‘Some day they’re gonna write a blues song for fighters. It’ll just be for slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.’ So said Sonny Liston in 1962, after he’d beaten his closest rival, Floyd Patterson, and become Heavyweight Champion of the World. Liston was not known for his sensitivity. Indeed, the facts of his life read like a blueprint for a Hollywood film of the flawed fighter. He was born in Arkansas, the 24th of 25 children. He never knew the date or exact place of his birth, and he was illiterate. He was sent out to work in the fields at the age of eight, picking cotton, peanuts and sweet potato. He was beaten prodigiously by his father and the welts he received were still visible on his adult body. When his mother left Arkansas to find work in St Louis he followed her, but he was unable to hold down a job and turned to crime. By the age of 16 Liston was over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He was violent as well as strong and earned his first title, that of ‘Number One Negro’ on the St Louis police wanted list, in 1949. In 1950, he was convicted of armed robbery (his haul was $37). He was introduced to boxing at the Missouri State Penitentiary.
On his release, Liston began a professional boxing career while at the same time working as a ‘head breaker’ for the Mafia. He was an outstanding success in both roles. In 1956, he was convicted of assaulting a policeman and received a nine-month prison sentence, after which sabbatical he became far more deeply involved with New York mobsters and made Philadelphia his home. He was by now loathed by the press and feared by the public. When he won the world title in 1962 he flew back to his adoptive city expecting a reception committee. There was no one at the airport to greet him and in 1963 he left Philadelphia in disgust, remarking: ‘I’d rather be a lamp-post in Denver than mayor of Philadelphia.’
If Liston led a complicated public life, his arch rival’s inner life was far from straightforward. Floyd Patterson grew up in Brooklyn. ‘I don’t like that boy!’ he would say to his mother, pointing to a photograph of himself. At the age of nine, he took the photograph down and scratched crosses over the face. He, too, turned to petty crime and was sent to reform school. This proved to be a redemptive experience and when he returned to New York he took up boxing, under the tutelage of Cus D’Amato at the Gramercy Gym: in 1952 he won a gold medal at the Helsinki Olympics. He was much smaller than many of his opponents and learned to overcome this handicap by leaping into them – almost the Patterson trademark. He became World Heavyweight Champion at 21, the youngest there had ever been.
Patterson’s neuroses pursued him into adulthood: he was so prone to introspection that boxing writers nicknamed him Freud Patterson. He worried about his opponents getting hurt and refused to make eye contact with them at weigh-ins or press conferences, saying: ‘We’re going to fight, which is not a nice thing.’ A devout Roman Catholic, he took it on himself to be the champion of Christendom and the Civil Rights movement. When he was beaten by Liston, he pasted on a false beard – he had brought one with him in case of defeat – and took a flight to Madrid, where he walked around the poor quarters of the city faking a limp and eating only soup ‘because that’s what old men do’.
Patterson and Liston dominated boxing in the 1950s and early 1960s, and in the eyes of the public, all was well with the world. In one corner, Patterson, integrationist, scared of upsetting the white neighbours, grateful for his opportunities. In the other, Liston, who was without politics but stood for black criminality, sexual menace and resentment. Even better, the two men knew their place. Patterson was summoned to the White House before the Liston fight: ‘You’ve got to beat this guy,’ JFK told him, showing what could be gained by conforming to white rules. Liston’s behaviour simply affirmed the stereotype of the ‘bad nigger’, justifying discrimination against those who stepped out of line.
Enter Muhammad Ali, who over the next few years was to change the face of boxing. David Remnick’s book in fact concentrates on the two astonishing fights Ali had with Liston (Ali won the title in the first and defended it successfully in the second), and on the relationship between Ali, Liston and Patterson. For Remnick, as for most people, there is no one greater than Ali: he is not just a boxing phenomenon but a figure commanding world-wide veneration. He does not come out of the book as well as he might, however. So perfect is he made to seem that his character lacks vibrancy. Remnick’s reader knows that every adversary will be conquered or contained by a mixture of charm, mischief and grace. And so Liston, Patterson and other characters on the periphery seem to have more life.
In their fighting days the reverse was the case. The public felt they understood the two older boxers, and it was Ali who had the room to experiment, to create uncertainty in the minds of both the public and his fellow boxers. To watch Prince Naseem or Chris Eubank today is to see a clumsy rehash of Ali in the early years, when he seemed so threatening, so unconstrained by the social rules willingly or unconsciously accepted by Liston or Patterson. The space in which imagination and conjecture could float freely has long since been filled in, however. Nowadays, Ali is a secular saint and every off-the-cuff remark he ever made has been set down as Holy Writ. It is out of the sadness or failure of his contemporaries that genuine expressions of humanity are more likely to emerge.
