Fiasco But Not Fraud:The Ali-Liston World Title Fight, 1965

Ali breaking the rules
Ali breaking the rules
Two icons of the 1960's spar for fun
Two icons of the 1960's spar for fun
Taunting fighter
Taunting fighter

Like many world championship fights, the 1965 title boxing match to determine who was the heavyweight fighter champ of the world was filled with hype. Before the match, the reigning king was Sonny Liston, a strong ox of a boxer who had proven his worth and defended his title. The upcoming, handsome, Mr. Cool challenger was Cassius Clay, now known as Muhammad Ali. He was well liked on and off the boxing circuit, he was star-like and witty, funny. The press loved him. Liston represented the past, Clay was the future of boxing. All this persona made Clay the heavily favored well before the fight, even though, Liston thought this kid could be knocked out within a few rounds. Thus, Liston did not train much before the fight, unlike Clay. It is a typical story of fame and fortune. An overconfident king mocks the younger kid trying to take the crown. Liston used fear to intimidate opponents and then punched them with jaw hitting salvos. Clay was the dancer. He was cocky, overconfident and pranced around in the ring like a gazelle dodging a lion but like a cheetah, when he struck, it could be shattering. For Liston, it was annoying. He hated trying to hit a moving target as nimble as Clay. Clay was unlike many fighters Liston had pounded to death.

So, when both stepped into the ring on May 25th, 1965, the expectations were polar opposites. Clay was determined to win at all costs even if it meant going 15 rounds. Liston was sure Clay would be flattened within a 2-3 rounds. The crowds around the ring was already bothering Liston, all were yelling for Clay, as if he was the Elvis or The Beatles of boxing. Hardly anyone favored Liston.

So, how stunning was it that in the first round, Clay seemed to have knocked out Liston! Did the hand of God give Clay an avenger-like punch? Well. eyewitnesses differ. They sparred until Clay threw a punch that seemed like it was not much of a jab. Liston fell to the floor and basically it ended. Many feel Liston had agreed to allow Clay to win, that Liston knew from from two previous fights with Clay, he could not beat this dancing boxer, so Liston just put up a show of acting like he was hurt. Others there stated that the punch that knocked Liston out was more like a push. Maybe Liston had been mentally defeated before he even stepped into the ring.

However, Clay's punch had so much force in it, it lifted Liston's left foot off the floor for second. Then Liston was flattened on the floor. As Clay stated later, he was so pumped up, that he forgot the rules of boxing and failed to retreat to his corner as the ref did the 10 second count. Instead, he hovered over Liston daring him and intimidating him to get back up. If he did, Clay was going to smash him down again. This prevented Liston from getting up and was against the rules established in 1927. Even Clay stated that the punch while jarring, Clay thought Liston was not hurt enough not to get up. According to Liston, Clay's punch did stun him but Liston was not remotely hurt at all. The ref jumped in and forced Clay to retreat from Liston. Clay did retreat but pranced around in the ring like a kid winning and the crowd simply went crazy.

Now it gets weird.

Liston did recover and stand. But during the mayhem, the ref forgot to begin the 10 second knock out punch rule. Just before the ref was to resume the fight, he was called over by the timekeeper. With all the chaos in and outside of the ring, the ref was told that Liston had already been lying on the floor for more than 10 seconds. During this interlude, both fighters began to spar. The ref returned and intervened, halting them, then declared Clay the winner! The crowd went berserk like teens after the Beatles.

Liston was shocked. He was thinking WTF? He complained that the ref never began the countdown and had no idea how many seconds he had been flattened. Liston was able and willing to continue, which was why he did get up and the two began to spar until the bell rang and Clay was announced the winner.

In 1967, Clay was stripped of the title win for refusing to be drafted into the Army. Liston remained the best heavy weight fighter until 1970, when he died under mysterious events and Clay retook the title. There has never been any evidence that the 1965 fight was fixed or rigged. The fight was poorly officiated and controlled by the ref. The ref failed to maintain order inside the ring and forgot to begin a countdown count that would have told Liston when to get up. As it was, the timekeeper of the fight started the count, not the ref, the moment Liston went down. By the time he got up to fight again, it was too late.

Liston lost on a fluke. Bad luck. There should have been a rematch and no winner declared.

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