My brother asks about Ali-Liston 2 pt. 1

Jersey Joe Walcott – The Oldest Heavyweight Champion and Shortest Lived Heavyweight Champion Referee.

In true Ali style, the rematch with Liston in 1965 would lend another indelible phrase to the boxing lexicon. While the first fight was an instant classic with the line “I am the Greatest”, the second was stamped by the press with the monicker “The Phantom Punch”. Although it lasted less than a round, 2 minutes and 12 seconds was more than enough time to pack in a garden variety debacle, and one that should have been easily foreseeable the moment Jersey Joe Walcott was selected as the referee. While at this time it was not entirely uncommon for former champions to officiate fights without much formal training, whoever let a celebrity in the ring for what was virtually guaranteed to be an officiating nightmare given the nature of the first Ali-Liston fight should have been made to fight the winner in the locker room afterwards.

The theory behind selecting Walcott in the first place was twofold. First, theoretically, he would be able to exhibit control over the two fighters by virtue of having spent so much time in heavyweight title fights himself. Second, considering that the fight was taking place in the middle of nowhere in Maine, there were a not insignificant number of promoters trying to get a few more asses in seats by adding another name to the bill.

It’s understandable that Walcott might be perceived as competent given the fact that he was a veteran of eight heavyweight championship fights against three hall of famers. He  had actually tried and failed to win the title four times, losing twice to both Joe Lewis and Ezzard Charles, before finally KO’ing Charles in the seventh round of their third fight in 1951. He successfully defended the title almost a year later – again against Charles – and it is of note that, on the occasion, Zach Clayton became the first black man to referee a world heavyweight title bout. It would be the last time three black men were in the ring with the heavyweight title on the line until the very fight that is the subject of this piece.

As an aside, racially groundbreaking as the 1951 fight was, Clayton is best known for officiating the third fight that featured three black men in the ring. It was the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974, which is widely regarded as the most culturally black sporting event in the history of mankind. In fact, no white man would ever so much as keep an eye on  the belt while a champion took a piss until the Lennox Lewis retired in 2004, and finally white promoters had an opportunity to hand-pick two white fighters and a white referee for the affair.

Oh, and it was a great moment for white people too; the bout featured Corrie Sanders – a South African who never competed in the Olympics because his country was banned until 1988 due to Apartheid – Vitali Klitschko – a Ukranian who never competed in the Olympics for a country that has never fielded a single non-white athlete, because he tested positive for anabolic steroids – and it was refereed by Jon Schorle – a man who never competed in the Olympics because he was too busy living in El Dorado Hills, CA, a city who relocated its still-named – I swear to god you can’t make this up – N-word Hills-inscribed gravestones from N-word Hill Cemetery…to the Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the red corner, weighing in at just under 10% of the global population, and still the undisputed ethnic hubris heavyweight champion of the world…

…white people.

One almost forgets that by 1965 the young champion Cassius Clay had already joined the Nation of Islam, adopted the name Muhammad Ali, and had begun the work of tectonically uplifting the social status of black people across the planet.

But returning to Walcott, it might even have been feasible to suggest that he could have somehow proved useful as an official given his personal experience with the types of complications that had manifested in Ali-Liston 1.

Chicanery has always been a part of boxing, but on only two occasions has a substance rubbed on a pair of boxing gloves been intentionally used to blind an opponent in a heavyweight title fight. The most iconic is Ali-Liston 1. After four rounds of Ali treating Liston like a Raggedy Andy doll filled with catnip in a tiger enclosure, Ali returned to his corner virtually unable to see. The pain was so bad that he can be seen visibly screaming for Angelo Dundee to cut the gloves off. Dundee was in a horrible predicament, as not only did he have a fighter who was about to throw away the championship sitting in front of him, but behind him was an ominous encroachment of black Muslims from the Muslim Brotherhood inching towards the corner. Despite obviously having skin in the game, it was still white skin as far as they were concerned, and Dundee was terrified that if Ali had to quit because his vision was sabotaged they would be looking to kill the closest white man to the affair. Fortunately, Ali was almost blind, because if he had his powers of sight he may well have taken Dundee’s final injunction before round five to be directed towards the cornermen rather than him:

“RUN!”

Although it will never be known for sure, all evidence points to Liston having Monsel Solution rubbed on his gloves that he then jabbed/rubbed into Ali’s eyes in the clinches. Monsel Solution hasn’t been legal for years owing to the fact that it’s a chemical cauterizer that leaves scars on a man’s face far worse than the cut itself because it essentially burns a wound closed. Remember the chemical burn scene from Fight Club? It’s about the same effect. As I’m sure you can imagine, even a tenth of a drop of this stuff in your eyes could be a bit of an “issue”, and particularly with a murderer like Liston.

I would almost be willing to let it go and just chalk it up to one of the mysteries of the boxing ring but for the fact that this wasn’t the first time a Liston opponent had suffered from a similarly inexplicable eye malady mid-fight. A fighter by the name of Eddie Machen had the exact same thing happen to him against Liston four years earlier while Liston was the number one ranked contender. Liston would go on to win a unanimous decision despite losing three points for treating Machen’s nutsack like a speed bag, and the extra round or two the Monsel Solution bought him likely was a contributing factor. How a fighter can make it to three points without being disqualified for low blows is beyond me. Even Andrew Golata only got two before being DQ’d for beating the living hell out of Riddick Bowe’s brood tubes, and unlike Liston it cost him the heavyweight title.

