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25 Years Later: A Fix or a Fist? : Boxing: When Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round of their rematch, many at ringside didn't believe it was a legitimate fight. Some still don't.

May 25, 1990|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty-five years ago today, 4,200 people in a Lewiston, Me., high school hockey rink saw either boxing's most shameful charade or, depending on where they were sitting, a tired, old heavyweight knocked out by a perfectly legitimate punch.

The Shame in Maine, some still call it. Others call it much ado about nothing.

It was Clay-Liston II, a rematch of the controversial Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight 15 months earlier at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

In Florida, the sports world had been shocked by the sight of the seemingly indomitable Liston, a 7-1 favorite, quitting on his stool after the sixth round, claiming an injured shoulder. Thus the heavyweight championship passed into the hands of Cassius Clay, who the following day announced that he had joined the Muslim faith and had a new name, Muhammad Ali.

But while shock and disbelief greeted the Clay-Liston I result, the outcome of their second bout was greeted with outrage and fury.

Fans in the Central Maine Youth Center surged toward the ring, demanding refunds and screaming, "Fix!" and "Fake!" The next day, grandstanding politicians across the United States were summoning TV cameras and proposing that boxing be banned.

For a few days, it seemed like an even bet as to whether professional boxing would make it through 1965. The May 26 headline in The Times read:

"IT ONLY TAKES MINUTE TO KILL BOXING."

In the eye of the firestorm was a harmless-looking, countering right-hand punch that Ali, 23, a 13-10 underdog, employed to knock out Liston, believed to be at least 33, in the first round. To most, it looked more like a slap.

"I've spanked my kids harder," was an oft-said line.

A quarter-century later, opinions held by those who were there, even two columnists from this newspaper, differ sharply.

Says Jim Murray: "I saw the punch, and it was a good one. But the point is, Sonny was old and out of shape--I don't think he could've beaten a 10 count if he'd tripped over his shoelaces."

Says Melvin Durslag, who then wrote for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner: "I've covered a lot of championship fights, and that one was the only one I didn't think was sanitary. In my opinion, Liston either took money to go down, or the Muslims had him scared to death."

The fight had tighter security than a Presidential visit. Everyone entering the hockey rink that night was searched. Durslag recalls that security men took away his wife's steel knitting needles.

In the days before the fight, there was a rumor that Muslim followers of Malcolm X, who had been assassinated, were bent on revenge and planned an assassination attempt on Ali.

The fight's closed-circuit TV promoter, Sportsvision, in effect laid odds of 1,000 to 1 on Ali--to live through the fight. The firm took out a three-day, $1-million life insurance policy on him for $1,000. Sportsvision beamed the fight to 258 closed-circuit locations.

Howard Bingham, then a training camp aide to Ali, recently recalled bizarre daybreak roadwork sessions, accompanied by slow-moving policemen.

"We'd run at sunup, the two of us, and the cops would start out running with us but couldn't keep up," Bingham said. "One of them would hand me a gun, then they'd wave us on."

Reporters who interviewed Ali at his Lewiston Holiday Inn campsite had to first pass patdowns by uniformed policemen and Ali's own security people. At the weigh-in, police guarded every door and surrounded the fighters.

Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, still reacts angrily to those who suggest it was a rigged fight. "He got him with a solid punch," Dundee said recently. "Look at the film. Sonny's left foot jumps off the canvas just as Ali hits him. It was a flash right hand. Ali hurt a lot of guys with it.

"And he was not backing up when he hit him, like so many guys wrote. He was sliding laterally. One thing about boxing, it's the shots you never see that hurt you the most.

"The people who say that fight was fixed should have seen Sonny's eyes like I did, right after. A few seconds after it's over, I felt kind of sorry for the guy and I walked up to him and said: 'Tough, Sonny.' His eyes looked right through me. He didn't see nothin'."

Both Murray and HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant, then a sportswriter with the Philadelphia Daily News, recall hearing reports in Lewiston before the fight that things weren't right in Liston's camp.

"We were hearing that Sonny's sparring partners were being paid extra to hold back," Merchant said. "My own view is that Sonny was simply an old heavyweight, waiting to get knocked out. I believe it was a solid punch. It was such a shock at that time to see Sonny Liston on the canvas. No one had ever seen that before."

To Mark Kram, who covered the fight for Sports Illustrated, the aftermath was a case of members of the media rushing to judgment over a punch most of them didn't see.

"It was a perfectly valid, stunning right-hand punch to the side of the head, and (Ali) won without benefit of a fix," wrote Kram, in his first paragraph.

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