How Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali gave the boxing world two great debates
By Shaun La: Muhammad Ali is a contribution to the boxing world that won’t ever be replaced. The Greatest of All Time, The Louisville Lip, The People’s Champion are all titles that he carried into the boxing ring with a fighter’s heart, a charismatic character, and a man that stood up for his religious & political beliefs. Before Ali’s remarkable achievements in and out of the boxing ring, the pair of bouts that established his start of a legacy were with Sonny Liston.
For anyone who knows about the history of the heavyweight division, Liston will always make it on any given diehard boxing fan’s, hardest heavyweight punchers to ever live list. Such a list is not one to exclude any powerful heavyweight punchers, but just to remind people about the prestige of strength inside of the heavyweight division. From George Foreman to Mike Tyson, Rocky Marciano, Ken Norton, and Joe Frazier, the debates about heavyweight punching power can run for hours within a discussion and Liston’s name will make it inside of the debate each and every time.
The 1st Liston vs Ali (he was still going by the name Cassius Clay at this time) bout was for the WBC, WBA and Ring Magazine titles, all which belonged to the hard throwing puncher, Liston. Of course, Ali was counted out as some new comer getting in way over his head with his 1st championship bout. It was a common thought that Ali would not be able to absorb the brawling style that Liston was known to give to his opposition; also, Liston had just came off back to back 1st round knockout wins by defeating the well-respected heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Therefore, it was not blind faith to think that Liston would send this new comer with solid wins, and an undefeated record with no championship fight experience home with his first loss. However, Ali did everything in the ring that would teach the future about his dexterity by moving swiftly on his two feet, flicking out that jab like his mind had a radar in it, and being a champion thru it all. This bout was a prequel to Ali’s psychological warfare that he would roll out in press-conferences before the fight. Throughout the years, Ali would find a way to out talk his opponent at press-conferences with poetry or witty jokes that made the reporters and fans feel like he was a loud mouth, a gentleman and a boxer all in one. In a way, the press-conference game plan worked on Liston, but what was even more effective is that Ali backed up what he was speaking about at his press-conference, because, he surely had gotten into Liston’s head by not being intimated of his size and physical strength inside of the ring. The 1st bout had Liston in some tough spots, from the 1st time he was ever cut in a professional bout (in the 3rd round and under his left eye), to Ali displaying his ring generalship that a lot of boxing fans, journalists who covered the sport of boxing and boxing experts had underestimated when prejudging the underdog from Louisville. Whether it was Ali’s speed and his stinging jab with alert footwork, all of these components had Ali making Liston fight his kind of fight. Perhaps, Ali’s confident energy of guiding the fight his way led to some desperation from Liston’s corner, because Ali came back to his corner at the conclusion of the 4th round, stating to his corner team that he was not able to see properly—some people were adamant with opinions by alleging that someone from Liston’s corner placed some kind of chemical material on his boxing gloves, so that when he punched Ali, the smearing of such a chemical material would get into Ali’s eyes. Whatever is a myth or truth, Ali pulled thru this storm, got thru the obstacles and finished off the former champion who was the likable favorite to win (Liston), in a technical knockout fashion in round number 7. Ali shocked and shook up the boxing world on the 25th day in February, 1964.
Boxing fans, this was a time in boxing where the controlling ways of corruption could be tied into organized crime, seedy business dealings with matchmakers that had greed on their mind. This is not to say that some of the same criminality of corruption does not try to creep into our present times in boxing—it is to say that during the time of this bout, corruption was rampant and a part of doing business. I mention this way of doing business as clarity in looking at the sign of the times, not to say that the 1st Liston vs. Ali bout was fixed; furthermore, I want to to give a platform of understanding on why some fans during this time period in boxing had a sturdy case to wonder and feed conspiracy theories. There was a heated protest amongst boxing fans about the outcome of this bout and it could have been the passionate Liston fans who were digging out unproven reasons to explain why their champion lost—which is fine, boxing fans can be the most vocal.
On the bright side of things, this was also a time in boxing, when championship bouts were 15 rounds and the politics of controlling a stable of boxers did not really make excuses for top contenders and champions to avoid each other inside of the ring. The wheels of boxing might have needed some greasing, but the best boxed the best.
