Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mark Knopfler – "Song for Sonny Liston"

Some say the Bear took a flop
They couldn't believe it 
When they saw him drop

Today is the 50th anniversary of the second heavyweight championship fight between Charles "Sonny" Liston and Muhammad Ali.

Any guesses as to where that championship rematch took place?  Here's a clue: it wasn't Las Vegas, or Madison Square Garden, or any place like that.

No, that fight was fought in a half-filled minor-league hockey arena in . . . Lewiston, Maine?

The Central Maine Youth Center,
site of the Ali-Liston rematch
Sonny Liston – "The Big Bear" was one of his nicknames – was born on a farm in Arkansas in 1932, give or take.  (There's no official record of Liston's birth, and he wasn't sure when he was born.)

His father, Tobe Liston, had 13 children by his first wife and 12 more by his second wife, who was Sonny's mother.  He whipped Sonny so harshly when he was a boy that the scars were still visible many years later.  "The only thing my old man ever gave me," Sonny once said, "was a beating."

Sonny Liston
Liston was still a teenager when he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary, where he learned to box.  He quickly earned a reputation as a ferocious fighter who hit harder than any of his contemporaries.

Liston's criminal history and his association with mobsters caused some promoters and potential opponents to shun him.  But when he finally got a shot at the heavyweight championship in 1962, he took advantage of his opportunity and knocked out reigning champion Floyd Patterson in the first round.  

Sonny Liston nails Floyd Patterson with a right
Liston was a 7-1 favorite when he faced challenger Cassius Clay in Miami Beach in February 1964.  But Clay dominated the fight, and Liston failed to answer the bell for the 7th round.

A rematch was scheduled to take place at the Boston Garden later that year, but it had to be delayed by six months when Muhammad Ali (who had just changed his name from Cassius Clay) needed emergency hernia surgery just a few days before the fight was to take place.

Worried about Liston's ties to organized crime, the local district attorney went to court to block the postponed fight from happening in Boston, forcing promoters to find a new venue for the bout.

At the urging of Maine Governor John Reed, the rematch was moved to Lewiston, a city of some 40,000 souls.  Only 2434 seats were sold, which set a record for the lowest attendance at any heavyweight championship fight.  

The second Clay/Ali-Liston fight – which took place on May 25, 1965 – was a chaotic debacle.  Ali knocked Liston down in the first round, and unbeknownst to the referee, the ringside timekeeper counted Sonny out before he got back to his feet and tried to resume the fight.  (According to Liston, the referee – who was occupied trying to get Clay to go to a neutral corner after the knockdown – never gave Liston an audible count.)

Ali's knockdown of Liston
Ali later said he knocked out Liston with an "anchor" punch.  But skeptics called the knockdown blow a "phantom" punch, and many believed that Liston threw the fight.

Why would Liston have taken a dive?  Some say the Mafia told him to throw the fight and then bet heavily on Ali, while others speculate that Liston bet against himself in hopes of winning enough to clear his debts to the mob.

Others believe the Nation of Islam was involved.  (Ali had close ties to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who was alleged to have been responsible for the assassination of Malcom X.)

Ali speaking to a Nation of Islam meeting
In fact, one author wrote that the Nation of Islam kidnapped Liston's wife and son before the fight, and told Liston that he would never see them again if he won the fight.

You can click here to read a lengthy New York Times article about the Ali-Liston fight and Lewiston, Maine, in general.

The morning after: Ali reads
about his victory over Liston
After taking a year off, Liston made a successful comeback, winning 14 consecutive fights – 13 of them by knockout.  He finally lost to Leotis Martin in December 1969, but beat Chuck Wapner in June of the following year in what proved to be his final bout.  (Wapner's nose and cheekbone were broken in that fight, and he needed 72 stitches.)

On January 5, 1971, Liston's wife discovered the former champ dead in their Las Vegas home.

The police said Liston had died of a heroin overdose on or about December 30, 1970, but a number of his friends (including his trainer and his dentist) insisted that was impossible because Sonny was too afraid of needles to ever inject himself with heroin.  

Some of those who don't believe Liston died from an overdose think he was murdered – perhaps by loan sharks or drug dealers he worked for, or because he threatened to reveal that his rematch with Ali fight was fixed, or because he failed to take a dive in the Chick Wapner bout.  

Sonny Liston had a record of 50 wins and four losses in his 17-year professional boxing career.  His headstone reads simply "A Man."

Muhammad Ali inspired a lot of songs.  Some people disapproved of Ali on political grounds, while others thought he was a hero.  Whichever group you fell into, it was hard to deny that he was good-looking, clever, charming, and charismatic.

Sonny Liston was none of those things.  He was uneducated and violent, an ex-con and as associate of mobsters – the kind of black man that white people would cross the street to avoid.  (If he were alive today, that would likely still be the case.)

Perhaps its not surprising that today's featured song is the only one inspired by Sonny Liston.  Sad, yes – but not surprising.

Mark Knopfler, who is best known as the singer and lead guitarist for Dire Straits, released "Song for Sonny Liston" on his 2004 solo album, Shangri-La.  You can click here to read a New York Times interview with him about the song.

Here's "Song for Sonny Liston":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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