Literary Notes: Thomas Hauser’s perspective on boxing books
There are hundreds of books about Muhammad Ali, but very little good writing about Sonny Liston. Liston and Ali by Bob Mee (Mainstream Publishing) is very good writing about Liston.
Liston’s resume before he began boxing included incarceration for a long string of violent offenses (including armed robbery) and work as a strike-breaker for the St. Louis mob. His resume after prison included more run-ins with the law (one of which sent him back behind bars for nine months) and repeated arrests for offenses that ranged from driving while intoxicated to the unlawful possession of a firearm.
He was menacing and monosyllabic, what Mee calls, “the flip side of Ali; with no apparent political or religious beliefs, no apparent interest in the well being of anybody outside his own household.”
But Mee also writes, “I found a sad man made suspicious by a world that gave with one hand and snatched away with both; a man who sought redemption and acceptance by winning the heavyweight championship of the world, but who found only disappointment, rejection, and constant reminders of the moral debt it was felt he owed his country. In the end, I found a disillusioned man, who became what it seemed the world wanted him to be.”
Mee would have done well to pare down the material about Ali in his book. Some of it is shopworn and, in a few instances (such as the recounting of Ali’s travails with the military draft), inaccurate. But when the author turns his spotlight on Liston, his work shines.
Liston began boxing in prison, was paroled in 1952, and turned pro after 11 months as an amateur. The prevailing view is that he was backed by the mob from the start of his career and that what followed was just a matter of Liston being upgraded from little mob bosses to big mob bosses.
Mee writes extensively about Liston’s ties to organized crime and the role of the mob in boxing midway through the 20th century. He also traces Liston’s ring exploits, highlighting his two championship victories over Floyd Patterson (both first-round knockouts) followed by his losses to Cassius Clay in Miami Beach and Muhammad Ali in the unlikely venue of Lewiston, Maine.
Liston-Patterson II is notable in Mee’s eyes, in part, because Patterson failed to land a single punch. Bob Cannobio of CompuBox (who studied the bout on tape) demurs, saying that Floyd landed one of seven blows, compared to 25 of 58 for Liston. Whatever the number, after disposing of Patterson twice, Sonny was widely regarded as the reincarnation of Godzilla. The presumption was that he would reign as champion for years.
Mee’s book is styled as a study of both Ali and Liston. But its strength is as a portrait of the latter.
Mee is sympathetic toward Liston, who conducted himself as though he had a grudge against the world, because of the fighter’s origins. There’s good material in his review of Sonny’s early life in an impoverished area of rural Arkansas. But nothing is more telling than Liston’s own testimony before a United States Senate subcommittee investigating the influence of organized crime in boxing:
Senator Estes Kefauver: How much education did you get?
Liston: I didn’t get any.
Q: You didn’t go to school at all?
Liston: No, sir. Too many kids.
Q: How many kids were there?
Liston: Well, my father had 25.
Q: Did you have to work to help support the other 24 children?
Liston: That’s right.
Q: What did you do?
Liston: Pick cotton.
Q: Do you read at all?
Liston: No, sir. I don’t.
Q: Do you sign your name?
Liston: Yes, sir.
Q: Can you sign your address?
Liston: No, sir.
Q: Suppose your share of a fight purse was $25,000 and they handed you a check for it. Could you tell whether they were giving you a check for $25,000?
Liston: Not exactly.
Q: You would have to depend on somebody else?
Liston: Yes, sir.
Jack Nilon (who served for several years as Liston’s manager) later elaborated on that theme. “Sonny is frustrated because he can’t read,” Nilon told a companion while sitting at the swimming pool at The Thunderbird Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. “See that sign over there: ‘Please register with lifeguard.’ Sonny doesn’t know what that says. For all he knows, it might say ‘Free Drinks.'”
In that vein, Liston was also sensitive about his age, which was widely thought to be older than reported. That’s because he didn’t know for sure how old he was.
