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There had been mythic sports figures before Cassius Clay, but when he burst upon the sports scene in the 1950s, he broke the mold. Those were the years when boxing and boxers were at the mercy of the mob and the whim of the sportswriters. If you wanted a shot at a title, you did it their way.
Young Clay did it his way - with little more than an Olympic gold medal to his credit, he danced into Sonny Liston's baleful view and provoked the ...
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There had been mythic sports figures before Cassius Clay, but when he burst upon the sports scene in the 1950s, he broke the mold. Those were the years when boxing and boxers were at the mercy of the mob and the whim of the sportswriters. If you wanted a shot at a title, you did it their way.
Young Clay did it his way - with little more than an Olympic gold medal to his credit, he danced into Sonny Liston's baleful view and provoked the terrifying champ into accepting him as his next challenger. The rest is history.
Muhammad Ali has become a mythic hero, an American icon, a self-invented legend. As both a mirror and a molder of his times, Ali became the most recognizable face on the planet, a key figure in the cultural battles of the times. This is the story of his self-creation, and his rise to glory, told by a master storyteller.
Copyright © 2006 David Remnick
All right reserved.
SEPTEMBER 25, 1962
On the morning of the fight, the heavyweight champion of the world packed a loser's suitcase. Floyd Patterson, for all his hand speed, for all the hours he put in at the gym, was the most doubt-addled titleholder in the history of the division. There were always losers, professional opponents, set-'em-ups, unknowns who suffered as he did, men who took no pleasure in winning except as the periodic escape from loss and humiliation. But he was champion, the youngest man ever to win the title.
In the last weeks of training, Patterson lay on his bed at night, out in a cabin in the Illinois countryside, half asleep, listening to his recording of "Music for Lovers Only," and, if he was lucky, he saw himself winning, he saw himself leaping out of a crouch and striking Sonny Liston with his famous "kangaroo punch," a flying left hook delivered with so much vaulting thrust and ambition that there was always a chance that Patterson would go sailing past his target and through the ropes and into the flannel laps of press row. If the punch landed, as it had against so many, Patterson was golden. He might wait a while to take such risks, at least a few rounds until Liston started to feel thefatigue, but he would leap soon enough. Then he'd follow up, relentless, dropping the bigger man with a right uppercut, a cross, another hook. Patterson could not count on the power of a single punch, not against Liston, whose countenance suggested the strength of iron. He would rely on his gift, his speed.
Patterson knew he had to beware: Liston's left jab was as powerful as another man's cross; in one fight, Liston had beaten a plodding contender named Wayne Bethea so badly with his jab that at the end of the bout Bethea's cornermen dragged their fighter to the dressing room and removed seven teeth from his mouthpiece. Blood was dripping from his ear. The fight had lasted fifty-eight seconds. So Patterson would have to keep his head. He would box, he would duck inside Liston's jab and beat the body.
"I really thought I could beat Liston," Patterson told me nearly forty years later. "I think about it even now and I figure I'll find a way to win. That's funny, isn't it?"
But the odds were against Patterson. Cus D'Amato, his mentor since he began boxing at fourteen, had spent years avoiding this fight, preferring instead to set Patterson up with softer opponents. D'Amato, who looked like a cross between the emperor Hadrian and Jimmy Cagney, used his authority and standing among the columnists to deliver righteous pronouncements about Liston's connections to the Mafia, and, like someone from the department of social welfare, he spoke of the need for rehabilitation, for Sonny to prove himself civilized and stay that way if he wanted a chance at the title. But Patterson knew perfectly well that D'Amato thought he had little chance against Liston. And in this, D'Amato was not alone. Some of Patterson's predecessors as champion, Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis among them, arrived in Chicago for the fight, and no sooner had they stepped off the plane than they began telling reporters that the challenger was too strong, too mean, to lose to Patterson.
Almost everyone, of course, was backing Floyd, rooting for him, but this support was purely sentimental: the writers liked Patterson because he was always so cooperative, he was so open and polite; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was behind Patterson because he was a civil rights man, an integrationist, a reform-minded gentleman, while Liston, the excon, projected what one newspaper after another called "a poor example for the youth of America." Jackie Robinson's prediction that Patterson would "demolish" Liston had more to do with political hopes than boxing smarts.
Patterson was determined, as always, to be fair, to accommodate, to do the right thing. Liston had been ranked the top contender for a long time. He had been to jail for armed robbery, true enough, but he had served his time, he deserved a chance. Patterson was doing his bit for the cause of social mobility. "Liston paid for his crimes," he said. "Should he be able to win the championship, these qualities will rise to the surface. I think you'd see a completely new and changed Liston."
At least for the time being, Liston did not wish to betray any appreciation. "I'd like to run him over with a truck," he said.
And so, with losing on his mind, Floyd made arrangements. He carefully stuffed his bag and an attache case with clothes, food, and a disguise--a custom-made beard and mustache. If he won, of course, he'd meet the press and head back to the hotel for a victory party. If not, he would leave Comiskey Park in his false whiskers and drive through the night to his training camp in upstate New York.
That was always the way it was with Floyd. Fear, especially the fear of losing, ate at him. He was entitled to call himself the toughest man on the planet, yet he didn't much believe it. He was champion in the sense that Chester A. Arthur had been president. "I'm not a great champion," he would say, "I'm just a champion." There were those who wondered if Floyd was beyond sensitive, if he was a neurotic in shorts. Some of the reporters from England took to calling him Freud Patterson.
