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The Universal Notebook: The phantom punch heard round the world

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: The phantom punch heard round the world

Back in March I had lunch in Portland with artist Charlie Hewitt and filmmaker Gary Robinov of White Dog Arts to discuss a film they wanted to make. I listened to the story they wanted to tell and went home that night and wrote it all down for them.

“On the evening of February 21, 2015,” the story begins, “Lot No. 80063 at a sports memorabilia auction being held at a Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City consisted of two pair of vintage boxing gloves – red leather Frager gloves made in Chicago. When the hammer came down, the four gloves had sold for a whopping $956,000.

“What makes old boxing gloves worth almost $1 million? The short answer is Muhammad Ali. For these were the gloves worn by Ali and his opponent Sonny Liston during their controversial 1965 heavyweight title fight in Lewiston, Maine.”

The text I wrote and recorded became the narrative thread around which Gary Robinov artfully wove interviews, archival film, news footage, still photographs and music to create "Raising Ali: A Lewiston Story," a beautiful little 27-minute film that documents the Ali-Liston fight and evokes what Lewiston was in 1965 and what is has become today. MPBN airs "Raising Ali," which Charlie produced and Gary directed, on Thursday, May 28, at 10 p.m.

“Fifty years ago now, the world came briefly, tumultuously and unforgettably to Lewiston and in the telling and retelling of that historic fight, it has become something much larger than just a sporting event. It has become a landmark in Lewiston history, in the history of civil rights and in the cultural life of America.”

It really is a great story. Sam Michaels, a Lewiston pawn broker and fight promoter, got wind that Massachusetts had refused the promoters a permit for the Ali-Liston fight and called the closed circuit TV company airing the fight to offer Lewiston as a venue. Desperate to save the television revenue, the promoters agreed to hold the fight at the Central Maine Youth Center, the local hockey arena that became the smallest venue ever to host a heavyweight title bout.

“The official paid attendance at the world championship fight was just 2,434, or about half what the minor league Portland Sea Dogs baseball team draws on an average night in the summer. When members of the press, law enforcement, local officials, hangers-on and gatecrashers were counted in, there were close to 4,200 spectators at the ice arena. Hundreds more stood on the hillside above the rink watching for celebrities.”

Among those who attended the Ali-Liston fight were Jackie Gleason, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and legendary boxers Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson. Jersey Joe Walcott was the referee. Robert Goulet sang the National Anthem and made a mess of it. But of course many of the folks who were there that night never actually saw the fight.

“What would become forever known as ‘The Phantom Punch’ occurred at 1:44 of the first round when Liston threw a lazy left jab and Ali countered with a right, dropping Liston to the canvas. He fell on his side and then rolled onto his back. At 1:56 Liston managed to struggle up to his feet, but by then the fight had gotten out of hand.”

Because Ali did not retreat to a neutral corner, the knockdown time count was not begun. Liston got to his feet and the fight resumed momentarily before ringside officials decided he should have been counted out.

“Thus, at 2:12 of the first round Jersey Joe Walcott stepped in, separated the fighters and declared a knockout victory for Muhammad Ali. Needless to say the fans were confused, incredulous and angry.

“For his part, Muhammad Ali was exultant, praising Allah, taunting fans, baiting the media and obviously enjoying the chaos he had created.”

To Charlie Hewitt, the Ali-Liston fight defines the Lewiston he loves. He has a copy of the iconic Neil Leifer photograph of Ali standing over the fallen Liston in his Portland studio. To him, it’s about a young man fighting to define himself.

To me, “what the Ali-Liston fight represented was the future knocking – hard – on the door of the present, a new generation demanding to be heard. And heard it was, not just in a boxing ring in Lewiston, Maine, but in the segregated South, in Black ghettos, in the antiwar movement and on college campuses everywhere. It’s almost as though Muhammad Ali ushered in a new age with one phantom punch.”

And Gary Robinov captures all this beautifully in "Raising Ali." Do see it if you get a chance.