Muhammad Ali Vs. Sonny Liston | The Night Lewiston, Maine, Can Never Forget
In Ali’s camp is old-time comedian Stepin Fetchit. He sings and dances and keeps everybody “loose.” He also reportedly has taught the champion a secret punch. He calls it the “anchor punch” and says he learned it from the immortal Jack Johnson who told him to pass it on, when the right man came along. Nobody has heard of an “anchor punch” and attribute its appearance now to Ali’s usual bravado. “It’s my secret,” Ali insists. “You’ll believe it when you see it.”Ali, at 23, is a stronger, better fighter than he was for the first Liston bout. He is supremely confident. “Last time I was ducking just to get away,” he explains. “This time I’m looking to set him up.” He tells the world, “The Secretary of the Interior should declare my face a natural resource,” and tells his manager, Angelo Dundee, he may hide a muleta in his boxing trunks and play Liston like a matador with his bull.
A week before the fight, however, a cloud appears that has little to do with Sonny Liston but which threatens to upset the fighters more than right-hand counters. There are police reports from New York that a red Cadillac carrying a Black Nationalist assassination squad is enroute to Maine to avenge the shooting of Malcolm X, a Black Nationalist who defected from the Black Muslims. Ali, the most prominent Muslim in America, is the likely target. A special police detail from New York slips quietly into Lewiston.
State police increase their security around Chicopee. When Ali runs in the morning he sees police hats poking from behind bushes along his route. “I’m too fast to be hit by a bullet,” Ali tells reporters, most of whom feel they assuredly are not. There are reports that bullet-proof shields have been ordered for the press section and the Boston Globe takes out extra insurance on five of its sportswriters. “I don’t want Lewiston to go down in history as the place where the heavyweight champion was killed,” says Lewiston police chief Joseph Farrand.
On his last day of workouts before leaving for a Holiday Inn near Lewiston where he will stay three days before the fight, Ali is leaning against the ropes sparring with his boyhood friend from Louisville, Jimmy Ellis. Ellis is a light heavyweight who six years later will meet Ali in the ring for keeps, but now he is trying to prepare Ali for Liston’s body blows. Ali is not at his best. He has argued with his wife, Sonji, who balks at the Muslim strictures: no makeup, no dancing, no short dresses. It is an argument that will persist until their divorce six months later. Ali is wondering what to do about her when suddenly Ellis crashes a right to his ribs.
In his room Ali lies down and rubs his side with wintergreen and alcohol. Even though he is known for his boxing and his speed rather than his punching power, he vows to go for a quick knockout. He cannot afford to let Liston hit the side. In their first fight, he remembers, Liston hurt him plenty with body punches. He thinks of the dream and considers this his sign that he must catch Liston unawares. He leaves Chicopee early the next morning. He has boasted he will” raid the Bear’s camp” and Saul Feldman has tied two black bears from the state game farm to posts outside the Poland Spring House in anticipation. Ali pulls up to the Holiday Inn in his brightly painted bus he calls “Big Red.” Even though he is three hours early, there are several hundred people waiting for him. He stands on the balcony and shouts: ” I am the savior of boxing. You’re looking at history’s greatest fighter. There will never be another like me.” Everyone laughs. Then Ali goes inside and lies down, holding his side. He has forgotten about raiding the Bear’s camp, and the black bears cough on their chains until darkness comes, and they are trucked back to the game farm.
Tuesday, fight day, is the biggest day in Lewiston since John Kennedy held a rally in the park in 1959. The crowd begins to gather at twilight, assembling on a hillside overlooking the Youth Center, armed with binoculars, looking for celebrities. Newly erected transmitting towers rise behind them, ready to beam the fight for the first time to Europe, Africa, and Russia. Western Union personnel, crammed into trailers in the parking lot, try frantically to keep pace with words, already half a million strong, more than for any fight before. UPI has grabbed the four fastest track men from local Bates College and has them primed to race down the smoky aisles into the night with round-by-round reports clutched in their hands.
Ali arrives at 9:15 in his bus. He enters by a rear door through a cordon of state policemen. Around him a security force of over 300 men, the largest ever for a sporting event, search pocketbooks for concealed weapons. Ali appears unconcerned. As he disappears down a corridor he is singing at the top of his voice, “Let’s Dance.” When Liston arrives he is dressed in blue jeans and a sweatshirt. He walks past the troopers saying nothing, staring straight ahead. Sam Michael sits five rows back from ringside. There is nothing left to do. He had constructed three rings before this last one, trucked at the last minute from Baltimore, satisfied Angelo Dundee who regards a ring as his fighter’s home for 15 rounds. It is obvious there will be no sell-out — in fact the 4200 announced attendance will be the lowest for a heavyweight title fight in modern times — but Michael is happy. Intercontinental has promised Michael the rematch should Liston win as expected. “If the fight is a corker, Lewiston will be the fight capital of the world,” he tells friends.
The referee is Jersey Joe Walcott. He is a former heavyweight champion who once was belted out in two minutes by Marciano with jeers of ” Fake! Fake!” ringing in his ears. He is a popular man with an infectious smile whose previous work as a referee in a title bout provoked controversy.
The knockdown timekeeper is Francis McDonough, a small, bespectacled 63-year-old retired printer who is tanned from a winter in Florida. His job is to count off the seconds a fallen fighter remains on the canvas, sweeping his arm up and down as the referee counts in unison. Since Maine rules stipulate only the referee can stop a fight, he is merely a beacon a point of reference by which to pick up the count. In a glaring oversight, Walcott never locates his knockdown timer before the fight. When the crucial moment arrives, he will look in vain for the small man barely visible over the ring apron.