Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw on May 25, 1965, in Lewiston. Credit: John Rooney / AP

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People still talk about the big fight in Lewiston.

In 1965, Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston. Ali had just announced his conversion to Islam, leading Martin Luther King, Jr. to declare him a “champion of racial segregation.” The fight was exiled from Boston, leading Maine Gov. John Reed to attract the spectacle to Lewiston.

Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage. More by Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

We’re on the cusp of another.

With former Gov. Paul LePage’s official announcement that he is throwing his hat in the ring to challenge current Gov. Janet Mills, two of Maine’s political heavyweights are preparing to throw down.

And the road goes through Lewiston.

LePage’s life story is familiar to many now. He grew up in poverty and in an abusive home in Lewiston. After a particularly vicious beating, his father attempted to bribe him to lie to the doctor. LePage ran away instead, taking to the streets.  

He received support from a local family. He found a mentor in a local Lewiston businessman named Peter Snowe. In many ways, Lewiston helped make Paul LePage the man he is today.

Janet Mills’ story goes through Lewiston as well. As the first female district attorney in New England, she was elected to serve Androscoggin County. Her largest city was Lewiston.

Ali ended up winning his fight against Liston by the fabled “phantom punch,” earning a first-round knockout. It generated no small amount of controversy, including accusations that the match was fixed.  

The 2022 heavyweight fight probably won’t follow that pattern. Mills and LePage will go all 12 rounds.

And Lewiston will probably make the difference.

Maine’s second-largest city has been a political bellwether over the past decade. LePage won it in 2010, and again in 2014. Mills got it in 2018. The Democratic presidential candidate has won it each election cycle, mirroring the statewide vote.  

Lewiston voters helped Sen. Susan Collins trounce Shenna Bellows in 2014 and soundly defeat Sara Gideon in 2020. Angus King’s U.S. Senate campaigns found victory along the Androscoggin. The only “miss” was when the voters there chose Emily Cain over Bruce Poliquin for the 2nd Congressional District seat. Twice.  

Can’t win ‘em all.

The battle for Lewiston is a microcosm of the overall contest for Maine. The city maintains its Democratic lean, but the electorate remains on the conservative side of the spectrum. Current mayor Mark Cayer is a traditional, middle-of-the-road Maine Democrat. His election followed four successive victories by right-leaning candidates.

Those GOP-affiliated mayors — Bob Macdonald and Shane Bouchard — faced fierce contests from self-avowed “progressive” candidates affiliated with activist organizations. Yet, despite the inherent advantage in party registrations for the Democrats, the Republicans won.

This example is mirrored statewide.  

Will Mills’ measured approach in Augusta carry the day, bolstered by a party advantage? She is an unabashed Democrat and certainly leans left, but has stopped the more extreme proposals from her party to the chagrin of her allies.  

Or will voters rally back to LePage as the counterbalance to “progressives” and self-described socialists? Even if the far-left’s proposals don’t make it into law, they capture headlines and imaginations.  

The big knock on LePage is “civility” and “tone.” However, with a Portland Charter Commission member calling the city manager a “white supremacist,” it becomes more difficult for Democrats to claim the mantle of civility.  

Before Liston and Ali got to Lewiston, they faced each other in a different fight. Liston — like Mills — was the reigning champion and odds-on favorite. Ali was the underdog, but he had never lost a fight. LePage has never lost an election, even when the odds were against him.  

It is way too soon to tell how things will unfold. But it will be a heck of a heavyweight fight.

And we’ll probably find the winner in Lewiston.

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.