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Boxing / Editorial

Ali vs. Liston 2: What Really Happened?

Lou Eisen / August 29, 2012 - 10:50am

For some 47 years now, fight fans around the world have debated endlessly whether or not the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, fought at St. Dominic’s Hall on May 25th, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine was on the level.

There are people who were there and witnessed the fight first hand and still to this day, claim that it was a fixed fight.  On the other hand, there are an equal number of live attendees who claimed that Ali caught Liston on the chin with a solid, short, counter right hand over a lazy left jab, causing Liston to crumple to the canvas. There are some well-known facts about the fight. There are also some facts that the public may not be very familiar with but nonetheless heavily influenced the outcome of the fight.

The controversial outcome of their second fight was directly rooted in the controversial outcome of their first encounter. When Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to win the undisputed world heavyweight title on February 25th, 1964, at the Convention Hall in Miami, Florida, there were many fans and boxing insiders who thought that fight was fixed.

Fans and media were certainly stunned into incredulity by Cassius Clay’s surprise upset victory over Liston in their first fight. More so it was the manner in which Clay won that left veteran writers and boxing insiders stupefied. It is still not perfectly clear to this very day why Liston, an overwhelming 10 to 1 favorite, simply quit on his stool in his corner after the sixth round, dejectedly spitting out his mouthpiece, while giving up his title. World heavyweight champions are supposed to go out on their shields.

Liston surrendered the world heavyweight title, because he had torn a muscle in his left shoulder during the bout and thus could no longer raise his left arm, or so he claimed. At the hospital later on, a doctor confirmed that Liston did indeed have a slight muscle tear in his left shoulder. The other theory that still remains to this day is that Liston quit on his stool to avoid being knocked out cold. This is believable when you consider how out of shape and slow Liston looked during the fight.

It seemed utterly farfetched that a little muscle tear could make a human threshing machine like Liston call it quits in his corner like a spoiled brat.  Just a few years earlier, in Philadelphia, it took 25 police officers with billy clubs to subdue a drunken and enraged Liston. It just didn’t seem plausible at the time that a minor shoulder injury could cut short the title reign of perhaps the hardest puncher in heavyweight history.

The truth of why he quit on his stool goes a lot deeper than a torn shoulder muscle. For starters, Liston had not really trained much for Clay because Clay was not really regarded back then as a legitimate title challenger. He was looked on as something of a buffoon.

Liston genuinely believed he was going to KO Clay in a single round. Liston often said during training camp leading up to the fight, “I don’t know why I am training so hard for this punk kid. I am going to kill him in one round.” Liston was promised $1.2 million dollars for his title defense against Cassius Clay.

Although Clay’s team had full confidence in his abilities, they still had an ambulance and a neurosurgeon on standby in case Liston caught him with a big shot and did some serious damage. Once the fight began, it soon became apparent that Clay’s dazzling footwork and scintillating hand speed was just too much for the older (rumored to be in his early 40’s), out of shape Liston. Just before the end of the opening round, Clay caught Liston with a thudding right hand, opening a substantial cut just over the champion’s left eye. In just under three minutes, Clay had destroyed the invincibility myth that surrounded Liston.

Clay staggered the champion numerous times in the opening rounds with blistering combinations. As the fight progressed, Liston became very tired and quite discouraged. Clay was beating the hell out of him in front of the world. Liston’s title was slipping away. So was his self-respect.

Liston was promised $1.2 million dollars for his title defense against Clay. The check he received was for $13,000 dollars. Why was the amount on the check so much lower than what he had been promised? The answer to that question is easy. Mob tax. Essentially, the Mob ran up huge expenses on Liston’s tab, regardless of whether or not the expenses had anything to do with training camp or the fight.

The Mob robbed Liston blind. They did this to all of their fighters. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Liston also had to pay all state and federal taxes out of his end as well as the training camp and advertising costs. Then the mob took the rest. There was nothing Liston could do about it either. If he went public with that information, he would have most certainly been killed.

Liston left Miami for his home in Denver, after the fight without his title, his money and his sense of self worth. When he arrived home, he looked in the mirror and what he saw disturbed him greatly. Liston had sustained a broken nose, a busted left cheekbone and a hairline fracture of his left orbital bone. When you add a damaged left shoulder into the mix, Liston must have thought that was a lot of punishment to take for a measly $13 grand.

