“I gotta tell you, Jackie,” Sonny Liston said, “I lied to my wife about that. I gotta tell you, I took that fall.”
It was Christmas eve, 1970, and Sonny Liston was about the furthest thing you could imagine from a handsome man. He had a furrowed brow and downcast hound dog prisoner eyes that wouldn’t meet mine, and the matching furrows on either side of his broad, flat nose ran down to a broad, flat mouth under a pencil thin mustache that was already out of fashion six years ago, when he was still King of the World.
“We all lie sometimes, Sonny,” I said, pouring him another scotch. We don’t mind if you drink too much in Vegas. We don’t mind much of anything at all. “It doesn’t signify.”
He had what you call a tremendous physical presence, Sonny Liston. He filled up a room so you couldn’t take your eyes off him–didn’t want to take your eyes off him, and if he was smiling you were smiling, and if he was scowling you were shivering–even when he was sitting quietly, the way he was now, turned away from his kitchen table and his elbows on his knees, one hand big enough for a man twice his size wrapped around the glass I handed him and the other hanging between his legs, limp across the back of the wrist as if the tendons’d been cut. His suit wasn’t long enough for the length of his arms. The coat sleeves and the shirt sleeves with their French cuffs and discreet cufflinks were ridden halfway up his forearms, showing wrists I couldn’t have wrapped my fingers around. Tall as he was, he wasn’t tall enough for that frame–as if he didn’t get enough to eat as a kid–but he was that wide.
Sonny Liston, he was from Arkansas. And you would hear it in his voice, even now. He drank that J&B scotch like knocking back a blender full of raw eggs and held the squat glass out for more. “I could of beat Cassius Clay if it weren’t for the fucking mob,” he said, while I filled it up again. “I could of beat that goddamn flashy pansy.”
“I know you could, Sonny,” I told him, and it wasn’t a lie. “I know you could.”
His hands were like mallets, like mauls, like the paws of the bear they styled him. It didn’t matter.
He was a broken man, Sonny Liston. He wouldn’t meet your eyes, not that he ever would have. You learn that in prison. You learn that from a father who beats you. You learn that when you’re black in America.
You keep your eyes down, and maybe there won’t be trouble this time.
It’s the same thing with fighters as with horses. Race horses, I mean, thoroughbreds, which I know a lot about. I’m the genius of Las Vegas, you see. The One-Eyed Jack, the guardian and the warden of Sin City.
It’s a bit like being a magician who works with tigers–the city is my life, and I take care of it. But that means it’s my job to make damned sure it doesn’t get out and eat anybody.
And because of that, I also know a little about magic and sport and sacrifice, and the real, old blood truth of the laurel crown and what it means to be King for a Day.
The thing about race horses, is that the trick with the good ones isn’t getting them to run. It’s getting them to stop.
They’ll kill themselves running, the good ones. They’ll run on broken hearts, broken legs, broken wind. Legend says Black Gold finished his last race with nothing but a shipping bandage holding his flopping hoof to his leg. They shot him on the track, Black Gold, the way they did in those days. And it was mercy when they did it.
He was King, and he was claimed. He went to pay the tithe that only greatness pays.
Ruffian, perhaps the best filly that ever ran, shattered herself in a match race that was meant to prove she could have won the Kentucky Derby if she’d raced in it. The great colt Swale ran with a hole in his heart, and no one ever knew until it killed him in the paddock one fine summer day in the third year of his life.
And then there’s Charismatic.
Charismatic was a Triple Crown contender until he finished his Belmont third, running on a collapsed leg, with his jockey Chris Antley all but kneeling on the reins, doing anything to drag him down.
Antley left the saddle as soon as his mount saw the wire and could be slowed. He dove over Charismatic’s shoulder and got underneath him before the horse had stopped moving; he held the broken Charismatic up with his shoulders and his own two hands until the veterinarians arrived. Between Antley and the surgeons, they saved the colt. Because Antley took that fall.
Nobody could save Antley, who was dead himself within two years from a drug overdose. He died so hard that investigators first called it a homicide.
When you run with all God gave you, you run out of track goddamned fast.
