New York — Just months before the 50th anniversary of the heavyweight rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, boxing fans are getting a chance to own a piece of one of the most hotly debated title fights of all time.
Both pairs of gloves from the May 25, 1965, bout in Lewiston, Maine — won by Ali with a first-round knockout from what some saw as a "phantom punch" — go up for auction Feb. 21 in New York. They are expected to fetch more than $1 million.
Footage of the fight does not make it clear how hard Ali's quick right hand actually connected, and many fans booed. Even the most famous photos of the fight show an enraged Ali standing over Liston as he lay on the canvas, gesturing and yelling at him to get up and fight.
Given the controversial way the bout ended, the boxers' gloves were seized by George Russo, the boxing commissioner for Maine. The gloves remained in the Russo family until they were purchased several years ago by a California collector who is now selling them.
"The fight is one of the most, if not the most, controversial happenings in sports history. It's still not solved today," said Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions at Heritage Auctions, which is handling the sale. "It's one of those things people discuss like the 1919 Chicago Black Sox Scandal. One of those controversial moments that is often coveted by memorabilia collectors."
There have been many theories about what exactly happened: Did Liston, an ex-con known as the Big Bear, throw the fight because he was in debt to the mob? Or did Ali actually deliver a perfectly landed punch?
The Lewiston rematch was the first bout in which Ali stepped into the ring as Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam. He was still Cassius Clay a year earlier when he won the championship from Liston in Miami. His glove from that bout sold last year at Heritage Auctions for $836,500.
"Ali's social influence is unrivaled among anyone," said Seth Ersoff, a Los Angeles producer who is selling the gloves from the Lewiston rematch. "These gloves are the turning point of it all when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali."
Ersoff said he had coveted owning the "phantom punch" gloves for years but could never track them down until Frank Stallone, Sylvester Stallone's brother, told him where he could get them and introduced him to Robert Russo, the nephew who inherited the set from his uncle.
Ersoff said he never displayed them because "there's an awesome responsibility with ownership of something like that. … I kept them well protected. I wanted to protect the DNA inside of them."
With the upcoming golden anniversary of the bout it seemed like the right moment "to put them up and see what happens," he said. Ideally, he would love to see a museum purchase them.
Ali signed both pairs of gloves when he came to Lewiston in 1995 to celebrate the fight's 30th anniversary. Liston died in 1970.