The gloves worn by both Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in the famous May 25, 1965 “Phantom Punch” bout in Lewiston, ME, the most controversial sports event in history – and a moment that perfectly encapsulates the turmoil and change of the mid-1960s America – will be sold as a set on Feb. 21, 2015, in a high-end New York sports auction. The starting bid is $500,000.
The gloves have been consigned to auction by Los Angeles collector Seth Ersoff, who acquired the pair from the family of the boxing commissioner for the state of Maine in 1965, who seized the gloves after the bout’s scandalous end – Ali’s “Phantom Punch” – just under two minutes into the first round.
“It’s not out of line to place these gloves among the most important pieces of memorabilia to ever come to market,” said Chris Ivy, Director of Sports Auctions at Heritage Auctions, the company auctioning the gloves in its Platinum Night Sports Auction. “These transcend sports. The drama and outrage that swirled around the Ali-Liston fights were a microcosm of America’s growing pains of the mid-1960s.”
The first Ali-Liston battle had ended with Liston refusing to come out for the seventh round. Controversy swirled about a fix and a clandestine contract. Ali – then still Cassius Clay – was reviled and feared for his association with Malcolm X and the Black Muslims, while Liston was widely suspected of having mob ties. There was no clear Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative, no one to cheer for; mid-century American exuberance had disappeared with Kennedy’s death and the shattering of American hegemony in the post-WW II era had begun. This fight seemed to encapsulate all of it.
“The rematch was the first time that Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring as Muhammad Ali,” said Ivy. “Not only had he just officially changed his name, the fight and everything that happened around it – beginning to end – put Ali on the path to becoming not only the greatest boxer of all time, but all one of the most beloved human beings on the planet.”
The moment of the fight is best captured in the famous Neil Leifer photograph, an image indelibly stamped upon the pages of our collective consciousness, a masterpiece of the genre and the cover shot of the 1999 Sports Illustrated retrospective “The Century’s Greatest Sports Photos.” The image, in which both pairs of these gloves can be clearly seen, expertly distills the Ali mystique even as it documents what is arguably the most atypical moment of his career.
Only 2,434 fans were witness to the event-the smallest audience in Heavyweight Championship history and the continued existence of the gloves was unknown to the larger collecting world until a few years ago, when Ersoff reported his tale of ownership. The provenance, as documented in sworn affidavits and a letter from Ali himself, is rock solid:
“In 1965, my uncle… was the boxing commissioner for the State of Maine,” writes a family member in an affidavit accompanying the glove. “As such, (he) was the person with authority over the heavyweight boxing championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, which took place in Lewiston, Maine on May 25, 1965. The Ali-Liston fight was very controversial because of the knock0ut which Liston suffered in the first round. As a result of the controversy… with the authority vested in him by the State of Maine as the State Boxing Commissioner, (he) seized the boxing gloves worn by both Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston.”
The controversy lingered for quite some time, with Ali emerging in time as a cherished world figure and with Liston dying ignominiously, alone, in the waning days of 1970. With the Golden Anniversary, and the auctioning of these gloves, we’re given a chance to gaze back on what was clearly, with the hindsight of history, a seminal American moment.