Sonny was just like that. Just like a race horse. Just like every other goddamned fighter. A little bit crazy, a little bit fierce, a little bit desperate, and ignorant of the concept of defeat under any circumstances.
Until he met Cassius Clay in the ring.
They fought twice. First time was in 1964, and I watched that fight live in a movie theater. We didn’t have pay-per-view then, and the fight happened in Florida, not here at home in Vegas.
I remember it real well, though.
Liston was a monster, you have to understand. He wasn’t real big for a fighter, only six foot one, but he hulked. He loomed. His opponents would flinch away before he ever pulled back a punch.
I’ve met Mike Tyson too, who gets compared to Liston. And I don’t think it’s just because they’re both hard men, or that Liston also was accused of sexual assault. It’s because Tyson has that same thing, the power of personal gravity that bends the available light and every eye down to him, even when he’s walking quietly through a crowded room, wearing a warm-up jacket and a smile.
So that was Liston. He was a stone golem, a thing out of legend, the fucking bogeyman. He was going to walk through Clay like the Kool-Aid pitcher walking through a paper wall.
And we were all in our seats, waiting to see this insolent prince beat down by the barbarian king.
And there was a moment when Clay stepped up to Liston, and they touched gloves, and the whole theater went still.
Because Clay was just as big as Liston. And Clay wasn’t looking down.
Liston retired in the seventh round. Maybe he had a dislocated shoulder, and maybe he didn’t, and maybe the Mob told him to throw the fight so they could bet on the underdog Clay and Liston just couldn’t quite make himself fall over and play dead.
And Cassius Clay, you see, he grew up to be Muhammad Ali.
Sonny didn’t tell me about that fight. He told me about the other one.
Phil Ochs wrote a song about it, and so did Mark Knopfler: that legendary fight in 1965, the one where, in the very first minute of the very first round, Sonny Liston took a fall.
Popular poets, Ochs and Knopfler, and what do you think the bards were? That kind of magic, the old dark magic that soaks down the roots of the world and keeps it rich, it’s a transformative magic. It never goes away.
However you spill it, it’s blood that makes the cactus grow.
Ochs, just to interject a little more irony here, paid for his power in his own blood as well.
Twenty-fifth child of twenty-six, Sonny Liston. A tenant farmer’s son, whose father beat him bloody. He never would meet my eye, even there in his room, this close to Christmas, near the cold bent stub end of 1970.
He never would meet a white man’s eyes. Even the eye of the One-Eyed Jack, patron saint of Las Vegas, when Jackie was pouring him J&B. Not a grown man’s eye, anyway, though he loved kids–and kids loved him. The bear was a teddy bear when you got him around children.
But he told me all about that fight. How the Mob told him to throw it or they’d kill him and his Momma and a selection of his brothers and sisters too. How he did what they told him in the most defiant manner possible. So the whole fucking world would know he took that fall.
The thing is, I didn’t believe him.
I sat there and nodded and listened, and I thought, Sonny Liston didn’t throw that fight. That famous “Phantom Punch”? Mohammed Ali got lucky. Hit a nerve cluster or something. Sonny Liston, the unstoppable Sonny Liston, the man with a heart of piston steel and a hand like John Henry’s hammer–Sonny Liston, he went down. It was a fluke, a freak thing, some kind of an accident.
I thought going down like that shamed him, so he told his wife he gave up because he knew Ali was better and he didn’t feel like fighting just to get beat. But he told me that other story, about the mob, and he drank another scotch and he toasted Muhammad Ali, though Sonny’d kind of hated him. Ali had been barred from fighting from 1967 until just that last year, who was facing a jail term because he wouldn’t go and die in Vietnam.
Sensible man, if you happen to ask me.
But I knew Sonny didn’t throw that fight for the Mob. I knew because I also knew this other thing about that fight, because I am the soul of Las Vegas, and in 1965, the Mob was Las Vegas.
And I knew they’d had a few words with Sonny before he went into the ring.
Sonny Liston was supposed to win. And Muhammad Ali was supposed to die.