He had ample reason to doubt himself. Until now, Patterson had been a lucky man, winning the title in November 1956 against Archie Moore. Moore was the craftiest of fighters, but like Patterson, he was small for a heavyweight, and, by the time of his fight with Floyd, a geriatric case in his early forties. Once Patterson won the title, he never projected the arrogance of a heavyweight champion. He never had the proper disdain. His eyes were sad and vulnerable, the dreamy eyes of a jilted teenager, and his physique was sinewy, the body of a road laborer, an utterly plausible body, but one that did not convey invincibility.
At best, Patterson was a fine light heavyweight, bulked up for the marquee division. At fight time, Liston would outweigh Patterson 214 to 189. In boxing, if both men are equally skilled, more or less, the rules of physics usually obtain, and, as in the straight-on collision of two vehicles, the greater power goes to the greater force, to the bigger man, to the truck. Patterson's natural inclination was to get even smaller. "If we put him on a diet," his trainer, Dan Florio, said, "we'd soon have a middleweight on our hands."
Patterson had never defended his title against a fighter even remotely as powerful as Liston. D'Amato set him up with the likes of Pete Rademacher, an Olympian fighting for the first time as a professional, and Brian London, one of those knobby Englishmen who bleed rivers on a pale chest. Perhaps the most notable of Patterson's opponents before Liston was one Roy Harris of Cut and Shoot, Texas. As the papers were happy to point out (happy, because the fight itself didn't promise much except cornpone exotica), Harris grew up wrestling alligators in a swamp around his house known as the Big Thicket. He was also kin to an Uncle Cleve and cousins Hominy, Coon, and Armadillo. In short, Harris was a PR setup, and still it took Floyd thirteen rounds to end it. Liston destroyed Harris in one.
So, as much as he played out the winning scenario in his head, as much as he trained, Patterson was fully prepared to lose. Mentally or physically, he had no great advantage he could call his own. He had lost to lesser men than Liston, certainly--first to Joey Maxim in 1954, and then, as champion, to Ingemar Johansson in 1959. He reacted not with fury, as most heavyweights did, but with depression, prolonged withdrawal. After the Maxim defeat--a controversial decision--Floyd locked himself in his apartment and stayed there for several days. Against Johansson, the humiliation was far deeper because the stage was so much more visible. Defending his title at Yankee Stadium, he had been knocked to the floor, over and over, as in a particularly merciless alley fight. Patterson was a speed fighter, but against Johansson he never made his move. He froze, and Johansson, a burly Swede of modest talent, unloosed what his camp called, so annoyingly, his "toonder and lightning." After the first knockdown, Floyd got off the canvas and began walking dreamily toward his corner. Leaving the neutral corner, Johansson came in from Patterson's blind side and struck him down again; the assault looked less like boxing than an angry drunk splitting open another man's skull with a beer bottle. By around the fourth knockdown, as Patterson crawled around the canvas, staring through the ropes, his eyes locked on John Wayne, who was sitting at ringside, and, as he stared at the actor, Floyd felt embarrassed. Embarrassment was Patterson's signature emotion, and never more so than now. The fight was not even over before he started to wonder if everything he had fought for--his title, his belonging to a world greater than the one he grew up in--if all that was now at risk. Had he ever deserved any recognition, any belonging in the first place? What would John Wayne think of him? The referee, Ruby Goldstein, stopped the fight after Patterson had gone down for the seventh time.
Floyd wanted to hide, but there was no hole deep enough. He had no disguise, so he borrowed a cornerman's hat and tugged at the brim as if to disappear inside it. He let his friends and family hug him, console him, but he hated their pity. He could not wait to be alone. And when they all went away, the family and the friends and the reporters, Floyd went home to New York. Day after day, he sat in his living room with the curtains drawn. "I thought my life was over," Patterson told me. He was one step away from where he started, one step from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the slum of his childhood. It was as if he expected the repo man to trot up his walk at any minute and start stacking the television and the oven and the couch outside in the front yard, and all the neighbors, his white neighbors, would see that he was nobody now.
Floyd could not sleep, or, at least, not for long. Later that night, as he recounts in his autobiography, he climbed out of bed and headed down to the den. After a while, just before dawn, Sandra found him there.
"Floyd," she said, "Floyd, what good will it do sitting down here in the dark thinking?"
"Will it do more good lying up there in the dark?"
When he woke, he looked up from the couch to see his three-year-old daughter, Jeannie, staring at him. His face was still covered with welts, and so he held Jeannie close, trying not to scare her. Later, Sandra persuaded him to come upstairs and get some real sleep. But after a while, she looked down at her husband and was terrified.
"What's wrong with your ear?" she said.
Patterson's pillow was covered with blood. Johansson's punches had ruptured his eardrum.
His depression deepened. He sat alone for days, not reading, not talking, pushing everyone away. In three weeks, he left the house twice. He was, he said later, mourning his own death as champion. "Daddy's sick," Jeannie kept saying. "Daddy's sick." Patterson's depression lasted nearly a year.
Fighters, Floyd was convinced, are always afraid, all of them, especially fighters at the top level. "We are not afraid of getting hurt but we are afraid of losing. Losing in the ring is like losing nowhere else," he said once. "A prizefighter who gets knocked out or is badly outclassed suffers in a way he will never forget. He is beaten under the bright lights in front of thousands of witnesses who curse him and spit at him, and he knows that he is being watched, too, by many thousands more on television and in the movies, and he knows that the tax agents will soon visit him--they always try to get their share before he winds up flat broke--and the fighter cannot shift the blame for his defeat onto his trainers or managers or anybody else, although if he won you can be sure that the trainers and managers would be taking bows. The losing fighter loses more than just his pride and the fight; he loses part of his future, he is one step closer to the slum he came from."
