Warning this episode contains instances of racism and violence, listener discretion is advised and extreme caution is advised for listeners under 13. Charles, Sonny Liston was once the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a human dread not built for fighting an invincible destroyer of men.
He won the title in 1962 with the first round knockout of standing champion Floyd Patterson. Two minutes and a final thudding left hook from Liston. We're all it took to knock Patterson out cold.
To prove it wasn't a fluke, Listin repeated the feat in a rematch 10 months later in 1964.
Sports Illustrated wrote about Liston saying Seldom if ever, has a fighter so dominated the sport by sheer muscular mass. His baleful obsidian stare intimidates fighters, sportswriters and the occupants of the first 20 rows of any arena he enters.
Many fans and sportswriters believed Liston was the ultimate champion. No man could defeat him. Certainly not the brash 22 year old newcomer Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali.
But in May of 1965, Liston found himself on his back during their rematch, struggling to write himself in the ring. He was sent there by an unremarkable punch. Few spectators noticed even Ali wasn't sure the blow had landed.
It just didn't make any sense. Why had the heavyweight champion of the world gone down so quickly? Welcome to Conspiracy Theories, a podcast original every Monday and Wednesday, we dig into the complicated stories behind the world's most controversial events and search for the truth. I'm Carter Roy.
And I'm Molly Brandenberg. And neither of us are conspiracy theorists, but we are open minded, skeptical and curious.
Don't get us wrong. Sometimes the official version is the truth, but sometimes it's not.
You can find episodes of conspiracy theories and all other cast originals for free on Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts to stream conspiracy theories for free on Spotify, just open the app and type conspiracy theories in the search bar.
This is our first episode on The Phantom Punch. When Muhammad Ali fought Sonny Liston on May 25th, 1965. It was over in two minutes and 12 seconds and unlikely and some might say impossible outcome that left onlookers skeptical.
This episode we're covering Sonny Liston's hardscrabble life, his rise to boxing's greatest heights and the controversial punch that almost no one saw.
Next episode, we'll take a deep dive into the conspiracy theories surrounding the phantom punch. We'll look into the possibility that either the Mafia or the Nation of Islam forced Liston to throw the fight or that he bet against himself. We have all that and more coming up. Stay with us. In 1964, 30 year old heavyweight champion Charles Sonny Liston was the most dangerous man in sports. He demolished the former champion Floyd Patterson in back to back bouts in 1962 and 1963.
Each one lasting only two minutes.
Liston was built to be a fighter. He stood six foot one and weighed 213 pounds. His hands were the largest of any heavyweight champion in history, according to Sports Illustrated writer Mort Schneck. They looked like cannonballs when he made them into fists.
Liston seemed even more dangerous outside of the ring. In his short life, he was arrested over 20 times for larceny, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, armed robbery and once assaulting a police officer and taking his gun. But there was so much more to Sonny Liston than what was publicized.
He was born in San Slough, Arkansas, on January 8th, 1932, or it could have been 1928, as he told officers when arrested for robbery in 1950. Eventually, Sonny claimed May 8th, 1932 as his official birthday. But whether or not this was the accurate date is still up for debate.
Even his mother, Helen, couldn't recall her son's exact birthday. There was no birth certificate. Besides, Sonny Liston was just one of 25 children fathered by Toby Liston, a sharecropper and abusive alcoholic.
Toby put Liston to work when he was eight years old. Like all his children, Toby worked his son hard and beat him even harder. Those beatings left deep scars across Liston's back, scars ringside observers could see decades later.
In 1946, Liston's mother, Helen, and most of her 13 children split from Toby. They moved to St.. Louis, Missouri. But Sonny stayed behind for a year with his father after the work and the abuse became too much. He collected enough bacons to sell and reunited with his family in Missouri. The illiterate listin briefly found work with a construction crew, many of whom were older men with prison records.
By the time Liston was 16, he weighed 200 pounds, and it turned a crime as an alternative to the exploitative hard labor that was available to him after leaving school. A series of robberies led to his first arrest in 1950. A judge sentenced him to five years at Missouri State Penitentiary, where Liston soon distinguished himself with his heavy hitting fists. Liston didn't necessarily go looking for fights, but he sure could end them quickly before long, the prison chaplain, Reverend Edward Schlichtmann and Father Aloysius Stevens, heard about the brooding young inmate.
