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‘Phantom Punch’ bout was Boston’s phantom fight

The "Phantom Punch" fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston took place on May 25, 1965.AP

Fifty years ago, Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round of a heavyweight title fight at Lewiston’s Central Maine Youth Center. The decisive blow, a right-hand counter, was so quick that many spectators didn’t see it. This “phantom punch” left Lewiston with a black eye — a black eye that would have been Boston’s if the fight had been held at the Garden, as originally scheduled.

Rob Sneddon, author of the book "The Phantom Punch," due out in October, recounts why the fight was moved.

* * *

It became a joke — and not a very good one.

“They moved the fight because Boston doesn’t allow dancing after eight o’clock,” Johnny Carson said on the Tonight Show.


That was as good an explanation as any for why the second world heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, scheduled for Boston Garden on May 25, 1965, ended up at Lewiston’s Central Maine Youth Center instead.

The Boston promoter, Sam Silverman, attributed the move to “a lot of legal technicalities and foolishness.”

Silverman, known as “Suitcase Sam” for his fly-by-night ways, had spent two decades navigating those pesky legal technicalities. He’d had his misunderstandings with those on the other side of the law, too. The biggest, in 1954, ended with a dynamite explosion at his house in Chelsea.

Silverman told police that “a defective refrigerator” caused the blast. “Who the hell knows who did it?” he later told Sports Illustrated. “In this business you’re always in a jam with somebody.”

Silverman’s ultimate goal was to promote a heavyweight title fight at the Garden. Losing Ali–Liston was shattering. He would never get a better chance; Boston had landed the bout only because no other city wanted it. Among those that passed were Ali’s hometown, Louisville, and that pillar of virtue, Las Vegas.


The Ali–Liston rematch was radioactive because of suspicions about their first encounter. Liston, the champion, had relinquished the title to Ali in a major upset at Miami Beach on Feb. 25, 1964.

Liston had learned to box in the Missouri State Penitentiary. His mob connections were well documented. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had prosecuted some of Liston’s racketeer associates. And before Liston fought Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title in 1962, President John F. Kennedy told Patterson, “You’ve got to beat this guy.”

Instead, Liston destroyed Patterson in the first round. He did it again the next year. He looked invincible.

Ali, still known as Cassius Clay, looked very vincible. He got a title shot mostly because of what one wire service called his “goofy glamour.” He predicted his knockouts in rhyme. He released a seminal rap album called "I Am the Greatest!" Sample song title: “Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down.”

It was like the class clown tweaking the class bully. Few experts gave “Gaseous Cassius” a chance to even survive the first round. Liston was a 7–1 favorite.

So when Liston quit after six rounds, claiming an arm injury, people suspected a fix. LISTON’S INJURY EXCUSE HARD TO BELIEVE, a Globe headline declared.

Liston had, in fact, torn a biceps tendon while flailing away at the elusive challenger. In hindsight the outcome at Miami Beach appears legitimate.

Still, the first impression — that Ali and Liston were a couple of frauds — stuck. And when the new champ announced that he had joined the controversial Nation of Islam (Malcolm X had played a key role in courting him), that didn’t help the rematch’s PR problem.


Where others saw obstacles, Silverman saw opportunity. As city after city said no, he proposed holding the fight at Boston Garden. Inter-Continental Promotions, which held the rights to the rematch, already had a Garden connection. The firm’s president, Bob Nilon, had been an outstanding amateur hockey player. He once toured Europe with an AAU team coached by Walter Brown, who was now Boston Garden president. Nilon visited Boston in the summer of ’64 to try to persuade his old coach to take the fight.

On Sept. 7, Walter Brown died of a heart attack. But by then Nilon had found another Boston ally: Massachusetts Governor Endicott “Chub” Peabody.

Peabody was once a Harvard football star. Ex-Navy man. It’s easy to imagine the two former jocks and World War II vets hitting it off. (Nilon served in the Pacific.) Still, as a Democrat, Peabody faced some election-year stickiness. Senator Ted Kennedy, like his brothers before him, wanted nothing to do with Sonny Liston.

But Kennedy had more immediate problems. He had broken his back in a plane crash and was trying to conduct his reelection campaign from New England Baptist Hospital. He called Peabody to express his objections to the fight but did nothing more.

On Sept. 10 Peabody lost the Democratic primary. The silver lining was that he had four months to do whatever he wanted without worrying about fallout. So he pressured the Massachusetts Boxing Commission to accept the Ali-Liston bout. Inter-Continental would rent Boston Garden and co-promote the fight with Silverman, who had the necessary license. For the first time since 1940, Boston had a heavyweight title fight.


The bout was scheduled for November 16, 1964. Three days before, on Friday the 13th, Ali was rushed from the Sherry Biltmore Hotel to Boston City Hospital, suffering from a hernia. The fight was postponed until the spring of ’65.

Chub Peabody left office in January. Republican John Volpe succeeded him. In April, Suffolk County DA Garrett Byrne announced that his office was investigating Liston’s background. Byrne declared the fight a “public nuisance” and began legal proceedings to stop it. The Globe’s Bud Collins speculated that Byrne’s orders had come straight from Ted Kennedy, who was back on his feet.

The mere threat of a lengthy investigation scared Inter-Continental Promotions away. Up in Maine, another opportunist was watching. Sam Michael, a former boxing promoter who was now Lewiston’s director of economic development, called Silverman to offer the Central Maine Youth Center as an alternative site. Silverman, an old friend, told Michael he was in no mood for joking. “Who’s joking?” Michael replied.

Soon most of America was.

“For their courage,” the Globe’s Harold Kaese wrote on the eve of the bout, “let the yokels of Maine who took the fight have the last laugh on the yokels of Boston who did not want it.”



■  Flashback: The original report on the 1965 'Phantom Punch' fight

Rob Sneddon is a contributing editor at Down East magazine and author of Boston's 100 Greatest Games. His book, The Phantom Punch, is due for release in October from Down East Books.