Phantom punch

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Neil Leifer

Sonny Liston did not float like a butterfly. Sonny Liston did not sting like a bee.

Sonny Liston broke legs for the mob. Sonny Liston bashed in the knees of police officers. Sonny Liston never complained about prison, because prison guaranteed him three meals a day.

And as world heavyweight champ, Sonny knew how to box – a six-foot brute that turned his victims’ faces into fruit pulp. His fans called him the Big Bear, and the average mauling didn’t last long: over three years, Liston fought six minutes (he kept KO’ing his prey in the first round).

It was a world before the Greatest, and Sonny reigned supreme. Then the Greatest happened.

At three at night, a kid drove up to the champ’s home in Denver, and he’d brought the press with him. He had a van and a megaphone: ‘Come on out of there. I’m going to whup you now.’ It was Cassius Clay, and he was all of 22.

Sonny’s average opponent screamed they wanted out. But Clay called Sonny a ‘big, ugly bear’, and mocked him in verse:

Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat,
If Liston goes back an inch farther he’ll end up in a ringside seat.

As David Remnick put it, nearly all observers thought Clay’s bragging ‘the ravings of a lunatic.’ The old white boys that ran boxing weren’t impressed either: this was America in the ‘60s, and young black men were meant to know their place. The New Republic called Sonny ‘the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.’

Yet Clay refused to take the hint, even when the world turned away: 93 percent of sportswriters chalked the fight up to Big Bear Liston.

So it came to pass: on 25 February 1964, the bear was slain, and Muhammad Ali was born. ‘I shook up the world,’ he screamed to the stunned crowd. ‘I am the prettiest thing that ever lived.’ In swiping the title from a reigning champ, he was also the youngest.

A fluke, they said. But then Ali dropped Liston in the rematch as well, this time in less than two minutes. That’s where that image comes from: Liston spread-eagled on the mat, Ali yelling that he get up and fight – because who was going to believe it?

They called it the phantom punch: a mystery jab that brought down the Big Bear. A witness said, ‘I saw that punch, and it couldn’t have crushed a grape.’ But it crushed Sonny, and his career.

The rest of Ali’s story is as unlikely, but his rise to greatness was unstoppable. Tyson called him the greatest. Foreman called him the greatest. Amir called him the greatest. Mayweather didn’t call him the greatest – that was reserved for Mayweather (the walking, woman-beating embodiment of why boxing fell in on itself).

He had it all: blinding charisma, lightning speed, and an ethical compass – a hero to black kids and Muslim kids at a time heroes were defined by being neither.

In a beautiful piece on Ali’s allure – for scribes of all stripes – Janan Ganesh wrote:

The journalist Christopher Booker argued that all stories in all literature conform to at least one of Seven Basic Plots. Ali’s life conforms to them all: Overcoming the Monster (Liston, Foreman), Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return (Zaire and then Manila, where he fought Frazier), Comedy (“I hospitalised a brick/I’m so mean I make medicine sick”), Tragedy (the withdrawal of his boxing licence during his peak years for resisting the Vietnam draft, his imprisonment by Parkinson’s) and Rebirth (his defeat of Foreman at the age of 32). [Finally] Tragic Ali: a man of once-uncontainable animation now locked behind facial features that do not move “one-tenth of an inch”.

Yes, his appeal transcended race, colour, and citizenship. ‘My name is known in Serbia, Pakistan, Morocco,’ he said. ‘These are countries that don’t follow the Kentucky Derby.’

But even Ali, the rope-a-dope specialist that ran rings around Sonny Liston, couldn’t outrun the times. ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,’ he said. ‘No Vietcong ever called me a nigger.’

Ali cared nothing for napalming children in Vietnam or, for that matter, getting conscripted to do it: ‘The draft is about white people sending black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from red people.’

They stripped him anyway – the state taking away the title no fighter could. But here’s why they – and we – call him the Greatest: after four years of wasting away his peak physical condition, Ali came back.

Ali always came back. When Ken Norton broke his jaw open, Ali won the rematch. When Frazier beat the daylights out of him in Manila, it was the Greatest that lasted seconds longer before collapsing (‘It was the closest thing to death,’ Ali admitted).

And Pakistan loved him: Pakistanis wept when he lost to Frazier in 1971. They thronged him when he visited Data Darbar in 1988. Even Sultan Rahi got in a jab at the champ (and just Sultan Rahi could have gotten away with it).

Yet it was only fitting that the Greatest never cheapened himself: he knew, deep down, the ugliness of boxing, and he knew, deep down, its racial scars, ‘They don’t look at fighters to have brains,’ he said.

They don’t look at fighters to be businessmen, or human, or intelligent. Fighters are just brutes that come to entertain the rich white people. Beat up on each other and break each other’s noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd. And half the crowd is white. We’re just like two slaves in that ring. The masters get two of us big old black slaves and let us fight it out while they bet: “My slave can whup your slave.” That’s what I see when I see two black people fighting.

The kind of uppercut that made the same Remnick exclaim, ‘What modern athlete, much less one at Ali’s level, has ever talked with such political complexity, ambiguity, or engagement?’

None, but that’s what made Ali special: he’d get it.

Launching a comic book where the champ beat Superman himself, Ali explained away his victory, ‘All I can do is fight for truth and justice. I can’t save anybody. He’s a science fiction character, and I’m a real character.’

There, perhaps, is the truth of it: just the fact Ali wasn’t fictional makes him the biggest superhero of all.

Like Sonny Liston, Superman never stood a chance.