On May 25, 1965, Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston in the first round of a heavyweight bout that produced one of the strangest finishes in boxing history as well as one of sports’ most iconic moments — photos of Ali hovering over Liston on the canvas, shouting at his opponent to get up.
After the fight, the 23-year-old Ali called the punch that dropped Liston his secret: “It was a phantom punch.”
“It was lightning and thunder — fast as lightning and booming as thunder from the heavens,” Ali said.
Liston, who was a slight favorite going into the fight, said afterward that when he got up, he thought the fight was still on.
“No, I didn’t hear the count,” said Liston, who lost on a 12 count according to the timekeeper. “Didn’t you see us start the fight again? When (the referee) stepped in I thought the bell had rung.”
Fifty years later, the AP is making the original story and photos of the fight available, including the black-and-white shot by AP photographer John Rooney of Ali standing over Liston, which won the World Press Photo award for best sports photo in 1965. The same moment was famously captured in color by Neil Leifer of Sports Illustrated, one of the most well-known sports photos of all time.
Who blew the count in the bizarre Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston heavyweight title fight?
Was it Jersey Joe Walcott, the battered old ex-champion who served as referee?
Was it timekeeper Francis McDonough of Portland, Maine?
Was it Liston who lay sprawled on the canvas, got up, fell again and then became in one minute flat the quickest knockout victim of all time in heavyweight fighting?
Or is the argument all academic — punctuated with a resounding period by Muhammad Ali, the worshipper of Allah, who conquered with what he called his precious secret — the anchor punch which Jack Johnson took to his grave?
The controversy of the quickest and strangest heavyweight fight in history continued to rage today while some stunned spectators — those who saw it live and the millions who watched on closed TV — yelled “fix!” and “fake!”
From the $100 seats, men who only got a minute’s entertainment for their outlay let out a howl that rocked the St. Dom’s Youth Center.
“Fix, fix,” yelled scores in the sparse crowd in the matchbox arena.
“That’s the end of boxing,” grumbled another $100 patron.
It was a strange climax to a fight that was implausible from the beginning — staged in this obscure town in the Maine woods before a handful of blase Down Easterners more interested in how the trout were mating in the Androscoggin River.
The fight started normally, with Clay moving like a butterfly and stinging like a bee and the grim, scowling Liston stalking and moving in.
Then suddenly, Clay lashed out with an overhand right that traveled only a few inches.
The massive, 215 1/4 pound Liston thumped to the canvas like a stricken ox. He lay there a moment, then tried to get to his feet only to fall back again.
Walcott appeared confused. He looked around dazedly for the timekeeper. Then he hovered over Liston.
When Liston fell back a second time, Walcott walked to the edge of the ring. Liston rose and the fight continued — in a state of chaos. Clay belted the challenger three times before Walcott rushed in to end the fight.
Then Johnny Addle went to the microphone and announced: “The winner and still champion — Muhammad Ali. The time: One minute.”
There was wild confusion about the official time. It was important because at one minute it became the quickest knockout in heavyweight history.
Many said it was 1 minute, 45 seconds.
“It was one minute,” said George Russo, the chairman of the Maine Boxing Commission. “There was nothing suspicious about the fight.”
Liston complained afterward that he was waiting to hear Walcott’s count. He never heard it.
“I could have got up, but I didn’t hear the count,” he complained.
The timekeeper, McDonough, said Walcott was looking at the crowd and never at him.
Walcott contended he was trying to get Clay into a neutral corner and he expected the timekeeper to continue the count while he performed these chores.
But he couldn’t find the timekeeper.
Under boxing rules, the timekeeper is supposed to start the count at the time of a knockdown. The referee’s duty is to get the fighter to a neutral corner, pick up the count from the timekeeper and continue it aloud over the knockdown victim.