The one thing in his life that Sonny Liston could never hit back against was his daddy. Sonny, whose given name was Charles, but who called himself Sonny all his adult life.
Sonny had learned the hard way that you never look a white man in the eye. That you never look any man in the eye unless you mean to beat him down. That you never look the Man in the eye, because if you do he’s gonna beat you down.
He did his time in jail, Sonny Liston. He went in a boy and he came out a prize fighter, and when he came out he was owned by the Mob.
You can see it in the photos and you could see it in his face, when you met him, when you reached out to touch his hand; he almost never smiled, and his eyes always held this kind of deep sonorous seriousness over his black, flat, damaged nose.
Sonny Liston was a jailbird. Sonny Liston belonged to the Mob the same way his daddy belonged to the land.
Cassius Clay, God bless him, changed his slave name two days after that first bout with Sonny, as if winning it freed up something in him. Muhammad Ali, God bless him, never learned that lesson about looking down.
Boxing is called the sweet science. And horse racing is the sport of kings.
When Clay beat Liston, he bounced up on his stool and shouted that he was King of the World. Corn king, summer king, America’s most beautiful young man. An angel in the boxing ring. A new and powerful image of black manhood.
He stepped up on that stool in 1964 and he put a noose around his neck.
The thing about magic is that it happens in spite of everything you can do to stop it.
And the wild old Gods will have their sacrifice.
If they can’t have Charismatic, they’ll take the man that saved him.
So it goes.
Sometimes it’s easier to tell yourself you quit than to admit that they beat you. Sometimes it’s easier to look down.
The civil rights movement in the early 1960s found Liston a thug and an embarrassment. He was a jailbird, an illiterate, a dark unstoppable monster. The rumor was that he had a second career as a standover man–a mob enforcer. The NAACP protested when Floyd Patterson agreed to fight him in 1962.
Sonny didn’t know his own birthday or maybe he lied about his age. Forty’s old for a fighter, and Sonny said he was born in ’32 when he might have been born as early as ’27. There’s a big damned difference between thirty-two and thirty-seven in the boxing ring.
And there’s another thing, something about prize fighters you might not know. In Liston’s day, they shot the fighters’ hands full of anesthetic before they wrapped them for the fight. So a guy who was a hitter–a puncher rather than a boxer, in the parlance–he could pound away on his opponent and never notice he’d broken all the goddamned bones in his goddamned hands.
Sonny Liston was a puncher. Muhammad Ali was a boxer.
Neither one of them, as it happens, could abide the needles. So when they went swinging into the ring, they earned every punch they threw.
Smack a sheetrock wall a couple of dozen times with your shoulder behind it if you want to build up a concept of what that means, in terms of endurance and of pain. Me? I would have taken the needle over feelingthe bones I was breaking. Taken it in a heartbeat.
But Charismatic finished his race on a shattered leg, and so did Black Gold.
What the hell were a few broken bones to Sonny Liston?
You know when I said Sonny was not a handsome man? Well, I also said Muhammad Ali was an angel. He was a black man’s angel, an avenging angel, a messenger from a better future. He was the way and the path, man, and they marked him for sacrifice, because he was a warrior god, a Black Muslim Moses come to lead his people out of Egypt land.
And the people in power like to stay that way, and they have their ways of making it happen. Of making sure the sacrifice gets chosen.
Go ahead and curl your lip. White man born in the nineteenth century, reborn in 1905 as the Genius of the Mississippi of the West. What do I know about the black experience?
I am my city, and I contain multitudes. I’m the African-American airmen at Nellis Air Force Base, and I’m the black neighborhoods near D Street that can’t keep a supermarket, and I’m Cartier Street and I’m Northtown and I’m Las Vegas, baby, and it doesn’t matter a bit what you see when you look at my face.
Because Sonny Liston died here, and he’s buried here in the palm of my hand. And I’m Sonny Liston too, wronged and wronging; he’s in here, boiling and bubbling away.
I filled his glass one more time and splashed what was left into my own, and that was the end of the bottle. I twisted it to make the last drop fall. Sonny watched my hands instead of my eyes, and folded his own enormous fists around his glass so it vanished. “You’re here on business, Jackie,” he said, and dropped his eyes to his knuckles. “Nobody wants to listen to me talk.”
