On May 25, 1965, Lewiston, Maine was the site of the most famous event in its unassuming history, and certainly the most prominent sporting event that has ever occurred in the state of Maine, the rematch of the title fight in Miami in which Cassius Clay (as he was then known) took the world heavyweight boxing crown from Sonny Liston, a menacing physical specimen known as “the Bear.”
Lewiston was as unlikely a place to stage this fight as any. Once a thriving textile manufacturing hub, it was well on its way to matching the description that could have been invented there: gritty. The match was originally scheduled for the Boston area but the organizers turned to Lewiston’s 2,400 seat high school hockey rink for the match when controversy arose over the champ’s conversion to Islam, with his related name change to Muhammad Ali, and Liston’s reputed mob ties complicated the original plan. It was thought that the proceeds from the paltry crowd would be made up for from the money to be paid by airing the event on pay-for-view, a nascent concept at the time.
The crowd was rumored to have actually exceeded 4,000 including many Bates College students posing as journalists to get in, but barely any of them saw Ali’s “phantom punch” that resulted in Liston’s knockdown and Ali’s controversial TKO win in the first round. A classic photo caught the moment when a gloating Ali taunted Liston with his famous “[g]et up and fight, sucker.”
Lewiston has never been a tolerant place. During its manufacturing hayday, French Canadiens manned the mills, but their Catholic background brought KKK threats and community rejection. After the mills left, a group of Somalis, fleeing war and poverty in their own country, were relocated to Lewiston and met the same set of prejudices as the earlier immigrants. They eventually became more or less integrated into the city, which showed signs of economic revival until Covid set the economy back a generation. Now led by an African-American mayor, Lewiston hopes to emulate the largest city in Maine, Portland, 40 miles to the south, which has converted its dying waterfront into one of the most popular tourist spots in the country on the strength of an economy built on tourism and tech.
The people of Lewiston would gladly have lived with the city’s reputation for intolerance and a dying economy, until the events of last week forever engraved its name on the list of cities where the country’s worst mass shootings occurred, when a mentally ill Army reservist murdered 18 persons at a bowling alley in Lewiston and a bar in its twin city Auburn, leaving 13 others injured. As usual, no immediate motive was apparent. The cliched calls for prayers and improved mental health care came from the right, but, predictably, any discussion of stricter gun control measures was deemed “not appropriate at this time.”
Maine is a place for hunters and other outdoorsmen and, based on this gun culture, has the laxest gun laws in the Northeast. There are no background checks for private gun sales, no license needed to own a concealed weapon, and it has failed several times to pass a “red flag” law, settling for a “yellow flag” law that requires a doctor’s input to take a weapon away from a mentally dangerous person. Unusually, probably because of its oldest in the nation population, it also has a very low crime rate.
My wife and I had traveled to our home in southern Maine to check on some work being done in our house the day after the shootings. Although we are about an hour and a half drive from Lewiston, the sense of fear throughout the state was palpable as the manhunt dragged on for two days, finally ending with the suspect being found dead in an apparent suicide near the site of the murders. Courageously, Congressman Jared Golden, who, although a Democrat, represents the mostly rural northern and western parts of the state, declared that the time has come to ban assault weapons in this country. Neither of Maine’s U.S. Senators nor its Democratic governor joined him in this call. And the general population? If the lines outside the gunseller Cabela’s in Scarborough on Saturday is any indication, it is the same old knee-jerk answer: we need more guns to protect ourselves.
I doubt that Ali’s taunting words after the “punch” are needed to prod Lewiston’s citizens to rise up from this tragedy. But I hope that this time is really different. Get up and fight, Mainers. But not for another toothless solution. It is time to get up and fight for a common sense response. It is time to get up and join Congressman Golden to help ban common citizens’ ownership of weapons that are made for and only intended for war.