They introduced Liston to the prison boxing program.
While Liston had no formal training, he had all the raw talent. He was fast for his size, and every punch he threw inflicted damage. He pummeled the prison heavyweight champion so decisively few inmates would step in the ring with Liston afterwards.
Boxing helped Liston stay out of trouble long enough for Father Stevens to lobby the parole board, which heard Liston's case in 1952. After serving twenty nine months of his five year sentence, he was released and he returned to St. Louis.
Liston's transition to life outside wasn't easy. Jail was the first place. He had three meals a day. He knew he wanted to leave crime behind, and boxing seemed like a way out. And fortunately, depending on who you knew, boxing and crime went hand in hand at the time.
After he was released from prison, Father Stevens introduced Liston to some friends in the boxing world, including manager Frankie Mitchell.
Mitchell had ties to the Mafia, along with a record of 26 arrests, most for suspicion of gambling. But those connections allowed Liston to land sorely needed jobs between fights.
He worked as a driver for labor racketeer John Vitale, a man who had also served time for forgery, assault, selling narcotics and carrying a concealed weapon. Vitale and Mitchell were just two of the unsavory relationships that would come back to haunt Liston's career. But for the moment they were a big help.
On September 2nd, 1953, less than a year after Liston's release from prison, Mitchell secured him his first professional fight. It only took 33 seconds for Liston to knock out his opponent over the next two and a half years.
He built his record up to 15 wins against only one loss. What does all this mean? Well, now might be a good time for some boxing 101.
Most professional fights are scheduled for 10 rounds, each lasting three minutes, but championship fights with a title on the line are given 15 rounds. Those five extra rounds are called the championship distance.
Each round is scored by three ringside judges. The more punches you land and the more you avoid, the better your score by the judges. Score cards are superfluous in the event of a knockout. A fighter could lose every round, but if he knocks out his opponent, his hand is the one raised in victory.
In a career that spanned 50 wins, Liston knocked out his opponents 39 times, an incredible feat.
Fighters are ranked based on wins and losses, along with the quality of their opponents. A victory over a boxer with a solid winning record can sway more than a win over an opponent.
With lots of losses in his career, Liston climbed the ranks quickly, but he did have a few personal setbacks.
On May 5th, 1956, a friend of Liston's, a cab driver, arrived to pick him up outside his apartment. Listin came out to find a police officer riding his black friend a ticket simply for waiting for anyone unfamiliar with cabs. That's what they do. They wait.
Harassment from the St. Louis PD was all too familiar for Liston, so he intervened. When the officer directed a racial slur at Liston and reached for his gun, the boxer grabbed the weapon and lifted the officer off his feet.
In the end, the officer required seven stitches and had a broken leg. Liston's consequences were more severe despite the situation. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison.
After his release, Liston had another altercation with a police officer. This time, he left the cop head first in a trash can. The St. Louis police threatened Liston, telling him to leave town or else, which is why Liston relocated to Philadelphia.
In Philly, mobsters Frankie Karbo and Frank Blinky Palermo became Liston's new managers. Both men were notorious in the boxing world for bribes, fixed fights and extortion.
Under his new handlers, Liston returned to the ring in January of 1958 in Chicago. As soon as the bell rang for round one, all the mundane troubles of the outside world disappeared. Liston stocked and battered his opponent, Billy Hunter, stopping him in just two rounds for the next three years.
Liston continued his climb through the heavyweight division. He had an undefeated string of nineteen victories, 16 of them knockouts.
By 1962, thirty year old Liston had fought his way to the top. He was ranked the number one contender for the heavyweight title. But those in charge wanted no part of Sonny Liston, his menacing demeanor made him a poor ambassador for the sport and given his friendships, there were concerns about his ties to the mob.
