“Over categorization is perhaps the commonest trick of the human mind. Given a thimble full of facts we rush to make generalizations as large as a tub.”
Why didn’t we listen to Cassius Clay when he told the world that he had invented the “Anchor Punch”, the punch that brought down “ The Bear” in the first few minutes of the second fight? Why…? Because in the mid 1960’s we did not know what Cassius Clay had known about himself all along. And that was, that what he was doing in the ring in those two Championship title fights with Sonny “Charles” Liston would one day make him “The Greatest.” Looking back in hindsight if we only knew then what we know now about Muhammad Ali we would have never allowed the words, “Phantom Punch” to enter into our vocabulary.
Was this the first and the last time Cassius Clay brought his opponents down to the canvas using the “Anchor Punch”? If we trace the history of Cassius Clay before and after he became Muhammad Ali, we might see the punch being used in his amateur fights. But we definitely see it being used time and time again after he took the title away from Sonny Liston. If we really take a close look at those two fights with Sonny Liston, we can see the beginnings of what the great sports color commentator Howard Cosell would later announce to the world as the “Ali Shuffle”, the “Rope a dope” and expound on Ali’s legendary speed, ability to bob and weave, and the use of his legendary mouth to mentally wear his opponents down. It was not that he
was not as great in those two fights with Sonny, it was the fact that at that time in history the boxing world was not sophisticated enough to see how truly great he was. Looking back we can now see how it was possible for Cassius Clay to not only beat Sonny Liston once, but also twice. Every boxer while preparing for a fight watches pre-fight films of the boxers they are about to fight in the ring. They do this in order to study not only their opponent’s strengths but also their weaknesses. Once a boxer understands what he will be up against in his upcoming fight, he then sets out to train himself accordingly. The first thing he will do is look for a sparring partner who fights in a similar style and fashion as his future opponent.
Knowing his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, he will use his time in training camp as an opportunity to learn how to avoid his opponent’s strengths and exploit his weaknesses. One of Sonny’s strengths was his powerful left jab and his ability to take a punch. He was one of the few boxers in the world that could generate enough power to knock out another boxer just with his jab. Now Sonny using his jab as a potential knockout punch was not only revolutionary but also non-traditional. Traditionally,
“The left jab begins almost every offensive pattern in boxing, it closes or gauges the distance for the harder blows (the left hook and the straight right), and it is the lead- in blow for the majority of the combinations. Although the left jab is classified as a light- hitting blow, it can be most effective on both offense and defense. A short, snappy jab keeps an opponent off balance and can offset the harder but slower blows by beating them to the punch.”
Even though Mr. Ali and Sonny Liston were basically of different boxing styles and from different era’s they both found a way to reinvent the sport. The reason Sonny Liston’s jab had knockout potential was because he could put his whole body into that jab. He threw that jab as if he was sacrificing his life; body, mind and soul. Just imagine a man of the size and girth of Sonny Liston coming at you with his jab as if he were a train coming down the tracks at full speed, a “Night Train”. This was both a blessing and a curse for Sonny Liston. The reason being that after he threw his left jab, it always left him more often than not off-balance and exposed to an overhand right. The sheer force of the jab made Sonny’s left arm overextend his bicep making the bicep muscle recoil pulling his arm downward below his chin. If it weren’t for Sonny’s ability to take a punch, he would have been knocked out much sooner in his career.
I believe that my grandfather saw that most fighters feared his left jab. If you look at his fights, prior to the Cassius Clay fights his opponents tended to train to avoid his jab by always moving not toward it, but away from it. Soon Sonny did not need to be afraid of or worry about attacks from the left side of his head and body. At least the attempts to his left side would be few and far between. But in my opinion, that made him take his left side for granted by not bringing his guard back to protect his head after throwing his left jab.
“After a left jab lands, fold it back to the on-guard position to be ready for another maneuver. It is important that the arm recovery be made through the same plane that the blow takes on its way to the target. At no time should an opening be created by dropping the left hand on the recovery.”
No one, I mean no one, even ventured into that territory for more than a few seconds. A boxer’s fear of being knocked out by Sonny’s left jab had made Sonny Liston invulnerable. Sonny was so confident about his jab that he kept his left hand almost always at the level of his chest and at times only waist high.