THERE HAD NEVER BEEN A HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION AS SENSITIVE, and as honest about his fears, as Floyd Patterson. He was the first professional athlete to receive what would become the modern treatment, a form of Freudian sportswriting that went beyond the ring and into the psyche. Victory Over Myself, Patterson's autobiography, as dictated to Milton Gross, a columnist at the New York Post, as well as his confessions to Gay Talese in The New York Times and later in Esquire magazine, had about them at least an echo of Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
Patterson was surely not the first fighter to know fear, but he was the first to talk about it so freely in public. He was brought up that way in the gym. Cus D'Amato trained Patterson not only in the jab and the peekaboo defense, but also in introspection. D'Amato was the only modern psychoanalyst who carried a spit bucket in his hand and a Q-Tip in his teeth. In his lectures to his fighters, D'Amato taught that all things being relatively equal, the fighter who understands his own fears, manipulates them, uses them to his advantage, would always win; he taught young men like Patterson and Jose Torres, the brilliant light heavyweight from Puerto Rico, to understand their fights as psychodramas, as contests of will more than of gristle.
Patterson grew up in a series of cold-water flats in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, a crumbling landscape of galling poverty. His father worked as a longshoreman, on construction gangs, as a laborer at the Fulton Fish Market. At night, Floyd's father came home so tired that he often forgot to eat and fell asleep in his clothes. Floyd would quietly take off his father's shoes and polish them, and wash his father's swollen feet. When Floyd's mother was not working at home, she was making a few dollars as a maid and working at a bottling plant. There were eleven children to feed. Floyd shared a bed with two of his brothers, Frank and Billy. Very early on, Floyd came to despise himself. He hated that he could do so little to help his father and mother. He felt stupid, powerless. "All I wanted to do was help my parents," Patterson told me, "and all I did was ending up in failure and making matters worse." He used to point at a photograph of himself at two years old and tell his mother, over and over again, "I don't like that boy!" When he was nine, he took down the picture and scratched a series of X's over his face. He had nightmares. More than once, neighbors found him out on the street, in the middle of the night, sleepwalking. He was a child who wanted to hide all the time, who sought the dark. Floyd prowled the alleyways, the dark corners, not because he was looking for trouble, but because he wanted to lose himself. He went to the movies in the morning and stayed through the last show. He rode the A train, back and forth, east to Lefferts Boulevard in the far reaches of Queens, back through Brooklyn, across the East River and up Manhattan to Washington Heights, and back again. From the time Floyd was nine, he would often stop his journeying at the High Street station in Brooklyn. He discovered there the ultimate hiding place. He walked through the tunnel to a semi-hidden tool shed the subway workmen used. He climbed up the metal ladder and locked himself into the darkness. This was his hideaway from the world. "I'd spread papers on the floor and I'd go to sleep and find peace."
During the day, he began to steal, little things, a quart of milk, a piece of fruit, something he could bring home to his mother. By the time he was a teenager, Floyd was in court all the time--for truancy, for stealing, for running away. He went to court, he guessed, thirty or forty times.
Finally, when Floyd was ten, a judge who had seen enough of him sent him to the Wiltwyck School for Boys, a farm for troubled youngsters upstate in Esopus, New York. It was September 1945 when Floyd went off to Wiltwyck. He thought he was being sent to jail, and he was furious with his mother, who had greeted the news with relief. It turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened to him. Wiltwyck was 350 acres of farmland, an old estate that had been owned by the Whitney family. There were no fences or bars. There were chickens and cows, a decent gym, a creek to swim and fish in. There were teachers on the staff, as well as psychiatric social workers and therapists. The children were never beaten or locked in their rooms. Slowly, Floyd began to learn to read, to speak with a little more ease, to get over his permanent sense of shame. When he became champion, Patterson dedicated his autobiography to the school, "which started me in the right direction." Wiltwyck was precisely the kind of break that Sonny Liston would never have.
THE TWO YEARS AT WILTWYCK TURNED FLOYD AROUND. HE WAS never a good student, but at least now he could function in the world. Back in New York, Floyd entered P.S. 614, one of the city's "600" schools for troubled kids, and later he went for a year to the Alexander Hamilton Vocational High School. By the time Patterson got back to the city, two of his brothers were working out at the Gramercy Gym on East Fourteenth Street. Cus D'Amato owned the gym and slept in the back room. His dog was his only companion. D'Amato was a boxing ascetic. He made his living from boxing, but he despised money, gave it away. Money, he said, "was for throwing off the back of trains." When Patterson won the title, D'Amato took most of his share of the take, more than thirty thousand dollars, and used it to order up a bejeweled championship belt as a gift for his fighter. "Cus was crazy about everything in life except boxing," Jose Torres said. D'Amato was a well-informed paranoid. Fear ruled him. He was especially fearful of the Mafia, which ran boxing in his time--and he slept with a gun under his bed. He would never ride the subways, for fear of being pushed onto the tracks. He feared snipers. He feared unfamiliar food and drink. He told people that he never married for fear of being duped by "enemies."
"I must keep my enemies confused," he once said. "When they are confused, then I can do a job for my fighters."
As a kid, growing up in the Bronx, D'Amato starved himself for days, the better to withstand the pain when someone tried to take food from him. He was probably the youngest fatalist in the borough. He used to watch funeral processions outside his building and say, "The sooner death the better." D'Amato was a street kid and a street fighter. One day another kid slammed him in the head with a stick, and he lost the vision in his left eye. D'Amato, however, believed in the regeneration of optic tissue, and throughout his life he made an effort to heal himself, closing his good eye so as to "force" the left eye to see once more. When he became a trainer, D'Amato told his fighters that security, financial and otherwise, would be the death of them. Security dulled the senses, and pleasure--pleasure was worse. "The more pleasures you get out of living," D'Amato said, "the more fear you have of dying."