It was also a critical time in the civil rights movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the NAACP, was concerned that Liston's criminal ties would be detrimental to their fight for racial equality. As a result, the organization urged the current champion, a black man named Floyd Patterson, not to fight Liston in protest.
But when the sport's governing body, the World Boxing Association, ultimately gave Liston his shot at the title, Patterson showed up ready to defend his title.
As for Liston, he understood the good versus evil narrative of sports. He once said a boxing match is like a cowboy movie. People pay to see the bad guys get beat. So I'm a bad guy, but I change things. I don't get beat. His words prove true.
On September 25th, 1962, Liston destroyed Patterson in the first round and was crowned the new heavyweight champion of the world.
He had reached the pinnacle of his sport, and he believed things were going to change for the better on the flight home.
Liston felt redeemed. He was certain there would be a welcome crowd awaiting him in Philadelphia, and he even practiced a speech. But when the plane landed, there was no one to greet him, no celebration, no crowd of admirers.
Jack McKinney, a sports reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News who traveled with Liston, said, I watched Sonny. You could feel the deflation, see the look of hurt in his eyes. Philadelphia wanted nothing to do with him.
In that moment, Liston knew that he'd always be seen as the bad guy, a brute, a criminal.
And if that's what they wanted, that's what they were going to get. Coming up, a fight against the man who'd become Muhammad Ali. Hi, it's Molly, in case you haven't heard, Parkhurst has an intense new original series I think you'll really enjoy. It's called Medical Murders, and it exposes the dark, disturbing and deadly side of medicine.
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Now back to the story. In September 1962, 30 year old Charles Sonny Liston became the new heavyweight champion of the world. Six of his last seven fights had gone under three rounds. Many boxing experts believed he was unbeatable.
In 1964, Liston defended his title against his polar opposite Cassius Clay, who later took the name Muhammad Ali. Clay was an underdog in betting circles. In a preflight poll, 43 of 46 sportswriters picked Liston to win, but Clay's confidence soared. In fact, he predicted Liston would fall before round eight.
When Liston was asked for his prediction on the outcome. He simply held up a pair of fingers, indicating it would be over in two rounds.
Meanwhile, in the weeks leading up to the fight, there were rumors about Liston's opponent. Cassius Clay was getting involved with the Nation of Islam, a group that many white Americans perceived as dangerous because of its desire for black empowerment.
In reality, the true threat that the Nation of Islam posed was to the status quo. But the media vilified them and the FBI followed their activities, which included keeping tabs on clay. He was friends with Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X, who happened to be in Miami to watch Clay fight Sonny Liston.
In general, Clay's association with black nationalism was seen as negative publicity, especially for boxing promoter Bill McDonald.
Unlike baseball or football, boxing matches are staged by independent promoters. They put up all the money to host the fight, including the boxers fees. The promoter then recoups his money from ticket sales and licensing of any radio broadcast or closed circuit TV revenue.
So McDonald was concerned about his investment. His bottom line could be at risk if white fans refused to watch. He threatened to cancel the fight unless Clay renounced the Nation of Islam.
It was a ridiculous ask, and Clay refused. A compromise was only reached when Malcolm X agreed to leave town, with Clay agreeing to keep his Muslim affiliations secret until after the fight, which took place on February 25th, 1964.
At the opening bell, Liston came looking for a quick knockout, but he couldn't close the distance between himself and Clay. Clay moved and danced. His speed was unlike anything Liston had faced before.
Liston swung at Clay, who countered with hooks and jabs. He painted Liston's face with crisp combinations, landing every punch. But some at ringside argued that Clay's quick strikes were too light to cause damage. Still, his thrust seemed to upset Liston's timing. He couldn't get set to throw a punch. When he swung, he caught nothing but air. By the end of round one, Liston no longer appeared invincible.
Clay fought more flat footed in round two, which meant his punches carried more power. But it also made him easier to hit. Still, Liston failed to land any solid punches by round three.
Clay had backed Liston into the ropes. He taunted Liston, shouting, Come on, you bum. He then threw a crisp combination to Liston's face, opening a wound underneath his eye.
Ironically, between rounds four and five, Clay was the one complaining. He said, that his eyes were burning.
