The Louisville lip was just crazy enough


(The Sunday Times, London, January 10, 1999)

By Nick Pitt

After another warm, sunny day there was a rainstorm in Miami that evening in
February, 1964. It was pouring down outside when the first bell sounded,
summoning not merely two men from opposite corners of a ring, but a turn in
history, the entrance of the century's most compelling sportsman.

Let us freeze the moment.

The announcer had said his piece: "The challenger, from Louisville, Kentucky, 
wearing white trunks with red stripes, weighing 210 1/2 lb, Cassius Clay!
And from Denver, Colorado, wearing white trunks with black trim, the heavyweight
champion of the world, Charles "Sonny" Liston!" The bell was ringing.

Clay, 22 years old and beautifully athletic, was about to bound across the
ring, frisky. Liston, the most menacing man on earth, was ready to step
forward for deliberate, violent work.  Hardly a person inside the half-full
Miami Beach Convention Hall, or watching the closed-circuit broadcast across
America, had suspected they would witness an event of cataclysmic impact and
mysterious circumstances. At ringside, the knowing ones of the boxing press
were all but unanimous. It was an easy call. The mismatch odds, seven to one
in favour of Liston, were about right.

Clay had found some celebrity and was rapidly adding notoriety. Among those
who had trooped up the wooden stairs leading to the seedy Fifth Street gym
where he trained were The Beatles (Clay: "You're not as dumb as you look."
Lennon: "You are.") and Malcolm X, the most gifted and feared leader of the
Black Muslim (Nation of Islam) movement to which Clay was becoming attached.

But the worth of the Louisville Lip as a fighting man had yet to be
recognised, especially by the experts. For them, he was a clown, a dancer,
fancy and fast, but an act. In his last two outings, he had struggled
against Doug Jones and been knocked temporarily senseless by Henry Cooper. 
No punch. No defence.

Like everybody else, the pressmen were in awe of Liston, viewing him more as
monster than man. Many rated him the greatest heavyweight of all, and
certainly the most intimidating. He was a brooding, unforgiving bully, a
deadly puncher with huge hands and enormous reach, whose three previous
fights had ended concussively in the first round. He could box, but he hardly
needed to. Most victims were beaten long before he hit them, for few could look
into his eyes and those who did saw dark pools of malevolence.

And if anybody on assignment had wondered during the idle days of waiting in
the Miami sunshine whether Clay might have a chance, he no longer did so on
the evening of the fight. All doubts had been swept away that morning at the

Here at least was an angle. The weigh-in was the most chaotic ever. Clay,
who had been pestering Liston for months, annoying him at gaming tables in Las
Vegas, "bear-hunting" at his house in the early hours, surpassed himself.
Accompanied by his chief cheerleader, Bundini Brown, Clay beat the floor
with an African walking stick as he entered the weigh-in area. Brown chanted the
catchphrase he had recently coined: "Float like a butterfly; sting like a

When Liston arrived, Clay and Brown yelled like competing hysterics: "I'm
ready to rumble now! You're scared chump! You ain't no giant! I'm going to
eat you alive!" Clay lunged at Liston as if to mix it, and was held back by
Brown and five others. "Hey sucker, you're a chump," Clay screamed. "You're a
bear, you're ugly, I'm going to whip you so bad!" Liston responded with a
withering stare. "Don't tell everybody," he said, though quite what he meant 
nobody knew.

"Cassius Clay fined $2,500," announced an official of the Miami Beach Boxing
Commission after several warnings. The commission doctor examined Clay. His
pulse, normally 52, had shot up to 120. His blood pressure was equally high.
"Clay is acting like a man scared to death," the doctor told several
journalists. "He is liable to crack up before he enters the ring."  Such
behaviour at a weigh-in was unheard of.

"No man could have seen Clay that morning and believed he could stay on his
feet three minutes that night," wrote Murray Kempton of The New Republic. In
the Daily Mail, Jim Manning went further, declaring that the fight must not
be allowed to proceed because Clay was clearly insane. As evening approached,
there were reports that he had been seen at the airport, buying a ticket.

What of the fighters as they heard that first bell? Nobody trusted more
firmly in the Liston myth than Liston. As a former strikebreaker and convict, 
the current champion and symbol of the gangsters who had controlled boxing in
the United States for a decade and more, there was nothing he recognised more
clearly, or could conjure more naturally, than fear in others.

And Clay, he knew, was frightened. Two rounds was Liston's estimation: a
round to catch the dancer and a round to destroy him. But there was a small 
worm of doubt in Liston's mind. Maybe Clay really believed he could win. 
If he did, he was mad. And you never know what to expect from a madman.

For Clay, at last about to engage Liston with fists, the moment of truth had
come. Baiting the bear had been an act, of course, but the hysteria was made
convincing by genuine anxiety. Psyching-up himself was as important as
psyching-out Liston.

Clay was frightened of Liston, all right. But, not for the last time, he was
ready to confront his own fear head on.

Clang. Round one.

