The first Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight in 1964 when Liston was the world heavyweight champion ended in controversy: during the fourth round, Clay started complaining that there was something burning in his eyes and that he could not see. It has been theorized that a substance used to stop Liston’s cuts from bleeding caused the irritation. Clay won the match on a TKO.
A rematch was set in May 25th 1965, this time with Liston as challenger; Clay was now Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam the previous year. Due to the fightt being staged in a small auditorium in remote Lewiston, Maine, only 2,500 fans were present, setting the all-time record for the lowest attendance for a heavyweight championship fight. (It remains the only heavyweight title fight held in the state of Maine.)
Midway through the first round, Liston fell to the canvas; Ali refused to retreat to a neutral corner, standing over his fallen opponent, gesturing and yelling at him, “Get up and fight, sucker!” Neil Leifer, a 5’6″ reporter who covered many boxing matches, struggled to capture this moment, which has since become one of the iconic images in sports history. Sports Illustrated used the photo to cover their “The Century’s Greatest Sports Photos” special issue. Leifer thinks it is both the triumph of the powerful man and the vulnerability of the fallen that combined to make this photo a lingering masterpiece.
The blow that ended the match became known as “the phantom punch,” so named because most people at ringside did not see it. There were allegations that Liston was blackmailed by the Mafia or the Nation of Islam extremists to forfeit the match.