Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

They called it the Phantom Punch. I was not yet alive when the newly named Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round of their rematch in 1965 but when Ali dropped Liston with a punch that apparently nobody saw, considering this is the same man that finished an entire fight with a broken jaw, many howled that the fix was in. After seeing many a replay of that punch it is clear that Liston got hit and while I can’t testify as to whether or not Sonny Liston was actually hurt, I know I wouldn’t want to get hit on the temple by a 22-year old 210 pound lightning fast Muhammad Ali to test the theory. Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston was heavyweight champ of the world for three years and yet his life and his death remain much of a mystery. Director Robert Townsend and star Ving Rhames look to clear up some up this mystery surrounding Sonny Liston with the boxing biopic ‘Phantom Punch’ and unfortunately they have succeeded in illuminating almost nothing.

We first meet Liston (Rhames) as a tortured convict in a Missouri prison with only a concerned priest, Father Alios Stevens (Rick Roberts), as the sole person who seems to give a damn about the troubled young man’s mental facilities. When one day Liston drops a big ugly with one punch, Father Stevens sees that with some proper training Liston just might have some boxing ability. After winning a series of prison bouts in spectacular knockout fashion there is little doubt what Sonny Liston will be perusing once he gets out of jail.

Out of lock down Sonny makes the acquaintance of gym operator and trainer Caesar Novak (Nicholas Torturro), a man with known mob ties, who manages Sonny to a series of wins in the late 50’s. Sonny also meets and woos the pretty Geraldine (Stacey Dash) who will eventually become his wife, but not before Sonny beats up a couple of racist cops and lands himself right back in jail.

Once out of Jail Sonny vows to both Geraldine and Caesar to stay clean and eventually he gets that title fight he’d been wanting so badly against Floyd Patterson, who had allegedly been dodging him for years. The dynamics of that fight were very interesting for the time pitting Patterson, the good negro, against Liston, the bad negro but after seeing the fight it was actually the hungry negro versus the scared negro as Patterson went down in one and in one plus 2 seconds in the rematch.

Still Sonny’s public persona as a boogeyman persisted. He would drink heavily, engage in a very unwise affair with Caesar’s girlfriend Farah (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) and would lose his belt to the brash Cassius Clay and then of course lose again in the much disputed and controversial rematch to Muhammad Ali. Liston would continue to fight, winning most of those fights, until dying under mysterious circumstances 1971. Officially ruled a heart attack, some say a heroin overdose even though he was supposedly deathly afraid of needles, while others say he was murdered by the mob he was so closely associated with during his career.

As a piece of entertainment I have no problem saying that the movie is somewhat successful. Ving Rhames, despite the fact I’m thinking he was probably a bit too long in the tooth to play Liston, gives a solid performance as a tortured soul and is always interesting to watch on screen, while Robert Townsend has been directing movies long enough to know how to connect to an audience, hit the right emotional notes at the right time and keep his narrative moving briskly which does keep the audience engaged. But as a biographical work it is an unfortunate failure. I’m still not quite sure what Townsend and writer Ryan Combs were trying to tell us about Sonny Liston or what type of image or persona they were attempting to develop for the man. We meet Liston in jail but how did he get there? How did he end up as pained and tortured as he did? There was this sixty second scene of Sonny getting verbally and physically abused by his father and if I was supposed to glean from this brief event that this was the catalyst that caused this man to become a short tempered, violent, emotional, womanizing drunken brute then it went over my head. Far too much time was spent dealing with the mythical amalgam of Nicholas Torturro’s Caesar and his mob connections and waaaaaay too much time was spent fooling around with the Lounge Singer and the alleged affair that Liston was having with this woman since as far as I could see it only served the purpose of a plot device. After the movie is over you will know more about this character, who I believe is fictional, than you will know about Sonny Liston’s wife. Mrs. Sampras is a mighty fine looking woman and all but come on, what does this have to do with anything about the life of Sonny Liston that it deserves this much screen time?

Other elements where the film fell short were due to what I’m sure were budgetary constraints such as the lackluster fight scenes, the sparsely crowded championship fights the fact the actor who played Muhammad Ali didn’t move much like Muhammad Ali but then who except Muhammad Ali can move like Muhammad Ali? I will say that the cat they got to play Floyd Patterson sure did look and fight a lot like Floyd Patterson.

There’s some really good reading out there about the life of Sonny Liston which better illustrates how he was and how he became who he was, and despite being quite watchable and even entertaining to some degree ‘Phantom Punch’ does very little in bringing this strange, tragic and enigmatic figure into any kind of clarity.

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