Compared to most fight trainers and managers, who ritually described what the fighter ate for breakfast, how many miles he ran, and other such pabulum, D'Amato, with his sweat-scented philosophies and his strange habits, made for great copy, and writers came to his Gramercy Gym counting on a good story. D'Amato read, of all things, military history and Nietzsche, and out of that came a philosophy of pain and endurance. Norman Mailer began coming to the gym not long after his success with The Naked and the Dead. Young newspaper reporters--Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield--came even when they had no story in mind. D'Amato, for them, was the moralist in Babylon, the one fight manager of importance who talked up against the gangsters who ran nearly every fighter and arena in the country. They wrote about him, sometimes idealized him, as a figure of authenticity, the decent cornerman in the film noir world of fifties boxing. D'Amato, Mailer once wrote, "had the enthusiastic manner of a saint who is all works and no contemplation.... He reminded me of a certain sort of very tough Italian kid one used to find in Brooklyn. They were sweet kids, and rarely mean, and they were fearless, at least by the measure of their actions they were fearless. They would fight anybody."
Patterson was fourteen when he walked up the two flights of wooden stairs to the Gramercy Gym. D'Amato always liked to see how kids came up the stairs for the first time. He watched their expressions, and then he'd wait and see how they came in the next day--if they came at all. Cus did not wait long to unleash his philosophy. He wanted Floyd, and the others, to begin digging into their own heads almost as soon as they hit their first heavy bag. For other managers, self-doubt was unthinkable; for D'Amato, a fighter had to understand himself or he would lose. A fighter isn't merely knocked out, he would say, he wants to be knocked out, his will fails him. "Fear is natural, it is normal," he said. "Fear is your friend. When a deer walks through the forest, it has fear. This is nature's way of keeping the deer alert because there may be a tiger in the trees. Without fear, we would not survive."
Patterson proved to be a quick fighter, with a good left hook. He could sneak inside his opponent's jab and, with a combination, take him out. As a middleweight, he won a gold medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Red Smith, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, was impressed. Patterson, he wrote, "has faster paws than a subway pickpocket and they cause more suffering." That same year, Floyd went pro, and fighting in New York he got a lot of attention beating, in succession, Eddie Godbold, Sammy Walker, Lester Johnson, and Lalu Sabotin. For all his fears, Patterson had learned enough discipline and ring sense to take out all the top club fighters of his day, all the hard young men who fought at Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and St. Nick's on the West Side. Floyd's older brother Frank told Lester Bromberg, the fight writer at the New York World Telegram & Sun, "I'd like to say that I always knew it was in Floyd, but I have to be honest about it. I can't get used to my kid brother being a name fighter. I remember him as the boy who would cry if you hit him too hard when we boxed in the gym and as the green kid who would blow up if I pressed him."
Floyd showed an unusual concern for his opponents. When he was training for a bout to be shown on television's Wednesday Night Fights against a Chicagoan named Chester Mieszala, D'Amato suggested that in the week before the bout Patterson work out at the same Chicago gym where Mieszala trained. Patterson refused. He said he didn't want to take "unfair advantage." In the fight itself, Patterson knocked out Mieszala's mouthpiece, and Mieszala, in a daze, went looking for it. Instead of stepping in and belting Mieszala, Floyd bent over and helped him. Eventually, Patterson went back to work, finishing Mieszala with a TKO in the fifth round. Even in a title fight, Floyd was capable of kindness. Against Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson, he kept trying to get referee Ruby Goldstein to step in and save the challenger from unnecessary punishment. Goldstein, touched to the core, complied.
Patterson's emotional makeup contained not one ounce of schadenfreude. Even on the sweetest night of Patterson's career, the night at the Polo Grounds in March 1961 when he came back to avenge his humiliating seven-knockdown loss to Johansson, he derived no great enjoyment from his opponent's pain. Going into the fight, Patterson felt rage for the first time. He hated the way Johansson had bragged after taking his title, and he wanted back what had been taken away. In the fifth round, Floyd clubbed Johansson with two terrifying hooks, dropping him to one knee for a nine-count. When Johansson got up, Patterson was right there with one of his great leaping punches, and the champion went down like a dropped board. Johansson lay on the canvas, blood trickling out of his mouth and his left foot vibrating, like a man in a grand mal seizure. For a moment, Patterson betrayed a smile as he faced the crowd, but when he turned to see Johansson, still out cold, his foot twitching, he was repulsed, terrified that he had killed a man. Patterson ripped himself out of the jubilant grasp of one of his cornermen, knelt on the canvas, and cradled Johansson in the crook of his arm. Patterson kissed Johansson on the cheek and promised him another chance, a third fight.
Later, Patterson admitted he had come to the arena with his beard and mustache, just in case. "He lacks the killer instinct," D'Amato said. "He's too tame, too nice to his opponents. I've been trying all the psychology I can think of to anger his blood up, but he just doesn't have the zest for viciousness. I have a big job on my hands."
ON DECEMBER 4, 1961, PRESIDENT JOHN KENNEDY WATCHED A televised boxing doubleheader held in different cities: Patterson's fourth-round knockout of Tom McNeely in Toronto and Liston's first-round destruction in Philadelphia of the fighter he called Albert "Quick Fall" Westphal. Like any other sports fan in the country (and even the non-boxing fan took notice of heavyweight title fights), Kennedy had been saying that the real fight would be between Patterson and Liston. After the second Johansson fight, Kennedy had even invited the champion to the White House, partly to congratulate him on being the first man ever to regain the heavyweight title, but also to encourage him. It was a seemingly routine visit--sports stars had been visiting presidents for decades; both won some easy and harmless publicity--but the session made Patterson uneasy. The president asked the champion whom he would be fighting next. Cassius Clay, the brash Olympic champion, was tearing his way to the top of the division, but no one was demanding that fight yet. Clay was not yet twenty. Patterson knew what the president meant.