Sonny went on record stating that he thought Cassius Clay was crazy and that he was scared of Cassius Clay. The reason I believe that Sonny feared Mr. Ali was that Mr. Ali was the first boxer he had ever faced who had trained not to move away from Sonny’s left jab as he fought him, but to move (toward) his left jab has he fought him.
Yes, Muhammad Ali was moving to the left in both title fights like every other boxer that had faced Sonny Liston. I’m speaking specifically about his pre-fight preparation of what he would term the “Anchor Punch”. I’m saying that Muhammad Ali was the first boxer crazy enough to train to knock Sonny out with a punch that not only Sonny would not expect, but also that the world would not expect. And that is one of the main reasons why no one saw the “Anchor Punch”. No one saw Mr. Ali’s punch because no one was looking for it. We were also blinded by 350 years of slavery,
100 years of legally enforced segregation, and decades of racial discrimination and prejudice in every facet of life. That history kept us preoccupied like a magician who uses sleight of hand (quick fingers) to manipulate cards and coins. And just like a magician, Muhammad Ali used not his fingers, but his quick fist to knock out Sonny Liston, while he manipulated us with our concepts on race. If you look at the faces of the fans who were at ringside, right up until the moment before Mr. Ali throws his famous Anchor Punch, you will notice that the fans seemed to be preoccupied; as if their minds were somewhere else. I’m not talking about the photographers, judges and time keepers. I’m talking specifically about the fans. Now if your mind is somewhere else then you aren’t living in the present. What could have been so compelling to the fans at ringside to make them collectively drift off from a championship fight; So much so that they missed the knockout punch?
And the genius of Ali was that he recognized Sonny’s hubris and by doing so he turned Sonny’s strength into his weakness. I say weakness because Sonny thought that no one would dare spend too much time in the range of his dangerous left jab for him to ever have to worry about defending himself from an over hand right. I mean there were boxers in the fifties like Whitehurst, Williams, Griffin, and Harris who attempted to venture over to Sonny’s left jab but only briefly. The overhand right’s these other boxers would throw at Sonny would not have the force necessary to knock him out.
When you see a train coming down the tracks, your natural instincts would tell you to get the hell out of the way. You would have to be either suicidal or crazy to play chicken with an oncoming train. But Cassius was the first boxer to “Walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil”. And that was also part of Mr. Ali’s way of psyching out Sonny. Sonny would also try to psyche out boxers before the beginning of each fight by using his stare of death.
By the time Sonny faced Muhammad Ali in the second title fight almost a decade after he fought Whitehurst, Williams , Griffin and Harris there was no reason for Sonny not to believe that his left jab and his left side to be impenetrable. Even when Sonny’s matches were filmed, they tended to follow the action of the boxers and only film Sonny on his right side as his opponents tended to always move predictably to Sonny’s right. It was almost not even necessary to have multiple cameras for Sonny’s fights. One camera on one side of the boxing ring seemed to be enough to follow the action during his fights. Anyone ever countering Sonny’s left jab was considered to be an afterthought. Sonny had no reason to change his left jab or evolve as a boxer because the boxers he had been facing had yet to evolve to counter his jab.
Boxing, up until the sixties had been steeped in tradition and had become predictable, safe, and somewhat conservative. But boxing has always needed to evolve as time went by. From the days of Queens Berry to the days of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, boxing has seen its styles, rules, and traditions change with the times but little did Sonny know and little did anyone else know that there was a “change gonna come” again. As soon as Sonny faced Cassius Clay not only would his left jab become a relic of the past, but also his way of fighting would become a remnant of a bygone era. For over fifty years the angle of the “Phantom Punch” was the only angle we were able to see.
The only reason they call it a “Phantom Punch” is because just before it lands on the chin of Sonny Liston it disappears out of camera range. But you see Sonny’s head snap viciously to the right at the time when his head should have snapped if he were punched. This great mystery is, after all these years only a silly technicality. Again, you only have to look at Sonny’s fights up until his title defense with Mr. Ali to see that he was unable to guard himself after throwing his left jab. It was only a matter of time before someone with enough power, strength and speed would bring him down.