Clay bounded forward to meet the shuffling Liston. He cantered around him,
circling, now this way, now that. Liston tried a left lead. His jab could
lift men from the floor, knock them cold, but not if they were absent, and Clay
was long gone. The punch, like most of Liston's that night, missed by a couple
of feet.

When Clay ended his reconnoitre, he found his target immediately. Still
circling, he stung Liston with single blows to the head, leading with either
hand. He next produced combinations, equally effective, and, to conclude the
round, eight consecutive jabs speared Liston without reply.  Joe Louis was
commentating for the closed circuit broadcast. "We've just seen one of the
greatest rounds we've seen from anybody in a long time," he said. "Clay
completely outclassed Sonny Liston."

Clay might have been crazed outside the ring. Inside it, he was in perfect
control. Liston was outclassed, beaten for speed of foot, hand and brain.
Early in the third, he was cut, a gash appearing high on his left cheekbone.
The title was being swept away in a flood.

But when Clay returned to his corner at the end of the fourth, his eyes were
stinging. "I can't see!" he shouted. "Cut them off. Cut off the gloves!
We're going home!"  During the following 60 seconds, Angelo Dundee, Clay's chief
cornerman as well as trainer, earned all the money his association with Clay
would bring him over 20 years.

"This is the championship," he told Clay. "Sit down." Dundee put a finger to
the corner of Clay's eye. He rubbed his own eye and could feel it burn. He
took a sponge, plunged it into the water-bucket and bathed Clay's eyes. Clay
still shouted: "I can't see!"  A group of Black Muslims, heavy guys, was
sitting behind the corner. They were murmuring that Dundee, whom they
suspected of mafia, and therefore Liston, connections, was blinding his man.
Warned by his brother, who heard the murmurs, Dundee quickly proved his
innocence, plunging the sponge back in the bucket and bathing his own eyes.

If foul play there was, it was from the other corner. Joe Pollino, one of
Liston's cornermen, later admitted to a reporter that he had "juiced up"
Liston's gloves after the third round and then threw the container, which he
took to every Liston fight just in case, under the ring apron.  Dundee
pushed Clay from the stool. "Stay away from him. Run!" Clay went out, blinking,
half-seeing Liston, who knew his chance had come. Instinct and speed saved Clay,
who was never more magnificent. Liston hit him, but never repeatedly and
never decisively. By the end of the fifth round, Clay's eyes had cleared and he
was back in command.

In the sixth, Liston took a beating. Clay cut out the floating, set his feet
and punched not to wing Liston but to bring him down. He was hitting an old
man and he did not miss.  Liston walked slowly back to his corner and sat

"That's it," he told his cornermen. At first, they thought Liston was
telling them that he was finally going to involve himself, stop the nonsense. 
They treated the cut, rubbed him down, replaced his gumshield. Liston spat it
out: "I said that's it!"  Liston had quit on his stool.

When Clay realised, he rushed around the ring with his arms raised, shouting
to the world and to the ringside experts: "I am the king! King of the world!
Eat your words! Eat your words!"

As Clay and his entourage whooped around the ring, disbelief was universal.
"What the hell is this?" said Rocky Marciano at ringside. In the Jefferson
City jail, where Liston had first learned to box, the inmates, watching on
closed-circuit TV, howled in derision, convinced he had thrown the fight.

It was said that Liston had injured his left shoulder. Over the years, it
was claimed that he had approached the promoter and the boxing commission,
wanting a postponement. But apparently he was so certain of beating Clay that 
he made little fuss when they turned him down. And, so it was said, his shoulder 
was injured further and rendered numb during the fight, perhaps when one of his
hooks struck nothing but air.

Why, then, did Liston return to his dressing room, pick up an armchair in
his left hand, throw it against the wall and scream a dreadful curse?  Had the
mob cashed in on the odds? Had the Black Muslims got to Liston? Most of those
who might have the answer are dead. Frankie Carbo, the gangster who was 
Liston's ultimate boss, died in prison. Malcolm X, the most influential of 
the Black Muslims present in Miami, was assassinated a year later. Liston was 
found dead in his Las Vegas home in December 1970.

So unbelievable was the gap between what was expected and what happened, so
foolish were commentators made to look, that fantastic explanations were
required. Denying the evidence of Clay's brilliance, the experts in
assumption before the fight became the conspiracy theorists after it.  Liston
understood better. In less than half an hour his view of the world and his place 
in it had been uprooted. He quit not because of pain, but disillusion.

As an event, it was sensational and historic, but as a promotion it was a
flop. A black man with links to the mob against a black guy with links to
the Black Muslims, and anyway who had no chance, was hardly an attraction in
Florida in the early 1960s. Only 8,297 tickets were sold for an arena
holding 15,744. The promoter lost more than $300,000.

The day after the mayhem, Clay, the new heavyweight champion of the world,
confirmed that he was embracing Islam. As Cassius X, briefly, and Muhammad
Ali thereafter, his reign as the sporting figure of the age had begun. Half an
hour's fighting in Miami Beach on a wet evening had changed his sport, all
sport, for ever.

