10 May 2010

The Bear's Going Down

This week's Take This Tune is Mark Knopfler's biographical tribute  "Song For Sonny Liston".  I had never heard it until finding it as one of the songs on an album purchased recently.  Boxing has never had a particular appeal, but I remembered the 1964 and 1965 fights simply because of all the publicity around them.  Sonny was the champ.  While people admired the sheer strength and brutality of the man, they didn't like Sonny.  It was a time when boxing was trying to clean up its image.  Sonny's rumored mob connections and flamboyant lifestyle marked him as just the type no one wanted at the top.  Cassius Clay (eventually Muhammad Ali) became the top contender for Sonny Liston's title. He had been the lightweight Olympic Gold Medalist and had wracked up an impressive record professionally.

Clay was not widely expected to win. The fight was scheduled for February 25, 1964 in Miami, Florida.  The promoter, Bill Faversham, was concerned about Clay's association with Malcolm X.  Faversham convinced Clay not to announce his conversion to Islam until after the fight to prevent a loss in ticket sales.  Still, no one expected the fresh faced younger man to defeat Sonny given Liston's overwhelming status as the favorite to win (7–1 odds) despite his bragging, and to Sonny infuriating, poetry recital at weigh in.

Float like a butterfly
Sting like a bee.
Your hands can't hit
What your eyes can't see.

When Sonny failed to return to the ring at the beginning of the seventh round, history was made and Clay was named champion with a TKO and the angry Bear was scheduled for a rematch.   The ending of the 1965 second fight remains one of the most controversial in boxing history.  The "phantom punch" never appeared to have landed yet Sonny went down in the first round and took longer than 10 seconds to stand.  As stated in the Wiki about the fight
There were claims that Liston had bet against himself and "took a dive" because he owed money to the Mafia. Others believe that he feared for his safety from Nation of Islam extremists who supported Ali. The latter theory was supported by Mark Kram's book Ghosts of Manila, which included an interview with Liston conducted years after the fight. Liston claimed to have intentionally lost because of his fear of retaliation from the Black Muslims. No independent substantiation of this claim has come to light.
The mystery over Liston's death in 1971 has never been resolved as his body was discovered several days after he died making cause of death difficult to determine as well as accusations of police cover up with their declaration of a drug overdose.  A friend of Liston's also told "Unsolved Mysteries" that Liston had been in a car accident a few weeks prior to his death. Liston was hospitalized with minor injuries, and received intravenous medicine. This is believed to be the source of the puncture wound that authorities found upon discovering Liston's body not the signs of drug addiction as no drug paraphernalia was found at the site despite and Sonny was known to be a heavy drinker but not a drug user given his fear of needles.

Whatever the true story, Sonny Liston, was a man who survived a hellish childhood, had a successful if brutal career, and may or may not have been murdered.  Knopfler's song brings all that feeling to life.

"Some day they're gonna write a Blues for fighters.
It'll just be for Slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell."

1 comment:

Travis Cody said...

I knew a little bit of this story. The call of that first match in 1964 is one of the most famous in sports. I have it on an album radio programs. I did not recall the questionable circumstances surrounding Liston's death.