"Liston," he said. "I'm gonna fight Liston."
Instead of merely wishing Patterson well, Kennedy said, "Well, you've got to beat this guy."
Liston, for his part, was convinced that the White House meeting was the reason Patterson had finally agreed to a match. "Frankly, I don't think Patterson would have fought me if he hadn't promised the president," he said. "I believe Floyd found himself in a position where he couldn't go back on his word. After all, you don't tell the President of the United States that you are going to do something and then fail to do it."
Floyd admitted to his own confusion in the Oval Office. "I felt all alone in there, completely terrified," he said. "You've got to remember how young I was, what my background was, and now I was getting advice in the Oval Office. What was I supposed to do? Disagree? I had to take the challenge. I was always afraid of letting people down and now I was in a position where I had to worry about letting down the president."
Patterson was now fighting for the Good, and Sonny, whether he liked it or not, was the Bad. Liston understood his role well. "A boxing match is like a cowboy movie," he said. "There's got to be good guys and there's got to be bad guys. That's what people pay for--to see the bad guys get beat. So I'm the bad guy. But I change things. I don't get beat."
It was far from automatic that Liston would even be allowed to fight Patterson. Madison Square Garden, still the most prestigious site in America for boxing, was out of the question. The New York authorities were (rightly) convinced that Liston had never cut his ties to the Mafia and refused him a license. Where could they go? Dr. Charles Larson, president of the United States National Boxing Association, said he would do all he could to prevent the match. "In my opinion Patterson is a fine representative of his race, and I believe the heavyweight champion of the world should be the kind of man our children could look up to as they have always done, as hero-worshipers," he said. "If Liston should become champion before he had rehabilitated himself, it might well be a catastrophe." The same camp said that a Liston victory would be worse for boxing than the horrible night six months before when Emile Griffith killed Benny "Kid" Paret in the ring. It took Sir David Harrington Angus Douglas, the twelfth Marquess of Queensberry, a descendant of the rule maker of boxing, to lift the whiff of moralism from the match. "I would have rather thought it wasn't all that relevant whether or not Liston was a good character. If he's not in prison at the moment, he must currently be legally straight. If he's a good boxer, he must be entitled to a fight with Patterson."
Patterson could endure or ignore the politics of boxing and its various commissions, but not the concerns of men like Ralph Bunche and Martin Luther King. The civil rights movement was gathering momentum in the South and was setting off a profound backlash, especially in the Deep South, and the leaders of the movement worried that, in a moment, they would lose an upstanding champion, a worthy standard-bearer, in Patterson and get Sonny Liston, a convicted felon, instead. The civil rights movement had problems enough--the fight came in the midst of James Meredith's attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi and the battle between the Supreme Court and Governor Ross Barnett, who vowed that the state "will not drink from the cup of genocide." Martin Luther King's rebellion represented the most powerful social upheaval since the war. To tens of millions of Americans, integration was unthinkable and every breakthrough of the civil rights movement, every court case, every march and sit-in, seemed an offense against nature. Fair or not, the last thing the movement's leaders needed was to have the most visible black man in America be a graduate of the Missouri penal system, a thug who'd been jailed for armed robbery. Percy Sutton, head of the Manhattan chapter of the NAACP, said, "Hell, let's stop kidding. I'm for Patterson because he represents us better than Liston ever could." They saw Patterson as one of theirs, a black man who had fought his way up (literally, in his case); he was a race man, but one whom enlightened white men could accept, could talk to. When Patterson's wife was refused an appointment by a masseuse near their house on Long Island, he sued under the local antidiscrimination code. When Patterson later bought a house in northern Yonkers, near Scarsdale, his white neighbors made his life miserable; a dentist next door immediately threw up a six-foot fence. When Patterson built his own fence, the dentist, a Dr. Morelli, shouted to the workmen, "Touch on my property and you had better have a court order for it." Eventually, Patterson gave up the fight and moved out.
"I am just part of the social history of our time and our country, and I can't lag behind it--or run too far ahead of it," he said later in his autobiography. "If you keep walking around with the bitterness in you, sooner or later it's got to turn into a pain that makes you want to strike out at the injustice. I would never want to do that. If I can't go some place legally, I don't want to go there at all. If I can't fight back legally, I don't want to do it viciously. At the same time, you can't overlook it and pretend it doesn't exist."
Fame was no protection against humiliation. In the spring of 1957, after Patterson had become champion, he and two of his sparring partners were refused seating at one restaurant after another on a Saturday afternoon in Kansas City. They bought cheese and crackers instead and went back to their hotel. They heard that Jersey Joe Walcott was in town to referee a professional wrestling match and they called on him in his room. When they arrived they noticed that Walcott was also eating his lunch in his room; all he'd been able to come up with was a bag of cookies and a quart bottle of milk. Walcott offered Patterson and his friends some cookies.
"We've just had a bite," Patterson said, "just the way you're having it."
"Ain't it something?" Walcott said. "The former world's heavyweight champion and the present champ, but in this town it's all the same. The oldest champ and the youngest, but both have to eat in their rooms. This is a nice town. Not too bad if you walk with your eyes just looking ahead and don't listen to what folks are saying. That's why I stay in the room here. Less chance of being misunderstood."
Liston and Patterson trained for several months--Liston in Philadelphia, Patterson at his camp in upstate New York. In the last weeks before the fight, they both set up camp in the Chicago area. The facilities they chose might have been predicted. Patterson's camp resembled a monastic retreat, a series of cabins in the town of Elgin called Marycrest Farm. Marycrest was a Catholic Worker settlement house, not much different from Wiltwyck. One building that had been converted into a press headquarters was decorated with religious mosaics and a set of crucifixes. The two doors to the room where the press agents worked were marked by Latin signs: Veritas over one, Caritas over the other. In ordinary times, Veritas and Caritas marked barns for cows. Patterson trained in a tent with a sign outside reading So we being many are one body in Christ. His press conferences took place in a refectory under a mural of saints. Patterson felt at home here. He had converted to the Roman Catholic Church and now he was being advertised as the fight game's St. Francis.
