The day the Ali-Liston circus came to town, it folded up fast

October 23, 1992|By Jim Jenkins | Jim Jenkins,McClatchy News Service

LEWISTON, Maine -- At Joe Graziano's Casa Mia restaurant, a hangout for the fight crowd, the talk this week is of hometowner Joey Gamache defending his World Boxing Association lightweight title tomorrow against Tony Lopez of Sacramento.

The fight, however, won't take place here. Instead, it will be held in nearby Portland, about 30 miles south of Lewiston. And, in a way, that's too bad.

Because if the circumstances were different, Gamache and Lopez could be waging their nationally televised battle in historic surroundings. It was on May 25, 1965, in St. Dominic Arena that Lewiston played host to its greatest -- or its most infamous -- sporting event.

That was the date of the heavyweight championship rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston.

On Feb. 25 in 1964, in Miami Beach, Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, shocked the boxing world as a 7-1 underdog when he won the title from Liston.

Seemingly invincible after annihilating Floyd Patterson twice for the championship, Liston quit on his stool after the sixth round, claiming an injured shoulder.

The skepticism over that fight, though, paled in comparison to the second meeting in Lewiston. There, before a small gathering in a converted ice skating rink, Ali was credited with a first-round knockout on a punch that many spectators swear never landed.

"The opinion of most people, not mine, was that the fight was in the bag -- a fix," said Sam Michael, the local promoter at the time.

Now 87, Michael's most vivid memory of the match was not so much how it ended, but how it ended up in this quiet community of 40,000 in the first place.

Michael says he was contacted about taking the fight only after attempts failed at holding it in at least six other larger cities, including Boston and Cleveland.

All that mattered to Michael was that he had to hustle once he was convinced the fighters' representatives were serious about coming to Lewiston.

"The arena, now known as the Central Maine Youth Center, where Gamache has had some fights, normally has seating for less than 4,000," Michael said. "So, I had to rent about 2,000 folding chairs to get the capacity up to just under 6,000 seats. We ended up with about 5,000 spectators and turned a profit at the gate, more than $20,000. But there was also a closed-circuit telecast that grossed something like $4 million."

According to boxing historian Bert Sugar, Liston went off as a slight favorite.

Said Sugar: "There were a lot of mysterious things surrounding ++ that fight. It was the height of the Black Muslim scare. People were being frisked at the door.

"I'm not sure Liston took a dive. But I am sure he took a punch. Ali said it was an anchor punch taught to him

by Stepin Fetchit, the late black actor.

"Liston had been lunging at Ali, trying to catch him with a jab. And Ali crossed with a right to the head. The next thing I see is Liston's foot go off the floor and him go on it, on all fours, like a guy looking for his contact lenses. Then he rolled over."

Former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott was the referee and Sugar remembers Walcott "trying to count and push Ali away at the same time. Liston said later the reason he didn't try to get up right away was because Ali was standing over him, waiting to hit him again.

"Finally, Walcott restores order, Liston gets up and goes back to fighting Ali. They have a good exchange. But curiously, while this is going on, Walcott has his head through the ropes talking to Nat Fleischer, the editor of the Ring Record Book and magazine.

"Fleischer is telling Walcott his knockdown count lasted more than 10 seconds and the fight should be over. Walcott, who was always in awe of Fleischer, then goes between the fighters and raises Ali's hand."

Said Ted Taylor, retired sports editor of the then Lewiston Daily Sun: "It looked to me like Ali hit him in the throat. Others said chin or cheek. It still befuddles people. After the fight, Liston stood with a towel over his head and was non-communicative.

"A circus that once passed through our town? That's a good characterization."

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