On This Date in Sports May 25, 1965: The Phantom Punch

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In a rematch of their fight from 15 months earlier, Muhammad Ali defends his heavyweight championship with a first-round knockout of Sonny Liston. The fight in Lewiston, Maine, is especially controversial as it appeared Liston took a dive on a phantom punch 2:12 into the first round. The match would forever tarnish the image of Sonny Liston, who was believed to have taken a dive to pay off gambling debts.

It was a long road between the first fight won by Ali on February 25, 1964, in Miami. A day after winning the heavyweight title, when Sonny Liston could not answer the bell for the seventh round, Cassius Clay announced he was converting to Islam and changing his name. The rematch was initially set for November 16, 1964, at the Boston Garden. However, just three days before the fight, Ali underwent emergency surgery to repair a strangulated hernia.

The fight was still expected to occur in Boston on May 25, 1965, as Muhammad Ali needed six months to recover from his surgery. Sonny Liston was arrested as the fight approached, prompting fears among state officials of Liston’s connection to organized crime as they refused to license the fight. Forced to scramble for a new venue, the promoters settled on Lewiston, Maine, a town 140 miles north of Boston, keeping the date on track.

With Elijah Muhammad and Fruit of Islam in Ali’s corner, there was a fear of violence in Lewiston as the fight approached. The fight was held at a hockey rink called the Central Maine Youth Center. This significantly suppressed attendance as the building, which sat 4,900 fans, had just 2,434 fans in attendance. It is the record for the smallest crowd to witness a heavyweight title fight.

Former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott served as a special guest referee for the rematch between Ali and Liston. As with most big fights, the two fighters felt each other out in the early stages of the first round, when suddenly Sonny Liston went down on a punch nobody saw. Muhammad Ali stood over the former champion, yelling for him to get up as Walcott began a late count. Liston, at first, appeared to be getting up and laid back down as Ali danced around the ring before finally getting to a neutral corner. Finally making it to his feet, the fight was set to resume when the referee said that Liston did not beat the count of ten. The fight was over, though Ali’s delay in getting a neutral corner should have given Liston more time to get up; the fight was over at 2:12 of the first round. The small crown jeered, saying that it was fixed.


The fight would have no effect on the legacy of Muhammad Ali, who became one of the greatest fighters of all time and fought in some of the greatest matches in boxing history; the fight, however, destroyed Sonny Liston, as it took nearly three years to get another fight in the United States.  During that time, he fought several times in Sweden.  Sonny Liston continued to fight over the next few years until 1970, when he was found dead in his Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971. t was determined he died a week earlier from a heroin overdose.