Muhammad Ali Vs. Sonny Liston | 50th Anniversary
Excerpt from “The Night Lewiston, Maine, Can Never Forget,” Yankee Magazine, May, 1979.
The rematch for the heavyweight championship of the world between Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) and former champ Sonny “the Bear” Liston, on May 25, 1965, was expected to put this city on the map. Precisely what the fight, still described locally as “the fiasco” or “the debacle,” did for the community no one can really say. One thing is certain, however – to start a heated discussion among boxing fans one need say only two words: “Lewiston, Maine.” . . .
The “worst mess in the history of sports” began shortly after 10:40 PM on May 25, 1965, when “The Star-Spangled Banner” KO’ d Robert Goulet at five seconds into the first stanza in an ice hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine. Some 4200 people were gathered to witness a fight for the heavyweight championship of the world between brash Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) and fearsome Sonny Liston. An ending of sorts took place either 60, 107, or 132 seconds later, depending on which record book you consult, with Sonny Liston on his back from a punch hardly anyone saw. The hall swelled with cries of ” Fake! Fake! Fake!” which pelted the fighters like tomatoes, and years later you can still stir a cauldron of controversy by dropping two words into a group of fight buffs: ” Lewiston, Maine.”
“They say, ‘the fiasco, the debacle,’ ” says a Lewiston man who adds, “It will always be a part of our lore and legend.” But that is an ending. To understand a night that may never be fully explained we must go back to the beginning, when the Governor of Maine could face reporters and say proudly, “This fight is one of the greatest things to happen in Maine.”
Sam Michael promoted his first boxing match in 1922 in a church in Lowell, Massachusetts, when he was 16 years old. Later he moved to Lewiston, Maine, and opened a pawnshop and promoted boxing on Monday nights in the armory, collecting $2.40 for ringside seats.
Shortly past noon on May 6, 1965, he receives a message: “Call Cleveland.” Waiting in Cleveland are a group of men whose business cards read “Intercontinental Promotions, Inc.,” and “Sports Vision, Inc.” Their $3 .5- million closed-circuit television contracts for the Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston rematch set for May 25 in the Boston Garden are threatened by a Boston prosecutor who claims they are not properly licensed in Massachusetts. Privately, the prosecutor feels the bout will be “a set-up” and wants no part of it. He has gone to court to halt the fight.
The fight has already suffered one postponement when Ali was rushed to the hospital for a hernia operation. If it were postponed again, it would probably never be held. The promoters remember that Sam Michael once had suggested Maine for the fight. The proposal had seemed ludicrous at the time, but now they need a refuge for their fight, a place to put their big cameras to protect their investment. When Michael reaches Cleveland, a voice asks him to do what nobody has ever tried — to promote a world heavyweight championship fight, often called “the greatest sporting event in the world,” — in 18 days.
The fight will be in the Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston, a town of 41,000, 35 miles from Portland. Lewiston is the smallest town to host a heavyweight title bout since 1923 when the citizens of Shelby, Montana (pop. 3000), brought Jack Dempsey and Tom Gibbons together. (The people of Lewiston were 75 percent French-speaking. They worked in mills making shoes and bedspreads where the average weekly paycheck was $50.)
With only two hotels in Lewiston, the Poland Spring House, 12 miles away, houses the crush of 600 journalists — about the number which covered World War II — arriving for the fight. The famous but time-worn resort that once catered to the rich and famous looks to one writer, “as though the Kaiser would step out any second.”
In the lobby cigar ashes tip into $928 worth of souvenir ashtrays, compliments of the Maine tourist office. The broad-shouldered men who sit in the wicker chairs along the half-mile of veranda have names like Louis, Marciano, Walcott, Sharkey, and Patterson. But the real attraction is Sonny Liston, who has moved his training camp here from Dedham, Massachusetts.
The fists of Sonny Liston measure 15-1/2 inches. No ordinary boxing glove fits them and his must be custom-made. They are probably the largest fists in heavyweight history and have devastated the ranks: three of his last four fights ended in first-round knockouts. He is called “the ultimate weapon in unarmed combat.”
It was his last fight, though, 15 months ago in Miami, against the then-named Cassius Clay, that has put Liston in the unexpected role of challenger. Then, a fatigued and cut champion did not answer the bell for the seventh round, suffering, he said, from an injured left shoulder.” I took Clay too light before,” he tells reporters. “This time I’m gonna bring my lunch. We may be in there a long time.”
He lives in the Mansion House, a separate hotel built in 1796, amidst old-world elegance. He trains in the ballroom, and spars in a ring with chandeliers overhead and sunlight filtering through green stained glass.
He runs on the golf course in his familiar hooded sweatshirt. Once he surprises a greens keeper tending a water hazard who glances at the hooded spectre emerging suddenly from the mist — and topples into the pond.