“I want to listen, Sonny.” The scotch didn’t taste so good, but I rolled it over my tongue anyway. I’d drunk enough that the roof of my mouth was getting dry, and the liquor helped a little. “I’m here to listen as long as you want to talk.”
His shoulders always had a hunch. He didn’t stand up tall. They hunched a bit more as he turned the glass in his hands. “I guess I run out of things to say. So you might as well tell me what you came for.”
At Christmastime in nineteen seventy, Muhammad Ali–recently allowed back in the ring, pending his appeal of a draft evasion conviction–was preparing for a title bout against Joe Frazier in March. He was also preparing for a more wide-reaching conflict; in April of that year, his appeal, his demand to be granted status as a conscientious objector, was to go before the United States Supreme Court.
He faced a five year prison sentence.
In jail, he’d come up against everything Sonny Liston had. And maybe Ali was the stronger man. And maybe the young king wouldn’t break where the old one fell. Or maybe he wouldn’t make it out of prison alive, or free.
“Ali needs your help,” I said.
“Fuck Cassius Clay,” he said.
Sonny finished his drink and spent a while staring at the bottom of his glass. I waited until he turned his head, skimming his eyes along the floor, and tried to sip again from the empty glass. Then I cleared my throat and said “It isn’t just for him.”
Sonny flinched. See, the thing about Sonny–that he never learned to read, that doesn’t mean he was dumb. “The NAACP don’t want me. The Nation of Islam don’t want me. They didn’t even want Clay to box me. I’m an embarrassment to the black man.”
He dropped his glass on the table and held his breath for a moment before he shrugged and said, “Well, they got their nigger now.”
Some of them know up front; they listen to the whispers, and they know the price they might have to pay if it’s their number that comes up. Some just kind of know in the back of their heads. About the corn king, and the laurel wreath, and the price that sometimes has to be paid.
Sonny Liston, like I said, he wasn’t dumb.
“Ali can do something you can’t, Sonny.” Ali can be a symbol.
“I can’t have it,” he drawled. “But I can buy it? Is that what you’re telling me, Jack?”
I finished my glass too, already drunk enough that it didn’t make my sinuses sting. “Sonny,” I said, with that last bit of Dutch courage in me, “you’re gonna have to take another fall.”
When his wife– returning from a holiday visit to her relatives–found his body on January fifth, eleven days after I poured him that drink, maybe a week or so after he died, Sonny had needle marks in the crook of his arm, though the coroner’s report said heart failure.
Can you think of a worse way to kill the man?
On March 8, 1971, a publicly reviled Muhammad Ali was defeated by Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in New York City in a boxing match billed at the “Fight of the Century.” Ali had been vilified in the press as a Black Muslim, a religious and political radical, a black man who wouldn’t look down.
Three months later, the United States Supreme Court overturned the conviction, allowing Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objector status to stand.
He was a free man.
Ali fought Frazier twice more. He won both times, and went on to become the most respected fighter in the history of the sport. A beautiful avenging outspoken angel.
Almost thirty-five years after Sonny Liston died, in November of 2005, President George W. Bush awarded America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the draft-dodging, political activist lay preacher Muhammad Ali.
Sonny Liston never looked a man in the eye unless he meant to beat him down. Until he looked upon Cassius Clay and hated him. And looked past that hate and saw a dawning angel, and he saw the future, and he wanted it that bad.
Wanted it bad, Sonny Liston, illiterate jailbird and fighter and standover man. Sonny Liston the drunk, the sex offender. Broken, brutal Sonny Liston with the scars on his face from St. Louis cops beating a confession from him, with the scars on his back from his daddy beating him down on the farm.
Sonny Liston, who loved children. He wanted that thing, and he knew it could never be his.
Wanted it and saw a way to make it happen for somebody else.
And so he takes that fall, Sonny Liston. Again and again and again, like John Henry driving steel until his heart burst, like a jockey rolling over the shoulder of a running, broken horse. He takes the fall, and he saves the King.
And Muhammad Ali? He never once looks down.