It's believed that the coagulant originally used to close Liston's wound, somehow gotten Clay's eyes via Liston's gloves. Or it may have been the liniment used to treat Listin sore shoulder. Others believed a Liston's comrade's deliberately smeared something caustic on his mitts in order to handicap clay.
In any case, Clay's trainer, Angelo Dundee, sponged his face was water to clear his eyes, but it didn't work. Clay told his trainer to cut off his gloves and stop the fight, but Dendi refused. He believed they'd clear with time time they didn't have. At the bell for round five, Dundee's shoved Clay out of the corner with a single word of advice Run.
Clay stayed away from the stocking, Liston pedaling backward. Meanwhile, he paused at his eyes with his gloves and blinked furiously.
Ringside members of the Nation of Islam I dondi with suspicion that he intentionally sabotaged Clay when he sponge down his face between rounds, Dundee saw them, took the sponge and wiped his own face to prove he hadn't.
Meanwhile, Clay held his left hand in front of him to keep Liston at bay. Liston unsympathetically waited in landing hard lefts and rights, yet somehow Clay withstood them until the bell rang again.
In the time before round six, Dondi sponged Clay's eyes again. This time they cleared. Clay was ready to go. He worked his jab like a piston snapping at Liston's head. Liston was exhausted, his hands were down, and he was an easy target for the sharpshooting clay.
When the bell rang to signal round seven, Liston didn't move from his corner. His trainer claimed he had a shoulder injury and wasn't able to finish the fight. It was over. The indomitable champion had surrendered his crown.
Cassius Clay, the new heavyweight champion of the world, sprang to the center of the ring. He held his hands high in victory and raced to the ropes, shouting at the ringside media who'd written him off your words.
In his post-flight interview, Clay proclaimed himself the greatest and a bad man, declaring, I shook up the world. I shook up the world. But the story was far from over. Listin quiting didn't sit well with fans or boxing officials, and it didn't help that listin claimed a shoulder injury no one could see. Plus, there was the business with Clay's eyes in round five.
There were consequences for Listin, primarily in his refusal to answer the bell. At the start of round seven, the Colorado Boxing Commission from Liston's home state suspended his boxing license, and the Miami Beach Boxing Commission withheld Liston's purse nearly one point four million dollars until further investigation.
A U.S. Senate subcommittee investigated whether it was a fixed fight. One major disconcerting piece of evidence was a contract signed between the two fighters four months prior to the bout.
The contract was with Intercontinental Promotions, an entity controlled by Liston's management, the ones with the mob connections. It showed that Intercontinental had bought the rights to promote Clay's first title, defense should he beat Liston. This ensured that Liston's management would share in the profits even if their fighter lost on.
That wasn't all. Investigators found a second secret contract guaranteeing a rematch.
The World Boxing Association, or WBA, prohibited rematch clauses in fight contracts. They were concerned that a fighter, when guaranteed a rematch, would deliberately lose if he was promised a second fight. After all, it meant to payday's instead of won the WBA saw.
This contract is a complete slap in the face. They voted unanimously to strip Clay of his new title and to drop Liston from their rankings.
As far as the fight itself was concerned, the Senate committee couldn't determine any wrongdoing, as Sports Illustrated put it. There was certainly nothing in the testimony to indicate that Liston gave anything but his huffing and puffing best.
Meanwhile, a team of eight doctors diagnosed Liston with a torn left shoulder tendon, which proved too serious to have continued the fight. It was also revealed that Liston's manager, Jack Niland, was the one who ended the fight, not Liston, Niland said. I made the decision before Sonny could protest. Sonny spit out his mouthpiece and curse me and curse Clay.
Satisfied that there had been no wrongdoing, the Miami commission released Liston's purse.
It's important to note that the World Boxing Association has rival organizations like the World Boxing Council and the New York State Athletic Commission. It's part of the reason boxing is so unpredictable and prone to corruption. Each organization can do as they please.
In this case, despite the NBA's ruling, these other rival organizations continue to recognize Cassius Clay as their champion. But Clay was facing new controversies.
