‘Fights smell bad’: A non-sportswriter covers Ali-Liston fight in Lewiston

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali peers down at challenger Sonny Liston as Liston goes down from a punch in the first round of their title fight in Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965. Ali won by knockout to retain his crown. The bout produced one of the strangest finishes in boxing history as well as one of sports’ most iconic moments. Associated Press file photo

Fights smell bad. I don’t mean, necessarily, that they have an aura of hanky-panky about them, but they just don’t smell good.

There’s a mixture of dust in the air combined with the odor of sweaty bodies—not only the fighters, but those of the spectators in the heat of the heavy-lighting equipment used.

Cigar and cigarette smoke add to the closeness of the air, and all in all this combination of smells add up to excitement.

Excitement—brief as it may have been in the case of last night’s title fight—but, excitement nevertheless.

The highly-touted Clay-Liston bout, preceded by a string of second, third and maybe fourth-rate box exceptions in the preliminaries, as is the case for any major fight, was no.

FU

It had all the smells, all the action, outside the ring and a little inside, and the hustle and bustle of activity surrounding such an undertaking all led this non-sports-type writer to the conclusion that to watch a big-time bout is fun.

The refinements of the art of boxing are lost on the uninitiated such as myself. But, the final blow, the body falling, the sharp intake of breath by thousands a split second before the air is torn by exclamations of excitement . . . these are the things anyone can understand, even the uninitiated.

There are also many nuances of flavor about a heavy-weight battle which are so subtle they might be missed by the inattentive. These things, too, add to the general feeling of an observer sitting for the first time at ringside.

Those of the press corps who for several days followed the world famous boxers around, asking inane questions and copying down equally inane answers, already had picked their winner. Some picked on the basis of observed skill. Others chose on the basis of personality.

This writer, it must be confessed, chose his winner on the basis of personality. Liston, he felt, was less than human; But, Clay, he felt as strongly, was a blow-hard, mouth-shooting guy who didn’t deserve to win—and, also, the bookies attitude, Liston, 6-5, helped make up his mind.

WRONG AGAIN!

Liston was to be the winner.

The one-minute knock-out put a stop to this pipe dream, however, and the belt of the champion remained around the champ, the butterfly, the Black Muslim, Muhammad Ali.

I got to the Central Maine Youth Center early in order to capture as much of the atmosphere as possible. At that point just about the only people around were the newsmen who were getting set up for their brief coverage.

Outside the arena, however, was a melee of people who apparently were not scheduled to see the fight, but wanted to get a look at all the celebrities they thought would be on hand for the action.

As the 8:30 fight time approached, the seats in the arena began filling slowly—but, the real crowd didn’t fill out until the time for the main bout had nearly arrived.

SOME SEATS EMPTY

One section of the hall was nearly empty at 10 pm, but, within fifteen minutes it had filled almost to capacity. There were, however, many open seats which were never filled even as late as the end of the fight.

Upon entering the arena, one of the first things I noted was the number of sharp-eyed, sharply dressed young men who obviously were security men, possibly for the Clay camp.

Policemen were everywhere. They had been warning to be on the lookout for a dangerous anti-Black Muslim New Yorker and photos of the man, police mug-shots, were being handed back and forth so all could get a look at the man who was sought.

PLAYBOY THERE

As fight time neared one of the more famous artists of the country, handlebar-mustached LeRoy Neiman of Playboy Magazine, his water color box open and his large sketch pad laid out on his arm, blocked in the ring with its vivid-blue velvet covered ropes with bright red corner pads—a picture which well may be seen in a forthcoming issue of Playboy.

Neiman, noted for his fluid style of watercolor, walked around the ring picking areas which offered particular items for his quickly blocked painting. He sketched in Western Union pads on reporters’ tables from one point, and from another vantage site blocked in a set of press telephones and the TV monitor sets near the ring.

Around the ring the photographers from national magazines and international press services gathered, tested their cameras, fiddled with wiring and finally gave the nod that all was well in their world of shutters and strobe lights.

Men in white baseball caps and space-age earphones strung around their necks checked out the TV wiring and added their backs to the bristle of photographers and technicians at ringside.

Then a cheer—or, boos, all mixed together as you really couldn’t tell what they were—rose from the area of ​​the auditorium as one of the top-dog fighters appeared with his retinue and went in his dressing room. People stood on their seats, but few could see who approached.

The chatter of typewriters and ringside teletype machines added their voices to the din as the time for the first bout on the card approached, and the arena began to fill.

As the first of the boots got underway it was obvious to the unskilled boxing eye that no one cared a whit about the two fighters in the ring who were intent on maiming each other—and, it was also obvious that they didn’t know or care that no one was watching their performance.

EYES ON SPECTATORS

I, too, must confess that this was not what I had come to see. I was more concerned with watching the array of people who entered their respective rows to take their seats and the hub-bub of foreign languages ​​being spoken in the press section.

There were more foreign languages ​​being used in the small press area than I have heard since visiting the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo years ago.

Former Lewiston Industrial Development Director Samuel Michael, co-promoter of the big event, was resplendent in a tuxedo as he shooed unauthorized people out of the press area and recaptured the press seats for those to whom they had been assigned.

Then, after much fanfare for the out of town TV audience, the fight began—and was over.

All this for one-minute of action—and weeks of debates which will follow.

But, it was worth the effort, so far as I’m concerned.

Editor’s note: This column, originally published in the Lewiston Evening Journal on May 26, 1965, was edited to remove offensive language and to correct the spelling of LeRoy Neiman’s last name.


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