Muhammad Ali’s Most Famous Fight Had a Decided French Accent

If there’s one photo of the late Muhammad Ali that’s instantly recognizable to just about everyone, it’s the picture of him towering over Sonny Liston as he retained his title as Heavyweight Champion of the World. It’s an iconic image, which encapsulates a lot about Ali – but the fight in question, which took place May 25, 1965, is also notable for its Franco-American connections.

Muhammad Ali yells at Sonny Liston to "Get Up!," May 25, 1965. Photo: Neil Leifer/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali yells at Sonny Liston to “Get Up!,” May 25, 1965. Photo: Neil Leifer/Getty Images

The Ali-Liston fight took place in Lewiston, Maine, a small city of 41,000, and in an arena which could only seat 5,000 people. It was an unlikely venue for a highly-advertised and anticipated fight. The Montreal Gazette even called Lewiston “a whistle-stop town in…Moose Country.” The match only came to Lewiston as a last resort; it had been scheduled to be held at the Boston Garden but the fact that it was a rematch between the two boxers, who had met in a title match just the year before, violated World Boxing Association Rules. Although Massachusetts had risked the wrath of the WBA and agreed to host the fight, suspicions of links to organized crime prompted the Suffolk County Attorney to seek an injunction against the bout, only 18 days before the fight was due to take place. Inter-Continental Promotions, which was promoting the match, pulled out of Boston, but were hard-pressed to find a new host until Maine, and Lewiston, stepped in.

This inauspicious start could well be seen in hindsight as an omen for the match itself, which would go down as something of a debacle.  But Mainers and Lewistonians, were generally thrilled to host the fight. Governor John Reed called it “one of the biggest things to happen to Maine,” while Robert Couturier, the twenty-five year-old mayor of Lewiston, hoped it would bring good publicity to the city (comments like those in the Montreal Gazette notwithstanding).

Something the Associated Press did take note of was the city’s Franco-American heritage. Couturier himself was to become a noted leader in the Franco community, going on to edit the French-language newspaper Le Messager and host a radio show, as well as teach French in local schools and work as an attorney.  For his efforts, he was recognized by the French government as a chevalier  of the Ordre des arts et des lettres.  Visiting journalists found that the city’s Franco-American roots ran deep. “Almost all here are bilingual,” noted AP reporter Larry Eldridge, “and will talk readily in either English or French.” To the residents’ heritage was also ascribed their “exceptionally friendly and voluble” nature.  The fight was to take place at the Central Maine Youth Arena, which was owned by the Dominican Brothers, a French-speaking religious order that managed the parish of Sts. Peter & Paul in the city.

Rev. Francois Drouin overseeing construction of what would become the Central Maine Youth Arena, 1949.  Image: University of Southern Maine's Franco-American Collection/Maine Memory Network

Rev. Francois Drouin overseeing construction of what would become the Central Maine Youth Arena, 1949. Image: University of Southern Maine’s Franco-American Collection/Maine Memory Network

Lewiston and its “high school hockey arena” may not have been the first or even second choice for a world heavyweight championship match up, but the city did in fact have a substantial boxing heritage. Just like Irish-, Italian- and African-Americans, working class Franco-Americans participated in the sport in substantial numbers, and Lewiston produced a number of notable boxers.  Some, like Maurice “Lefty” Lachance (1931-1994), were local and state champions who went on to travel the country.  Paul “Junior” Labbe (1907-1995) won all but 13 of 489 matches during his career, and faced world welterweight champion Chalky White at the Boston Garden in 1940. Labbe served as a reserve judge for the Ali-Liston bout twenty years after he had retired.  More recently, Joey Gamache (born 1966) became the first Mainer to take a world championship title when he took the featherweight crown in 1992.

Paul Labbe's ID badge for the Ali-Liston match, 1965. Note that the badge not only uses Ali's birth name (Cassius Clay), but that it promised "a fifteen round" match. In reality, it lasted just a few seconds.

Paul Labbe’s ID badge for the Ali-Liston match, 1965. Note that the badge not only uses Ali’s birth name (Cassius Clay), but that it promised “a fifteen round” match. In reality, it lasted just a few seconds.

On September 24, 1946, Auriel “Shiner” Couture (1923-2000) set an unbeaten record by knocking out his opponent Ralph Walton at the Lewiston Armory in just 10.5 seconds – including the 10-second count.  In a strange coincidence, Ali’s bout with Liston across town in the new Central Maine Youth Arena would be almost as short, and is still remembered for the controversial “phantom punch” – the initial knock-out blow that some people swear never happened.  This controversial end to the match, after it had barely begun, only served to seal the fate of the whole episode as a debacle.  Even the Star-Spangled Banner didn’t escape unscathed.  American-born French-Canadian singer Robert Goulet had been chosen to sing the anthem, and, in his own words, the French-speaker was greeted like a “hero” by the local Franco-Americans.  After he flubbed the lyrics to the anthem, however, he left town in disgrace, amid accusations of drunkenness.

The press was scathing.  Journalists, who were still using Ali’s his birth name, Cassius Clay, wondered if the young upstart had conspired with Liston to have him take a fall.  Nevertheless, it was the fight (or at least the heavyweight title) that launched his career as “the Greatest.”  Lewistonians also seem to have had few regrets.  Mayor Couturier reflected that the city: “couldn’t have purchased the publicity the fight brought to Lewiston,” in addition to the $110,000 netted by local businesses from the “high rollers and big spenders.”  Even today, residents have stories to tell their grandchildren about the event, and last year, for the 50th anniversary of the match, a local documentary was released.  The spotlight might have shone only briefly on this small city in the middle of Moose Country, but its residents are still basking in the glow, more than a half-century later.

 

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.