Robert Goulet: An Omen of Madness at Ali-Liston II

Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Monday marks 50 years since the 23-year-old Muhammad Ali defended his title against Sonny Liston in one of the sketchiest heavyweight fights ever. If you don't know the full account of what happened on May 25, 1965, you'll have to read about it elsewhere, but the short version is that things got so weird that a magazine editor called off the fight. And when that fog of weirdness settled on Lewiston, Maine, the late Robert Goulet screwing up "The Star-Spangled Banner" was a signpost for what was in store.

By 1965, Goulet was an established star. His tour de force performance as Quentin Hapsburg in The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear still lay decades in the future, but Goulet had already done time on Broadway and recorded a handful of albums and charting singles. The mustachioed baritone signed on to sing the national anthem at Ali 's and Liston's second meeting, joining the fighters, cornermen, boxing press corps, and ticket holders for the sojourn to Lewiston, a head-scratching locale that also happened to be Goulet's mother's hometown.

Goulet might have been rusty on Francis Scott Key's lyrics because of where he came of age: he was born in Massachusetts, USA, but at 13, after his father's death, his family uprooted to Alberta, Canada. So he wrote down the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner." He practiced. But by the time fight night arrived, he might not have passed a field sobriety test. According to the late Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough, an emcee at a pre-fight party wanted his Irish tenor friend to sing the anthem instead of Goulet, so he “set out to get Robert bombed at the cocktail party. And he did a fair job of it.” Nonetheless, Goulet put on his tuxedo and made it to St. Dominic's Arena in one piece.

Someone along the way, he lost his cheat sheet with the lyrics. Supposedly he said, "What am I going to do?" while he climbed into the ring. Once there, he couldn’t hear the organist's accompaniment, and the first gaffe came almost as soon as he spoke into the microphone: "O say can you see, by the dawn's early night," he sang. A couple of lines later, he transposed "perilous night" for "perilous fight." On "land of the free," his voice cracks. All the way through, he gave everyone every bit of vibrato they could handle, but he also sprinted to the end of his own public nightmare. Listen for yourself—the audio starts at 3:46: (hat tip to the Sun Journal).

In the days following, Goulet's performance made the headlines that celebrities try to avoid. Bud Collins, another Globe writer, said: "The only guy in St. Dom's more disappointing than Liston was Robert Goulet…[Ali] hit the wrong guy." But considering the infraction, Collins's comments and others like them are too indignant. Goulet's didn’t do a Roseanne Barr-style butchery. And in the aftermath of a dissatisfying fight, harping on the guy who sang the national anthem is like calling out the hostess when you get food poisoning.

Goulet's performance was a harbinger of events that are still being scrutinized half a century on. Maybe Ali really did drop Liston with an heirloom of a punch passed down from Jack Johnson. Then again, maybe Liston put himself on the canvas of his own accord and for shadowy reasons. The first-round stoppage was a comedy of errors, with a Ring magazine editor at ringside telling Jersey Joe Walcott —the former heavyweight champ and that evening's ineffectual referee who didn’t send Ali back to his neutral corner after the knockdown—that the fight was over, and the timing varied from 1:00 to 2:12 depending on the source. That's to say nothing of the fears of reprisal against the Ali by followers of the recently assassinated Malcolm X that shrouded the event, or any of the oddities that come with arranging heavyweight title fight in Maine on less than three weeks notice.

A Broadway entertainer bungling a song every second grader knows by heart doesn’t even rank among the strangest things that happened in and around the ring that night. Instead, Goulet's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" was a pitch-perfect prologue.


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