Phantom Punch (2008)
This biopic derives its title from the punch thrown by Muhammad Ali that floored Sonny Liston in their second fight. So quick was the blow that many doubted Ali hit Liston at all. This included Ali himself, who famously stood over the prostrate Liston yelling at him to get up while calls of ‘fix’ reverberated around the arena. Only later, with the benefit of slow-motion, was it revealed that a punch did rock Liston’s head back before he fell to the canvas. Slow motion is also utilised throughout this biopic, as is stock footage and alternating colour schemes, yet the only thing they reveal is a once promising director bereft of ideas.
Employing the tired trope of opening with a significant event in the subject’s life before flashing back to tell their life story, Phantom Punch depicts Liston readying himself before his first bout against Floyd Patterson then jumps back twelve years where we find him in the Missouri State Penitentiary. A kindly priest suggests he take up boxing and soon Liston is knocking out all comers. Regrettably, after Liston is released from prison, he finds it hard to avoid the criminal element. Mobsters take over managing his career while local police regularly harass him and run him out of town. Despite his prowess in the ring, Liston’s reputation and surly demeanour makes him an unpopular sporting figure.
Ample material for a solid biopic, yet screenwriter Ryan Combs embellishes it with fabricated characters and love interests, bypassing actual significant events like the famed lead-up to Liston’s first bout against Muhammad Ali. Granted, the barely literate Liston was hardly known for his eloquence but combatting that with an overly talkative fictional mobster robs the story of much of its inherent drama. Though Ving Rhames is ideally cast as Liston, he can do little under the pedestrian direction of Robert Townsend.
He's also too old for the role, but by exactly how much is a matter of conjecture. Like many aspects of Liston’s life, his actual birth date remains a mystery.
as Sonny Liston
as Muhammad Ali
Mobsters Ceasar Novak, Nico Orso, Bobby Zazo and Savino are all fictional characters. Subsequently, the affair between Liston and Novak’s wife is also invented.