Ali Vs. Liston | The Night Lewiston, Maine Can Never Forget
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.
The official timer is a 55-year-old high school teacher named Russell Carroll. He has timed fights for three decades. He was timekeeper at the world’s quickest fight — 10-1/2 seconds — that ended when AI Couture ran across the ring a split second before the bell and belted his opponent as he turned from his corner. Afterwards the rules were changed, so that record time will stand forever. There is no official clock hovering high above the crowd as in Madison Square Garden, so his stopwatch must supply the official time. This is the first time he will time a fight without his personal watch. His own watch does not have a reset button, that when pressed sets the time back to zero. The one provided by the boxing commission does.
In the locker room Bundini Brown smears vaseline into Ali ‘s shoulders, working it into the torso with vigorous strokes. Somebody leans into the room and shouts, “Ten minutes!” Bundini wipes the vaseline off with a towel. Ali takes a deep breath and walks to the rear of the locker room where he says his prayers.
Robert Goulet stands in the center of the ring, looking magnificent in a tuxedo, and offers prayers of his own: in a few minutes his rendition of the national anthem will be heard around the world, and he cannot remember the words. Somewhere between his car and this ring he has lost his palm notes. He was raised in Canada and “The Star-Spangled Banner” has always been a troublesome work. When he climbed into the ring reporters at ringside heard him mutter, “What am I going to do?”
That he cannot hear when the organ begins does not help. Only when technicians wave frantically at him to get going does Goulet realize that the organ is careening along on a solo. The song belts him immediately: “Oh! Say can you see by the dawn’s early night?” and bedevils him the rest of the agonizing way. (At another juncture ” fight” is substituted for “night.”) When he finishes, the first UPI trackster streaks away carrying this report: “The Clay Liston fight has begun and the following is a round-by-round report.” By the time he reaches the trailers, Western Union has a message for him. As Russell Carroll strikes the gong for round one, he is gripped with a sensation that “something is going to go wrong.”
Ali circles, holding his elbow close to his side. Liston moves cautiously, sluggishly, to meet him. Barely over a minute slides by with only minor skirmishing when suddenly Liston lunges from a crouch. His left foot is off the ground and he is off-balance. At that moment Ali bounces off the ropes and throws a right that travels eight inches before landing flush on Liston’s cheekbone with a downward twist. The blow snaps Liston’s head down at the same time it lifts his foot high off the canvas. Most people do not see the punch, only Liston’s collapse, as though a wind gust has tossed him to the ground.
Ali is hysterical. “Get up and fight. You’ re supposed to be so bad. Nobody will believe this,” he yells, standing over Liston. Walcott is afraid Ali will kick Liston and he tries to steer him to a neutral corner. But Ali is uncontrollable. Liston is not knocked out. But neither is he in. His is a misty world. Francis McDonough dutifully slaps his arm up and down on the table. At the count of eight, Liston is on one elbow, but Ali is glaring down, his fists ready, and Liston, who has not heard a referee ‘s count, slides back down.
By the time Walcott has pushed Ali back, McDonough’s count has reached 20, where he stops. Liston has fought grimly back from his mist, and as he finally stands he blinks in bewilderment as though emerging from a tunnel. Now Walcott assists Liston, holding him while he looks in panic around the ring apron for the knockdown timer. Not knowing what to do, he dusts off Liston’s gloves, and, as incredible as it seems, the fight continues.
This galvanizes Nat Fleischer into extraordinary actions. Fleischer is the grand old man of boxing, the feisty editor of Ring Magazine.
He runs to Russell Carroll, minding his stopwatch, and yells, ” Stop the match! The fight is over!” Carroll, flustered, presses the reset on his watch, without realizing it. He is not sure if the fight is on or off. Ali is hitting Liston again, so Carroll restarts his watch.
Fleischer turns to Walcott who wants somebody to get him out of a horrible mess.” Joe,” he screams, “the fight is over! ” Walcott turns away from the fighters. Liston is trying gamely to fight back and later one writer wondered, What would have happened if Liston had knocked Clay out while the referee consulted with Fleischer and McDonough? Walcott is convinced that Liston has been counted out.
When Walcott separates them and leads the challenger away Liston thinks the round is over. He thinks he was lucky to escape that one. He looks back and sees Ali’s arm raised by Walcott. Only then does he know the fight is over.
The fight establishes several dubious firsts. It is the first fight stopped by a magazine editor. It is also the first fight stopped without the referee’s counting one second over the fallen fighter. And it is the first fight to record “official” times of 1 minute, 1:47, and 2:12, the discrepancies due to Carroll’s inadvertent resetting of his watch, and to differences of opinion as to when the fight was actually over.
At 2 A.M. Liston serves coffee in the Mansion House, while his wife Geraldine cries softly in a corner. “Fourteen years is a long time,” she says. “I’m glad it’s over.” But Liston will fight again. He wins 16 straight in a comeback that ends when Leotis Martin knocks him out. His last fight is in a smoky little fight club in Jersey City on June 29, 1970. Six months later he dies in his home, alone. When he falls his fists evidently smash against a bench, for when he is found seven days later the bench lies in splinters by his head.