When Muhammad Ali beat Sonny Liston in their May 1965 title-bout rematch in Lewiston, Maine, a legend was born. Or, more accurately, a legendary controversy was born. Ali (who ditched his Cassius Marcellus Clay "slave" name for his Elijah Muhammad-sanctioned Muslim moniker after defeating Liston in their first title bout in 1964) knocked Liston out with a first-round right to the head that, all these years later, is still referred to as the “phantom punch."
An awful lot of people who were at the fight that night never saw, or claimed they never saw, the punch that floored Liston. Others, including Sports Illustrated‘s Tex Maule, were adamant that the punch was no phantom, but a perfectly timed blow that legitimately rocked the former champ. (Note: The photo above is not a shot of the phantom punch.)
See a gallery of rare photos from Ali-Liston II.
In the years after the fight, various theories have been floated in order to explain what some fight fans can’t or don’t want to accept — namely, that Ali beat Liston. Period.
But Liston was in debt to the Mafia and threw the fight to pay it off, some say. Or: Liston was frightened that Black Muslims, gunning for Ali (who had a falling out with Malcolm X before the latter’s assassination in February 1965) might kill him by mistake. All very fascinating and even, in a sordid way, kind of romantic. But sportswriters like Maule, Lou Eisen and others are just as sure that the punch in question was more than enough to rattle the older, out-of-shape and woefully undisciplined Liston.
In his cover story in the June 7, 1965, issue of SI, for example, Maule wrote that “the knockout punch itself was thrown with the amazing speed that differentiates Clay [as he was still called then by most in the media] from any other heavyweight. He leaned away from one of Liston’s ponderous, pawing left jabs, planted his left foot solidly and whipped his right hand over Liston’s left arm and into the side of Liston’s jaw. The blow had so much force it lifted Liston’s left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas.”
“He knocked out big Sonny Liston,” the magazine asserted elsewhere in the same issue, “with a punch so marvelously fast that almost no one believed in it — but it was hard and true.”
Watch it here, and judge for yourself. Right at the 4:02 mark, it sure sounds pretty damn hard and true.
Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly (and occasionally more frequent) feature for The Stacks.
Photo Credit: John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images