When it comes to his stature, Mr. Ali is a big man. I would even call him a giant amongst men. I stand five foot ten and a half and still I had to look up at him while I was talking to him. What amazed me the most about his stature was how broad his shoulders were. The difference between a Muhammad Ali overhand right and most heavyweight boxers of that era or before it, is the blink of an eye. Muhammad Ali could throw his over hand right faster than you could blink your eye. This was actually scientifically proven after his fights with Sonny Liston. Mr. Ali was faster than any boxer in the world at that time in history. Come to think of it, he could have probably thrown it faster than anyone in the history of boxing up until that time.
Why? Because when he said he invented the “Anchor punch” he was telling us the truth. To understand this we have to go back to the ring. We have to go back to Mr. Ali’s pre-fight preparation. Remember that his sparring partner is fighting just like Sonny Liston would be fighting if he were in the ring for real. So what Mr. Ali had time to do that he didn’t have time to do in the actual fight was start and stop and analyze his sparring partners tactic’s. He can also stop and start the film that he is watching on Sonny Liston in order to do the same thing. This is where Muhammad Ali created his hypothesis on how to knock out Sonny Liston. He discovered that you could never knock out Sonny Liston if he saw your punch coming. Because when you see a punch coming you’re mentally prepared to take it.
He discovered that the only way to knock out Sonny Liston was for Sonny to never see the punch at all. A “Phantom Punch” as it we’re. It was at this time that Cassius Clay invented his “Anchor punch.” What made this punch different than the rest was in its design and application. At first glance, it was an overhand right like any other overhand right.
“An overhand (or overcut or drop) is a semi-circular and vertical punch thrown with the rear hand. It is usually when the opponent is bobbing or slipping. The strategic utility of the drop relying on body weight can deliver a great deal of power.”
If you go back and you watch the second fight, you will see Sonny throw the left jab to Mr. Ali’s head and Mr. Ali does what most classical boxers would do; and that is to back the hell up and avoid the jab. But how Mr. Ali revolutionized the overhand right was that he did not do what a hundred years of tradition told him to do. He decided to buck tradition and in doing so, he pissed off a lot of traditionalists who loved the Marciono’s, Lamata’s , and Louise’s . He took the chance of causing confusion and misunderstanding to a sport that had been set in its ways.
He decided that instead of jumping back to avoid the jab and landing on the ball of his foot and then to his heel, then from his heel moving the weight of his body back to the ball of his foot and then rotating on the ball of his foot and pushing off from it, rotating his hips to the left and then throwing the over hand right to Sonny’s head; that he would instead jump back from Sonny’s left jab, but while still in the air rotate his hips to the left so by the time he landed on to the ball of his right foot he could immediately throw his overhand right knowing that Sonny would not only not see it coming but also not be mentally ready to absorb it.
The reason Sonny would not have been ready for it or would not have seen that the punch was coming was because no one had ever thrown it that fast before. In actuality, it wasn’t even supposed to be there. At that very moment, Cassius Clay became not only a boxer but an astronaut. He said it himself and I quote,“I am the astronaut of boxing. Joe Louis and Dempsey were just pilots. I’m in a world of my own.”
At that exact moment boxing had begun its evolution and it would never again be what it once was. In the first, fight people protested that Sonny wasn’t trying hard enough. Sonny kept complaining about his shoulder and was not throwing the left jab as often as he would have in other fights. Well, what most people don’t know is that Sonny had been cleaning out the leaves in the storm drain at the house and fell off the ladder on to his left shoulder.
My Grandmother said that the dumbest thing Sonny Liston ever did was fight Cassius Clay in that first fight knowing that he had hurt his shoulder. But she said that Sonny’s management had convinced him to go ahead with the fight anyway. Let’s not forget that there was an unprecedented amount of money being offered for both the Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay fights. Geraldine Liston also told me that the two brothers who managed Sonny ruined their relationship over money. She told me that people change when it comes to money and they will fight over it even if it is a nickel more than they had before. Little did I know that this lesson in life would come back to haunt not only Geraldine but also the Liston family.
The real phantom in the second championship fight between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali and the only phantom in the auditorium that day was not a punch at all. The only criminals in the room that day were not the Italians or the boxers. The real “Phantom Punch” was the American people being thrown for a loop by our shared history and history’s effect on the human consciousness.
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