Robert Townsend’s film, Phantom Punch, attempts to put a human face on one of the most unloved boxing champions of all time, Sonny Liston. And he almost succeeds due to the performance of Ving Rhames as Liston. However, as good as Rhames is, he is also too old for the role and not in the same physical condition that Liston was as champ. Also the fight scenes are perfunctory at best. This is one film that you would not watch if you were interested in faithful and believable fight re-creations. This is not Rocky or Raging Bull. This film works best as a drama and when Rhames is front and centre.
As the film opens, it is 1950, and Liston is in the Missouri State Penitentiary. After he whacks out a fellow prisoner, named Big Lester, who was giving Liston a hard time, he is taken under the wing of the prison Chaplin, Father Stevens (Rick Roberts). The Chaplin also happens to be in charge of the prison’s athletic program, and he steers Liston into the boxing program.
Liston keeps his nose down and earns an early release. He may have been a model prisoner, but he is still a bad man. At the time of his release he explains that there is only one thing that will keep him from returning to prison, and that is ‘knocking mother f*ckers out’.
Outside Liston goes professional, and begins the long climb through the boxing ranks, with each fight moving closer to the top. His journey is interrupted when he is sent to prison again, after he beats up two police officers. In fairness, these were two racists cops who taunted Liston and insulted him and his girlfriend. They probably deserved it. But Liston’s temper got the better of him, and he goes to prison.
Upon his release he continues his climb in the boxing game, but pretty soon reaches a glass ceiling. No one will fight him. That’s when his manager, Caesar Novak (Nick Turturro), who is tied in with the mob, uses him connections to move Liston up through the ranks and fight the real contenders. The side effect of this however, is that Liston’s reputation takes a further battering, with implications that he is involved in organised crime.
The story follows Liston as he becomes World Champion and how he fell from grace after the alleged ‘Phantom Punch’ in the second fight against Muhammed Ali.
Phantom Punch is an entertaining enough biopic, but far from brilliant. But Rhames performance gives the film a little weight, and makes the human drama more interesting than it would have been in lesser hands.
Set in Outback Australia, in Birdsville, one of the most remote towns on the planet, two rival boxing tents set up shop in competition with each other. In the sweltering heat, tensions simmer, tempers flare, and a tent burns.