                           THE WIT & WISDOM OF MUHAMMAD ALI

(The Sunday Times, London, January 10, 1999)

On Sonny Liston...

If you want to lose your money, then bet on Sonny  I'm young, I'm handsome,
I'm fast, I can't possibly be beat. I'm ready to go to war right now. If I
see that bear on the street, I'll beat him before the fight. I'll beat him like
I'm his daddy  I'll hit Liston with so many punches from so many angles
he'll think he's surrounded. I don't just want to be champion of the world, I'm
gonna be champion of the whole universe. After I whup Sonny Liston, I'm
gonna whup those little green men from Jupiter and Mars. And looking at them 
won't scare me none because they can't be no uglier than Sonny Liston

On being The Greatest...

I must be the greatest. I showed the world, I talk to God every day. I shook
up the world. I'm the king of the world! I'm pretty! I'm a bad man! I shook
up the world! You must listen to me. I am the greatest! I can't be beat!  I
should be a postage stamp. That's the only way I'll ever get licked  Howard
Cosell, US broadcaster: You're being extremely truculent  Ali: Whatever
truculent means, if that's good, I'm that

On George Foreman...

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee  His hands can't hit what his eyes
can't see  Now you see me, now you don't  George thinks he will, but I know
he won't  You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned?  Wait till I
whup George Foreman's behind  Listen to the people George has fought. [Reading
from a list] Don Waldheim. He was a nobody. Fred Askew. He was a nobody.
Sylvester Dulliare. I can't even pronounce his name. Chuck Wepner. He was a 
nobody. John Carroll. He was a nobody. Cookie Wallace. He was a nobody. Vernon 
Clay. [Pause] Clay? He might be good

On black oppression...

Everything good is supposed to be white. We look at Jesus, and we see a
white with blond hair and blue eyes. We look at all the angels; we see white 
with blond hair and blue eyes. Now, I'm sure there's a heaven in the sky and
coloured folks die and go to heaven. Where are the coloured angels?  I'm
expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam, and at the
same time my people here are being brutalised and mistreated.

                             ONE FIGHT QUARRY COULDN'T WIN

(Boston Globe, Sunday, January 10, 1999)

By Ron Borges

Short of hearing ''world champion'' before your name, there is perhaps
nothing that makes a fighter prouder than to hear someone say of you, ''He 
can really take a punch.''

Unless you take too many of them.  That was the sad fate of Jerry Quarry, a
fierce heavyweight warrior in the '60s and '70s who died recently at the age
of 53 no longer knowing who he was besides a fighter.

Quarry had long suffered from what is medically known as pugilistica
dementia. In the gyms he used to frequent in Los Angeles, they call the 
condition being punch drunk and sadly shake their heads when they say it.

Jerry Quarry died punch drunk, a brave man who took too many punches too
well for too long. He took them from Muhammad Ali on Oct. 26, 1970, the night 
Ali returned from exile to batter boxing's newest Great White Hope until his 
eye split open and the fight had to be stopped over Quarry's protests.

He took them from Joe Frazier, who twice busted him up, and from Jimmy Ellis
the night he lost his only shot at the heavyweight title, and from Floyd
Patterson, whom he fought twice and beat once, and from Ken Norton, who
knocked him senseless at a time when Quarry had begun to train with a liquor
bottle, not a water bottle, by his side.

Eventually, as a once-proud career wound down without a heavyweight title
coming to him, drugs and alcohol began to hit him, too, and in time he lost
everything. He lost the $338,000 he'd made for going three rounds with Ali
and the $500,000 he had saved from the $2.1 million he earned during his years
as a top contender, and he lost all three of his wives.

Worst of all, he lost his mind.

By 1983, Quarry had already been diagnosed with the early stages of
dementia. He had not yet suffered the short-term memory loss that would 
slowly rob him of all recollection and lead a prominent California physician 
to declare three years ago that Quarry had the brain of an 80-year-old man 
because prizefighting had stolen 30 years from him.

He had not yet been robbed of his motor skills, either, a process that began
not long after that but didn't stop him from trying an ill-advised comeback
in 1992 after he'd convinced himself he could be another George Foreman.

 The comeback lasted one night, which was one night too many. It came in
Colorado, a state with no boxing commission, and that was no accident.
Quarry took a good punch that night. He took a lot of bad ones, too, from 
a pug who shouldn't have been able to hold his robe for him.

Quarry lost a six-round fight and much of what was left of his brain. He got
paid $1,050 and soon began to slip off into a cloudy world in which his
family had to spend most of their time caring for him. This went on until he 
was hospitalized Dec. 28 with pneumonia and suffered cardiac arrest while 

For one last time, Jerry Quarry took the blows and refused to fall. He kept
fighting until the end, refusing to go down until his family took him off
life support after being told he would be bed-ridden and fed through a tube 
for the rest of his life.  He finally went down then because there are some 
blows no man can stand up to. But he went down the way he had lived. Jerry 
Quarry went down fighting.