On March 6th, 1964, Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, announced that Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali Muhammad, meaning worthy of all praises and Ali, meaning most high. But many outsiders refused to acknowledge his new name. Almost all reporters kept referring to him as Cassius Clay.
Meanwhile, the WBA didn't have final say over the rematch clause in Intercontinental second contract. This was up to each state's boxing commissions. And while most places were hesitant to issue a license, Massachusets agreed to host the bout. Ali would face Liston again on May 25th, 1965, a little more than a year after the first match. And if the outcome of the first fight shook up the world, this one would have eyewitnesses doubting their very senses. When we come back, the punch and scene around the world.
Now back to the story. At 22 years old, Muhammad Ali was the youngest ever heavyweight champion of the world, he'd taken the crown from rival Sonny Liston in a 1964 bout that ringside, reporter Howard Cosell proclaimed one of the most astonishing upsets in the chronicles of boxing.
With an injury forcing the premature end of the fight and the judges scorecards tied, the outcome remained tainted. Yes, Ali was declared the winner, but only because Liston quit.
Now that Massachusetts had agreed to host the rematch, the bets poured in. Liston opened as a 13 to five favorite, meaning bettors favored him nearly three to one to defeat Ali. It seemed there was a lot of pressure for Liston to regain his crown and his reputation.
Liston had at this point relocated to Denver, where he trained harder than ever before.
He spent weeks in the Colorado woods chopping down trees. He took long morning runs carrying a backpack loaded with bricks to build his endurance.
He even sparred more than 170 rounds to sharpen his boxing skills. Three sparring partners quit in two days, one left with missing teeth, another with eight stitches in his mouth as the fight approached.
Time magazine declared that Liston was in the best shape of his career. Ringside reporter Howard Cosell, who was no fan of Liston, admitted he thought Liston would destroy Ali. Unfortunately, on Christmas Day 1964, Liston was arrested again. This time, the Denver police staked out a diner where Liston was having lunch. As soon as he left, the police pulled him over. They reported that Liston was uncooperative when questioned and that he refused to perform a sobriety test.
But Liston wasn't even driving.
Apparently, Liston also refused to ride in the police car. In fact, ten officers showed up to wrestle Liston into a patrol wagon.
He was charged with driving under the influence and resisting arrest. Fortunately, the jury sided in Liston's favor and declared him not guilty.
Despite this outcome, Boston officials were looking for any excuse to get out of their commitment and cancel the fight.
The state attorney general feared it might attract rioters and demonstrators since civil rights disturbances were happening frequently around the nation. Between that, Liston's mob ties and recent run ins with the law. The fight was now more of a burden than a boon to the city of Boston.
Three weeks before the fight on May 5th, the Boston District Attorney's Office declared the bout a public nuisance. A court order was sought and the fight was nixed because promoters earn most of their money from broadcasts.
They didn't care about live attendance or where the fight was held. They simply needed to find a new place to host. Luckily, Sam Michaels, a boxing promoter and resident of Lewiston, Maine, offered his hometown as a venue with a population of 41000.
Lewiston was the smallest town to hold a heavyweight title match in four decades. The fight would be contested at St. Dominic's Hall, a junior hockey rink.
But the A-list guests outshone the modest venue. Promoters stocked ringside seats with former heavyweight champions like Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson. Another former champion, Jersey Joe Walcott, was inside the ring as a referee on May 25th, 1965, under the heat of the lights, Liston entered the ring first.
As Ali made his way to the ropes, Liston heard the boos and catcalls he'd grown used to. For once, he wasn't the bad guy.
The bell rang and Liston charged across the ring, landing and overhand right punch. Ilda retaliated with a hook, then danced away. Liston stalked his opponent and tried to meet Ali with the jab, but missed. Ali carried his hands low, his quick movements.
Too much for Liston, but it hardly made for an exciting fight. Neither Boxer landed heavy punches. The two continue to dance around until midway through the first round. Then Liston backed Ali up to the ropes and swung with his left. All the scooped a left jab in return, which hardly appeared to make contact with Liston. But somehow Liston tumbled to the ground. Before Ali had even made his neck swing, no one could understand why barely anyone at ringside saw the punch land.
