Ready to Rumble

John Upton

  • King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick
    Picador, 326 pp, £14.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 330 37188 6
  • Muhammad Ali: Ringside edited by John Miller and Aaron Kenedi
    Virgin, 128 pp, £14.99, September 1999, ISBN 1 85227 852 8

‘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.

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