Patterson, who was black, had decided that the world champion of boxing must be moral as well as a skilled boxer.
Even then role models were in vogue. And Floyd Patterson, when he looked in the mirror, saw a worthy role model. Whereas Sonny, when he looked in the mirror, saw a snake coming out of the darkness. His self-perception was modeled after those around him, the way they perceived him.
So much for role models.
When Patterson could no longer dodge the fight without appearing a coward, they fought. Sonny knocked him out in the first round. Liston was the new heavyweight champion of the world. Sadly, most people viewed him as an animal, vicious, uncontrollable, amoral. And Liston did little to change this perception. Uneducated and shy, he didn’t know what to do or how to act. He had two skills: hitting people and surviving. Besides which, he was surrounded by smooth operators and exploitation artists, men who only wanted to use him to make money, then toss him aside like an old rag. To these men, and to boxing in general, Sonny wasn’t a human being. He was a commodity, an investment opportunity, a way to make a lot of money fast.
Sonny, starved for kindness, desperately needed some PR. Someone to teach him what to say, when to say it, how to present himself. He needed some nursery Magic.
But it wasn’t there.
Ten months later, in Las Vegas, Liston and Patterson met once more. And once again Sonny decked Patterson in the first round. For a fact, this time Patterson lasted two seconds longer than the first time. He was improving steadily.
The next year Liston fought Cassius Clay in Miami. At the start of the seventh round, Sonny remained in his corner, surrendering his title by default. Later, he claimed an injured shoulder had prevented the continuation of the fight.
Many doubt this, saying the fight was fixed. I believe it was. So does Nick Tosches in his wonderful book, The Devil and Sonny Liston. The powers that be, and the Nation of Islam, had entered the picture. A new era of fight promotion, and a new agenda: the star was to be Cassius Clay.
Sonny fought Cassius Clay, now known as Muhammad Ali, in a re-match, seventeen months later. Clay, as a member of the Nation of Islam, had a new name, a new attitude, a new style of boxing, but the same agenda.
Two minutes into the first round, Ali, dancing away from Sonny, threw a punch that appeared to miss altogether. Called the “phantom punch’ because of its elusiveness, it is still discussed. Sonny, the boxer who had never been down, dropped to the floor of the ring.
While Ali danced around the ring taunting the fallen Sonny, the referee tried to get Ali into a neutral corner. The count never began. Sonny regained his feet and the fight resumed. A sports writer seated ringside shouted to the referee that Sonny had been down for more than ten seconds. Shamed, the referee halted the fight.
According to George Chuvalo, “It was a phony.” Floyd Patterson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and Joe Louis cried fix.
Sonny, after a year’s vacation, started fighting again. He fought until 1970. But effectively, his career was over when he lost the re-match to Ali. Nevertheless, he kept fighting because that’s what survivors do, they survive, they cling to life as they know it.
Was the fight fixed? I don’t really know. My personal opinion, based on the available evidence, is, yes, it was. But once again, it doesn’t really matter. Because either way, Sonny didn’t care anymore. Lying prostrate in front of the dancing Ali, Sonny’s story was over. And it wasn’t much of a story. Oh, he had been the heavy weight champ of the world. Then lost it. But so have many others.
What could have happened did happen. His life couldn’t have been written any other way because he never had a chance. The abused child, one of seventeen siblings, from a hick township in Arkansas, he had no past, no present and no future. No history, no faith, no connection; no ability to make another choice because survival doesn’t include preferences. Survival is a habit, with no room for alternatives, like a room without a light. There’s no switch to turn on the lamp because there is no lamp. The room remains dark.
“’Why don’t you get up and play with us?’ one of them asked.
“’I don’t feel like it,’ said the Rabbit, for he didn’t want to explain that he had no clockwork.”
Like the Velveteen Rabbit as it sat in the bracken with the two living rabbits, Sonny had no choice. He had no clockwork.
Just like Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick, Sonny’s legend lives on, impoverished by the passing of time. Just like Sonny when he was alive, his legend, too, has no choice. It simply survives.
Appropriately, his likeness resides on the cover to Sgt. Pepper’s Loney Hearts Club Band, the famous album by the Beatles. And Sonny qualifies as one of life’s lonely hearts.
He’s mentioned in Wu Tang Clan’s song Triumph. In Roll Deep’s Badman; in the Sun Kil Moon song Glenn Tipton, which song was also sung by Mark Kozelik; and in Billy Joel’s song We Didn’t Start the Fire. Mark Knopfler’s homage, Song For SonnyListon, is found on the album Shangri-La.
Additionally, Sonny is the subject of songs by This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, Morrissey, Phil Ochs, The Mountain Goats and Eric Burdon and The Animals.
Sonny’s most singular appearance can be viewed, forty years later, on YouTube, in a Braniff Airlines commercial. In the commercial, a stoic Sonny is seated next to, and totally different from, because of his implacable personal force, a garrulous Andy Warhol. Warhol is albino white, while Sonny is black. Warhol is emaciated and Sonny is huge. Warhol is effete, Sonny is the definition of machismo. Both died grimly. After death, both their legends live on. While alive, they were both survivors.
Braniff was not.
And might I suggest that the next time you are in Las Vegas you visit Paradise Memorial Gardens cemetery. Stand there in the bright physical heat, gaze upon the white marker with its inscription: Here lies a man. And feel…