The promoters offered the Liston entourage a camp next to the prison in Joliet. They figured that the barbed wire and watchtowers would be the perfect backdrop for feature stories focusing on Liston's past. Liston thought otherwise. Instead, he trained at an abandoned racetrack in East Aurora, with wire gates and a uniformed cop stationed outside. The infield of the track was a bleak expanse of withered grass. A vicious wind whipped off the disintegrating grandstands. Liston pounded the heavy bag and sparred in a makeshift gym that had once been the parimutuel shed. It was as if Johnny Appleseed were training in one place and the Angel of Death in the other, one of the writers remarked.
The press shuttled between the two and drew out this contrast of Good versus Evil, of the Good Negro versus the Threatening Negro. This was 1962, and newspapermen were still dominant, above all white columnists from New York: Milton Gross of the Post, Jimmy Cannon of the Post (and then the World-Telegram), Red Smith of the Herald Tribune, Dick Young of the News, Arthur Daley of the Times. Liston trusted none of them. He could not read a road sign, much less a newspaper, but his wife, Geraldine, read the columns to him, and it was not long before he knew that he had few fans among the writers. Nor did Sonny have any great supporters among the white literati who had come from the various magazines: Budd Schulberg for Playboy, A. J. Liebling for The New Yorker, Ben Hecht for a Nyack paper, and Norman Mailer for Esquire.
The literary undercard of the Patterson-Liston fight in Chicago featured the meeting of Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, who was on assignment for Nugget, a men's magazine which would go out of business in 1965. (Liebling apparently did not care for the presence of visiting novelists. "The press gatherings before this fight sometimes resembled those highly intellectual pour-parlers on a Mediterranean island," he wrote. "Placed before typewriters, the accumulated novelists could have produced a copy of The Paris Review in forty-two minutes.") Mailer and Baldwin had been on friendly terms in the fifties, but by 1961, they were not getting along. Baldwin felt insulted by Mailer both personally and intellectually: personally because Mailer, in an essay critical of a range of contemporaries, had called him "too charming to be major"; intellectually because he thought that Mailer's essay on race, "The White Negro," was dangerous in the way it featured the black man as merely a collection of unbridled sexual and violent impulses. In a 1961 article for Esquire called "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," Baldwin said that Mailer was obsessed with power and was essentially an adolescent, a beatnik, arrogant and naive, and had committed the folly of advertising a perverse notion of black culture to titillate the bourgeois white hipsters.
Baldwin arrived in Chicago unsure of his subject. Unlike Mailer, who prided himself on his knowledge of boxing and knew many trainers and fighters, Baldwin was ignorant of the sport. He would never acquire Mailer's ease hanging out at a gym, he could not rely on a ready facility with boxing history and the metaphors of sporting glory. Baldwin would rely instead on his empathy for Patterson and Liston, his understanding of them as poor black kids with an ambition. "I know nothing whatever about the Sweet Science or the Cruel Profession or the Poor Boy's Game," he wrote. "But I know a lot about pride, the poor boy's pride, since that's my story and will, in some way, probably, be my end."
Baldwin, with Gay Talese of the Times as his guide, visited both camps and was bewildered by the fight-week scene: the reporters gossiping away the morning and then crashing their stories on deadline, the late dinners on expense account, the customarily farcical feud between the two fighters, the inane press conferences, the parties at the Playboy Mansion, the former champions--Louis, Marciano, Barney Ross, Johansson, Ezzard Charles--milling around, dispensing opinions for quotation as a form of stature maintenance. In the pressroom, the general feeling was that Patterson had become champion by default and, pity though it might be, had little chance against Liston. Look at how he had lost to a mediocrity like Johansson! Down seven times in a single round--a human yo-yo!
Baldwin went to Elgin, where Patterson's press aide, Ted Carroll, greeted him with great deference and gave him a tour of the camp. Carroll seemed to understand that Baldwin was a beginner in boxing.
"Mr. Baldwin, this is a training camp," he said. "And this countryside matches the personality of the champion. While his trade is violent, Mr. Baldwin, his personality is unruffled, bucolic. Is that a good word, Mr. Baldwin?"
Baldwin nodded. Yes, it was.
Carroll set up Baldwin to take a long walk with the champion and watch him train. Patterson allowed that he had not read any of Baldwin's books, but he had seen him once on television debating the race question.
"I knew I'd seen you somewhere!" Patterson said.
Baldwin clearly felt something for Patterson--he would even place a $750 bet on him. Patterson, for Baldwin, was an unlikely warrior, a complicated, vulnerable, troubled young man who seemed to yearn for privacy even as he uncorked yet another interview for another set of reporters. Baldwin watched Patterson jump rope, "which he must do according to some music in his head, very beautiful and gleaming and far away, like a boy saint helplessly dancing and seen through the steaming windows of a storefront church"; it was a scene that recalled Baldwin's boy saint Elisha, in his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.
After the training session, one of the last before the fight, Baldwin watched Patterson meet with a few reporters. Patterson drank a cup of hot chocolate and wore a tight shy smile. He was asked, as he was every day, why he was fighting Liston.
"Well, it was my decision to take the fight," Patterson said. "You gentlemen disagreed, but you were the ones who placed him in the number one position, so I felt it was only right. Liston's criminal record is behind him, not before him."
"Do you feel you've been accepted as champion?"
