On May 25th, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine, Muhammad Ali beat Sonny Liston for the second time. Again there was controversy, this time it was related to the ‘phantom punch’. Ali finished the fight, in the first round, with a short chopping straight right, which knocked Liston down for somewhere between 12 and 17 seconds, while the referee flapped around losing control as Ali stood over Liston shaking his fist. The ref was informed of time Liston had spent on the mat and stopped the fight, declaring Ali winner by knockout.
The straight right that tagged Liston was known as the ‘phantom punch’ as many missed it completely, others said it didn’t land at all. Many believed the fight was fixed, for a variety of reasons, one of which was that many believed the punch was not hard enough to knock Liston out. In slow-motion, it’s clear the short right hit Liston plum on the jaw as he is regaining balance from a lunging jab, he had trouble landing punches in both fights. The clip clearly shows a jarring, shaking of Liston’s head which appears to be sufficient to knock him out.
Steve Morris explains that a knockout occurs when the reticular activating system, responsible for controlling consciousness is disrupted.
The disruption of the reticular activating system occurs through the violent rotation of the brain on the brainstem. In most cases, this rotation is very obvious, whether it occurs through twisting, moving side to side or through the head being violently snapped back
The slow-motion clip indicates a rotation of Liston’s head, the ambiguity concerning the efficacy of the phantom punch is to do with the assumption that a bigger punch is required to cause a knockout. Big punchers tend to throw the kitchen sink at their opponents, Tyson, Marciano and others of that ilk certainly did. But if the opponent is off balance when hit, less force is required to rotate the head, and so cause a knockout.
In 1965 there were still those that believed Ali was unable to punch hard, he was retreating when he threw it and given the short range of the phantom punch it’s easy to understand how people didn’t believe their own eyes. Ali himself claimed the punch, which he called the anchor punch, was too quick for the eye to see.
A short punch on the retreat does not have the obvious power of a Tyson blockbuster, but the phantom punch was not the only time Ali was able to knockdown or knockout an opponent while going backwards. The highlight clip shows a few examples, while Anderson Silva did something very similar to Forest Griffin recently. I suppose people find it difficult to believe that it’s possible to generate power while going backwards, let alone short range power.