Saturday, June 18, 2016


Quick, can you name the current world heavyweight boxing champion? I looked it up a couple days ago and still can't remember his name. When Muhammad Ali died earlier this month, I heard a radio report, probably on NPR who doesn't have a clue about these things, that said the sport of boxing was not very popular before Ali came on the scene, and returned to that state after he retired. That of course is nonsense. To some people, the NPR reporter included. Ali WAS boxing. However prize fighting as it used to be called, was second only to baseball in popularity in the US, up until the early sixties when the NFL began its meteoric rise to the top of the charts. Post-Ali, the heavyweight division of the sport continued to produce household names such as Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, and everyone's favorite (said with a wink and a nudge), Mike Tyson. And let us not forget the reincarnation of George Foreman who transformed himself from a sullen, brutal, one man wrecking crew, into happy-go-lucky Uncle George the Grill Man. Despite looking like a tan version of the Michelin Man whenever he stepped into the ring and despite his advanced age, Foreman could still pack enough of a wallop to become at 45, the oldest heavyweight champion of all time.

Perhaps it was that image of slow, old Uncle George plodding around the ring sending the likes of boxing immortals Terry Anderson and Ken Lakusta to the canvas, punching their one way tickets to Palookaville, that turned people away from the of battleships of boxing, the heavyweights, in favor of the swifter destroyer class of the sport's lighter weight divisions. The hype surrounding, attention given to and money generated from last year's Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao welterweight bout is evidence that the sweet science is still a major attraction around the world.

I'm old enough to remember when Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, aka "the Louisville Lip", notorious for his incessant posturing and braggadocio. His trademark slogan "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" was coined well before either Ali or Clay became household names. He called himself "The Greatest" long before he could back it up.

We forget today that people hated him for it.

Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston during their re-match,   Lewistown, Maine, May 25, 1965
Photograph by Neil Leifer

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That has to be an average number because all the pictures I've taken that have been worth only a groan or at best a "that's interesting" must certainly balance out the millions of words this Neil Leifer photograph evokes.

It is perhaps the most famous sports photograph ever made. The story behind it as well as the life and times of the two individuals in it, and the sport they excelled at, are so twisted and complex, it would take hundreds of thousands of words just to scratch the surface. 

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (named after his father who was named after a 19th Century Kentucky abolitionist), was already well known before the fight that made him a legend. That fight to be exact, took place in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964. By that time, Clay was an Olympic gold medal winner with a 19-0 professional record and considered the top contender for the heavyweight crown. But with several less than stellar fights up to that point, nobody gave him much of a chance to beat the formidable current champ Sonny Liston whose biographer, Paul Gallender called the most gifted heavyweight in the history of boxing. Liston was so feared that seasoned professional boxers trembled at the mention of his name.

Liston, whose style and persona were emulated by George Foreman in his first go-around. was the antithesis of Clay, especially when it came to PR. Mistrustful of anyone not in his inner circle, Liston came off as surly and belligerent with the press. They repaid him in kind by portraying him as a brutal thug, emphasizing his prison record and mob connections. The picture the white press painted of Liston was that of the stereotype ferocious Negro whom you'd cross the street in order to avoid crossing paths with him. The truth is, black folks didn't care much for him either. Liston's reputation was so bad even the NAACP got into the act recommending that previous champ Floyd Patterson not fight him because they feared a possible Liston championship would set the cause of civil rights back decades.

Patterson should have listened to them. Liston annihilated the champ, knocking him out barely two minutes into the first round. When the new champ Sonny Liston returned to his home in Philadelphia after the fight, instead of the grateful throngs he expected to greet him at the airport, he was met by only a handful of press, one of whom publicly suggested a huge ticker tape parade up Broad Street was in order, using torn up arrest warrants for confetti. Liston soon left the City of Brotherly Love for Denver saying he'd rather be a lamp post in that city than mayor of Philadelphia.

The rage that cursed through Liston's veins did not escape the attention of 22 year old Cassius Clay who signed to fight the champ in late 1963. From the get go, Clay mercilessly ragged on Liston, in public and in person. He went so far as rent a bus and displayed on it a sign that read "Liston must go in eight" (rounds). Then in the middle of the night, Clay and his friends parked the bus in front of Liston's Denver home, honking the horn and casting aspersions at the temperamental champion as he tried to sleep.

Liston dismissed Cassius Clay as a second rate fighter and a madman. He barely trained for the fight and was probably in the worst shape of his career. It is rumored that he was up all night before the fight on a drunken bender. Unbeknownst to the general public, Clay's training regime by contrast was scientific and brutally intense. He studied every inch of the champ and understood his every weakness, few of them as there were.

Also unknown to the public was a previous shoulder injury to Liston which should have been grounds to postpone the fight. That injury put him at a disadvantage as did the fact that he was far older than anyone suspected, perhaps as old as George Foreman was when he won his second championship. If that's true, and we still don't know for sure, it would have made Liston twice as old as Clay at the time of their fight. 

