Saturday, May 8, 2010

May 8

I'm writing a birthday passage about the guy you're not looking at in this picture.
This picture is considered one of the most iconic images in modern sport. I probably don't have to tell you about the guy standing in the center of the ring, the one they call "The Greatest". Today, I'm introducing you to the guy on the floor. He was Sonny Liston.

He was 6 feet tall, with a 7-foot reach. He was the most terrifying boxer of his time, an ex-con who punched his way out. By the time he met Cassius Clay in the ring, he had a 35-1 record and two championship belts; he was the heavyweight champion of the world.
Liston had fear and power. Clay was fearless, and his speed outdid Liston's power. Liston sat down after the sixth round, and Clay received the win decision by TKO. Clay declared himself "The Greatest" and changed his name to Muhammed Ali the next week.
But the picture you see was taken at the rematch. Liston attempted to take the title back the following year. Midway through the first round, Ali threw 'The Phantom Punch': a right to Liston's head that sent him to the canvas so fast that half the crowd didn't see it. While Liston lay sprawled on the ground, Ali stood over him, taunting him and the crowd. It took about 20 seconds for Liston to get back up.
A ringside photographer captured the moment, and the photo of that moment made the cover of Sports Illustrated; decades later, it made the cover of the magazine's "Greatest Sports Photos" issue.
Liston still boxed throughout the rest of the 60's; he would end with a 50-4 record. His body was found by his wife in their Las Vegas home in January 1971; authorities estimate he had been dead for about a week.
Local police declared it a drug overdose; Liston supporters cry 'cover-up', citing his phobia of needles, among other things... A medical examiner declared his death was due to lung congestion and heart failure.

To those who remember, Liston remains a fearsome legend. Mike Tyson considers Sonny Liston a personal hero, even before his own career echoed Liston's rise and fall. In both cases, their victories made them larger than life, but their losses revealed more about them, showed us how much they were like us after all.
Here's the punk band Stiff Little Fingers, with a live performance of their song about Sonny Liston, "Walking Dynamite":

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