"No," he said. "Well, I have to be accepted as champion--but maybe not a good one."
"Why do you say that the opportunity to become a great champion will never arise?"
"Because you gentlemen will never let it arise."
"I mainly remember Floyd's voice, going cheerfully on and on," Baldwin remembered later in his piece for Nugget, "and the way his face kept changing, and the way he laughed; I remember the glimpse of him then, a man more complex than he was yet equipped to know, a hero for many children who were still trapped where he had been, who might not have survived without the ring, and who yet oddly did not really seem to belong there."
Before Baldwin left, he gave Patterson copies of Another Country and Nobody Knows My Name, inscribing them, "To Floyd Patterson... because we both know whence we come, and have some idea of where we're going."
Baldwin also visited Liston's camp, and there he found the Liston almost no one else did. Some reporters, including Jack McKinney of the Philadelphia Daily News, Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger, and Bob Teague of The New York Times (one of the very few black reporters on the sports beat), had enjoyed a good rapport with Liston, even when he was still a contender, but the rest had not. The reporters asked questions that invariably referred to this arrest or that shortcoming, and Sonny would answer with a grunt or a yes or a no or a sustained glare.
Even when Liston was trying to be funny with a reporter, he could be intimidating. A. J. Liebling once went up to visit him in training camp and was told he would get an interview at a local restaurant after the day's workout. Liston arrived at the restaurant and everyone around the banquette ordered cups of steaming tea. Suddenly, Liston's expression soured and he began screaming at his cornerman, Joe Pollino, about the two dollars he owed him. The two men argued and then Liston lunged toward Pollino.
"You lie, you hound!" Liston shouted. "Gimme my two bucks!"
As Liebling remembered it, "A vast fist shot out, and I heard a tremendous smack as Pollino went down, amid a shower of teeth." Liston then pulled out a pistol and started firing away at his cut man. Pollino slumped in the banquette. Then Liston turned the revolver on Liebling and fired. "I threw up my hands and, in doing so, spilled my tea." Liebling's self-description gives him more credit for calm than was genuinely due. He nearly died of heart failure on the spot. When he recovered, his overcoat now blotched with tea stains, Liebling heard Pollino explain that the teeth were actually white beans and Liston explain that the bullets were blanks.
"You come see us again, hear?" Liston told Liebling. "You come back!"
These public relations tactics, such as they were, got an ex post facto laugh from Liebling in print, yet they did not always charm. Many of the reporters approached Liston as they would a monster. The terms "gorilla" and "jungle cat" were common enough, but the texture of the racism became far more elaborate. Peter Wilson of The Daily Mirror wrote: "Sometimes he takes so long to answer a question, and has so much difficulty in finding the word he wants to use, that it's rather like a long-distance telephone call in a foreign language. But the man is fascinating. While his scarred face is immobile and his enormous painted-saucer eyes have the fixed glare of an octopus, his hands compel attention. The palms are soft and white, like the inside of a banana skin. His fingers are the unpeeled bananas."
Many of the reporters marked Liston's recalcitrance for stupidity or worse. Baldwin did not. "He is far from stupid; he is not, in fact, stupid at all," he wrote. "And while there is a great deal of violence in him, I sense no cruelty at all. On the contrary, he reminded me of big, black men I have known who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to conceal the fact that they weren't hard. Anyone who cared to could turn them into taffy. Anyway, I liked him, liked him very much. He sat opposite me at the table, sideways, head down, waiting for the blow: for Liston knows, as only the inarticulately suffering can, just how inarticulate he is. But let me clarify that: I say suffering because it seems to me that he has suffered a great deal. It is in his face, in the silence of that face, and in the curiously distant light in the eyes--a light which rarely signals because there have been so few answering signals. And when I say inarticulate, I really do not mean to suggest that he does not know how to talk. He is inarticulate in the way we all are when more has happened to us than we know how to express; and inarticulate in a particularly Negro way--he has a long tale to tell which no one wants to hear."
Liston, as it turned out, didn't mind talking to Baldwin. The son of a Harlem preacher, Baldwin, with his bulging sad eyes, was unlike any other writer who had visited him. Baldwin's soft manner was far different from the wised-up style of most of the journalists Liston had known, and so he spoke to Baldwin in a different tone, with his defenses down. "Colored people say they don't want their children to look up to me," Liston told Baldwin with great sorrow. "Well, they ain't teaching their children to look up to Martin Luther King, either." Liston seemed to be issuing a plea through Baldwin. "I wouldn't be no bad example if I was up there. I could tell a lot of those children what they need to know because I passed that way. I could make them listen."
Baldwin went away from his meeting with Liston liking him, but racked with confusion. In Patterson-Liston, the heavyweight championship was once more a morality play; what was unique was that the opponents were both black and represented opposing styles of rhetoric, of political style and action. Baldwin's essay for Nugget was not his best, but in it he was able to rehearse some of the themes he would develop the following year in what would be his most thorough statement on race, The Fire Next Time. "I felt terribly ambivalent, as many Negroes do these days," he wrote of Liston, "since we are all trying to decide, in one way or another, which attitude, in our terrible American dilemma, is the more effective: the disciplined sweetness of Floyd, or the outspoken intransigence of Liston.... Liston is a man aching for respect and responsibility. Sometimes we grow into our responsibilities and sometimes, of course, we fail them."