The young Cassius was at his most outrageous at the weigh-in the morning of the fight, acting so crazed that people thought he was trying to get out of the fight on a count of insanity. It turned out he was crazy, just like a fox. Cassius Clay knew that Sonny Liston had not fought a fight in quite a while that lasted more than a couple of rounds because of his habit of knocking out opponents before most in attendance had a chance to settle into their seats. Clay also knew that Liston more than likely would not train for a long fight. If he could make the champ angry and impatient enough, then Clay's superior foot speed and agility would enable him to evade Liston's devastating punches and tire out the champ in a long fight. He'd later say: "If Liston wasn't thinking nothing but killing me, he wasn't thinking fighting. You got to think to fight."

At the first bell it was apparent that Clay did mange to get under Liston's skin as the champ came after the challenger with a vengeance. By doing so, Liston fell right into Cassius Clay's trap.

No sport inspires more brilliant poetry and prose than boxing. This account of the first Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight, written by Robert Lipsyte, is an except from an article which appeared in the New York Times the day after the fight:
The fight was Clay’s from the start. The tall, swift youngster, his hands carelessly low, backed away from Liston’s jabs, circled around Liston’s dangerous left hook and opened a nasty gash under Liston’s left eye. 
He never let Liston tie him up for short, brutal body punches, and although he faltered several times, he refused to allow himself to be cornered. His long left jab kept bouncing off Liston’s face. From the beginning, it was hard to believe. 
The men had moved briskly into combat, Liston stalking, moving flat-footedly forward. He fell short with two jabs, brushed Clay back with a grazing right to the stomach and landed a solid right to the stomach. The crowd leaned forward for the imminent destruction of the young poet. 
But he hadn’t lied. All those interminable refrains of “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” had been more than foolish songs. The kid was floating. He leaned back from Liston’s jabs and hooks, backed into the ropes, then spun out and away. He moved clockwise around Liston, taunting that terrible left hook, his hands still low. 
Then he stung late in the first round, sticking his left in Liston’s face and following with a quick barrage to Liston’s head. They continued for long seconds after the bell, unable to hear the inadequate ring above the roar of the crowd...

Liston strained forward with overeager hooks that struck only air. For a moment, in the second round, Liston pummeled Clay against the ropes, but again, Cassius spun out and away.

Then the young man began to rumble as he had promised. His quick left jabs penetrated Liston’s defenses, and he followed with right hands. He leaned forward as he fired rights and lefts at Liston’s expressionless face. Liston began to bleed from a crescent-shaped cut high on the left cheekbone.

Like a bull hurt and maddened by the picadors’ lances, Liston charged forward. The heavy muscles worked under his smooth, broad back as he virtually hurled his 218 pounds at the dodging, bobbing, dancing Clay.

His heavy arms swiped forward and he threw illegal backhand punches in his bearlike lunges. Once, Clay leaned the wrong way and Liston tagged him with a long left. Cassius was staggered, but Liston was hurt and tired. He could not move in to press his advantage.

And now, a strange murmur began to ripple through the half-empty arena and people on blue metal chairs began to look at one another. Something like human electricity danced and flowed as the spectators suddenly realized that even if Cassius lost, he was no fraud. His style was unorthodox, but …
Both fighters were sluggish in the fifth round, breathing heavily. Liston’s face was still impassive, but the grooves along his forehead seemed deeper, and the snorting breaths through his nose harsher.

He seemed even more tired in the sixth as Clay’s eyes cleared and the younger man bore in, then leapt away, jabbing and hooking and landing a solid right to Liston’s jaw. Clay’s jabs were slipping through at will now, bouncing off that rocklike face, opening the cut under the left eye.
Liston walked heavily back to his corner at the end of the sixth. He did not sit down immediately. Then as Liston did sit down, Clay came dancing out to the center of the ring, waving his arms, all alone. It seemed like a long time before Drew (Bundini) Brown, his assistant trainer, was hugging him and Dundee was dancing up and down, and Jack Nilan, Liston’s adviser, was wrapping yards of tape around the former champion’s left shoulder...
Sonny Liston never answered the bell to the seventh round. The fight was over and the man who would announce to the world the next day that he was a follower of the Nation of Islam and soon change his name to Muhammad Ali, was the champion of the world. Few thought he could go more than a few rounds with Liston, let alone the distance, but his insane prediction that he would knock Liston out in eight rounds proved to be an understatement.

People called that fight the greatest upset in history but not everyone was convinced. Up until the end of the contest which was ruled a technical knockout for Clay, the fight had been even, at least according to the judges and referee's scorecards. Everyone knew that Liston was tied to the mob so surely he must have thrown the fight. Maybe someone from up above told him: "Champ, tonight's not your night." What else could he do?

To this day, no one knows exactly what happened to Liston that night, but it seems likely that his trainer stopped the fight because of the shoulder injury. It's very unlikely that he threw the fight, at least for the sake of gamblers, as the overwhelming odds in favor of him would have plummeted if the fix was in. They didn't. The score would have to be settled in a re-match.

