What? Muhammad Ali v Sonny Liston II
When? May 25th 1965
Where? Lewiston, Maine
Charles “Sonny” Liston is one of boxing’s most mysterious characters, even his actual date of birth remains a mystery. He grew up in a world of poverty and discrimination and received no formal education. Like many young people who grow up in such circumstances, Liston resorted to a life of crime. By June 1950, Liston was serving time in prison for a series of robberies. It was in prison that Liston discovered boxing and immediately took to it. After his release in 1952, he had a brief amateur career before turning professional.
From his time in prison Liston was connected to organized crime, although he often appeared to have little choice in that matter. Liston was an ex-con and a boxer, and boxing at the time was still highly influenced by organized crime. He didn’t like being controlled by the mob but had to put up with it. These mob connections would prove a hindrance as his professional career proceeded. Liston was portrayed in the media as a monster and a criminal. Coupled with his size and brutal punching power, Liston was seen as the big black monster that white America both feared and hated.
As Liston continued a string of impressive early knockout victories, he began to repeatedly call for a title shot against the champion, Floyd Patterson. His mob connections and his general unpopularity made it extremely difficult for Liston to get a much deserved shot. But by September 1962, the excuses had run out and Liston finally got his chance at the title. He would seize it in dramatic fashion. After years of waiting for his chance, Liston would take just over 2 minutes to knockout Patterson and claim the title. The rematch with Patterson again would not get beyond a round with Liston once again crushing the former champ. In his second title defence, Liston would be against a young upstart from Louisville, Kentucky – the “Louisville Lip”, Cassius Clay.
Muhammad Ali needs no introduction but when he first met Sonny Liston in the ring, he was still Cassius Clay. At the time of their first meeting in February 1964, few gave Clay a chance with most expecting a first round knockout. So confident were the press of a Liston knockout that some had in fact practiced the drive from the arena to the hospital, just so they could follow Clay as he was rushed to intensive care. Clay overcame a brief spell of blindness to out box an out of shape Liston, stopping the champion after six rounds. Clay had “shook up the world”. Injury would delay the rematch until May 1965. By then, Cassius Clay was no more; the heavyweight champion was now a member of the Nation of Islam and going by the name of Muhammad Ali.
Finding a venue for the rematch became a problem. Originally it had been set for Boston but growing concerns over the controversial backgrounds of both fighters led to Boston withdrawing its support for the fight. The scramble for a new venue is how this famous heavyweight title match between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston wound up taking place in the small mill-town of Lewiston in the state of Maine.
Tensions were high in the build up to the fight with the Nation of Islam and organized crime bosses connected to the fighters. There were multiple rumours of death threats against either fighter. As a result, the tiny arena contained only 2,434 fans with the rest of the 4,300 capacity being taken up by FBI, police and security personnel. Despite his victory in the first meeting, Ali was still considered the underdog.
This fight would prove to be one of the shortest and most controversial title fights in boxing history. The first half of round one was uneventful with Ali dancing in clockwise circles around the ring while Liston plodded after him. However, with 1 minute and 43 seconds gone in the round, all hell broke loose. Liston would once again lean in with his left jab but as he did so, Ali countered with a short right that landed on Liston’s temple. Liston appeared to go down in stages, his gloves touching down first then laying on his side before finally sprawling out flat on his back. Ali still pumped with adrenaline stood over the fallen Liston and roared at him to get up, a picture which has since become one of the most iconic sports photographs of all time.
The fight then descended into a farce. Ali, in a frenzy, refused to retreat to a neutral corner. Referee, former champ Jersey Joe Walcott, struggled to maintain control of Ali and lost track of his count. Liston made it back to one knee before falling again to the canvas. Eventually, Liston made it to his feet and Walcott, who had completely lost track of his count, allowed the fighters to continue boxing before disappearing to confer with the ringside timekeeper. Whilst the time keeper was informing Walcott that Liston had in fact been counted out, both fighters were still going at it until eventually Walcott returned to declare the fight was over. Officially Ali was the winner by knockout. Boos rang out around the tiny arena and cries of “FIX” echoed throughout.
Debate rages to this day as to whether Liston took a dive or not. According to his entourage, Ali himself was initially unsure as to whether he had even connected with the punch. Some ex-fighters in attendance including James “The Cinderella Man” Braddock and legendary Rocky Marciano believe the punch was genuine, others including heavyweight contender George Chuvalo claim it was a fix. The television pictures are inconclusive although they do suggest the punch certainly made contact. Theories abound as to what exactly happened. Having viewed the footage numerous times, my belief is that Liston’s initial reaction was genuine. He was caught on the temple and stumbled forward, off balance, not unlike Chris Arreola in his recent loss to Bermane Stiverne. However his reaction thereafter, the rolling to his back, getting back to his knees before falling again onto his back seems a little implausible. For whatever reason, Liston chose not get up before the count of ten and was deliberately counted out. But that’s just my opinion, feel free to check out the footage and make your own mind up.
It is impossible to sum up the career Ali would go on to enjoy both inside and out of the ring. He is perhaps the most iconic figure of the 20th century, maybe even of all time. It would be pointless of me to try and sum up a lifetime of achievement both inside and outside the ring in a few sentences. Instead I will focus on the less well known story, what happened to Sonny Liston?
This loss would prove to be the end of Liston’s career at the top level of the sport. Liston was already deeply unpopular heading into the bout and the rumours of a fix only served to fuel the flames of disdain for Liston. In many ways, Liston is a tragic figure. Despite winning the heavyweight title, he never got the acclaim or public approval he desired. After his first victory over Floyd Patterson, Liston flew back to Philadelphia expecting a homecoming befitting his status as the champion. He was crushed to find nobody waiting to welcome him back with the belt. It was this disappointment that caused him to up sticks and move to Denver.
His wife also gives us an insight into the sadder, more sensitive side of Liston. Despite his reputation for being gruff, aggressive and mean, his wife claims that on becoming champion, Sonny asked her to teach him how to write “Best Regards, Sonny Liston” just so he could sign autographs for children.
By 1970, Liston was had become a veteran stepping stone fighter and was scheduled to fight George Chuvalo in 1971. However, Liston’s body was discovered in his Las Vegas home on January 5th 1971. He had been dead for a number of days. Just like with his birth, his actual date of death is not known and police had to estimate a date for his death certificate.
The cause of his death also remains a mystery. Although traces of heroin were found in his system, the amounts discovered were not considered lethal. This fact coupled with the absence of drug paraphernalia and Liston’s apparent fear of needles has led family and friends to question the official cause of death being recorded as a heroin overdose. Much like the result of the fight there are numerous theories as to how exactly Liston died and why. Unfortunately it seems tragically appropriate that Liston’s life should end in mystery. We will never know exactly when he was born, we will never know exactly how or when he died and we will never know the full truth about that famous night in Lewiston, Maine.
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.