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Muhammed Ali Vs. Sonny Liston: The 'Worst Mess In History Of Sports'

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The death Friday of Muhammed Ali has had me remembering many stories I've heard over the years about the champ's career. Here's a story that we ran here a little over a year ago. It was about a fight in 1965. In those days, to be boxing's heavyweight champion was to enjoy global recognition. A title bout was as big as the seventh game of the World Series or the NFL championship game. There was no Super Bowl yet.

But the 1965 fight in question went down as the worst mess in the history of sports. And for a fight that commanded worldwide attention, it happened in a very unlikely place - Lewiston, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNNY ADDIE: The main event - 15 rounds for the heavyweight championship of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SIEGEL: It was a rematch. The challenger was the former champion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADDIE: Sonny Liston.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: In the other corner - the champ, who had recently changed his name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADDIE: Muhammed Ali.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: Previously known as Cassius Clay. The ring announcer Johnny Addie used Ali's new name there, but throughout that night's radio broadcast of the match, the sportscasters called him by the name Ali had abandoned.

(SOUNDBITE)

UNIDENTIFIED CASTER #1: Cassius Clay, who's shadowboxing right above us, weighs...

SIEGEL: This is what I heard that night on New York radio station WHN. I was almost 18 and wouldn't have missed a heavyweight title fight. Twenty-two-year-old Phil Phil Greiss (ph) was listening too. He made this recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CASTER #1: The referee has called the two fighters to the center of the ring, and let's listen to the instructions.

UNIDENTIFIED REFEREE: I know you're both in good condition...

SIEGEL: The most amazing thing about this fight before it began was that it was in Lewiston, a small Maine mill town. It was supposed to be in Boston, but the DA there wouldn't have it. There were fears of organized crime being involved. There was a rumored death threat against Ali by members of the Nation of Islam.

GARY ROBINOV: So they scrambled to find a new venue, and most states wouldn't touch it.

SIEGEL: Gary has made a documentary about the fight and its lasting effect on Lewiston. He says the fight organizers scrambled because tickets had already been sold for closed-circuit telecasts of the bout.

ROBINOV: And got hold of a gentleman by the name of Sam Michael. Sam was a pawnbroker and former economic growth counselor in Lewiston, and he was also a small-town fight promoter.

And they got hold of Sam, and Sam got hold of the then-state boxing commissioner George Russo. And they both got in touch with the governor. The governor agreed to let the fight be held there, and the governor signed the announcement on May 7. So these guys had, you know, 17, 18 days to put together a world heavyweight championship fight in Lewiston, Maine.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) In a city of about 40,000 people, in an arena that had only 2,500 paying customers - and such a mess. It began with the Broadway star Robert Goulet singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." I can remember this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADDIE: Ladies and gentlemen, national anthem.

ROBERT GOULET: (Singing) O, say can you see by the dawn's early night...

ROBINOV: That's true. There are several stories behind it that he had been entertained by family and friends before the fight and maybe had a couple of cocktails. Another was that he was so nervous that he had written the lyrics on the palm of his hand, and he was so nervous and sweating that they blurred on the palm of his hand.

But he got out of sync with the organist and messed up a couple of words, and it followed him for the rest of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOULET: (Singing) O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: So the night begins with a bungled "Star-Spangled Banner," and then comes one of the strangest heavyweight title bouts that anyone ever saw or, like me, heard on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CASTER #1: They're staring at each other. There's the bell, and here's (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED CASTER #2: And Clay throws a right hand to the head and scores right away, comes in with a left and crosses with a right.

SIEGEL: What went on? How long did it last?

ROBINOV: It varies. The punch - or the phantom punch, as it's referred to - occurred at a-minute-44 into the first round.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CASTER #2: Liston now, his head bobbing - and goes to his knees.

ROBINOV: There's mass confusion caused by a calamity of events, one of them being that Jersey Joe Walcott, the former heavyweight champ, was actually the referee that night and, being a little inexperienced in that capacity, got out of sync with the official knockdown timekeeper. Muhammad Ali didn't immediately go to a neutral corner, which delayed the count.

And by the time things got rolling, we're about a-minute-56 in. Liston's back up, and the two fighters re-engage. They actually fought. Most people don't realize that those guys actually started fighting again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CASTER #1: Clay on top of Liston, goes to the left to the top of the head now.

ROBINOV: And at that point, Liston is beckoned over to the timekeepers, and it's actually a gentleman by the name of Nat Fleischer - was sitting behind the knockdown timekeeper.

SIEGEL: A famous man in the world boxing.

ROBINOV: Yeah. He's the editor - founder and editor of Ring magazine, and he is waving his arms, saying he's been down for more than 10; he's been down for more than 10. This fight is over. So actually, in some strange way, the editor of Ring magazine officially called the fight over.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CASTER #1: Now here comes Jersey Joe Walcott...

JERSEY JOE WALCOTT: He's out.

UNIDENTIFIED CASTER #1: ...And says it's all over. They (unintelligible), and it is all over. And they are going wild in the center of the ring.

SIEGEL: I'm trying to imagine what it was like for the people of Lewiston, Maine, to have in there, in this town of about 40,000 people, a huge press corps. There were hundreds of reporters there, yeah?

ROBINOV: Yeah. There was about 600 reporters. The arena held about 4,500 people. They sold 2,400 tickets. They figure with press, people that snuck in, vendors and the like, the tickets they gave away, about 4,000 people were present.

SIEGEL: In addition to the quantity of people who were there, there were some superstars.

ROBINOV: Yeah. The Cinderella Man was there, James J. Braddock. It was an amazing parade, a who's who of boxing dignitaries. Add to that Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason. Celebrities from all around the country and the world are flying into this little town, Lewiston, Maine, to attend the world heavyweight championship, the biggest title in all of boxing held in the smallest town ever, to the smallest-attended audience ever. And the whole thing's over in a-minute-44 seconds or two minutes and two seconds depending who you ask.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

ROBINOV: And by the time they're seated and sipping on their first beer or adjusting their coats, the fight's over.

SIEGEL: Gary Robinov, thanks a lot for talking with us.

ROBINOV: It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: That was Maine filmmaker Gary Robinov talking to us about Muhammad Ali's fight in Lewiston, Maine, in 1965. He made a documentary about the fight called "Raising Ali."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUHAMMAD ALI: Didn't I tell the world that I had a surprise and that if I told you the surprise, you would not come to the fight? With me was almighty Allah and his messenger, and I've been saying my prayers regular, living a righteous life...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right.

ALI: And as you see what happens.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wait a minute, now let me ask you this if I may. Wait a minute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.