The Phantom Punch Was a Hit


How boxing’s most infamous fight inspired a Portland trainer’s hall-of-fame career.

By Rob Sneddon
Photographed by Mark Fleming
From our May 2015 issue
[F]ifty years ago, the “phantom punch” gave Lewiston a black eye. In the first round of a world heavyweight title bout at the Central Maine Youth Center, Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston with a blow so quick and compact that many of those ringside didn’t see it. The blink-and-you-missed-it ending, combined with Liston’s mob connections, created a widespread (and oft-debated) perception that the fix was in. Condemnation came from near and far. The Portland Evening Express: “One of the most ridiculous masquerades ever foisted upon a gullible public.” TASS, the Soviet news agency: “There is complete incomprehension by the spectators. [Ali’s] punch could in no way have been decisive.”

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One spectator who found the bout neither ridiculous nor incomprehensible was 10-year-old Bob Russo of Portland. He had a fifth-row seat, courtesy of his uncle, Maine Boxing Commission chairman George Russo. “All around us were all these great iconic names of boxing — Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, James J. Braddock,” Bob recalls. It was the first fight Bob had seen in person, and he was hooked. “Because my family was involved in it, the Ali-Liston fight had a huge influence on who I became. I’ve been a boxing freak ever since.”

A degenerative eye disorder cost Russo the chance to pursue his dream of becoming a fighter. So he became a boxing trainer instead. He worked with fighters on an individual basis before founding the Portland Boxing Club in 1992. Since then, Russo has promoted 100 boxing shows and produced winning boxers at every amateur level, “including five in the Olympic trials,” Russo says. “I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve done so well for such a small city, in comparison to who we’re up against. And we’ve helped a lot of kids along the way and made a big difference in this community.”

My uncle was in my thoughts. We had such a great connection. He was someone that I really looked up to.

For his contributions, Bob Russo was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. “My uncle was in my thoughts,” he said. “We had such a great connection. He was someone that I really looked up to.”

Russo’s uncle gave him more than a lifelong love of boxing. After the Ali–Liston fight, George Russo, as commission chairman, seized the gloves — standard procedure whenever there’s a controversy. Russo inspected the gloves, which were up to spec, and then set them aside. When he died in 1975, his boxing-mad nephew ended up with them. In 2010, Bob sold the gloves to movie producer Seth Ersoff for an undisclosed sum. In February 2015, Ersoff sold the gloves to an unnamed collector through Heritage Auctions for $956,000. Not bad for a set of lightly used gloves that originally cost $154.