Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, stands...

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw on May 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine. Credit: AP / John Rooney

Was it a fake?

It wasn't. Cassius (Muhammad Ali) Clay scored a one-punch, one-round knockout over Sonny Liston last night with a sharp overhand right that dropped Liston on his back and out of heavyweight contention forever.

Not since Rocky Marciano scored a one-round knockout over Jersey Joe Walcott on May 15, 1953, in Philadelphia has there been more confusion at a heavyweight championship fight. In a way, it was fitting last night at St. Dom's Youth Center. Jersey Joe Walcott was the referee and the cause of much of the confusion.

The fight began just as the last fight between these two did 15 months ago in Miami Beach. Liston was the chaser and Clay the retreater. Clay bicycled backward faster than Liston could run forward. Clay flicked a few long lefts and landed a one-two combination while Liston scored with what he was later to call "good body shots; not real good, though."

It seemed that the race had just started when it ended. Clay had his back to the ropes when he feinted with his left glove and brought the right hand across and downright flush on Liston's jaw. Liston fell backward slowly. He hit the canvas with the seat of his pants, then the small of his back, his shoulders and his head. It seemed to be almost in slow motion.

Walcott looked across the ring to knockdown timekeeper Francis McDonough and tried to pick up the count. He couldn't even pick out McDonough in the confusion at ringside. The referee turned his back on the fallen Liston and walked closer to the edge of the ring, unmindful of the dramatics going on behind him.

Clay was supplying the dramatics. He stood over Liston, waved his arms and yelled, "Get up! Get up! I want you to fight! Don't just lay there, old man!"

Liston tried to rise, fell back on his haunches, and then with difficulty regained his feet.

When he got to his feet, he and Clay started fighting again. Walcott's back was turned and Clay landed three fast, but not damaging, punches.

Angelo Dundee, Clay's manager, and Drew (Bundini) Brown, the champion's trainer, jumped to the ring apron and yelled at Walcott to say Liston was knocked out. That's when Walcott came to life. He pushed Clay away and signaled that the fight was over.

Walcott had never raised his hand to count a single second.

The time was given officially as one-minute flat. But this might have been another [error] by the knockdown timekeeper. There were stopwatches at ringside that scored the time at 1:50.

Later Walcott put the blame for the confusion on McDonough, a retired printer. He said he was unable to get the count and that McDonough finally told him that 12 seconds had elapsed and that the fight was over.

The blame for Walcott's inability to hear the count has to be placed on the promoters. McDonough had no microphone in spite of the crowd, a precaution usually taken by promoters and a measure insisted upon by most commissions.

But Walcott couldn't explain away why he turned his back on the fallen Liston; why he neglected to push Clay away, and why he did not penalize Clay for not going to a neutral corner.

The penalty is up to the referee. He is the boss in the ring. It is a judgment rule. Most often a referee will pick up the count if a fighter makes even a delayed move to a neutral corner. If the fighter refuses to go, the referee can delay his count as a penalty -- a lesson Jack Dempsey learned in his second fight with Gene Tunney.

But whatever confusion reigned or who was to blame, Clay didn't care. He bounced up and down and waved his arms. Then he fired a challenge at Floyd Patterson, who was sitting at ringside. "I want you, Rabbit!" he yelled, "I want you!"

The crowd stood long after the fight was over and chanted, "Fake! Fake!"

Many ringsiders said they never saw the punch that dropped Liston. But it landed. And it was hard. Whether it was hard enough to keep Liston down for those 12 seconds, or however long it took, only Liston knows. Liston was to say later that he was waiting for the count and that he could have risen any time. He didn't. He just shrugged when he was reminded that when he first tried to rise, he fell over backward.

The parallel was Walcott's one-round loss to Marciano. Not many ringsiders or television viewers saw Marciano land his punch, either. But Walcott went down, rolled toward the ropes and stayed there until "10'' was tolled over him.

This was Walcott's second heavyweight championship refereeing job and the second time he messed it up. In the Patterson-Tom McNeeley fight in 1961 in Toronto, Walcott forgot there was a mandatory eight-second count when McNeeley was dropped and allowed Patterson to go right at his man when McNeeley stood up.

Before last night's fight, Liston said he had never been knocked down. He has a bad memory. He was dropped for an eight-count on April 21, 1955, in St. Louis. Marty Marshall dropped him. But Liston knocked out Marshall in the sixth round.

The one-minute knockdown time was declared official this morning, so the fight becomes the fastest heavyweight championship in history. The previous quickie was 1:20, Tommy Burns over Jim Roche in 1908.

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