Ali’s legacy lives on to this day.
Muhammad Ali called it his “anchor punch”, a quick right hand that the young heavyweight champion claimed he learned from his friend, actor Stepin Fetchit. To the rest of the world he would be known as “The Phantom Punch”.
This blow, with which Ali dropped Sonny Liston on May 25, 1965, was far from a ghost. The right hand landed flush in the face of Liston, who despite surprisingly losing to Ali a year earlier was still a favorite heading into their rematch. What people are debating to this day is if the punch had enough force to knock out a durable but aging former heavyweight champion.
In fact, Liston took the punch and fell flat on his back, then struggled to get back up before falling back down. Ali stood over Liston and demanded he get up before running around the ring with his hands in the air. Liston stood up defenseless, but Jersey referee Joe Walcott stopped the fight on the advice of The Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer, who told Walcott from his seat next to the timekeeper that the count had reached twelve .
Even Ali didn’t seem to know what had happened.
“The punch that won the fight for me, I believe, was a left hook or a right cross. I really can’t think because it was going too fast,” Ali said in the post-fight interview. Later, he regained his bravado to insist that it was all part of his plan.
“Didn’t I tell the world I had a surprise?” And that if I told you the surprise you would not come to the fight, ”added Ali.
The rematch was originally scheduled for November 16, 1964, but hernia surgery delayed the fight by six months. The fight was moved to a new venue and date, but the controversy was just beginning.
Moments after the fight ended in anticlimactic fashion, fans started shouting “Fix!” in the ring. Some had speculated that Liston, who had longstanding ties to organized crime, initiated the fight. Another theory was that Liston quit because he feared Ali’s ties to the Nation of Islam.
Yet others thought Liston was simply a veteran who walked headlong into a punch he didn’t see and split with a single blow.
The knockout, and his many years after at the top of the heavyweight picture, proved that Ali’s big upset the previous year was no fluke. Ali would essentially clean up the division over the next few years, making eight successful defenses before being stripped of the championship for refusing induction into the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He would be champion again in 1974, knocking out Liston protege George Foreman in another big upset.
For Liston, the second straight loss to Ali would spell the end of his reign as a heavyweight. He would go on to win a string of victories against overmatched opponents before a knockout loss to Leotis Martin in 1969 put the exclamation mark on his descent.
Fifty-seven years later, the debate over what happened in Lewiston continues to rage.