Cassius Clay was born in 1942 into the Southern black middle class. He seems to have had a heightened racial awareness from an early age. As a four-year-old he asked his father: ‘Daddy, I go to the grocery and the grocery man is white. The bus driver is white. What do the coloured people do?’ When he was 12, his bike was stolen and he went to complain to a police officer who happened to run a boxing gym. He was persuaded to try the sport and quickly showed himself to be a natural. He also had the rigid discipline to go with his talent, and became obsessed with training. He was never violent outside the ring and was such a model student in every way except the academic that when he didn’t get the results needed to graduate from high school, his headmaster made an impassioned speech to the rest of the staff: ‘One day our greatest claim to fame is going to be that we knew Cassius Clay or taught him ... Do you think I’m going to be the principal of a school that Cassius Clay didn’t finish? If every teacher here fails him, he’s still not going to fail. He’s not going to fail in my school. I’m going to say I taught him!’ You can almost hear the opening number of ‘Ali the Musical’, as the headmaster and a troupe of dancing teachers prepare to sing the show-stopper: ‘He’s a knock-out not a drop-out.’ Clay graduated and went on to win an Olympic title in Rome in 1960.
When he turned professional, he won backing from a group of wealthy Louisville businessmen. A few years earlier he might have followed Liston into the arms of the Mob: instead, he was drawn to the Nation of Islam, which sustained him spiritually and socially. In 1964, he earned the right to challenge Liston. Both fighters were intensely disliked by the public, with Clay slightly ahead on points. The fight was viewed as a dangerous mismatch and there were real fears that Clay would be seriously injured. At the weigh-in he worked himself into such hysteria that his pulse rose from 54 to 120 beats a minute: ‘I’m ready to rumble now! I can beat you any time, chump! Somebody’s gonna die at ringside tonight! I am a great performer! You’re too ugly! You are a bear! You’re a chump, a chump, a chump,’ he ranted.
At the end of round four, Ali began screaming that he had a burning sensation in his eyes: Liston’s corner had rubbed an ointment of some description on his gloves in order to blind Ali. Ali sat on his stool demanding that the fight be stopped; Angelo Dundee, his trainer, sent him back out. Ali boxed the fifth round almost blind, then recovered his sight and began to dominate. Liston retired after the sixth round, claiming a shoulder injury.
The rematch in 1965 was even more controversial. Halfway through the first round, Liston fell to the canvas; there had been a vague movement from Ali but no visible punch. The angle of the shot in the video record of the fight makes it impossible to determine whether the knockout was the result of a perfectly timed punch or of a word whispered in Liston’s ear before the fight by the Mafia or the Nation of Islam.
More than any other sportsman, the boxer lives his life in a series of intense exposures. But as soon as a punch is translated into prose, its force is severely diminished. Attempts to represent the impact of a fist on the temple or nose, and the physical and psychological effect this has on the boxer, have led to a whole school of waffle. Remnick captures the seedy machismo of the downtown gym while at the same time expressing a sense of innocent wonder at the achievements of these freakishly gifted men. He is conscious of boxing’s literary tradition and is at pains to distance himself from those among his predecessors whose writing appears to be the product of an unholy union between Papa Hemingway and the features editor of Euro Boy. Neither does he fall entirely into the boxing-as-metaphor school, as favoured by macho liberals, who use boxing as a way of running with the homeboys without having to leave the safety of their desks.
There’s a convenient ambivalence in those who look for deeper meaning in boxing. If their chosen hero prevails, they can nail their colours to his mast; if he self-destructs, an instrument is created with which to chart the demise of the American dream. The boxing world’s association with organised crime, drugs and race inspires dark feelings and is an element of the harsh romance that white writers pursue with black ghetto life. In contrast, the relationship British heavyweight champions have enjoyed with the nation has been – superficially at least – far more harmonious. From Our ’Enry through Gary Mason and Big Frank Bruno (but not Joe Bugner, who was Hungarian, refused to play the game and was disliked by all on both counts) the cult of the deferential, smiling bruiser still holds sway. We expect our fighters to behave like Sergeant Paine in The Third Man who punches the drunk Holly Martins to the floor before picking him up and dusting him down, all under the approving eye of his commanding officer.
Issues of race and class form a second narrative strain in Remnick’s book, which recalls incidents from boxing’s racist past, as when the great Jack Johnson entered the ring to chants of ‘Kill the nigger!’ Ali’s antics caused a sort of panic, disguised as abhorrence of his undignified behaviour. The conservative fight establishment still held Joe ‘He’s a credit to his race, the human race’ Louis up as the yardstick by which to judge behaviour outside the ring. Ali drove a pink bus with ‘The World’s Most Colourful Fighter’ painted on its side, while turning from the wheel to lecture his travelling companions; he ambushed Sonny Liston at his house in the middle of the night (Liston’s greeting a pithy, ‘What you want, you black motherfucker?’); he was given to manic outbursts of verse. In almost every way, he flew in the face of what was to be expected from a black man. The old order’s failure to come to terms with the new was well illustrated by the differing reactions of Liston and Ali on encountering the Beatles. The Louisville Lip engaged in cool banter with John and Ringo. Liston’s reaction, like his boxing style, was rather blunt. ‘Are those the motherfuckers that everyone’s been talking about?’ he asked when he saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show. ‘My dog plays drums better than the kid with the big nose.’
