The great Robert Rubino and I engaged in a writing debate. On the 50th anniversary of Ali-Liston II, was the fight on the level or a fraud? I say it was a fraud. Robert disagrees. Here is a link to my side of the argument. The full text of my article runs below:
It was the phoniest knockout I ever saw, that time Muhammad Ali put down Sonny Liston for the count in some town called Lewiston, Maine, because the fight got run out of Boston. Fifty years ago. Today. The bout — heavyweight championship of the world — took place in a junior hockey rink.
When Liston couldn’t stand up in 10 seconds from a punch that could not break a quail’s egg, I knew the fight was fixed. I still do.
Certain things I know to be true. The Earth revolves around the sun. No matter what they say, dry cleaners cannot get mustard stains off a blue oxford shirt. Liston took a dive in Ali-Liston II. Everything else under the sun is up for grabs.
It was the first round. Liston threw a lazy left jab. Ali — he had changed his name from Clay — threw a right over Liston’s left. Ali was moving backward. He was on his toes like a ballet dancer. He put no body behind the punch. It had less oomph than a jab, although it had the force of an energetic exhale or a vigorous love tap.
Liston, who had Superman’s jaw, fell down like Ali dropped a safe on his head. He rolled around on the canvas, playing his part. He tried to get up. He fell down again. He was impersonating a fighter who’d been hurt, and doing a crummy job at it.
Liston had cleaned up the heavyweight division, destroyed big punchers like ferocious Cleveland Williams. And this “thing” — I can’t call it a punch — knocked him goofy.
While Liston did his writhing act, shenanigans took place in the ring. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott lost his train of thought and talked to a writer at ringside while the fighters, with nothing better to do, started fox trotting around the ring. Then somebody told Walcott Ali really had knocked out Liston. And the fraud fight ended.
Not that Ali was party to the rip-off. It was all Liston. He had lost to Ali in February 1964 in Miami Beach in another strange fight. Liston was a classic bully. Scared guys to death and then punched them out. Opponents shook with fear. But when someone stood up to him, fought back, actually had talent, Liston revealed his true heart — a shriveled pea. Ali stood up in the first fight. Was the most talented heavyweight ever.
Liston did not train hard for their first fight. That is the back story. He thought loud Clay — Clay was his name at the time — would be a pushover. Liston had not prepared to go 15 rounds, figured the fight would end in one or two. But Ali jabbed the skin around Liston’s eyes like someone mincing an onion. Liston’s face puffed up. He had trouble seeing. He had trouble hitting Ali and followed him around the ring like a dope. He’d never learned how to cut off the ring. Never had to.
In the sixth round, Liston slowed down. Breathed hard. A man lugging around concrete at a construction site. But he threw left jabs and, with 10 seconds remaining in the round, he threw a left hook. You must know this. He threw lefts. On his stool before the seventh round, he quit. Quit on his stool. Compare him to Manny Pacquiao who would fight to the death.
Liston said his left shoulder had a boo-boo. Said he couldn’t throw his left.
Look at the tape. He lied. He had reached the inescapable conclusion he would lose the first fight. Be humiliated. He must have told himself, “Who needs this?” It was the first “no mas” fight, the actual no mas fight was when Roberto Duran quit against Sugar Ray Leonard in November 1980 at the Superdome in New Orleans. “No mas,” Duran said. Liston didn’t speak Spanish.
Going into the second fight, Liston knew he could not defeat Ali. He would lose and look bad doing it. So he decided to lose with minimum fuss. Minimum risk. He would take a light punch — lighter than thousands he absorbed every day in the gym — and impersonate a fighter getting knocked out.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, whom Liston knocked out twice in the first round. I spoke to Patterson in 1989 at his upstate New York ranch. Patterson attended Ali-Liston II as a spectator.
“I knew how Liston felt,” Patterson told me. “The whole crowd was behind Clay. There was Liston alone. When he left the arena, I watched him and followed him. When you’re on top, everybody’s with you. When you lose, people aren’t with you anymore. When I was the champion, my phone rang all the time. I heard from cousins I didn’t even know I had. After I lost the title, my phone would go two weeks without ringing, and then it was my mother to see if I was OK.
“I followed Liston to his hotel and called him from the lobby phone. He said, ‘Come up.’ When I went into his room, he answered the door. He was alone. I thought his handlers would be there, but they weren’t.
“I went up there to let him know I went through the same thing when he beat me. We sat and talked. It was a funny thing. He was a big brute of a man, but he could not look me in my face. He kept turning away. He would look at me for a second and then he would look down. I don’t know why. Maybe he was embarrassed. I would have loved to know what was going through his mind.”
I said, “There’s been speculation that he threw the fight. Do you think he was ashamed of that?”
“I thought that, too. Clay was not a puncher. I know because I fought him twice. I saw Cleveland Williams hit Liston with everything, and Liston just walked through it. When Clay knocked Liston out, he threw a punch almost like a push. Then Liston rolled around on the canvas. I found it hard to believe. At the time, I said he had grown old. I don’t know. I stayed with Sonny about half an hour. He didn’t add much to the conversation. After a while, I started running out of words. It’s hard to keep a conversation going when one guy isn’t talking. So I left.”
Liston could not look Patterson in the eye. In Patterson’s stare Liston felt humiliated, diminished, perhaps even guilty — if he was capable of guilt. Patterson got knocked out five times but never once quit. Sonny Liston avoided the eyes of Floyd Patterson in that lonely post-loss hotel room because he couldn’t face the truth.
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