Baldwin's antagonist at the fight, his erstwhile friend Mailer, did not approach his chore with the same sadness or sense of burden. If Baldwin approached fight night with dread, Mailer looked forward to it with pleasure--the event was, after all, an opportunity both to witness something memorable and to perform. For all the ambition, energy, and self-advertisement he poured into the novels following The Naked and the Dead--The Deer Park, Barbary Shore, An American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam?--his journalism for Esquire and Harper's and Life was far more than a job done for money. His dispatches, written at great speed and length, from prizefights and political conventions, crackled with an energy that laid waste the conventions of fifties gentility. He was never more on the job than he was in Chicago for the Patterson-Liston fight. Patterson, he wrote,
was a liberal's liberal. The worst to be said about Patterson is that he spoke with the same cow's cud as other liberals. Think what happens to a man with Patterson's reflexes when his brain starts to depend on the sounds of "introspective," "obligation," "responsibility," "inspiration," "commendation," "frustrated," "seclusion"--one could name a dozen others from his book. They are a part of his pride; he is a boy from the slums of Bedford-Stuyvesant who has acquired these words like stocks and bonds and income-bearing properties. There is no one to tell him it would be better to keep the psychology of the streets than to cultivate the contradictory desire to be a great fighter and a great, healthy, mature, autonomous, related, integrated individual. What a shabby gentility there has been to Patterson's endeavor....
But the deepest reason that Negroes in Chicago had for preferring Patterson was that they did not want to enter again the logic of Liston's world. The Negro had lived in violence, had grown in violence, and yet had developed a view of life which gave him life. But its cost was exceptional for the ordinary man. The majority had to live in shame. The demand for courage may have been exorbitant. Now as the Negro was beginning to come into the white man's world, he wanted the logic of the white man's world: annuities, mental hygiene, sociological jargon, committee solutions for the ills of the breast. He was sick of a whore's logic and a pimp's logic, he wanted no more of mother wit, of smarts, or playing the dozens, of battling for true love into the diamond-hard eyes of every classy prostitute and hustler on the street. The Negro wanted Patterson, because Floyd was the proof a man could be successful and yet be secure. If Liston won, the old torment was open again. A man could be successful or he could be secure. He could not have both. If Liston had a saga, the average Negro wanted none of it.
If, for Mailer, Patterson was the "archetype of the underdog, an impoverished prince," "Liston was Faust. Liston was the light of every racetrack tout who dug a number on the way to work. He was the hero of every man who would war with destiny for so long as he had his gimmick; the cigarette smoker, the lush, the junkie, the tea-head, the fixer, the bitch, the faggot, the switchblade, the gun, the corporate executive, anyone who was fixed on power. It was due to Liston's style of fighting as much as anything else."
A literary footnote to the Baldwin-Mailer presence in Chicago was a short essay written by a young poet, LeRoi Jones, who had been allied with Allen Ginsberg and the Beat writers in Greenwich Village and who was becoming more of a presence in the Black Arts movement. Unlike Baldwin, who loved the tenderness in Patterson, Jones was disgusted with the champion, calling him an "honorary" white man who craved acceptance in the bourgeois world. He celebrated Liston as a threat, "the big black Negro in every white man's hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world." He was "'the huge Negro,' 'the bad nigger,' a heavy-faced replica of every whipped up woogie in the world. He is the underdeveloped, have-not (politically naive), backward country, the subject people, finally here to collect his pound of flesh." When Jones printed the essay in a collection titled Home, he added a footnote saying that now his heart was with the young Cassius Clay, for only Clay could represent the new militant, the truly independent black man.
At the remove of nearly forty years, when boxing has become a marginal event in American life, all this symbol-mongering heaped on the shoulders of two men belting each other in a ring for money seems faintly ridiculous. But for decades, boxing had been a central spectacle in America, and because it is so stripped-down, one-on-one, a battle with hands and not balls or pads or racquets, the metaphors of struggle, of racial struggle most of all, came easily. Ever since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title in 1908, white boxing fans and, most of all, white promoters required a white hope. Johnson avoided the black contenders of his era--Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, Sam McVey. Instead, his fight was against a Caucasian retiree, the former champion Jim Jeffries. Until late in his career, all of Joe Louis's leading opponents were white:
Schmeling, Billy Conn, Tony Galento. Sugar Ray Robinson fought one white after another--Bobo Olson, Paul Pender, Gene Fullmer, Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio; the promoters rarely offered remotely the same money for bouts against equally tough black challengers. With Patterson-Liston, something had changed. Both men were black; both had grown up with the same hero (Joe Louis), and with similar deprivations and injuries. The narrative of boxing, however, requires an opposition as broad as slapstick. A fight between two members of the same ethnic group has always required a level of differentiation. When John L. Sullivan, the first modern heavyweight champion, defended his bareknuckle title in 1889 against Jake Kilrain, Sullivan was required to play the bad Irish immigrant who drank and took lots of women to bed while Kilrain was the good immigrant, the virtuous worker. Until Patterson-Liston, the press did not bother much with drawing differences between blacks.
Now the symbolic differences between the two fighters were obvious, and the resulting pressures on Patterson, especially, were making his life impossible. Patterson's fear was evident even in his carriage at the weigh-in, a ritual that has always required of fighters a molten stare or, at least, a chilling equanimity. But as Liston glared at Patterson, Patterson stared at his own feet. He never stared at an opponent before a fight. Couldn't risk it. After all, he said, "we're going to fight, which isn't a nice thing." Once, as an amateur, he made the mistake of looking his opponent in the eye and he saw that he had a nice face and the two fighters smiled at each other. From then on Patterson looked at the floor. Except now he had real reason to worry. Sonny Liston wanted to run a truck over him, and he felt if he let it happen he would have failed his family, his country, his president, and his race.
"I kept thinking about these things right up until the fight," Patterson said later. "When the bell rang and I came out, instead of seeing Liston, I seemed to have a vision of all these people; what they told me and wanted me to do. All I can remember is that I wasn't able to think of the fight at all."
Excerpted from King of the World by David Remnick Copyright © 2006 by David Remnick. Excerpted by permission.
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