After he’d beaten Liston, Ali officially proclaimed his adherence to Islam – or rather, the Nation of Islam. It was Malcolm X’s view that the Nation manipulated Ali, just as other boxers were manipulated by other pressure groups, but the bravery he showed in refusing to go to Vietnam, for example, is not in doubt. With an IQ of 78 he was initially classified as unfit to serve in the Army. It was only when the conflict escalated that standards were lowered sufficiently to make him eligible for active service. Thanks to a ruling by the Supreme Court he didn’t serve any of his prison sentence but he was stripped of his titles, lost his licence to box in America and was placed under surveillance by the FBI. On the other hand, his substantive contribution to black politics was much less than is frequently asserted. More generally, his physical achievements have come to be seen as conscious political acts, just as his good looks were somehow taken as evidence of moral stature. This is not to dismiss his significance – he attracted enormous attention to the black cause – but Remnick allows him to overshadow the period in which he rose to prominence. Like the rest of us, he is mesmerised, and with good reason: watch footage from the fights – Ali’s wide eyes, the impact of his punch – and just for a second, between the flashes of ringside cameras and the wreaths of cigar smoke, it’s impossible not to see this heroic prodigy as the embodiment of hope and freedom.
Here, though, is the difficulty: the phenomenon of Ali is inseparably tied to physical prowess. Boxing is a visceral, visual experience akin to dancing or bullfighting. You have to see Ali to understand his impact in and out of the ring. The photographs in Muhammad Ali: Ringside go some way to illustrating the hold he has over many people. Each one is a devotional tableau, with an essay in tribute printed alongside. The essays themselves (all reprints) are the full hagiographic shilling, written by the usual suspects – Mailer, Alex Haley, Joyce Carol Oates – but the pictures do manage to convey something of Ali’s tremendous physical presence.
Take the picture on page 17. In it, Ali is wearing a white towelling dressing-gown and is baring his teeth, his top lip tucked up Jimmy Cagney style. His expression is a combination of manic elation and apprehension. He exudes a barely controlled, barely understood humour, but no aggression. A man is standing behind him, his face obscured, his arms wrapped around Ali, whether to restrain or protect him. Ali is pointing to someone off camera and in his eyes I imagine I can see the relief of a child who has been saved from himself. This childishness was carried over with destructive effect into the ring, where punches of massive force were flicked from his body without any apparent effort, in comparison with the jarring haymakers thrown by Liston or, later, Joe Frazier.
In another photograph from the same decade, Sonny Liston stands square on to the camera, on the scales at a weigh-in. We are drawn to his massive biceps, trapeziuses and hands like shovels. Around him stand his disciples and members of his entourage, staring at the scales. Some are wearing pork-pie hats, others thin black ties or sunglasses. Liston’s eyes look downwards and to the side: he is staring at an intruder, at Ali, whose head and torso are poking through the forest of bodies. He, too, is examining the scales but with an altogether different expression on his face, the overly sincere look of the practical joker. Liston’s face shows wariness and bafflement in equal measure and, below the surface, the aggression of a king insulted in his own court.
Remnick does not deal with the subsequent 20 years of Ali’s career: with the fights of the 1970s – the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ and the ‘Thrilla in Manila’. His fights against Frazier were in fact the zenith of his career and he was never the same after them. The later, farcical fights that proved so disastrous for his health do not figure, nor does the change in the public’s perception of him, as the uppity nigger who became a symbol of global peace. By the end of his career, Ali had fought 61 professional fights, of which he won 56 and lost five. He had won the world heavyweight championship three times.
Remnick’s triumvirate continue to fulfil their allotted roles right to the end of the book. Ali was still the non-pareil who performed magic tricks and played practical jokes when Remnick went to interview him in Atlanta in 1996, an autumnal encounter well described in Remnick’s wistful, adulatory prose. Sonny Liston meanwhile, after working as an enforcer and declining as a boxer, was found dead in his bedroom in January 1971. The police discovered a small amount of marijuana, heroin and a syringe; a revolver and a glass of vodka stood next to his bed. The post-mortem recorded the presence of heroin in the body. The most common theory is that a contract killer, possibly a policeman, gave him a lethal dose of the drug. In 1996, his spiritual successor, Iron Mike Tyson, laid flowers on his grave at the Paradise Memorial Gardens, Las Vegas.
Floyd Patterson retired from boxing in 1972. In 1995, he was appointed to a sinecure as the head of the New York State Athletic Commission. In 1998, he gave evidence in legal proceedings concerning ‘ultimate fighting’, a hybrid of brawling and martial arts that is banned in New York. He was cross-examined by counsel for the promoters of the sport and could not remember whom he had fought for the heavyweight title, the names of his fellow commissioners or even the telephone number of his office. Patterson resigned, devastated. He had once again failed the establishment whose acceptance he had always sought.