For all his victimization, Machen declared until his death that Ali was being a pussy for complaining about it, but then again, that death took place at the age of forty because the punishment he took in the ring contributed to a lack of mental stability that drove him to take a header off the balcony of a two story building. Chronic nutsack pain may have been a contributing factor.

The other fight in which this occurred is remembered almost wholly for the 13th round, and the blinding incident is virtually unknown to most boxing scholars. The fight took place in September of 1952, and was the second title defense of Jersey Joe Walcott. His opponent was none other than the last great white heavyweight champion, Rocky Marciano.

Marciano maintained until his death – also by plummeting out of the sky and pile driving into the ground, albeit in an airplane – that he was intentionally blinded by Walcott’s trainer when a caustic substance was wiped on Walcott’s gloves. Although exactly what it was is unknown, it produced eerily familiar symptoms to those that Ali was suffering from in the first Liston fight.

To be fair, while Liston most likely asked for it, the overwhelming evidence and opinion is that Walcott had nothing whatsoever to do with it and probably didn’t even know what was happening. In a sport where fighters have been known to wear everything from plaster wraps to possible railroad spikes inserted lengthwise into the front of a glove, I don’t offer my absolution to Walcott lightly.

In both cases, justice would be done. Ali survived the fifth round and a round later Liston became the first heavyweight champion to quit on his stool – a cowardly and dishonorable distinction shared only with the Great White Cope Vitali Klitschko. Walcott’s exit on the other hand, could not possibly have been more diametrically opposed.

After whipping Marciano’s ass for twelve rounds and blinding him in the sixth, Walcott seemed on his way to administering the young Marciano’s first professional defeat. Zach Clayton, employed as a judge for the fight, had Walcott up 8-4 until precisely 43 seconds into the 13th round, at which time Marciano unleashed the single hardest one-punch KO ever witnessed in a championship fight. The right hand connected out of literally nowhere, and the impact was so great that Walcott dropped in sections like a drug store Jacob’s ladder. First his legs buckled, then, when his knees hit the ground his midsection collapsed, and finally his head keeled forward, grotesquely swaying back and forth like a piece of roadkill dangling off the front of a semi, and the only thing that kept him suspended off the canvas was a single arm lifelessly fish-hooked over a ring rope like a marionette shot through a scramjet engine into a forest of titanium barbed wire.

The only scene I can recall more disturbing that the conclusion of the trilogy between Floyd Patterson and Ingmar Johansson, during which Patterson became the first man to reclaim the heavyweight crown.  In the third fight, Patterson knocked Ingmar Johansson senseless with a shot so ridiculous that Johansson could have easily been mistaken for a corpse lying in state but for the macabre reptilian twitching of his left foot. Tragically, Patterson would shortly thereafter be on the receiving end of two equally destructive KO’s at the hands of Sonny Liston, during which Liston lifted the title off of him.

It is of no small note that in the seven fights I just mentioned from Walcott to Liston, the referee stood over all of them and calmly counted to ten before calling the paramedics and, I’m guessing just to be safe, the coroner. With the exception of Marciano’s retirement, the heavyweight title changed hands exclusively by brutal KO. Although referees are still no less cognizant of the investment fighters have in the sport, modern sensibilities demand that today’s champions are afforded a somewhat lessened benefit of the doubt.

The 1952 loss to Marciano would prove to be Walcott’s second to last fight, and since Marciano’s victory was seen as partially serendipitous, a rematch was immediately made in May of 1953. However, sensing Rocky’s potential to retain the title for white America for the near future, the Mafia stepped in as a, shall we say, “concerned investor”, to ensure that their Italian Stallion wasn’t upset by a clearly cagy and dangerous black veteran. While the Rock was granted the usual percentage of the gate, Walcott – the challenger mind you – received a flat guarantee of $250,000. This sum was beyond unheard of, much less warranted, and it immediately provoked suspicion of foul play as nobody could rightly figure out where the hell it was coming from.

All was well for the first two minutes of the fight, until Marciano tapped Walcott with a grazing left jab that, owing to the camera angle, cannot even be definitively confirmed as having connected. Walcott fell backwards onto the canvas as if shot, then, sensing that he had likely oversold his hand, propped himself onto his ass at the count of two and held the ring rope with his right hand as if to spring up at eight or nine. However, as the ref was counting directly into his earhole in plain english, Walcott unfathomably mistook the number “nine” for “ten” and hauled himself perfectly lucidly onto his feet just after being counted out.

Obviously this cost him the fight, and it absolutely ended his chances for an Academy Award in a year where William Holden’s acceptance speech for winning Best Actor lasted eight seconds less than Walcott’s count and consisted of the words “thank you.” Walcott would never be seen wearing a pair of gloves in the ring again, and to the best of my knowledge, he’s the only fighter to be knocked out with two different arms draped over the ring ropes in two separate fights.

So all of this brings us to Ali/Liston II, and we are now in a position to fully understand the how’s and why’s of the famous “phantom punch” officiating debacle. If we observe Walcott’s qualifications as a referee, we come up with the following:

  1. Having a clear sense of how to throw a fight in the first round by foolishly rolling around on the ring mat while pretending to be oblivious to the count being administered directly into your perfectly conscious face by the referee, after taking the weakest left hand KO punch ever witnessed in the ring that may or may not have even touched you.
  2. Doing so under pressure from a potentially volatile ethnic mob.
  3. Having no idea what to do when the identical thing you did is occurring right in front of you because you’ve had every single boxing neuron in your head splattered out of your ear by the single most apocalyptic right hand KO punch ever witnessed in the ring.

Ben Tomkins
Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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