Nearly 55 years ago Ali stopped Liston with one controversial punch
It has been over half-a-century, yet the controversial one round rematch of Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston still stands out, as one of the most intriguing historical fights in the history of heavyweight boxing.
Let’s set the stage:
As we have written previously, Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, had stunned the overwhelming favorite and hard-punching heavyweight champ Liston in a February of 1964 upset in Miami Beach, FL. Clays jab, lightning quick combinations and lateral movement bothered Liston throughout that first fight. And, apparently Liston also injured his shoulder at some point early in the fight making him give up on his stool after the 6th round.
So, the fighters naturally wanted to get back in the ring and have a second battle, which was very common back in the fifties and sixties in boxing. However, outside the ring, in the interim after Clay’s victory in Miami he embraced Islam and changed his name briefly to “Cassius X.” However, soon Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad, changed Clay/X’s name to Muhammad Ali.
This obviously rankled millions and millions of white Americans at a time of serious racial segregation and divide that plagued the country in the mid-1960s.
Meanwhile, Liston who had been in prison previously, was arrested right after the first fight in March of 1964 near Denver Colorado. He was charged with speeding, careless and reckless driving, driving without a license and carrying a concealed weapon, which was a loaded .22 caliber pistol. Liston received a 30 day suspended sentence.
So, needless to say, controversy was fueling the second fight.
Watch us debate whether Ali’s punch was legit or was it a “dive” by Liston on the latest Big Fight Weekend podcast/video simulcast:
It was originally slated for the legendary Boston Garden, the home of the Celtics and the Bruins, for November. However, Ali suffered a hernia injury training in the weeks leading up to the fight and it was postponed for 6 months into May of 1965.
The controversy continued to grow about Ali’s association with the Nation of Islam, and also wide spread rumors and belief that Liston had purposely lost the first fight and that organized crime, primarily in Las Vegas, made huge money off the upset.
Next, the WBA announced that it was stripping Ali of its version of the title, because he had secretly agreed to another rematch clause to potentially fight Liston a third time in a row instead of fighting another WBA contender. The WBA leaned heavily on the state of Massachusetts not to license the fight. And, authorities in Massachusetts, who were already concerned about the rumors that the fight was going to be “fixed” or the outcome pre-determined, agreed and informed Liston’s promoter just 18 days before the rescheduled date that it could not be held in Boston.
That’s how Inter-Continental Promotions ended up heading almost 150 miles north to the small town of Lewiston, Maine, which had never held a championship prize fight. They found a hockey arena that seated approximately 4,500 people, including folding chairs on the melted ice. Predictably, scrambling to promote in the area and sell tickets, they still came up well short, as media accounts from the night of the fight said there were hundreds of empty seats inside the building then-known as, the Central Maine Youth Center.
Still, the bigger revenue came from the “closed-circuit TV” deal to show the rematch of Ali-Liston. Dozens of outlets all over the country, primarily movie theaters, and large ballrooms had to fight on their movie big screen representing tons of money.
When Ali and Liston finally stepped through the ropes, the controversy outside of the ring was then trumped about what happened in the one and only round of the fight.
As the video shows Ali landed what looks like a flicking straight right punch on the chin of Liston. And, you can clearly see the referee and former heavyweight champ himself, Jersey Joe Walcott, struggling to get Ali to go to a neutral corner, so that he can pick up the count with Liston being on the canvas.
Then, further confusion was, when Walcott got called over to the official counting for the knockdown. That’s when Walcott disappeared from the video frame. That official informed Walcott that he had counted to Ten and the fight should be over.
Meanwhile, as you see in the video, Liston jumped up off the canvas and he and Ali began to fight, again, without Walcott there. Walcott then came between them, signaled the fight over, and Ali was declared the winner in just 2: 12 of the first.
Walcott said in an interview immediately after the fight, that he was concerned that Ali had such a “crazed look in his eye” that he was either going to stomp on Liston or try to hit him, as he was getting up off the ground. So, his main concern was to get Ali to corner away from Liston rolling on the canvas.
Of course, the outcry ringside and nationwide was that the fight was “fixed,” and that Liston had essentially intended to go down in the first round, at the first legitimate punch, because gamblers and organized crime would be betting heavily on him to do so. The conspiracy gained more credibility, as Liston had never been knocked down, not once, much less knocked out. And Ali had never scored a one punch knockout in the first round of any of his professional fights.
Liston told the media after the fight that the punch had caught him off guard, but he was further confused, because Walcott was not counting over him and he did not ever hear a 10 count.
Most did not buy that at the time, and still don’t, more than 50 years later.
Nevertheless, Ali got his second straight win over Liston, and it catapulted to stardom not only in the ring, but later on with refusing his entry into the Vietnam War over the next few years. Ali eventually prevailed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Still, now over 50 years later, we look back at Ali’s early career, and at May 25th, 1965, which was definitely his craziest title fight ever.