“I only got one man to thank for what happened to me,” Liston said after annihilating Patterson for the second time. “Me. I done it the hard way. Nobody never gave me nothing. There haven’t been too many people that meant anything in my life. I’ve done some rough things, and I’ve had some rough things done to me.”
Mee is honest enough that, despite his sympathy for his subject, Liston emerges in the pages of Liston & Ali as a surly, bullying, violent man. As an adult, Sonny moved from St. Louis to Philadelphia to Denver to Las Vegas, and found trouble every step of the way. He had a ravenous appetite for women, and there were times when he abused them. While champion, he drank more than he had before. Then his substance abuse problems grew.
Could he have been saved?
Before the first Patterson fight, Liston invited a group of boys from a local reform school to watch him train. That same day, he told the media, “If I win this fight, you’ll be able to see there is good and bad in everybody. The way things stand now, everybody thinks there is only bad in me.”
At that point, Liston believed that, if he defeated Patterson, he’d be embraced by society by virtue of his being heavyweight champion of the world.
He wasn’t. And it hurt. From that point on, Mee notes, “Liston did not really see the need to bother with niceties. And bad became worse.”
Liston was found sprawled across the bed in his Las Vegas home on Jan. 6, 1971. His body was bloated and decomposing. He’d been dead for approximately eight days. Theories as to the cause of death ranged from a mob rub-out to an accidental overdose of heroin. A coroner’s inquest left the issue unresolved.
There’s a red flag with flashing warning lights in the opening sentence of Joe Gans by Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott (McFarland & Company). That’s the first of several times that the authors refer to Gans as “the greatest boxer who ever lived.”
Depending on the count, Gans had between 156 and 181 recorded fights between 1894 and 1909. His most storied triumph was a 42-round victory by disqualification over Battling Nelson in Goldfield, Nev., in which he reclaimed the world lightweight crown in 1906. He died of tuberculosis in 1910 at age 35.
Gans was great. The question is “how great?” Was he, as Aycock and Scott maintain, “the greatest fighter ever to grace the ring” and “the first to raise his sport to the level of true artistry?” Or are these characterizations hyperbole similar to the authors’ claim that Gans vs. Nelson was “the most anticipated mano a mano since Achilles fought Hector the Trojan”?
Gans was America’s first elite black sports champion. He was a scientific fighter who practiced the art of straight hitting and won national acclaim for his skills. Aycock and Scott provide readers with a nice portrait of time and place, coupled with voluminous data about Gans. But they seem to overreach at times in arriving at their conclusions.
For example, they marvel at Gans’s ability to fight in championship matches that lasted 20 rounds and more. In their view, there’s no way that today’s fighters could survive that ordeal. But the pace of fights a century ago was vastly slower than the pace of fights today. And contemporary fighters hit harder than their long-ago predecessors because of advances in conditioning and training, not to mention the additional protection for the hands afforded by modern gloves.
On a broader note, readers will appreciate the respect that Aycock and Scott evince for what they call “the underlying dignity” of boxing. And Joe Gans has a nice epilogue that notes, “Every day throughout the world, young men walk for miles, ride a bike or bus or maybe a train, with the hope of one day standing in ring center, fending off blows of a highly trained specialist in the destruction of the human face. In no other sport do the words ‘self-reliance’ and ‘hard work’ and ‘perseverance’ have such relevance. The money fighters earn may be lost, but their accomplishments remain their own.”
Rick Folstad is a former fighter who writes for several outlets, including TheSweetScience.com. Fighting out of Minneapolis as a junior-welterweight in the 1970s, he compiled a 20-and-2 record as a pro. The guys he beat were far from world-class. But unlike most writers (myself included), Folstad has been on the hard side of the ropes.
Cornered (World Publications) is Folstad’s first novel. Set in Miami in the 1970s, it’s told in the first person by middleweight prospect Boone Connors. There’s a plot involving the mob that’s serviceable. But Folstead is at his best (and his best is very good) when he’s recreating the gritty realism of boxing.
