“Phantom Punch” — Mystery Solved

By Paul Gallender on May 25, 2014
“Phantom Punch” — Mystery Solved
At that moment, everyone in boxing knew that the indestructible Liston had taken a dive.

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.

                                                            * * *

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.

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Muhammad Ali VS. Sonny Liston II (25.05.1965)



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  1. Terence Kelley 11:59am, 01/30/2017

    I was 19 when this took place.  At that time, the talk was about the lack of any good pictures or movies of the fight. Now I see that there is a movie.

    What is the history of this movie?  When was it made known that it was existed?

    I recall many journalists stating in days after the May 1965 fight that no movies existed.

  2. x2x 05:57am, 09/03/2016

    Re “Ali would never have approved of any of this had he known about it” Yeah right, that’s why he didn’t say something like “i don’t know what the hell happened” but instead made up the thing about the secret karate punch.

    The two Liston “fights” were only two out of many of Clay-Ali’s fake fights.

  3. Dr. Abdulkarim Ayyad 09:04am, 03/10/2016

    Whether the punch was a jab, a hook, or twisted fest, it was not strong enough to drive Liston unconscious. The important thing is the place it landed on. When I was a kid, my mother used to warn me not to punch or hit any body on two points because they are very sensitive and hitting them can cause death no matter how weak the hit is; one of them lays behind the ear and the other lays right in front of the ear at the joint between the jaw and the skull. Ali’s punch landed on Liston’s face on the latter point. This explains  
    why Liston didn’t hear the count. You can check the name of these point with any medical doctor.
    Thank you>

  4. Conrad 08:43am, 09/10/2015

    As I have said before when I read Paul’s excellent book. There is no evidence that anyone kidnapped Sonny’s wife and son.  Geraldine goes to the end of her life without saying this.  And Liston’s son NEVER mentions it either.  Don’t you think one of them would have at least many years latter when there is no fear to say so??  Geraldine first lite into Sonny in his dressing room for throwing the fight according to other sources. How was she even in the dressing room if she was kidnapped?  I think what really happened was Liston knew he was in bad shape for this fight, he had a bad training camp.  Couple this with the threats that Ali would be shot (and off course Sonny had to be thinking Ali is always moving what if they miss and hit him). Liston took the first chance he could to go down and stayed down.  However even then the fight should have continued because Ali never when to a neutral corner.  Walcott took a leak all over this fight to.  He did a lousy job as ref.

  5. Big T 11:02pm, 06/30/2015

    Who did Ali Say he learned to Punch From?

  6. bikermike 09:50am, 05/25/2015

    RE: Marciano vs Walcott II

    Marciano could ...and did put his power shots ....which were measured at 900psi…..on his opponents as often as he could

    Jersey Joe took those blows…..not any author who claims Jersey Joe took a dive….......................................nuf said

  7. marring man 07:59am, 09/19/2014

    Liston was not a bully who could dish out punishment and not receive it like MikeTyson total B.S. For one Liston was the uncrowned champion from 1959 till 64 Patterson and Johanson where paper champs who all made believe Liston did not exist .Listons only loss at the time to Marty Marshall he fought to the end with a broken jaw a bully would quit .Liston faced hard hitting Clevlend Williams not once but twice and took shots like no heavyweight did no bully would do that Patterson made believe Williams never existed either.

  8. strongman 07:44am, 09/19/2014

    History should watch the WHOLE fight not that same damn clip over and over .Walcott was the worst ref on earth why for one did he lose such control of the fight Ali by all rights should have been DQ he refused to go to a neutral corner and instead ran around the ring like a kid with ADD making stupid faces another Liston did get up and the fight was resumed until Nat Fleischer yelled it was over 10 seconds and Walcott then decides to stop the fight c’mon .Boxing history forces us to intrepid the same B.S. Until we believe I want my questions answered first.

  9. jerry fitch 06:54am, 05/27/2014

    I have always maintained Liston was not hit hard enough to knock out a fly. Even the most ardent Ali worshippers if they were being honest would have to admit Liston took a dive.

