a dangerous situation over which he had absolutely no control. He was being forced to sacrifice his future and his legacy in order to save the lives of his wife and child. Knowing that he must lose this fight, an angry and helpless Sonny Liston decided to do it on his own terms.
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In 1965, Ali and Liston were two of the most despised boxers in history. Liston was an intimidating ex-con whose management included members of organized crime. Ideology had nothing to do with people’s opinions of him. When Ali converted to Islam, his story was all about ideology, and his was one for which most people had no frame of reference. Neither man was a candidate to appear on a box of Wheaties.
“We’re both villains,” Ali said. “So naturally, when we get in the ring, the people, they would prefer if it could happen for it to end in a double knockout because they don’t want either one of us to win.”
The backdrop for the fight was the stuff of which movies are made. Ali was rumored to be an assassination target by Muslims who wanted to avenge the recent death of Ali’s former close friend, Malcolm X. It was widely believed that Malcolm’s murder was carried out by supporters of Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad.
Five FBI agents came to Ali’s hotel and told him they believed there was some truth to the rumors. They posted a 12-person, 24-hour guard around him. Prior to his morning roadwork, several officers checked the field to make sure no one was waiting to ambush him. Twelve policemen and detectives were at Ali’s workouts and all black spectators were searched before being allowed to enter the gym.
The truth was that both fighters feared for their lives. Ali showed his fear in response to a reporter’s question about his need for police protection. “The Negro has the fear put in him by your people,” the champ said angrily. “But you people run the country and you should go out on the highway and stop anybody coming after me.” Liston’s most telling comment was, “They’re coming to get him, not me, right?”
Two days before the fight, two Muslims visited Sonny and threatened to kill him if he didn’t lose the bout. Things were getting worse for the ex-champ, but the worst was yet to come.
The fight’s security force of 300 represented one lawman for approximately every eight paying customers. “I don’t want Lewiston to go down in history as the place where the heavyweight champion was killed,” said the city’s Chief of Police.
The arena had been thoroughly searched by a New York City bomb squad. The police guarded every door, women’s bags were searched for weapons, and men were checked for “suspicious bulges.” Forty-seven armed men were stationed around the ring. Some sportswriters positioned bulletproof shields behind their ringside seats.
“When I looked at that crowd around the ring, that big, dark crowd, it was on my mind that somebody might be out there aiming a rifle at me,” Ali said later.
Halfway through the first round, Liston threw a lazy left jab. Ali countered with a short right hand to Sonny’s left cheekbone that traveled no more than six inches. Muhammad was off-balance when he threw it.
The onetime toughest man in the world crumbled to the canvas as if he were giving a safety demonstration on how to fall without hurting oneself. “Get up, you yellow bum. Nobody will believe this!” screamed Ali. When boxers land a crushing blow, they know it. Ali experienced no such feeling. When he walked back to his corner, the first thing he said was, “He laid down.”
At that moment, everyone in boxing knew that the indestructible Sonny Liston had taken a dive.
Joe Louis compared the punch to “throwing cornflakes at a battleship.” Former champ Jack Sharkey said the punch couldn’t have cracked an egg. Veteran trainer Eddie Futch simply said, “Give me a break!”
Until now, the reason why Liston threw that fight has been boxing’s greatest unsolved mystery. In truth, it was an act of courage. Sonny swallowed his immense pride and chose life over death. Not for himself, but for his family.
Las Vegas casino executive Ash Resnick was in Lewiston with his wife Marilyn. The Resnicks were dear friends of Sonny and his wife Geraldine and Joe and Martha Louis. When Marilyn was unable to contact Geraldine on the day of the fight, she told Martha she was worried. “Don’t you know why you haven’t seen her, Marilyn?” said Joe’s wife. “It’s the Black Muslims. They have her and the boy. Sonny won’t see them again if he doesn’t lie down.”
Ali would never have approved of any of this had he known about it, though it’s unlikely he could have prevented it. It’s possible that mobsters knew about the kidnapping or that they co-conspired with the Muslims. The mob would have done it to win money on the fight; the Muslims would have done it to make sure Ali could not possibly lose his title. People have long since forgotten that Liston was still the betting favorite.
After the fight, Ali claimed the blow was Jack Johnson’s secret anchor punch that actor Stepin Fetchit had taught him. “It’s a chop, so fast you can’t see it,” he said. “It’s karate. It’s got a twist to it. Just one does the job.” Of course, if it was such a devastating punch, you have to wonder why Ali never used it again.
The FBI instituted “discreet inquiries of highly confidential sources” in several large cities to determine if the bout had been fixed. However, J. Edgar Hoover never let his operatives interview Liston. Even if they had, Sonny wouldn’t have told them the truth. He wouldn’t even tell his family the truth.
Apart from trainer Johnny Tocco and former champ Emile Griffith, Liston may not have told anyone else what really happened that night. “Oh my poor Sonny,” said Emile. “He had no choice but to lose. He told me later he was gonna show that fight was fixed by taking the worst dive of all-time.” If you watch the film of that fight, you’ll see that Sonny did just that.
By Paul Gallender ©2014
Paul Gallender is the author of Sonny Liston —The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights.