The Phantom Punch

Phantom Punch

Benjamin Breen, from “Jack Johnson,” Bain News Publisher, Ca. 1910-1915, Library of Congress

In all the chaos that surrounded the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, a few things remained quite clear: it was certain that Sonny Liston had fallen. The actor Stepin Fetchit was definitely in Ali’s corner. Some kind of punch was thrown, and, invisible or not, something powerful had happened.

Nothing in boxing has accrued quite so much lore as the so-called phantom punch that felled Sonny Liston—unless he felled himself—in the Ali-Liston rematch in May of 1965. It is, as slow motion shows, a short right hand to the face—an eight-inch chop, really—that follows an ineffectual left lead from Liston. By the time Ali has thrown his next, a left hook, Liston is already down.

It seemed as though no one in attendance actually saw the punch, which sent Liston to the canvas not once, but two times—he began to rise, then fell back down, then rose again to resume the fight. Meanwhile, Nat Fleisher, editor in chief of the magazine The Ring, began screaming that Liston was out. Ali had never gone to a neutral corner, the referee had never started an official count, and the timekeeper had never banged the canvas or otherwise motioned the count. Yet when the referee finally understood that the knockdown timekeeper had gotten to a count of twelve, he stopped the fight, which had already recommenced, and declared Ali winner.

In the next day’s AP wire story, Liston is quoted as saying, “It was a sneak punch—a right hand I only ‘partly’ saw. I didn’t want to jump right up. The referee never started the count. I didn’t know when to get up.” He is described as “unruffled.” Given the bizarre circumstances, there was immediately—and in reprise of their first fight in February of 1964, when Liston quit on his stool—talk of a fix. The fact that the knockout blow was virtually unseen didn’t help.

Ali, a brilliant self-promoter, immediately began to capitalize on its invisibility. The actor and performer Stepin Fetchit was a member of Ali’s entourage, and as early as October of 1964, Ali had claimed to the press that he was learning secret techniques—including something called an “anchor punch”—from Fetchit, who had, in turn, learned them from his friendship with Jack Johnson, America’s first black heavyweight champ. In advance of the fight, no one seemed to take this seriously, and the “anchor punch” was never really explained.

And then Liston fell.

In the summer of 1927, the buzz in Hollywood was the impending release of Warner Brothers’ new talkie The Jazz Singer. Sound was a new frontier in motion pictures, and The Jazz Singer represented an early salvo in the battle for the nation’s imagination. All the other major studios were scrambling.

At the MGM studios, producer John M. Stahl held auditions for a talkie called In Old Kentucky. He was sizing up Negro actors for a character called Highpockets, a shiftless layabout.

Among the aspirants at Stahl’s casting call, one man stood out—a bramble in the sharp polish of that Hollywood lot. He was loveably dimwitted, country through and through. His eyes were sad, heavy-lidded. The wide-open part of his face was the brow—ever arched in wonderment and generosity, it rendered him extraordinarily vulnerable. He mumbled and scratched his head, checked his pockets, hands roving aimlessly but harmlessly from empty space to empty space, never an answer to be found. He seemed always to be precariously balanced, even on flat ground. His spine, easy as a willow, might be at the mercy of any passing breeze.

Clearly much of this world was beyond his comprehension. Come to that, too much of this world was beyond his comprehension, so much so that quickly the studio executives began to suspect there was more to this character than met the eye, and that in ways they both did and did not understand, he was pulling one over. They began to laugh, and could swear that the harder they laughed the dumber he got. They asked his name, and he told them it was Stepin Fetchit. They told him he’d got the part.

Before the 1920s, black Americans were rarely seen on film, their appearance largely confined to short “anthropological” recordings. In feature length movies, white actors in blackface played black characters. In the South, patrons were assured before the screening of movies that black characters were not actually portrayed by Negroes. Only a handful of black actors found studio work before the advent of sound. But with America’s rising interest in “authentic” Negro culture, especially the sounds of jazz—and with the revolution of talkies, which allowed studios to capitalize on that interest—Hollywood began to reassess the suitability—and profitability—of the Negro to play himself.

It was a revolutionary moment, one whose effects would reverberate for another forty years. Ironically, America’s obsession with the “authentic” Negro allowed black Americans the opportunity to play an acknowledged part, and American culture would begin reckoning with the long-sublimated fear that the heretofore simple, childlike Negro might appear as something other than what he was, the possibility that he might be capable of wearing a face not his own, of showing an emotion he did not feel. It suggested no doffed cap could be trusted. It suggested fingers crossed behind every respectful bow. Any smile might turn sinister, might flash some sudden glint of gold.

After the Civil War and the failed experiment that was Reconstruction, lynchings became commonplace in the American South, even matters of public spectacle. Lynchings are often understood to have been clandestine, midnight attacks of revenge—and often they were. Yet other lynchings were advertised in newspapers and attended, on occasion, by thousands. They were horrific and varied, involving, among other things, hanging, dragging, castration and amputation, burning, and whipping. White women and children participated in the killing as well as white men. At times, photographs of the witnessing crowds were taken—victims displayed like hunting trophies—and made into postcards to be shared.

To black people of the day, it seemed clear that the purpose of lynchings—the reason they became, and remained, a phenomenon—was not so much to punish the offenders, but to ensure that the black populace as a whole knew its place. In large measure, it worked.

“The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly,” wrote Richard Wright in Black Boy. “I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew.” Literature and remembrances from that period suggest that scarcely a black person in the South did not know of a lynching or near-lynching within their family or community.

Within such a system, black Americans—especially black men—became practiced in moderating and controlling every facet of their physical selves. Life was a constant performance, one’s place in the world acted out according to one’s race. If such studied selfhood could trace itself back to chattel slavery—as surely it could—the crisis of it perhaps became more apparent after emancipation, when one had, or was supposed to have had, a choice in the matter. For this was not simply a matter of letter or contract, the body pitted against the blinded strictures of law. Rather it was the eye of another, its overreach of gaze, controlling one’s body with the help of the kindly overseer of one’s own self—pacing one’s muscles, scripting one’s path, bending one’s neck.

Many black Americans left the South, hoping they or their children might avoid becoming “strange fruit.” The part they learned to play stayed with them, however. They’d studied it so well.

In 1934, in his new, northern home of Detroit, a black child of the South decided to turn professional in the boxing ring.

According to legend—circulated in mainstream biographies as early as 1945—before Joe Louis’s managers took him on as a pro, they presented him with a set of rules to live by. These rules, frequently recounted as a list, stated:

1. He was never to have his picture taken alongside a white woman.
2. He was never to go into a nightclub alone.
3. There would be no soft fights.
4. There would be no fixed fights.
5. He was never to gloat over a fallen opponent.
6. He was to keep a “dead pan” in front of the camera.
7. He was to live and fight clean.

Louis himself claimed John Roxborough and Julian Black presented nothing so codified. “They did not set down in writing any particular rules and say, ‘Now this is what you have to do,’” he said. “No, just in day by day talking I knew what they wanted. They never told me not to go out with white women”—in fact Louis did go out with white women—“they said don’t ever get your picture taken with one—that would be the end of my career.”

“One time they were talking about these little black toy dolls they used to make of fighters,” he continued. “Those dolls always had the wide grin with thick red lips. They looked foolish. I got the message—don’t look like a fool nigger doll. Look like a black man with dignity.”

“It is a peculiar sensation,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Measurement, though, is only one half of a constant process of calibration. The other half, of course, is adjustment.

When, around 1985, I learn my mother intends to lead my Brownie troop for a year, I am filled with dread. The premonition will not be disappointed.

Troop meetings happen in our living room, where her eyes see everything. I am on my best behavior, but I am never quite diligent enough. I have to do everything better than the circle of girls who are already white, who have silky feathered hair and blond mothers with perms. When the last of the girls has gone home, my mother turns her focus on me. My tote bag stitches are crooked. My sash is limply decorated. I must do better than this. It is clear from her chidings that she feels we are being observed, and that we have an impossible, intangible something to prove. I feel I have no ally, only judges—my mother the sharpest and cruelest of all. I know I will never succeed in proving whatever it is I must prove, and it is exhausting.

Finally, spring comes, and we have one final Brownie activity before we become Girl Scouts, before the leadership is—thank God—handed off to someone else. This ceremony is in the cafeteria of our rural Junior/Senior High School, round tables pushed back to allow room for a small tier of risers on the cafeteria floor.

When our troop stands to perform some songs, my mother is all ashine; she is singing and swaying her success. The more exuberant she becomes, the more I sink. My mother sees this sinking and she dances her way over. She places her arms around me, pulls me to her, and swings me beside her.

I am ashamed of this display because I feel it is a lie, one meant to benefit everyone in the room but me. I am turning red. I feel the anger rising in my stomach, feel the top of my throat close, feel the familiar stinging in the corners of my eyes. I break out of my mother’s arms and I sit down in the audience.

My mother finishes the song.

When we get in the car, she begins screaming about her embarrassment. She screams all the way home, and then she screams in the living room. I begin to taste the possibility that my mother actually felt genuine affection in that moment—that the consummate performance of our goodness had left us vulnerable to an attack of love. I fended it off. I’ve won the round, but lost the fight. I feel like I have eaten a thunderstorm.

“Jim Crow Wisdom,” Richard Wright called his mother’s harsh instruction, lessons meant to equip him to negotiate the world as a member of his race. I have no name for my moments of such instruction, my mother having come from the Caribbean. But the lessons of race were nevertheless clear: Your inadequacy will make you angry. Your small stands will make you proud. In either case, show nothing.

“All the people I could see, and many more than that, were moving toward me, against me, and…everyone was white,” James Baldwin wrote to describe his experience of an injustice. “I remember how their faces gleamed. And I felt, like a physical sensation, a click at the nape of my neck as though some interior string connecting my head to my body had been cut.” Yes, exactly, I thought—that was just how it felt.

I knew, just so, that mechanical click at the neck, the unlatching that releases the head, which floats, in the fullness of its own weight, as though remaining in place only through magic or magnetics.

In this state, Baldwin, baiting his own rage, entered a restaurant where he knew he would not be served. “I do not know how long I waited,” he wrote, “and I rather wonder, until today, what I could possibly have looked like.”

I do not know to what extent black Americans at large experience this question today. I only know that I was raised to understand that the conditions of my selfhood were profoundly problematic—in a way that felt intimately tied to race—and that my first job, under any and all circumstances, was mitigation. I was to maximize my whiteness and perfection, ideals that I did not understand to be divorced in any way. Controlling affect—not merely behavior, but the selfhood behind it, anticipating its reception and adjusting accordingly—this was the one tool always at my disposal.

I am, in other words, a trained actor.

It is a difficult training to let go. Try cooking with no regard to flavor. Try singing with no regard to key.

I have long since abandoned the notion that I should try to be white or perfect. But I know of no way to stop looking at myself through the eyes of others. I know of no way to unlearn how to calibrate.

Joe Louis was one of the first historical figures by whom I was profoundly moved. In his deadpan expression I saw myself. At the time he was fighting, millions of others did, too—even those who, like Richard Wright, recognized that boxers are animated by forces beyond themselves. This recognition is evident in his description of Joe Louis and rival Max Schmeling as puppets. “But out beyond the walls of the stadium,” he wrote, “were twelve million Negroes to whom the black puppet symbolized the living refutation of the hatred spewed forth daily over radios, in newspapers, in movies, and in books about their lives. Day by day since their alleged emancipation, they have watched a picture of themselves being painted as lazy, stupid, and diseased. In helpless horror they have suffered the attacks and exploitation which followed in the wake of their being branded as ‘inferiors.’ […] Jim Crowed in the army and navy, barred from many trades and professions, excluded from commerce and finance, relegated to menial positions in government, segregated residentially, denied the right of franchise for the most part; in short, forced to live a separate and impoverished life, they were glad for even the meager acceptance of their humanity implied in the championship of Joe Louis.”

Yet even at that moment, a tremendous shift was taking place in American culture. Beginning with the First World War and lasting even until the reign of Ali, millions of black Americans streamed out of the South and into America’s northern and western urban centers. In these new places, for a generation raised in a new time, a different sort of performance suddenly became, not only possible, but reflective of the experiences of many.

But it was still a performance.

Take, for example, Ali’s weigh-in during his first fight with then-champion Sonny Liston in 1964, during the last days in which the world knew him as Cassius Clay.

While weigh-ins had heretofore been fairly reasonable affairs, Clay and his corner man Bundini Brown arrived shouting “Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee; rumble, young man, rumble.” Clay wore a jean jacket inscribed with the words “Bear Huntin’”—“big ugly bear,” he’d decided, was the most effectual torture of Sonny Liston, who was large and silent and scarred.

Clay continued the ruckus after Brown quieted down, banging an African walking stick while continuing to shout things such as “I’m the champ,” and “This is my destiny,” and “Round eight to prove I’m great. Bring that big ugly bear on.”

Warned by members of the Miami Beach Boxing Commission of a possible fine, Angelo Dundee and Sugar Ray Robinson—the other two members of Clay’s entourage—implored him in the dressing room to behave. For two minutes after leaving the dressing room, it seemed possible he might comply. Instead, when Sonny Liston appeared, Cassius Clay went nuts.

Mort Sharnick of Sports Illustrated—credited with being an exceptionally observant reporter—later described the scene in this way: “I was there, and it looked to me like Cassius was having a seizure, all gathered up in his own hysteria, going on and on, totally out of control. It was hard to believe he could fight that night. Sugar Ray Robinson was trying to calm him down. There had to be six guys holding on to him, and it looked like he was struggling to throw all six around. Then, right in the middle of everything—and I don’t know how many people saw this—he winked at Robinson. People were screaming and shoving and jockeying for better camera angles, and Cassius was probably having a ball.”

In the midst of this, the Boxing Commission made two moves. Morris Klein, chairman of the Miami Commission, stepped to the microphone and announced a fine of $2,500. Dr. Alexander Robbins, the commission doctor, tried several times to fulfill his duty of taking Clay’s blood pressure and pulse. He finally found that his pulse—normally 54 beats per minute—had soared to 120, and that his blood pressure was 200 over 100.

Back at Ali’s house, a mere hour after all the commotion, Ferdie Pacheco repeated the blood pressure check. “It was the most amazing thing,” Pacheco said. An hour after the commotion, I took his blood pressure and the pulse was at 54, normal for him, and his blood pressure was 120 over 80, perfect. It was all an act.”

“It was an absolutely extraordinary performance,” said Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times, “because Liston took comfort in the fact that everybody was scared of him. I mean, who wouldn’t be terrified of Sonny Liston? Well, the answer, of course, was that a crazy person wouldn’t be afraid, and now Liston thought Clay was crazy.”

Liston, in other words, was now afraid. Increasingly, so was the rest of the nation. At the fight, ringside in seat 7, sat Malcolm X in his white shirt and suit and tie, looking, to the measurement of many, like a black man with dignity would look.

Sonny Liston, on the other hand, was already ensconced in the American imagination as anything other than dignified. It seemed not to matter at all what he himself said or did: no matter what gracious statements he made, what acts of generosity he extended, no matter how many sick beds or orphanages he visited, he would not be redeemed. This is not to suggest he was helpless, or that he didn’t at times undermine himself. He did. It is clear, however, that only one kind of performance was accepted from him, that there was only one role in which he’d be cast.

Liston’s reputation stemmed from several sources. First, and importantly, was his criminal record, which began in St. Louis when Liston was in his early twenties. Liston was the sort of man for whom, after a childhood of brutal privations and abuse, prison was a relief, in that it offered three meals a day. Liston’s boxing career began in prison, under the tutelage of a priest. Despite his obvious promise, however, upon his release only the mob was willing to put up the money to manage him, thus beginning an association that would haunt Liston throughout his career. Liston reputedly worked as an enforcer when he was not in the ring. In 1960, testimony before the U.S. Senate Antitrust and Monopoly subcommittee made clear that Liston was controlled by mobsters Frankie Carbo and Frank “Blinky” Palermo. Liston participated in the much-publicized proceedings, securing his association with the underworld. And as an illiterate man, he was at a profound disadvantage—with the police, with his bosses, before Congress, and in the press.

Liston was deeply distrustful of most—though not all—reporters, which contributed to his reputation as a sullen, surly champion. Even when, in December of 1963, he posed on the cover of Esquire in a Santa Claus hat and—to the modern eye—a fairly relaxed and inscrutable expression, it read to the American public as glowering hostility.

Significantly, the man who convinced Liston to pose for Esquire was Joe Louis. Despite the fact that Louis had been America’s darling and Liston was anything but, the two became fast friends. When Liston died, Louis was one of his pallbearers—they were that close. And while that friendship is often either not discussed or discussed as an unfortunate symbol of Louis’s decline, I find that far too simple. While their biographies varied wildly, and while their cultural performances were interpreted differently, Liston was, in fact, an inheritor of Louis. Aside from any similarities in fighting style—and experts do cite some—in Liston and Louis, America had two very intelligent and inexpressive men, both of whom cared deeply for their reception and their meaning to their people, both of whom relied heavily on the good graces of others in their making, and both of whom found themselves profoundly abandoned when their use became less apparent. Liston had always idolized Louis, and it’s no small wonder. Yet it seems clear to me that in Liston, Louis found far more than an ardent admirer—he’d never been short on those. Rather, he found something of an understudy. But the audience was walking out.

“Essentially every black champion until Muhammad Ali has been a puppet, manipulated by whites in his private life to control his public image,” wrote Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice. “His role was to conceal the strings from which he was suspended, so as to appear autonomous and self-motivated before the public. But with the coming of Muhammad Ali, the puppet-master was left with a handful of strings to which his dancing doll was no longer attached.”

Whether this description was true of Louis and those black champions who followed him, it was probably not true of Jack Johnson, the sole black heavyweight champion prior to Louis, whose brazen indifference to his expected behavior as a black man upset a nation of whites—and, in consequence—a good many middle class blacks. His reign defined all that Louis was constructed in opposition to.

A certain current narrative of Jack Johnson casts him simply as a highly individualist man, unwilling to work within the framework of race he inherited. “I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist,” Johnson is famously quoted as saying.

Jack Johnson

“Jack Johnson,” Bain News Publisher, Ca. 1910-1915. Library of Congress

But I don’t buy it. Johnson only embroiled himself with white women at a time when others like him lost their lives for even looking. He brought his bass violin to a bandstand and sang, “I Love My Wife,” lest anyone forget. He would wrap his penis in gauze to enhance his size, then stroll around the boxing ring to the pleasure and horror of onlookers. Whether done to earnestly impress or in cheeky defiance of perverted obsession, given the concurrent “scientific” analysis of racial difference, this was not a race-neutral act. Johnson dressed himself to the pinnacle of the life of the sport, “enough diamonds to illuminate his shirt front and hands to make him a conspicuous figure when he promenades the streets.” With Zip Coon dancing upon the minstrel stage in his finery, this manner of dress was not devoid of racialized meaning. He explicitly threatened violence with a smile. If a raceless society was Johnson’s object, it was not his methodology.

Whatever utterances he made about wanting to be viewed only as a man, his comportment is of one who, far from moving in ignorance of race, was intentionally provoking others over it. He was perfectly well aware of the social mores that surrounded him, and he pitched his performance in defiance of them.

By 1965, Johnson had been gone for nearly twenty years, having died in a car crash when he raced away from a diner that refused him service. Fetchit had long since fallen out of favor, especially with black audiences who decried him as an Uncle Tom. Using any podium he could get, Fetchit pointed, to no avail, to the limited roles available to black actors in his day, to the fact that he’d never tolerated disrespect from the studios, to the fact that he was one of the first black millionaires, to the fact that he was the first black to get headline billing. He insisted he was only playing a character, and that, just as nobody assumed the pantomime characters of whites represented whites, nobody should assume that about blacks.

He was also, by the mid-sixties, broke. Following the usual script, at the height of his success in the 1920s and 1930s Fetchit had lived lavishly, giving money away, buying cars, dressing impeccably, and maintaining a small army of Chinese servants. It was during this time that he and Johnson became friends. Two flamboyant figures in the small world of black celebrity, both were favorites of Los Angeles’s Central Avenue. Fetchit relished the attention, and people absolutely noticed recklessly extravagant spending—which was, to be fair, part and parcel of being “Hollywood.” In 1947, Fetchit filed for bankruptcy. His timing was exceptionally poor, as, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Hollywood roles for black actors all but dried up, leaving Fetchit working a circuit of small theatre reviews.

Destitute, Fetchit was in 1964 admitted to a charity hospital, suffering from a prostate condition that required surgery. After being released, he found his way to Ali’s entourage. He was ensconced there by October that year, when Ali told a reporter that Fetchit was teaching him Johnson punches.

Between the first and second Ali–Liston fights, the tensions of race within the country—and within the black community—had grown more and more strained. Malcolm X’s rift with the Nation of Islam (NOI), which had begun even before the 1964 Miami fight, now broke open. Though Malcolm had been Ali’s mentor and sponsor in the Nation of Islam, Ali knew, and chose, the safer side. On Valentine’s Day in 1965, Malcolm’s house in Queens was firebombed. On February 21, he was killed by a hit squad in Harlem.

Right away, Nation of Islam members were understood to have been involved. Tensions smoldered between the Nation and the members of Malcolm’s new organization, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. Two days after the assassination, Malcolm’s former NOI Mosque in Harlem burned. A war seemed imminent.

And while the boxing world was by this time used to a measure of darkness and disarray, the whole country now seemed in chaos, and it came home to the fight camps in new and extreme ways.

Weeks before the fight, the Massachusetts boxing authorities reversed their decision to stage it. Lewiston, Maine, took the fight instead, but tensions continued. There were persistent rumors that Malcolm loyalists planned to avenge his death by assassinating Ali, perhaps even in the ring. Nation of Islam brothers flooded Lewiston. Another persistent rumor claimed the NOI had threatened Liston or his family if he didn’t take a dive.

In this atmosphere, Fetchit probably provided much-needed relief. Fetchit was given the absurd title of “Strategic Advisor,” and Ali and his camp strove to capitalize on the Jack Johnson connection. When Ali won the fight with a phantom punch, the story suddenly acquired an unexpected plausibility.

“Fuck knows,” Robert Lipsyte is quoted as saying when asked whether Fetchit really taught Ali a trick of Johnson’s. “It’s certainly not impossible.”

It is no simple irony that the man whose very name would become code, in the American lexicon, for stooping Tommery, became part of the entourage and legacy of a man who represented unapologetic blackness instead—just as it is no simple irony that Liston and Louis were friends. Audience and inheritance are complicated, our performances tenuous. For some, the puppet strings will never come untangled. The veil is always so close. We can only partly see.

For what it’s worth I do believe that a “phantom punch” existed, and that it was passed from Johnson to Fetchit to Ali. And though it certainly involved quickness and instinct and control and strength and an accurate measurement of one’s target, I do not believe, in any literal sense, that it was a punch at all.

Ali’s cornerman Bundini Brown was raised in Goose Hollow, Florida, the black settlement outside of Sanford. There, in his youth, when Joe Louis fought elsewhere, “amplifiers were strung up in the pines out by one of the cabins and the folks sat around in the darkness to listen and cheer,” as journalist George Plimpton relayed. On one occasion, Plimpton wrote, a storm came up, “whipping the pine forest during one of the broadcasts, so that the words from Madison Square Garden, or wherever, were shredded away, people running around in the wild darkness trying to find out what was going on as if the words whirling off were corporeal, retrievable, like panicky chickens.”

How beautiful and bizarre, to imagine the colored folk of Goose Hollow chasing through a pine forest in the warm, windy dark, running after the ghosts of words spoken into a microphone lit garishly more than nine hundred miles away. And while Louis goes to work, expressionless, amidst the cheering, here is the hushed softness of pine needles underfoot, the sounds of winds and breath meeting the scraps of the announcer’s assessment of Joe’s great performance in the ring. Each punch is whisked off into the night like smoke. The people grasp after some small bit of each powerful shade. They run among the jabs and uppercuts unscathed.