Ironically, the whispers of a Clay-Liston fix have long ruminated in the sports world, but they focused on the rematch 15 months later in Lewiston, Maine. That was the fight in which Liston went down halfway through the first round from an Ali punch that sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said “couldn’t have crushed a grape.” It’s been called the “phantom punch,” and whether it actually knocked out Liston has been dissected and debated for decades.
The fighters were controversial figures — Liston the frightening ex-con with mob ties, and Ali, still using the name Cassius Clay, the Olympic gold medal winner who reportedly joined the Black Muslims weeks before their first scheduled fight. It wouldn’t be until after the fight that Clay would announce he was a member of the Black Muslims, but those questions were part of the story leading up to the bout.
Clay entered the ring at the Miami Beach Convention Center a 7-1 underdog. Though there was no “phantom punch” in Miami Beach — it was a seven-round fight in which Ali was in trouble early, losing his vision at one point, and then came back to seemingly batter Liston — there has been speculation about the outcome.
Liston said he quit because of a shoulder injury. He said he hurt his shoulder in the first round. The Miami Beach Boxing Commission doctor reportedly diagnosed a torn tendon in Liston’s left shoulder. Florida State Attorney Richard Gerstein conducted a post-fight investigation, which concluded that Liston went into the fight with a bad shoulder. He determined there was no evidence that the fight was not “completely regular,” according to The Palm Beach Post.
David Remnick, who penned “King of the World — Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero,” wrote that he spoke years after the fight with one of Liston’s corner men, who told him Liston could have continued:
“[The shoulder] was all BS. We had a return bout clause with Clay, but if you say your guy just quit, who is gonna get a return bout? We cooked up that shoulder thing on the spot.”
Miami Beach Boxing Commission Chairman Morris Klein said commissioners were satisfied that there was “no wrongdoing” and allowed Liston to collect his $370,000 purse. A U.S. Senate subcommittee conducted hearings three months later but found no evidence of a fixed fight.
After the second fight against Liston, Ali went on to dominate the heavyweight division from 1965 to 1967, with wins over former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, who had lost the title to Liston, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell and Zora Folley.