If the first Liston/Clay match was a confusing mess. the Ali/Liston rematch was nothing less than a fiasco.

Clay's announcement that he was affiliated with the Black Muslims and a follower of their leader Elijah Muhammad, went over like a lead balloon among many Americans, black and white. The latter found the group's portrayal of themselves as "blue eyed Devils" not a little disconcerting, while many black Americans, including Martin Luther King, disapproved of their support of segregation. People of both colors considered the group racist. Floyd Patterson, who refused to call him by his new name, went so far as saying that Ali could just as well have joined the KKK.

Liston's popularity didn't exactly soar either as between fights he had a couple of run ins with the law and spent some more time in the pokey.

However to many whites, while they wouldn't want to meet up with Liston on a dark street late at night, Ali was by far the greater threat because of his quick wit, his intelligence, his mouth, and his willingness to use it to speak what was on his mind. He was a double threat because of his allegiance to an organization that had no intention of capitulating to white American values and its expectations of who black people should be and how they should act. "God knows...", you could hear whites in the sixties say in horror, "...a Negro might even one day become president." White America's anxieties were only strengthened when Ali said:
I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.
Surely the world was changing and many white Americans were not ready. Some of course are still not.

By 1965, neither man was riding a crest of popularity and finding a venue to host the rematch proved difficult. The promoters ended up settling for a 4,000 seat hockey arena in the small town of Lewiston, Maine, the smallest venue for a championship fight that anybody could remember. Complicating matters was the company Ali was keeping. During the first fight, Ali's close friend Malcolm X hung out with the contender as he was training. This brought on the consternation of the fight promoters who insisted Ali, at the time still Cassius Clay, renounce any ties he might have had with the Nation of Islam. Clay refused, however Malcolm X did agree to leave the training facility as a concession. After a falling out between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, Ali sided with Muhammad. Nearly a year to the date after the first Liston/Clay fight, Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem, allegedly upon the orders of Elijah Muhammad. Word on the street was out that followers of Malcolm had a hit out on Ali as they felt he betrayed his friend and his cause. Not to be outdone, Liston allegedly received threats from Elijah's people. Both men were accompanied by armed guards during their stay in Maine.

Liston trained hard for the second fight and appeared to be ready. Ali was the same old Ali, only the name had changed. You wouldn't know that from listening to the fight announcers who continued to call him by his old name. The fight's tiny venue was only half full. If the pulse of the nation could be taken from the 2,000 souls in the arena that night, the cheers that Liston received was an indication that he was the public's favorite over Ali, who was resoundingly booed when he entered the arena.

Of the fight itself, there is not much to say. Halfway through the first round, Ali followed a Liston jab with an uppercut that may or may not have made contact. With that punch Liston went down. Former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott the referee that night, had trouble getting Ali to his corner to begin the count. That is the moment captured by Neil Leifer in the photo above. To the uninitiated, it appears that Muhammad Ali is preening and gloating over knocking Liston down. In reality, Ali who knew quite well that the punch he threw could never have brought the great Liston down, was admonishing the former champ to get back up and start fighting. Walcott never got his count off and after Liston got to his feet, the fight resumed briefly, until the official timer told Walcott that he had made a ten count and Liston was down for the entire time. That was good enough for Walcott (although it shouldn't have been), and he stopped the fight. Not only had viewers, either in the small arena in Maine, or all over the world in theaters via closed circuit TV, not settled into their seats, many had not even entered the building.

Ali's punch that may or may not have connected with Liston has gone down in history as the phantom punch. Boxing people have been debating that punch ever since, some insisting that contrary to appearance, it was a deceptively powerful punch. Most however are convinced that Liston took a very obvious dive.

Here's the entire fight, all two minutes and fifteen seconds of it, so you can judge for yourself.

To this day, no one knows exactly what happened, why Liston went down the way he did and if he indeed took a dive, why. Once again there was no indication of any betting irregularity that would imply the fight was fixed. Paul Gallender who spent thirty years gathering information on Liston which resulted in his book Sonny Liston - The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights, tells the far fetched story that members of the Nation of Islam kidnapped Liston's wife and child and told the fighter he'd never see them again if he won the fight. As far as I know, his is the only account of this story so I'd take it with a huge grain of salt.

Needless to say, this fight was the end of Liston's credibility. He left the country and continued to fight unranked boxers in Europe, never getting a chance at another title. Liston did continue to be a celebrity of sorts, making several cameo appearances on TV and in movies. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1970.

The sport of boxing took a hit as people all over the world rolled their eyes at what they considered obvious deception and fraud in the sport. 

And Ali didn't get his due as champion as Liston's performance in the second fight only increased suspicions that the first fight was rigged as well. The new champ went on to defend his title against eight opponents including former champ Floyd Patterson, whom Ali viewed with contempt after Patterson's remarks about him and his religion. Boxing analysts claim that Ali could have put Patterson away early in the fight, but toyed with him until the fight was stopped in the 12th round.

Then came the defining moment of Muhammad Ali's life, he got drafted.

But that's a story for another day.

Click here for Ali, Round Two.

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