Ali-Liston II And The “Phantom Punch” – 56 Years Old And Still Dividing Opinions

Was it a punch nobody saw, or was it a punch Sonny Liston never saw? It was 56 years ago today, May 25th, 1965, when Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston met in their rematch. At the time, all those people who were hoping the issue of whether or not Ali had really and legitimately won the first fight would be cleared up some, well, they wound up being as disappointed as they were confused.

“He’s over and I don’t know what’s happened there,” bellowed esteemed British commentator Harry Carpenter as Liston went down in the opening round of the Ali return, seemingly from an innocuous blow.

To this day, the debate – over whether the fight-ending knockdown was legit or in fact fake – rages on. Did Liston take a dive, or did Ali’s “Anchor Punch” catch Liston by surprise and knock him off his feet?

The footage of the fight has been studied and put under the microscope many millions of times by many, many people, and it is hard indeed to see for sure what happened, to make up one’s mind. Watch one superbly put together documentary that argues how the whole thing was a fake, an organised (most likely by the Mob) tank job, and you come away convinced that, yeah, Sonny took a dive.

Watch an equally well put together film that argues the opposite, that Ali, a master counter-puncher, tagged an onrushing Liston with an accurate and sharp punch the former heavyweight champ never saw, and you go away certain the whole thing was for real.

Ali DOES land a punch; we can see when looking at the video (yet again) how Ali’s pectoral muscles clearly flex, Liston’s head drops, Sonny’s foot is lifted off the canvas, and down he goes. But did Liston go down by choice? This we will never know, nor will we ever know if Liston could have jumped right back up if he’d so wanted to.

Angelo Dundee always said he thought the shot caught Liston on the temple. If so, the chopping punch would certainly have had an effect. Liston was, we must remember, an old man by the time of the rematch. And possibly a discouraged and disinterested old man. Liston, after the shock of the defeat he had taken in the first fight with the then Cassius Clay, reportedly whipped himself into fantastic shape for the return. But then, to Sonny’s dismay, Ali went down with a hernia and the fight was off. By the time the sequel finally rolled around, Liston was unable to push his ageing body through such training hell again.

So, Ali, the fastest heavyweight of all-time, tags Liston on the temple, and the combined weight of Liston’s rushing in and the chopping force of the blow takes him down. Liston’s actions immediately following the knockdown might be what really triggered the conspiracy theories. It cannot be denied how Liston’s rolling around actions do look incredibly suspect. Liston finally does make it to his feet, but referee Joe Walcott screws things up royally (this also adding to the whole sense of incredulity and doubt over the fight and its shock ending) and it’s all over.

Maybe today fight fans are pretty much split down the middle, with half feeling the fight was a fix, the other half feeling things were on the level. It seems there will never be a time when all fans agree, one way or the other.