Rather than characterize what Folstad says, I’ll let his writing speak for itself:
ÔÇó “If you fight, you don’t want to live in Beverly Hills and be surrounded with pretty flowers and clean white walls and marble fountains with fairy statues pissing into the water. If you fight, you want to go to gyms where the windows are dirty and cracked, the water pipes are leaking, and the floors are stained with blood. You want to go where the winos stand outside the door begging for a quarter. A good gym’s got to be in the bad part of town. It’s got to be crowded with a lot of guys down on their luck, guys who don’t give a damn about anything but their next fight and when they’re going to get paid. At least that’s how I feel.”
ÔÇó “If you can take a good punch, you’re going to end up taking a lot of them and that’s when you get hurt. The fighters who can’t take a punch; they don’t go too far or get paid too much. But they don’t get hurt either. They don’t turn forty and suddenly forget their name or where they live or how to get to the grocery store. They just lose a lot of fights. But Teddy wasn’t like that. You could hit him across the head with a Louisville Slugger and all he’d do was flinch and smile and then try to take your head off. I figured either he’d win the title by the time he was thirty or have trouble counting to ten by the time he was forty.”
ÔÇó “He lay on his back shivering under the hot ring lights, and the stupid-ass referee stood over him and started counting. The only sounds were Spider’s heels banging on the canvas and the referee counting him out … one … two … three … four … like Spider might actually get up and beat the count. It looked like the referee was standing over a corpse that was still twitching. I think the referee was so scared, he did the only thing he knew how to do.”
ÔÇó “Callahan isn’t a fighter. You have to have balls and a heart for that. He’s just a fat miserable sonofabitch looking for an easy ride. He’s always trying to suck out a little blood, a pimp working the fight game instead of the streets. I think it made Callahan feel good about himself, seeing fighters who could have kicked his ass when they were younger, drool and stutter.”
ÔÇó “[On the women a fighter meets] If they’ve been drinking the night you meet them, you never know what’s going to happen when you call them. They wake up sober the next day and they might have forgotten what happened the night before, even if nothing did happen. Then you call them and they tell you to get lost without really coming out and telling you to get lost. They can’t remember what you look like. That’s the worst, them not remembering you.”
ÔÇó “Mel smeared a little more Vaseline on my face and asked how I felt. ‘Fine,’ I told him. ‘Got my mouthpiece?’ He started looking around to make sure he had everything before we left to go to the ring. I could tell he didn’t think I was gonna win.”
ÔÇó “I stood in the dark toward the back and looked at the ring, which always calmed me down before a fight. It was a familiar place, like your living room or your own backyard. They could do a lot of things to screw up boxing, but they could only change the ring so much. The ring still had to be square with ropes and corners and a canvas.”
ÔÇó “The bell rang. Copper Daniels and I met in the center of the ring and stood there a second, looking at each other like you might look at someone you just met at a party. It was hot and bright under the ring lights and any remaining butterflies were gone. I started circling to my right, which is the wrong way to go when you’re fighting a southpaw because you’re moving into his power. But I was trying to find that feeling you get when you know right away you can beat the guy standing in front of you, when you know you can knock him on his ass whenever you want. But when you don’t get that feeling, when you’re not so sure, everything gets kind of tight and turned around.”
ÔÇó “You dream of fighting for the title most of your life, but you can’t get carried away with the dream. You got to be honest with yourself. How many guys get a chance to be a world champion? So you keep the dream tucked somewhere safe in the back of your head. You hold onto it without getting carried away. For most fighters, it’s not going to happen. It’s like living in the projects when you’re a little kid and wishing for a pony for Christmas. You know you’re not going to get a pony because your parents can’t afford one. And where are you going to put it, in the kitchen?”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book (a novel entitled Waiting for Carver Boyd) was published earlier this year by JR Books. Hauser says that Waiting for Carver Boyd is “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”