This kind of boxing philosophy is how the rematch of Ali and Liston became a reality, exactly one year & three months to the day that Ali pulled off the massive upset that had the boxing world awaiting to see if the new champion (he was carrying the WBC and the Ring championship belts, the WBA stripped Ali of his title, due their sanctioning rules, boxing politics and promotional issues) was going to pay for his unexpected win against the hard punching Liston. On May 25th, 1965 (Muhammad Ali had changed his name from Cassius Clay a month or so before this bout) in Lewiston, Maine. Both of these professional boxers laced up their gloves and what surprised every one in the boxing world, became the knockout punch that picked up the iconic boxing name, “The Phantom Punch”. It all occurred in the 1st round. Liston came at Ali with a left jab, while Ali had both of his hands down around his waist level. This same left jab from Liston hit the moving Ali on the right side of his chest and with a quick reactionary counter-punch, Ali threw a right hand that hit Liston on the left side of his head. Liston feel down to his right knee, and his balance failed as he fell over onto his back with both arms stretched out on the canvas–he tried to get up, by balancing himself on his right knee, only to fall over again. On the second try, Liston did make it back up off of the canvas. There was a lot of disorder going on in the ring and the energy outside of the ring was loud, which may have directed a delay in the knockout count. After all of the ring disorder dust settled, Ali proceeded to finish off Liston; however, the time keeper (Francis McDonough), informed the ring referee Jersey Joe Walcott to call the bout to a halt in the 1st round, due to his understanding that Liston did not beat the count. Despite the lack of clarity with the knockout count, Ali earned the rematch victory in the 1st round with a time of 2 minutes and 12 seconds.
The debate for many years has been centered on Liston taking a dive, to some boxing fans believing that those who were in charge of officiating the bout showed a lack of attentiveness towards the knockout count. From fellow boxers to boxing writers back to the core of the boxing world, the fans—they all have their opinions that sit on all kind of mountain tops, from Liston conspiring with organized crime with intentions to fix his fight, so that some criminal elements could come away with a whirlpool of cash. The ramifications from this rematch even lead some to believe that both bouts were fixed so that the advantage of shocking the boxing world two times would make those who bet on Ali, financially wealthy. Every theory to why this fight might have been fixed has met plausible reasons on why it was not fix. Perhaps Ali was just the better boxer in both bouts, and his career proves that his longevity was not linked to easy opposition. At the very least, Ali was not ever linked to being in on a so-called fix. The finger of conspiracy theories were always pointed to Liston and his organized crime connections, but please remember he (nor anyone from his camp) was not ever charged in any shape or form of fixing any of his bouts with Ali. The story of organized crime, gambling and boxing may sound like an excellent Hollywood film, but to this day, the proof of fixing has yet to meet the facts of reality.
Nevertheless, boxing has always had this mystery of wonder on whether big bouts were fixed or not. Ali and Liston pair of bouts goes to a deeper place than those who believed that James “Buster” Douglas was down for longer than 10 seconds, (11th of February, 1990) when Mike Tyson knocked him down with a potent right upper-cut in the 8th round. Douglas would get up off of the canvas in Tokyo, Japan and come back to win by knocking Tyson out in the 10th round—marking another highly shocking moment in boxing history. The Ali and Liston bouts when looked at from a microscopic viewpoint can clearly show how one champion (Liston) was defeated off of his throne two times and a new king (Ali) would give the boxing world a reign that would extend into the rest of the 1960’s, into the 1970’s and concluding in the early 1980’s. We got to see Ali stand up for his values as a man, politically, religiously and as an athlete. Liston would meet a tragic fate by overdosing on heroin—a fate that some like to add onto his connection to seedy movers and shakers in the boxing world, even his death has some people connecting the “what if” dots with unflinching conspiracy theories linked to his boxing career.
As a boxing fan, I know all about the debates that layer over Liston’s career, but be fair in knowing that he was not ever charged with fixing either bout with Ali. It is important to develop a respect for what Liston did inside of the ring, after all he was a heavyweight champion and that does count as a merit on being brave. Ali is worthy of every single piece of success that he every earned inside of the boxing ring and we must remember that the Liston vs. Ali bouts do have a lot of intriguing wonders behind them. More than anything else, they introduced us to a time when boxing was about the best fighting the best and in some straight forward way, Liston taking on Ali not once but twice is a pathway; thus giving the boxing world a foundation to see Ali build his greatness on top of this one of a kind sport named, Boxing.