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Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Looking Back On Liston

Sonny Liston is still the heavyweight king. God save the king. God save boxing.

That was the opening of the Sports Illustrated report on Sonny Liston's win over Floyd Patterson which took place 45 years ago today. To call it a fight would be an insult - Liston knocked Patterson out in just over 2 minutes and had him on the deck three times. It was to be the only successful defence of his short reign s World Heavyweight Champion. In February 1964, Liston met a young fighter named Cassius Clay and the rest, as they say, is the greatest story in the history of sport.

Tonight I want to talk about Liston. The Big Bear is, for me, the most fascinating character ever to grace the ring. No other fighter has drawn the scorn given to him. In life, and in death, he is an enigmatic man who deserves more than the footnote currently given to him in the annals of boxing history.

I'm not defending Sonny Liston. His links to the mob are undeniable and the fifth round against Ali in Miami in February 1964 was not the only time that he used a dirty trick in the ring. However, I am saying that boxing should remember Liston, and realise that we should remember him as much more than a brutish thug.

The rematch in Knoxville, Kentucky is a case in point. The common consensus is that Liston threw the fight, taking a dive in the first round after Ali threw the so-called 'phantom' punch. However, let's suppose for a moment that the punch caught Liston off balance and knocked him to the canvas. Would you get up if this was the scene waiting for you?? Liston did, after Ali was sent to a neutral corner (a rule which is staandard today but was new at the time) before he got up and fought on for 20 seconds. At that point journalist Nat Fleischer told referee Jersey Joe Walcott that Liston had been off his feet for more than ten seconds, prompting Walcott to end the fight there and then. Liston may have taken a dive, but if he did not, then he was robbed in this fight.

His death was also strange. He died in suspicious circumstances Las Vegas in December 1970, as a pauper. Once feared (rather then revered), he was buried in a pauper's funeral in the town where only years earlier, millions had been bet on his fights. However, as a boxer, his professional career got an even less respectful passing that night in Lewiston. Sure, he fought on for five more years, but for all intents and purposes Liston was never to be the same fighter again.

I've always wanted to make/see a film about Liston's life. It would be a fascinating story, one that could put a human face on the man who has been characterized as a villian. It could tell us of a man who wanted to be accepted, who cried when he was neither applauded nor even respected as the Heavyweight Champion of the World. We could learn of a boxer who never could shake off the 'born on the wrong side of the tracks' tag, not even in death.

Liston once said that "Some day they're gonna write a Blues for fighters. It'll just be for slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell." Mark Knopfler has already written one for Sonny alone.

The writers didn't like him

The fight game jocks

With his lowlife backers

And his hands like rocks

They didn't want to have A bogey man

They didn't like him

And he didn't like them

1 comment:

  1. nice.
    I will continue to tune into said blog.

    Look out for a combined authored blog around irish rugby in the near future.