The 50th anniversary of the most controversial event in sports history1965 Muhammad Ali & Sonny Liston Fight Worn Gloves-Both Pairs from the Famous "Phantom Punch" Bout.
"In 1965 when I shot Ali-Liston, there was a contest. I don't want to say it's as important as the Oscars, but in photojournalism it was. It still exists and is sponsored by the University of Missouri and it's called 'Pictures of the Year.' Time, Inc. was very big in entering it. Life magazine used to win every year, all sorts of awards. Sports Illustrated did. So we entered Ali-Liston. And you know what? Isn't it interesting, the picture that was their photo of the century? It didn't win first place. It didn't win second or third. In fact, it didn't win any of the three honorable mentions. And it didn't make the cover of Sports Illustrated the week of the fight."
Today, of course, that Neil Leifer photograph is indelibly stamped upon the pages of our collective consciousness, the quintessential masterpiece of the genre, the shot chosen for the cover of the 1999 Sports Illustrated retrospective "The Century's Greatest Sports Photos." Like any great artwork, the image serves as a microcosm of a much larger story, most notably the rise of boxing's most celebrated practitioner.
In this manner, the image expertly distills the Ali mystique even as it documents what is arguably the most atypical moment of his career. As a towering figure of the sport, and one of the most unabashedly outspoken figures of twentieth century celebrity, Ali is perfectly revealed.
But as a one-punch knockout artist?
Here the faultlessly executed snapshot becomes murky. Just eighteen months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy tipped the nation into a maelstrom of suspicion and conspiracy theory, the sport of boxing had its own seemingly unsolvable mystery. The fact that the first bout had come to such an unexpected end-not only a shocking upset of the heavily-favored Liston, but the first surrender during a mid-round intermission in nearly half a century of Heavyweight Championship history-had already convinced many of a fix, a theory Liston's well-documented underworld associations only strengthened.
But when Goliath fell to David for a second time on May 25, 1965, less than two minutes after the opening bell at Lewiston, Maine, those whispered allegations quickly evolved into full-throated shouts. Only 2,434 fans were witness to the event-the smallest audience in Heavyweight Championship history-and none could offer definitive testimony. The fight film was studied like Zapruder's, but likewise failed to provide the answer: valid knockout, or "Phantom Punch?"
Hobby history was made one year ago when the gloves worn in Cassius Clay's first defeat of Sonny Liston sold for $836,500 in our February 2014 New York Platinum Night auction. Presented here is the completion of the tale, a single offering which we consider to be the most significant ever to emerge from the prize ring-both pairs of gloves worn in the most controversial sporting event in history.
The very existence of the gloves was unknown to the larger collecting world until a few years ago, when Heritage received a call from a gentleman named Seth Ersoff who reported a rather bold tale of ownership. Initial skepticism quickly gave way to belief as the ironclad strength of the provenance came to light, supplying a certitude so paradoxically lacking in the events of the bout from which they derive.
Ersoff had become aware of the gloves several years ago and set off for the state of Maine to visit them, where they resided in the collection of the nephew of the former State of Maine Boxing Commissioner George L. Russo. A sworn affidavit from this gentleman, dated March 3, 1999, reports:
"My name is G. Robert Russo of Portland, Maine. The following statements are based upon my personal knowledge and beliefs.
In 1965, my uncle George L. Russo was the boxing commissioner for the State of Maine.
As such, George Russo 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.
I was present at that boxing match, and have a photograph of my uncle, George Russo, at that fight.
The Ali-Liston fight was very controversial because of the knockout which Liston suffered in the first round. As a result of the controversy, my uncle, George Russo, with the authority vested in him by the State of Maine as the State Boxing Commissioner, seized the boxing gloves worn by both Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston.
George Russo maintained possession of these gloves. He died in 1975. Before his death, he gave the gloves to me. The gloves have been in my possession continuously since then.
I still own these gloves. They are in the same condition today as they were when worn by Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston on May 25, 1965. Muhammad Ali signed both sets of the gloves when he returned to Lewiston, Maine in 1995 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his triumph over Sonny Liston."
Three months later, Muhammad Ali signed his own notarized letter that reads:
The boxing gloves in Bob Russo's possession are the ones I wore in defending my World's Heavyweight Championship against Sonny Liston In Lewiston, Maine on May 25, 1965.
Confirming the account is a third notarized letter, this one from Bill Condon of the Maine State Athletic Commission, dated January 16, 1999. Excerpts:
"I was at the fight with Mr. George Russo who, at the time, was a Maine Boxing Commissioner...At the conclusion of the fight, George Russo gathered up Ali's and Liston's gloves used in the fight because he thought there might be an investigation into the fight...The next time I saw those gloves was at George Russo's home in Portland...Whenever someone visited George, he would take the gloves out and the talk began about the Big Fight in Lewiston, Maine on May 25, 1965...The last time I saw those gloves was at the Portland Boxing Club in Portland, Maine in 1998. I was at the Club to officiate at the Northeast Regional Boxing Tournament which is promoted by Bobby Russo. I happened to notice the gloves in his office and then made the connection that Bobby was a nephew of George Russo and was carrying on the tradition of being in love with boxing...There was no doubt that these were the same gloves I had seen before, both at George Russo's home and at the Ali/Liston fight in Lewiston."
The final piece of documentation comes in the form of a five-page letter of examination by renowned boxing collectibles expert Craig Hamilton. He engages in a detailed study of the physical characteristics of the gloves themselves, hand sewn in the Chicago factory of Sammy Frager and thus subject to small but significant physical variations that supply the individuality of a fingerprint. In every aspect of the fight photography, these small variations of seam length, tape stains, label placement, etc., are a perfect match. Hamilton further confirms that the Frager date coding of the gloves is correct for the mid-1960's, and attributes faded ink on the thumbs of the Ali gloves to the Champion's Hall of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee. Liston's gloves are marked at interior wrist with a handwritten "L" by an unknown hand.
With the 50th Anniversary of that brief and tumultuous conflict at Lewiston just months away, any hope for the satisfaction of clarity in the matter has long been abandoned. Many would argue that it died with Liston, who perished in the final days of 1970 from causes alternately ascribed to murder, suicide and accidental drug overdose, a mysterious passing both tragic and tragically fitting. To the very end the bout was shrouded in controversy, with the identity of the forces that felled the great giant of the prize ring remaining maddeningly elusive. From the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" scandal to Babe Ruth's famed "Called Shot", mementos from the most controversial moments of sports history often provide the most cherished collectibles. The gloves from the notorious "Phantom Punch" bout stand among the foremost representatives of that theme, with all of the immortality and pricelessness it suggests.
Notarized letters of provenance from Muhammad Ali, Bob Russo, Bill Condon. Letter of Authentication from Craig Hamilton (Gloves). Full LOA from PSA/DNA (Autographs). Full LOA from James Spence Authentication (Autographs).
Included with the lot is the imaged original Neil Leifer signed photo (82/350).
Fees, Shipping, and Handling Description: Miscellaneous Collectibles, Large (view shipping information)
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