  10. bikermike 05:51am, 05/26/2014

    Great read Paul…..looking forward to your next one

  11. bikermike 05:48am, 05/26/2014

    George Thomas Clark’s first comment seems to cover my take on that night’s Ali vs Liston II

  12. bikermike 05:46am, 05/26/2014

    Liston went down ....but the debate continues why he went down..  Was it from a punch…or was it due to outside influence…or was it just a very poorly staged dive ??

    Poor old Joe Walcott completely lost control of the match…

    Bottom line….very suspicious .  I think Sonny took the dive….I don’t know why.  I also think it was a very poor acting job from Liston’s side.

    I don’t think Ali was involved.

  13. Chicago Typhoon 02:52pm, 05/25/2014

    Gotta love them Muslims!! Screwing the world way back then!!  Nobody knew the extent of their damage until Barrack Insane NyetBama came to town and gave America away.

  14. Clarence George 01:28pm, 05/25/2014

    “Men were checked for ‘suspicious bulges,’” were they?  Fortunate indeed that I wasn’t there.

  15. Eric 12:31pm, 05/25/2014

    GTC…..He may have, but that is pure speculation. Walcott sure didn’t appear that hurt immediately afterwards. The knockout occurred with less than half a minute to go in the round, and it is highly debatable that a man with Walcott’s skill could’ve very well lasted the rest of the round. Walcott was beat that night MENTALLY, but I can’t concede he was physically beaten. “Pappy” Walcott who was probably a year or two older than his listed age, probably decided he was finally financially secure, and that a 40 year old man shouldn’t be swapping blows with someone as fit and strong as Marciano.

  16. George Thomas Clark 12:20pm, 05/25/2014

    If Walcott could’ve gotten up, he would’ve taken a brutal beating.  Lots of fighters opt, correctly, to stay down.

  17. Eric 12:18pm, 05/25/2014

    Just watched the Marciano-Walcott II fight and it is debatable whether Walcott actually beat the count.

  18. Eric 11:50am, 05/25/2014

    Walcott did appear to be hit by a solid right hand, BUT he certainly appeared as if he could have gotten up before the 10-count. I’m thinking Walcott remembered how hard the first fight was with Marciano, and he just wasn’t going to put himself through that again. IMO, Walcott could’ve gotten up, and like Liston, he just said the hell with it and took the easy way out. It might not have looked as bad as the “Phantom Punch” but the Marciano-Walcott II looks suspicious. Nothing at all bad to say about Marciano, on the contrary, the power of his punches from the first fight were still living in Walcott’s head rent free, and Walcott probably pulled a “No Mas.”

  19. George Thomas Clark 11:18am, 05/25/2014

    If Walcott took a dive in the second Marciano fight, he sure ate a helluva right hand to do so.  Guys who take dives are rarely hit that hard or else it isn’t diving, it’s getting knocked out…

  20. Eric 11:11am, 05/25/2014

    There are three stories from the Sixties that seem to never be put to rest. This is one of them, the other are the Kennedy assassination, and to a lesser extent, the Manson Murders/Charles Manson. Liston took a dive, that is all, he said eff this, I’m taking my money and go him without working up much of a sweat or taking punches from this young kid. Kind of ironic that Jersey Joe was the ref, many think Joe took a dive in the rematch with Marciano. I have my own take on WHY Kennedy was assissinated but he was assissinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, it is as simple as that. My opinion was Oswald was hired but he was definitely the shooter. And the wild eyed former cult leader Crazy Charlie is nearing 80 years old and still gets a mention every now and then some 45 years after “Helter Skelter.” I think I saw Elvis working at Burger King.

  21. George Thomas Clark 10:56am, 05/25/2014

    Rumors of mob threats have been repeated a long time, and the threats are plausible.  I can’t disprove them but still feel Sonny knew younger, quicker, longer Ali had his number and decided not to take a beating.  He probably should’ve waited a few rounds to dive, but that was his decision, and one that Geraldine, in an interview available online, said indicated that Sonny simply knew Ali was better and didn’t want to take punishment.  Sonny, like most of us, was happier dishing it out than taking it.

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