It was the first time Cassius Clay entered the ring as Muhammad Ali, and the heavyweight champion of the world.
And it was the last time former champ Sonny Liston, 35-2, would ever participate in a world title bout. The date was May 25th, 1965 and Ali, 20-0 was making his first defense of the title versus the man whom he won it from 15 months earlier, Sonny Liston.
Prior to their first meeting, Liston was at the top of the food chain among the elite heavyweights in the world. Sonny was considered so formidable and dangerous during the late 1950s and early 1960s that heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson’s manager/trainer, Cus D’Amato, kept Floyd away from Liston as long as he could. Finally, upon Floyd’s insistence, due to the press labeling him as being afraid of Liston, he forced Cus to make the fight with Sonny. It turned out to be a disaster and no-contest. Liston knocked Patterson out in the first round to win the title and 10 months later dispatched Floyd again in the first round to retain the title. And it was shortly after Liston’s two demolitions of Patterson that many boxing aficionados and historians began proclaiming Liston as perhaps the greatest heavyweight champ of all-time, even greater than the immortal Joe Louis.
All these years later many forget how prior to the first Liston vs. Clay bout, Cassius Clay wasn’t taken all that seriously as a contender and fighter. He was considered to be charming and funny, but nowhere close to being a serious threat to Liston or even Patterson. It was assumed after getting torn apart by Liston when they eventually would fight, Cassius would be out of boxing shortly thereafter.
As a fighter Clay/Ali broke every rule in the boxing manual regarding his fundamentals and basics. He carried his hands at his waist. His movement was considered wasted and he was not a knockout puncher, something the hardcore boxing fanatics frowned at. On the other hand, Liston was a destroyer who held his hands high, applied steady pressure and was adept at cutting the ring off. He had an abundance of both short and long power….his left jab was straight and was thought to be the equal of getting hit in the face by a telephone pole. Liston was physically strong, thought to be impossible to hurt, and terrified his opponents just by staring at them. It was believed by many that Liston would hold the title as long as he wanted to and probably still be champ after Clay was gone from the sport.
And if the legend of Sonny Liston tumbled on February 25th, 1964, the night he couldn’t/wouldn’t come out for the seventh round against Cassius Clay because he injured his shoulder during the fight, thus relinquishing his heavyweight championship sitting on his stool, it’s obituary was written May 25th, 1965 when he was officially stopped by Muhammad Ali aka Cassius Clay in the first round of their rematch at St. Dominic’s Arena in Lewiston Maine. And it’s the loss to Ali in their rematch that really kills Liston’s perception and standing in the eyes of many boxing historians and observers as the truly remarkable all-time great fighter he was.
The loss to Clay in the first fight was often dismissed as Sonny starting to decline physically and unfortunately crossing paths with perhaps the greatest heavyweight ever (unknown at the time) who was entering his prime….Looking back in hindsight, it’s clear that Ali owned the style advantage over Liston. Add to that Sonny didn’t think too much of the young and boastful Clay as a fighter, especially after he was nearly knocked out in his previous fight against British heavyweight champ Henry Cooper. Ironically, Cooper’s management and advisers wouldn’t let him anywhere near or contemplate fighting Liston.
The Ali-Liston rematch 50 years ago, because of the way it ended, was the final shovel of dirt forever burying Liston’s persona as an all-time great fighter and champion. It wasn’t just that Liston was dropped by a punch that few sitting ringside saw, it was what happened while he was down and attempted to get up, that made the fight, should we say, appear to be a little fishy. The punch that felled Liston is known today as the “phantom punch.” However, countless replays over the last 50 years clearly show that Ali caught Liston leaning in with a short chopping right hand (Ali named it the anchor punch after the fight) on the point of his chin and he went down. The replay shows Liston’s chin jolt as the punch makes impact and he falls.
One can argue how hard the punch really was – what they can’t dispute is whether or not Sonny was actually hit by a punch. Liston ended up on his back when he went down, he then rolled over to his front, attempted to rise, failed, then tried again and succeeded. Once he was upright, he and Ali started exchanging punches. Soon they were broken up by referee and former heavyweight champion “Jersey” Joe Walcott, who was informed that Liston was down for more than a count of 10 and the fight was over. The official time was initially announced as one minute but a tape showed Liston falling at 1:44, rising at 1:56 and Walcott officially stopping the fight at 2:12.
Two things overlooked still, all these years later are: Liston was never given a count. A knockout isn’t in effect when a fighter has been down for 10 seconds, it’s the referee’s count of 10 which activates the call of KO.
Everybody counts at a slightly different tempo. Walcott never counted over Liston because Ali was running around the ring yelling at Liston to get up and fight. So the fact of the matter is, Sonny Liston was never counted out against Muhammad Ali during their rematch. And the other issue pertaining to the stoppage is, Liston was on his feet fighting and exchanging with Ali when the bout was officially ended by Walcott. Despite never counting over Liston, Walcott stopped the bout after Nat Fleischer, the founder of “Ring” magazine sitting ringside, yelled to Walcott that Liston was down for more than 10 seconds. So if Liston entered the ring with the intent of throwing the fight and taking a dive, why bother getting up and leaving things to chance?
There are no new revelations about the fight 50 later. It is conjecture as to whether Liston threw it or not. Sonny was never down as a pro before fighting Ali the second time. Marty Marshall broke his jaw during their first bout and he finished the fight on his feet. Cleveland Williams was a terrific puncher with both hands, and in five rounds of war in two fights, he didn’t do much more than get Sonny’s attention. So how could Ali, who only scored one other first round knockout in his entire career, get Liston out in less than two minutes of ring combat? The answer is, he didn’t. Liston was on his feet when the bout was halted.
I don’t know if Liston was in the tank for the fight, or even the first bout for that matter, because outside forces were supposedly backing and betting on Ali in both bouts. What I do know is, Liston was dropped by a good punch that he was moving into early in the fight while he was still a little stiff and tight. The referee never counted over him, nor did he attempt to because of Ali’s antics and theatrics. Liston was a bad actor on the canvas if he was acting, but he got up and resumed fighting it out with Ali. This points away from him looking for a way to dump the fight and lose.
One can draw any conclusion they chose to regarding both fights between Muhammad and Sonny. All I know for sure is, Liston, age 31, or older, was on the decline when they fought. Ali, age 23, was really beginning to fill out physically and was all muscle at that time. Looking back now, it’s easy to see that Ali had the size, speed, style and chin to be Liston’s stumbling block. And it’s quite evident that Liston’s two ugly losses suffered at the hands of Ali have wrongly held him down regarding his stature among the greatest heavyweight champions in history. Had there been no Muhammad Ali, Liston probably would’ve held the title another five years, through 1969. And that certainly would change things regarding his status among where he ranks among the greatest of the greats. Even with the two Ali fiascoes being part of his resume, I don’t think I can name five former heavyweight greats who I’d pick to beat Sonny Liston during his peak, circa 1958-62.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com