The Truth About Muhammad Ali's 'Phantom Punch'

Looking back on the history of professional boxing, you'd be hard pressed to find a sporting moment more controversial than the one that occurred at Lewiston's Central Maine Youth Center on May 25th, 1965. Sonny Liston was set to try and win back his heavyweight championship title from Muhammad Ali, and the atmosphere was electric. Security was amped up due to reported death threats against both fighters, each of whom had found themselves at the wrong side of public opinion in recent weeks. Ali had publicly converted to Islam and been called "a champion of racial segregation" by Martin Luther King, Jr, according to the LA Sentinel. Liston had been arrested multiple times that year, with charges against him ranging from possession of a concealed firearm to driving without a license. Adding to all of this was the discovery that Ali and Liston's managers had organized a shady contract regarding potential future rematches between the two fighters, and the air became thick with speculation that their previous bout had been fixed.

Boxing fans wanted to see the real deal. They wanted an honest-to-God donnybrook between two of the greatest boxers on the planet. A minute and forty four seconds into getting their wish, with some spectators not even seated yet, the fight was over. Liston was on the mat. The problem was that nobody seemed to know how he got there.

Liston wasn't the only one who was floored

The fight took place decades before the dawn of the camera phone, so the available footage is limited. Here's what we know.

Ali definitely threw a right hander. Sonny definitely caught it with the left side of his face. But the punch was staggered and unspectacular, and Liston's fall, nearly sixty years later, still seems borderline unearthly. According to the Guardian, Ali was even heard shouting "Did I hit him?" He stood over his opponent, yelling at him to get up and saying "Nobody will believe this." The damage was done. The finishing blow became known as "the phantom punch," since it almost appeared never to have existed in the first place.

Accusations that the fix was in came almost instantaneously, with audience members screaming and booing at the ring. The theories weren't unfounded. Liston's management wasn't shy about their mob ties, and Liston himself was reportedly deep in debt. On the other side of the ring, Ali had become the unofficial face of the paramilitary group the Fruit of Islam, and Liston had reported receiving death threats from the group. You could fill a cork board with red yarn trying to connect all of the potential conspiracy theory dots.

Or, as sportswriter Larry Merchant stated in a letter to the New Yorker in 2015, Liston took a hit to the medulla oblongata from Muhammad Ali and got knocked unconscious. Which, you know, isn't unreasonable.