Editor’s note: In his eye-opening new book, “Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream,” Jack Cashill un-tells what may be the most mis-told story of the late 20th century – the heroic rise of boxer Muhammad Ali. This re-telling sheds bright new light on some slighted boxing greats like Joe Louis, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, and reveals the surprising role that Christianity has played in the sports culture. Today, we cover part 5 in this special 10-part series.
Despite his championship status, Ali was one anxious man in the spring of 1965. In addition to the very real fear of facing Sonny Liston once again, his marriage was in shambles, and his life in jeopardy.
On Feb. 21, the night of Malcolm’s assassination, a highly suspicious fire erupted in his apartment. Two days later, someone firebombed the Nation of Islam headquarters in New York. As Ali trained for his May rematch with Liston, he had reason to be grateful for the protection the FBI offered.
“The atmosphere surrounding the fight was ugly,” reflects sportswriter Jerry Izenberg. Rumors abounded of a retaliatory strike against Ali. There were rumors, too, of Muslim threats against Liston. The stone-faced Fruit of Islam guards were intimidating and everywhere. Although Izenberg would accept Ali as “Ali” long before most of his peers, the Ali of this period unnerved him.
Izenberg recounts an impromptu press conference a week or so before the fight. When a reporter asked Ali if he was worried about Malcolm’s “people,” Ali snapped back, “What people. Malcolm ain’t got no people.” Izenberg was one of the few journalists of the period, in or out of sports, to respect Malcolm X. It chilled him that Ali would dismiss the now dead Malcolm so coldly just “because somebody tells you he’s nobody.”
Held in the unlikely town of Lewiston, Maine, this second Liston fight proved to be more “Punch and Judy” than the expected horror show. It began much like the one in Miami with Liston stalking and Ali circling and jabbing. Less than two minutes in, while many in the small crowd were still settling into their seats, Liston slumped on to the canvas.
“What happened?” Ferdie Pacheco remembers the crowd shrieking as if one. Ali, understanding the ramifications, stood above Liston yelling, “Get up, you bum. No one is going to believe this.”
Almost too casually, Liston rolled over on to his back and looked up at the ranting Ali. Celebrity referee Jersey Joe Walcott could not begin the count until Ali headed for a neutral corner, but Walcott was slow to corral him. Meanwhile, boxing historian Nat Fleischer – “a little, wrinkled old man,” as Pacheco describes him – ran down to the ring and started shouting that more than 10 seconds had expired, and the fight was over.
In the midst of all the confusion, Liston had gotten up and resumed fighting. Yielding to Fleischer’s authority, although he had none, Walcott stopped the fight. The crowd started chanting, “Fix, fix, fix.” Given the circumstances, their outrage seemed more understandable than anything else that had transpired.
Even in replay, the celebrated knock-out punch is hard to see. “I’m so fast, I even missed the punch on TV,” Ali would admit. In time, he would come to call it his “anchor punch.” Most everyone else refers to it as “the phantom punch.” Jose Torres, broadcasting for a Spanish language station in New York, recorded his commentary, and again he was on the money, “a perfect shot to the jaw, right on the button and Liston is down.”
When later asked by the California boxing commission why he did not get up, Liston replied, “Commissioner, Muhammad Ali is a crazy man.” Liston then made an entirely rational case that a manic Ali, still in center ring, could smack him down as soon as he tried to stand up. Torres makes the equally rational case that Liston feared the Muslims a good deal more than he feared Ali.
Whatever the true explanation, it went to the grave with Sonny six years later.
“Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream” is the latest work of hard-hitting author and WND contributor Jack Cashill, and is the first comprehensive, pull-no-punches account of America’s least likely icon.
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