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Undoubtedly the most iconic image in sporting history, Muhammad Ali’s ‘Phantom Punch’ is as impactful as it is intriguing, with the questions asked on that day still unanswered over half a century later.
Very few people, even those at ringside, saw the famed fighter’s legendary punch that knocked out the fearsome Sonny Liston on May 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine, but it changed boxing history forever.
In the midst of the era’s turbulent social, political and cultural maelstrom, the former Cassius Clay, fighting for the first time as Muhammad Ali, took just one minute and 44 seconds to demolish Liston’s attempt to recapture his world heavyweight crown in the rematch with his bitter rival.
The devastating defeat effectively ended the career of ‘The Big Bear’, who had once been deemed as unbeatable, and it did as much as any other single incident to create the imperishable legend of Ali.
In a battle between the Nation of Islam and the local mobsters, who controlled a large part of the boxing world, both sides won.
Elijah Muhammad and his disciples gained the publicity that accrued from a freshly crowned champion making a successful first defence of the esteemed world heavyweight title under his new Muslim name.
The mobsters took their profit on large sums of cash staked at favourable odds when their man was sent to the canvas by what appeared to be an innocuous right-hander.
The term ‘speed kills’ is often repeated in boxing terminology, but endless replays of the minimal available footage have failed to solve the mystery of what became known as “the phantom punch”.
Whatever it was, it caused Liston – who had come into the ring looking like his usual 215lb package of muscle and malice – to fall on his back, roll over on to his front, try to rise, fail, then try again and briefly succeed before the confused referee – former champion Jersey Joe Walcott – belatedly indicated, after consulting the timekeeper, that the challenger had not made the count of 10.
Liston’s close association and former employment under St Louis mob boss John Vitale raised suspicions of foul play. During his rise towards international fame as a fighter, he was managed by Frank “Blinky” Palermo, a Philadelphian-based associate of the notorious Frankie Carbo, who – among other distinctions – had organised the murder of Bugsy Siegel in 1947.
The pair were later convicted of conspiracy and extortion in connection with their boxing activities and Palermo served seven years of a 25-year prison sentence before dying, aged 91, in 1996. He left behind a celebrated quote: “The trouble with boxing today is that legitimate businessmen are horning in on our game.”
The protagonist of the story went on to defend his title eight times in the next 21 months before his opposition to the Vietnam war cruelly led him to be stripped of his title and facing imprisonment.
Despite having unfortunately forfeited a big stretch of his prime, Ali justly ended his career in 1981 – 20 years on from his professional boxing debut – as the single greatest sportsman ever!