On This Day: Ali-Liston II, The “Phantom Punch” And The Debate That Will Never Go Away!

Has there ever been a more controversial first round KO in heavyweight history than the KO – or the supposed KO, the faked KO, the “Phantom Punch” KO – that went down in Lewiston, Maine on this day back in 1965? It’s doubtful. All these years, indeed decades later, and for every ten people you ask what really happened when Muhammad Ali met Sonny Liston in their rematch (the return following a wholly controversial, some say fixed first fight), these ten folks will give you a totally different version than the story ten other people will offer you.

Amidst talk of possible assassination, of both fighters, with stories swirling about how Liston had been ordered to take a dive, the rematch – a fight that no town other than Lewiston was willing to host – came and went in a flash. A dizzying, ‘what the hell happened there,’ kind of a flash.

What we do know is this: Liston went down in the opening round of the Ali return, this after mere seconds, and from a seemingly innocuous blow. Ali stood over the fallen Liston, screaming at him to “get up, no-one will believe this!” And 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” really catch Liston by surprise and legitimately 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 a firm opinion on what you have just watched.

What we do know is this: Ali definitely and absolutely lands a punch; we can see when looking at the video how Ali’s pectoral muscles clearly flex as he lands his swift right hand to the head. Liston’s head then 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 do so.

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 – this some 15 months after the first fight – Liston was unable to push his ageing body through such training hell again.

So did Ali, the fastest heavyweight of all-time, tag Liston on the temple, with the combined weight of Liston’s rushing in and the chopping force of the blow taking 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 motions do look incredibly suspect. Liston finally does make it to his feet, however, but referee Joe Walcott screws things up royally 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 a sure bet, though, that there will never, ever be a time when all fans agree on what happened all those years/decades ago in Lewiston, Maine.

Ali KO1 Liston has retained its place as the most fascinating, debated, puzzling and controversial heavyweight title fight of all time. And it doesn’t seem any fighter will ever knock it off its perch.