One can well imagine what went through Liston’s mind once the rematch was set up. No doubt he thought, “Why take more punishment for another $13,000 grand?” In Liston’s mind, it just wasn’t worth it. Or was it? Liston truly enjoyed being the world heavyweight champion and all of the requisite perks that went with it. He loved being recognized as the champ.

For the rematch, Liston trained like a demon every day, seven days a week. He was fiercely determined to get his title back. He pushed himself to the absolute limit of his physical abilities every day. He neither smoked nor drank while in training, a rarity for him. Come fight time, Liston was in the best shape of his entire career. His reflexes were perfectly honed and ready to spring like a steel trap. Liston felt that he was so close to regaining his title and self-respect that he could almost taste the glory. Then disaster struck.

During the last week of training camp for the rematch, the newly named Muhammad Ali collapsed in the gym with a ruptured hernia. He was rushed to the hospital where emergency surgery was performed to repair the hernia. The fight was postponed for six months. With the delay of the match, Liston became very depressed and began to drink and smoke in copious amounts. He never trained for the rematch again. He had given up on himself.

Acclaimed boxing writer Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star Ledger, told me once that he was at Liston’s training camp the weekend before the rematch took place. He said Liston looked horrible. His balance was off and he kept falling in the ring. He was also unable to get a rhythm going on the speed bag. Liston’s body was no longer toned and fit. He was noticeably flabby and out of shape and gasping for air. Izenberg turned to another writer and said rhetorically, “This guy’s going to fight for the heavyweight title?”

Liston’s purse for the rematch was supposed to be identical to his wages for his original encounter with Clay/Ali, $1.2 million dollars.  Once again he was handed a check for $13,000 prior to the fight. There is another factor to consider here that may have deeply affected Liston during the fight, which is the murder of Malcolm X. Ali and Malcolm had been close. They had a falling out, which Ali still regrets to this day.

There was a lot of talk in the media about the possibility of Nation of Islam assassins driving to Lewiston, Maine to kill Ali. Such talk terrified Liston. Liston thought what if they missed and killed him instead. It was clear that Liston did not want to be in Lewiston, Maine at that time.

When all of these disparate factors are added together, it makes perfect sense to think that Liston took a dive. However, as convincing as all of the above factors can be, they are refuted by one thing – the film of the fight.

Liston did get hit a legitimate shot squarely on the point of his chin and he hit the canvas in a heap.  The series of moves Ali used to KO Liston were designed by Angelo Dundee and Ali used them many times throughout his illustrious career to KO such fighters as Zora Folley, Cleveland Williams, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger, and George Foreman. Watch the films of those fights and you will see Ali do the same three things over and over again.

Angelo called it, “Slip, slide and bang!”  Liston made a beginner’s mistake that led to his own downfall. Liston lunged with his left jab. As anyone in boxing can tell you, whenever a fighter lunges, he is off-balance and highly susceptible to getting knocked out with a quick counter punch. When you watch the film, you see that Liston’s head is out over his front foot, which means that he was dangerously off-balance and wide open to a quick, powerful counter right hand. Ali slipped Liston’s jab, slid to his right maybe three inches to create an angle, and then threw the now famous picture perfect counter right hand to end the fight. Liston was off balance and took the whole brunt of the shot on his chin.  He was down for more than ten seconds. Whatever happened after that is prologue.

Liston said years later, “I was off balance and he caught me with a stiff right hand. It rattled me. My head really hurt. It was a good shot.” Liston was mortal after all. Upon entering the ring that night, Liston was cheered vociferously by the crowd in attendance while Ali was booed with equal ferocity. It was the first and sadly, the last time Liston was ever cheered during a fight.

The film clip shows it all. When Liston finally did rise, Ali jumped on him, landing dozens of punches prior to Walcott stopping the fight. Even if Walcott had not stopped the fight, Liston would never have made it out of the first round. The knockout was genuine. Both men never faced each other again in the ring. They are however, forever linked, by their two title fights together, both of which ended in controversy.

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