The Sporting Life: The Phantom Punch

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

By David Flin

Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali had already fought once before, in a fight in Florida in 1964, a fight mired in controversy. Sonny Liston’s use of medication to blind Cassius Clay (as he was then known), accusations of the match being fixed, the inconclusive finish to the fight in which Sonny Liston just didn’t come out for the seventh round, all combined to make for an unsatisfying contest. It was the first time since 1919 that a World Heavyweight Champion had quit by sitting on his stool and refusing to fight. At that point, the official scorecards of the referee and two judges had the scores level.

Sonny Liston claimed that he had pulled a tendon in his shoulder, and few people believed him.

Immediately after the fight, both boxers became the subject of controversy. Cassius Clay announced that he was joining the Black Muslims, widely viewed at the time as an anti-white hate group, going through several iterations of name before arriving at Muhammad Ali. Martin Luther King Jr said: “When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims and started calling himself Cassius X, he became a champion of racial segregation.”

By contrast, Liston was arrested two weeks after the fight, and charged with speeding, careless and reckless driving, driving without a license, and carrying a concealed weapon. He had been driving at 80 mph in a residential zone, with a loaded revolver in his pocket, empty bottles of vodka in the car, and a young lady in the car apparently in a state of advanced undress.

After some issues, the rematch was arranged for 25 May, 1965, in Maine. A combination of Ali’s membership of the Nation of Islam, the assassination of Malcolm X a few months previously by members of the Nation of Islam, Sonny Liston getting arrested again, Liston’s links with organised crime becoming more open, and a change of promoters for the fight because the original promoted were convicted of organised criminal activity, all of these led to a tense build-up to the fight.

The World Boxing Association (WBA) did not permit rematch clauses in contracts. When the rematch clause in the contract for the first fight became evident, and when Ali and Liston signed to fight a rematch, the WBA stripped Ali of the title and dropped Liston from its rankings. However, the World Boxing Council (WBC) continued to recognise Ali as champion.

The first fight - February 1964

The fight was mired in controversy even before the two boxers got into the ring. Not that they were in the ring for long, and the fight itself generated even more controversy.

Midway through the first round, Liston threw a left job, which Ali dodged and returned a fast right to Liston’s jaw. The punch was fast, Ali’s fist travelled less than six inches before connecting, Liston was dodging into the blow, and Liston went down. Few people even saw the punch being thrown, and the fight descended into chaos. The referee had a hard time getting Ali to a neutral corner, and began the formality of a count. Even that became chaos, as he stopped at “eight” when the timekeeper told him the count had been achieved. Timing the count from the point where Liston went down to the point where victory was declared, Liston was down for a count of twenty-two.

It was the perfect punch. Fast, connecting perfectly, no energy lost in travelling, momentum increased by Liston’s head movement. It was the perfect punch, and very few people in the audience saw it.

Because few people had seen the punch, conspiracy theories started almost before the referee announced Ali was the victor. There were accusations that the fight was fixed, with critics describing it as the “Phantom Punch”. The controversy remains to this day, with many believing that Liston threw the fight. At the time, it was intensely controversial.

As to whether it was a Phantom Punch, anyone who has boxed knows that it’s not the long-range punches that cause the damage. I’ll give the last word on the validity of the punch to Rocky Marciano, a former world heavyweight champion, who was ringside that night. He said: “I didn’t think it was a powerful punch when I saw the fight from ringside. Now, after seeing the video, Clay saw the opening, and snapped a hell of a punch from six inches.”

The fight ruined Liston’s career, and catapulted Ali to superstar status.

Ali’s superstar status, combined with his membership of the Nation of Islam, his stance on black prejudice, his insistence on being called Ali rather than Clay, made him a difficult figure for the US authorities. In February 1966, Ali was reclassified by the Louisville draft board as 1-A from 1-Y. He indicated that he wouldn’t serve in Vietnam, saying: “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” He claimed conscientious objector status, which was rejected by the Louisville draft board. Ali appealed, and the Justice Department decided without taking evidence that Ali’s claim of conscientious objector status should be denied. The Appeal Board did indeed deny Ali’s claim, without stating its reasons.

Ali in 1967

When Ali refused induction into the US Armed Forces, the WBA stripped him of his title, and he was denied a boxing licence in every US state, and stripped of his passport. He was not able to fight from March 1967 to October 1970, when he was in his prime. He was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury, and convicted of the criminal offence of refusing the draft. The trial jury consisted of 6 white men and 6 white women.

The case rumbled all the way up to the Supreme Court. Justice Marshall recused himself, because he had been involved when the case began. The remaining 8 judges voted 5-3 to uphold Ali’s conviction. However, Justice Harlan then read some background material on Black Muslim doctrine, and changed his vote, tying the vote at 4-4. This would have resulted in Ali being jailed and, since no opinions are published for deadlocked decisions, no-one would have known why he lost his appeal.

The Supreme Court realised that this might cause difficulties, given the state of the civil rights movement, the growing unpopularity of the war, and the growth of the Peace Movement. It decided that a technicality allowed them to grant Ali’s appeal, and in an 8-0 vote, stated that: “The Court said the record shows that Ali’s beliefs are founded on tenets of the Muslim religion as he understands them.”

After this, Ali was able to return to boxing, and the famous fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, now part of boxing legend.

What would have happened if the Phantom Punch never landed? The immediate consequences would have been limited. For all the recent attempts to rehabilitate Liston’s reputation, at the time of the fight, Ali had a psychological hold over Liston, a technical advantage, and a physical advantage. Liston was not properly prepared for the fight, and had been battered by Ali in their first bout. There’s no reason to think that the result would have been anything other than a clear and decisive Ali victory.

That would have resulted in less controversy about the result of the bout, which in turn would have diminished the extent to which those who disliked Ali’s controversial positions could express them. It would have been harder for the draft board to deny him conscientious objector status. Obviously, it would have continued, but the controversy would have been even greater.

The last thing America needed at this stage was a focus for protest. In addition to Vietnam War protests, Martin Luther King was assassinated in this period, Tommy Smith and John Carlos had created an indelible icon of the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics (*). Amidst all that, Ali added the weight of his not inconsiderable voice: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some big hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people?”

Riots in Washington DC following the assassination of Martin Luther King

Toss that speech into an inflamed mix, and the American authorities are certain to over-react and jail Ali. There was already massive resentment over the way the rich and influential found ways of avoiding the draft. It could easily have become incendiary. One can expect not one, but several incidents similar to that from Kent State University in Ohio.

It could have become very messy.

The legacy In the decades after the whole controversy, he returned to become a great boxer again. More importantly, he became something of an ambassador, a figure that spread far beyond the ring.

It is easy to forget that 50 years ago, during this tumultuous period, Ali didn’t know how things would turn out. He didn’t know if he would ever fight again, and he knew no other business. “I’m not allowed to work in America, and I’m not allowed to leave America. I’m just about broke.” That was the situation in 1968. He was married, with his first child due, no income except what he could earn from public speaking, and at first no-one wanted to hire him because of his controversial status.

Ali’s views on some subjects, such as racial integration, would not be acceptable in modern times, but perhaps that’s not the point. He had his convictions, and he stood by them without consideration of what the personal cost might be.

Martin Luther King said in a sermon: “Ali is giving up his fame. He is giving up millions of dollars in order to stand for what his conscience tells him is right. No matter what you think of his religion, you have to admire his courage.”

And it all started with a punch that lifted Sonny Liston off of his feet.

* And 50 years on, what progress has been made? Many American footballers, mostly black, kneel during the National Anthem as a protest against racism in American society.

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