Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review: The Phantom Punch (2015)

By Rob Sneddon

The most unlikely place for a heavyweight boxing championship match is no doubt Shelby, Montana. Jack Dempsey took on Tommy Gibbons in 1923 in a town that was essentially a collection of railroad crossings in Big Sky Country. A stadium was constructed for the bout, the fight was held (Dempsey won), the stadium came down, and a few people left with some money. The site is now partially occupied by a Burger King. I've been there; it (the location of the fight, not the Burger King) was odd then and it was odd now.

The second-most unlikely place for a heavyweight boxing championship match just might be Lewiston, Maine. Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston to retain the title in an unlikely finish.

"The Phantom Punch" is the story of that unique event, when an odd set of circumstances put one of the jewels of the sporting calendar in a small town in Maine.

And after reading the book, you might come to the same conclusion that I did. This is a movie, waiting to be written and filmed.

The story is irresistible. Cassius Clay had just knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964, and prompted changed his name to Muhammad Ali to reflect his religious viewpoints. America at that point knew it was scared of Liston, a man not unfamiliar with the nation's law enforcement system. He was something of "The Boogie Man" to many. But some Americans preferred that image to the one portrayed by Ali at the time, as he had joined the Black Muslims. As a result, no one was too anxious to try to host the rematch. When Ali had an operation for a hernia just before that second bout between the men, it gave forces in Boston time to come up with enough power to ban it from that Massachusetts city.

The date for the rematch was set, but where should be held? Maine promoter Sam Michael stepped up and offered an arena in Lewiston. Since the backers were more interested in pay-per-view sales than attendance at the bout itself, the offer was accepted.

It's tough to imagine what Lewiston must have been like in the days around the fight. It was a small, almost all white, working-class town that had seen tough times. Suddenly, two of the most famous black men in the world turn up for the fight. The dynamics are fascinating, and the book is at its best when describing what went on. For example, Liston - who had a weak spot for kids - spent a morning at an elementary school on a night's notice. He didn't just visit someone's son (who had asked for the visit), but made the rounds of every room in the school. According to all, Liston couldn't have been nicer, and is still well-regarded in Lewiston for his behavior.

Then there's the fight itself, which instantly became legendary. With rumors of fixes and murder attempts everywhere, Liston was knocked down by a punch that a lot of people at ringside didn't even see - hence the title of the book. The referee botched the count badly, and the fight resumed ... only to be stopped and declared over.

The movie could almost write itself - media members and celebrities arrive in Lewiston, Ali driving a bus down the main streets of the city, residents grabbing a case of soft drinks in order to pose as a delivery person and sneak into the arena.

"The Phantom Punch" probably lingers a bit much on the story of the promoter and the business deals involved in the fight. It's a little difficult to make that interesting. But author Rob Sneddon knows the boxing business, and makes a good case that Liston at that point in his life was no match for Ali under any circumstances. It's the background story, though, that supplies some charm.

It makes for a worthwhile, if a bit short, book. Let's hope Sneddon can sell the movie rights.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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