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Ali-Liston II: Robert Rubino calls it a fiasco, not fraud

It’s an iconic image that transcends boxing. And 50 years after Neil Leifer photographed a snarling Muhammad Ali standing over the flat-on-his-back Sonny Liston and roaring at him to “get up, chump,” the image endures.

But how many people today comprehend the context of that image? How many grasped the context even then, on May 25, 1965?

The likely received wisdom now is that the picture symbolizes a legendary hero vanquishing his once-formidable foe. Among boxing aficionados of a certain age, Leifer’s photo might also evoke a “phantom punch” victory over a corrupted ex-champion in a fixed fight.

The meaning of Leifer’s photograph, as with any work of art, is in the eyes of the beholder. Here is its meaning in the eyes of this beholder.

Leifer snapped that picture as Ali was clownishly out of control, as if he were Gorgeous George, one of the preening, prancing pro wrestlers he idolized as a kid, disregarding a rule that had been in place for 38 years and which no fighter, certainly no fighter in a title bout, had so arrogantly ignored, and with impunity to boot.

In the first minute of his heavyweight championship rematch with Liston, Ali scored a knockdown with a punch some claimed was either feeble or fictitious.

Tex Maule, however, covering the fight for Sports Illustrated, wrote the knockdown was from no phantom punch but “had so much force it lifted Liston’s left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas.” Slow-motion film, accessible via YouTube, backs Maule’s observation.

Instead of retreating to a neutral corner so that referee Joe Walcott could begin the count, Ali contemptuously hovered over Liston, essentially preventing Liston from doing what Ali was demanding - getting up. The whole point of the neutral-corner rule is to avoid what had been a common occurrence prior to 1927: a knocked-down fighter getting up while his opponent stood over him, then getting clobbered before he can defend himself.

From Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (1991), by Thomas Hauser, in what The New York Times Book Review called a “definitive biography,” and one in which the subject gave the author his full cooperation, here’s Ali in his own words:

“The punch jarred him. It was a good punch, but I didn’t think I hit him so hard that he couldn’t have gotten up. Once he went down, I got excited. I forgot about the rules. …”

In that same book, here’s Liston, quoted two years after the fight:

“Ali knocked me down with a sharp punch. I was down but not hurt, but I looked up and saw Ali standing over me. … Ali is waiting to hit me, the ref can’t control him. …”

Walcott, as in over his head as a novice deep-sea diver with a faulty oxygen tank, tried to push Ali away from Liston, who looked up from his prone position clear-eyed. Then Ali hopped and skipped around the ring like Tiny Tim through the tulips, and Walcott followed like an out-of-step dance partner. Liston got to his feet. Walcott, who never had begun a count, then wiped off Liston’s gloves - the accepted prelude to allowing a fight to continue. As Ali and Liston were about to re-engage, Walcott got distracted by the ringside yelling and gesturing of Nat Fleischer, the influential editor and publisher of Ring magazine who had no official connection to the fight but happened to be sitting next to timekeeper Francis McDonough. Walcott abandoned Ali and Liston, walked over to Fleischer and McDonough, and was informed Liston had been down for more than 10 seconds. Walcott rejoined Ali and Liston, who had resumed fighting, stopped the bout and raised Ali’s right hand.

Covering the fight for Associated Press, Bob Hoobing quoted Liston: “The referee never started the count. I didn’t know when to get up. When I did get up I thought the fight was still on. Didn’t you see us start to fight again? When Walcott stepped in, I thought the bell had rung. No, I didn’t quit.”

Ali wasn’t penalized for the blatant rule violation; in fact, he was rewarded.

AP quoted McDonough, the timekeeper: “If (Ali) had gone to a neutral corner instead of running around like a maniac, all the trouble would have been avoided.”

Liston went down from a legitimate punch, was never counted out, and was willing and able to continue. Instead, he was turned into first a scapegoat, then a pariah. Two years later when Ali was stripped of the heavyweight title for refusing draft induction into the Army, Liston was frozen out of the eight-man elimination tournament even though he would have been a prohibitive favorite against any of the participants.

No evidence of Liston purposely losing the rematch with Ali has ever come to light, but that doesn’t abate alleged conspiracies as plentiful as those attached to the JFK assassination and theorists who won’t allow facts to get in their way. The fight was a fiasco but not a fix. Big difference. The fight remains suspect, with Liston forever maligned, but none of the outrage is ever aimed at Ali.

After the Ali-Walcott farce, Liston would remain the best heavyweight contender for the next several years. He died under mysterious circumstances two months after Ali’s ballyhooed return to boxing in 1970.

Back to Neil Leifer’s iconic photograph of 50 years ago. It’s an optical illusion, a kind of magic trick for which Ali had childlike fascination. Neither a “hero vanquishes adversary” image nor an infamous image of a fixed fight, it’s actually a portrait of a narcissistic rule-breaker berating a man who in his entire life never had any luck except the worst.

You can reach Robert Rubino at RobertoRubino@comcast.net.

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