Ali wasn't even sure what he had done. Even if his punch had hit Liston, Ali knew it hadn't packed enough power to knock his opponent down. So why was Liston sprawled on the mat?
Boos and shouts of Fixx flooded the small arena as Liston rolled onto his back instead of going to a neutral corner.
As the rules dictated after a knockdown, Ali loomed over his opponent. He waved his arms and shouted, Get up and fight. Nobody will believe this.
Liston rolled back onto his stomach and tried to push himself up to one knee, but he fell backwards again. This time he was down for more than 15 seconds.
The rules required the count to wait until the fighters scoring the knockdown went to a neutral corner in this case, Ali. Yet timekeeper Frank McDonough began his count the second Liston hit the canvas. What's more, Ali never retreated.
He even asked his handlers, did I hit him with the referee, Jersey Joe Walcott, struggling to send Ali to a neutral corner. He never made his own count. Instead, Walcott proceeded to wipe down Liston's gloves, the usual move after a knockdown.
Nat Fleischer, editor of the Ring magazine, was sitting ringside and shouted for Walcott's attention. He told Walcott that the fight was over and pointed to the timekeeper.
But only the referee can count out the fighter, which Walcott never did. Besides, the timekeepers count was wrong. However, Walcott was swept along by the information he'd received. He stopped the fight and raised his hand in victory.
The whole thing was a mess. Pandemonium erupted ringside. More chance of fake and fix filled the arena for 15 minutes after the fight was over. As Ali told his corner, Liston laid down. Ali knew his short inside punch the one few had seen wasn't powerful enough to knock out the former champion. Meanwhile, in Liston's corner, his handlers cut off his gloves. He stared in a daze straight ahead, while no one said a word.
Once again, a Liston fight attracted the attention of lawmakers and investigators with a punch no one had seen and a fighter who literally took a dive.
This bout was even more suspicious than the first bills were introduced in several states to ban boxing while Congress proposed federal control of the sport. An FBI investigation into whether the fighters had been bribed or coerced lasted more than a year. Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover got involved.
Yet speculation behind that phantom punch lingers to this day. Next episode, we'll explore some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the scandal, like conspiracy theory, number one, the Mafia forced Liston to throw the fight.
Conspiracy theory number two, Liston through the fight with no outside influence because he bet against himself or because he didn't want to face Ali.
And conspiracy theory number three, members of the Nation of Islam threatened to kill Liston and kidnap his wife and son if he beat their champion. We'll also look at Sonny Liston's mysterious demise just five years after the fight. Rumors of an overdose, a feud with drug dealers and debts to loan sharks all clouded his cause of death. But they may provide answers to what really happened with the mysterious punch no one saw. Thanks for tuning into conspiracy theories, we'll be back Wednesday to explore some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Sonny Liston fight with Ali.
We'll also look into Liston's mysterious demise. Just five years after the fight of the many resources we used, we found The Phantom Punch by Rob Snedden helpful to our research. You can find all episodes of conspiracy theories and all other Paşa cast originals for free on Spotify.
Not only the Spotify already have all of your favorite music, but now Spotify is making it easy for you to enjoy all of your favorite Parkhurst originals, like conspiracy theories for free from your phone desktop or smart speaker to stream conspiracy theories on Spotify. Just open the app and type conspiracy theories in the search bar.
Until then, remember, the truth isn't always the best story and the official story isn't always the truth.
Conspiracy Theories was created by Max Cutler in his Sparkasse studio's original executive. Producers include Max and Ron Cutler, Sound Design by Michael Langsner with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Joshua Kern. This episode of Conspiracy Theories was written by Ken Pazhani with writing assistants by Ali Whicker and stars Molly Brandenberg and Carter Roy.
Hi, listeners, trust me, you don't want to miss the intense new Park original series, medical murders from trauma surgeons to hospice staff, medical professionals are trained to give exceptional care. But what about those who use their skills not to heal but hurt? Every Wednesday meet the worst the medical community has to offer men and women who took an oath to save lives, but instead use their expertise to develop more sinister specialties, follow medical murders free on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.