Fight that forever changed the lives of two champions

JOHN RIORDAN The second instalment of Ali-Liston may have produced one of the most iconic images of sport in the 20th Century but there’s a refreshing spontaneity in the boyish wonder of Cassius Clay when he won the world heavyweight title for the first time.

Fight that forever changed the lives of two champions

It was the biggest upset in the history of the division up until that point and its 50th anniversary will be marked later this month. Fifty years since Liston refused to come out for the seventh round. Fifty years since Clay’s hands reached skywards as it quickly dawned on him that all his pre-fight confidence and chatter had blossomed at the Miami Beach venue which hosted the blockbuster showdown.

Of course, many sceptics immediately cried foul, outraged that the hard-hitting, intensely feared Sonny Liston would resort to staying in his corner, protected by trainers desperately working on his left shoulder and finally giving up the ghost that their champ could have any hope of defending himself.

In the midst of the chaotic scenes that ensued, the wide-eyed, open-mouthed celebration of the new king dragged him and his followers back and forth across the ring, Cassius Clay mindful of telling everyone how wrong they’d got it. An 8/1 underdog and a controversial one at that, he was desperate to stick it to all but two of the sportswriters predicting the outcome.

This would be the beginning of Liston’s downfall and the so-called Muhammad Ali ‘phantom punch’ that knocked him down a year later would undo him completely.

In spite of the best efforts of former kingpin Joe Louis, who was offering expert analysis on the night of the first bout for Theater Network Television and defending the honour of one of his heavyweight descendants, Liston’s technical knockout defeat seemed more to do with his underworld connections than it did with a busted shoulder.

It was a brutal downfall from the tension of the opening round when the enraged Liston left his corner at the sound of the first bell, full of bad intentions and uncontrollable resentment.

Barely turned 22, the audacity of the youthful contender had worked a treat and the world would begin to move even faster now that Muhammad Ali was fully introduced to the world. The Beatles had just arrived to the US and civil rights for all Americans weren’t far behind.

It’s been written countless times but this new wave wouldn’t carry along the tragic Liston whose eventual demise was recently attributed to those same mob elements that had leeched onto his talent at the peak of his powers.

That first-round knockout in the rematch in Lewiston, Maine, began a fast demise which ended with his death in Las Vegas at the dawn of the 1970s. He was a by-product of a revolution and it couldn’t have been more appropriate that he succumbed alone in the dying days of the 1960s, not found until January 5, 1970.

At the time, it was attributed to natural causes stemming from lung congestion while his wife Geraldine insisted it was heart failure.

But there was also the tell-tale sign of the needle, a heroin hit gone wrong, the sort of calamity brought into sharp focus in New York City this past weekend with the death of brooding acting heavyweight, Philip Seymour-Hoffman.

A story emerged from a book released a few months ago that cast a further shadow over Liston’s life and death. According to Greg Swaim, the son of Dale Cline whose hitman alter-ego was James John Warjac, the fighter was intentionally murdered by an enforced overdose of heroin.

He wasn’t the first or the last boxer to fall foul of former benefactors and his path was a familiar one. Suddenly a less lucrative showpony, Liston became more belligerent, as is the way with any veteran athlete. Unfortunately, a mistimed sense of pride in his own career didn’t sit well with the mob and in the end, it was his refusal to throw a fight with Chuck Wepner — the Philadelphia inspiration of Rocky, himself another tragic figure of the ring — which would ultimately lead to his death.

The greatness of Ali distorts the memory of those two fights. The wildly celebrating newly-crowned champion is as evocative as the goading champion, roaring at his opponent to get up the following year. Those images might have become ingrained in our cultural memory but the fight fans of the time were intensely disappointed on both occasions.

In a few weeks, Ali will be remembered rightly as that brash young man who fought through temporary blindness caused by treatment for Liston’s cut before the fifth round.

He’ll be remembered as the one still standing at the start of the seventh, arms aloft, their paths diverging forever.

njohnwriordan@gmail.com Twitter: @JohnWRiordan

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