Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Devil and Sonny Liston by Nick Tosches

The heavyweight champion means something, and always has.

Each of the men to hold the title has a narrative behind him, and occupies an important historic and symbolic role in American life. Jack Johnson in the 1910’s became a pure, dangerous embodiment of American swagger a couple decades before the rest of the country developed a similar swagger. Joe Louis was an important part of the stoic, hard-working “Greatest Generation.” And Louis’s eventual, heartbreaking descent into irrelevance and drug abuse was caused by America itself, and serves as a warning of what we do to our celebrities and heroes. Ali became one of the most important dissenting voices in American history. The list goes on we could do this all day, and if anyone knew who the current world champ is we could talk about him in a similar way. (On a side note, the fact that the “title” has devolved into an endless maze of belts and divisions and conferences so labyrinthine and repetitive that it renders the idea of a single champ irrelevant certainly fits this digital age.)

In “The Devil and Sonny Liston” Nick Tosches tries to analyze Sonny Liston and redeem his role in boxing history. Tosches is a dynamic writer who has written multiple biographies and novels, and is an editor at Vanity Fair, he’s also likely written the definitive biography of Liston, and the book, much like Liston himself, is seriously flawed, yet still packs a hell of a punch. 

You may not know who Sonny Liston is, but you’ve seen his picture countless times. He’s the one on the ground, on his back, in front of Ali’s hooked arm and gaping yell in one of the most iconic pictures of the 20th century. That picture, which can be found on countless t-shirts, posters (including one up in then-Senator Obama’s office) and computer desktops is Ali’s moment, but it came at Liston’s expense. He has too often been relegated to just the guy that Ali beat in order to become the champ, and then the guy he beat again the next year. Tosches’s book tries to reassert Liston’s boxing skill, and tell the story of a troubled man manipulated by larger forces.

Tosches admits it, Liston’s friends admitted it and even Liston admitted it—Sonny was a bad man. He, much like Foreman and Tyson after him, was out to hurt you, and Tosches often refers to his “dead eyes.” This is part of what made Liston so compelling and frightening in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it’s still part of why he’s such a dark and looming figure in boxing history. He went to prison multiple times, there were rumors of him being a mob enforcer and murderer, there seems to have been a never-ending stream of accusations of sexual assault and even his friends were scared of him. Tosches quotes Amiri Baraka (back when he was LeRoi Jones) as saying “Sonny Liston was the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under.”

Tosches doesn’t try to hide the violent and frightening side of Liston’s life and personality, but he does want to tell his story honestly and give the man his due when he deserves it. Tosches does a spectacular job of detailing the meteoric rise of Liston’s boxing career and the dominating skill and power he showed in the ring. Liston comes across as frighteningly strong in the ring, and we get the sad impression that we never even saw his best.

The writing style tries to match Liston’s power. Tosches aims for a hard boiled, noir rhetoric of sharp jabbing sentences that punch the reader back. Sometimes it works (often it doesn’t) and the book has some truly beautiful sentences about ugly subjects:  “He was not a fool. No. But what there was of wisdom in him told him that, between breaking one’s back and breaking the back of others, between being the victim of sinful injustice and being its deliverer, it was better to break than to be broken. Fuck right and wrong, neither of which had been a friend to him; and fuck that honest pay shit.”

The book is also very valuable as a history of boxing during its most mob-addled history. Tosches does a great job of untangling the dense web of connections between the mafia, boxers and their managers/promoters. There are countless names, and countless partnerships, and at times it’s hard to remember who’s working for who and which mobster is behind it all, but I think that’s part of the point.

This is one of the best things about Tosches’s book, in detailing the overwhelming influence of the mob on EVERYONE, he also redeems boxing to a certain extent. Rigged and thrown fights are an important part of this book, but Tosches, and some of the people he interviews, challenges the notion that all or most fights were rigged. As Tosches said, when the mob “had a piece of both fighters, it mattered little who won.”

But Tosches does go out of his way to come as close as he legally can to claiming that both Liston/Ali matches were thrown by Sonny. His arguments are very, disturbingly persuasive and are nearly devastating to Ali’s legacy. But his claims about the first Liston/Ali fight are as shaky as his claims about the second Ali/Liston fight are strong.

The first fight was close, with both men landing serious punches that would have incapacitated nearly anyone else in the world. After the fourth round Ali goes to his corner and says he can’t see because there’s something stinging his eyes; he tries to take his gloves off because of the pain, and because seeing is generally important when the toughest guy in the world is trying to kill you, but his manager splashes water on his face and shoves him out there. Ali’s vision clears and just before the seventh round Liston remains on his stool and refuses to fight; he claims his shoulder hurt and the rest of his arm went numb. Ali became the champ.

Tosches presents many tantalizing bits of evidence to support his (not quite explicitly made) claim that Sonny threw the fight, but he doesn’t explain why Ali suddenly went blind. Most other boxing experts point to the Liston corner putting some type of irritant on Sonny’s gloves in order to blind Ali, and some people have claimed to have seen one of Liston’s cornermen put something on the gloves and throw the bottle under the ring. Tosches, in a very obligatory way, mentions the blindness, but doesn’t explain why Liston would try to cheat if he was just going to throw the fight. If Liston didn’t blind Ali, then who the hell did?

He does a better job with the rematch. There’s been much said about the second Liston/Ali fight and the phantom punch that knocked Liston down early and kept him down in a “none too convincing pose.” Even at the time the audience started booing and Ali has faced suspicions about that fight ever since. I hate to admit it, but the fight seems shady and Tosches is far from the first to say so.

What Tosches does well in regards to the second fight, and to his career as a whole, is present Liston as the victim of larger, darker forces. He was disliked by white politicians (such as JFK and RFK) who openly rooted against him because he was such a troublemaker, the NAACP didn’t want him to be champ because they thought it would set race relations back, the police were always after him (sometimes legitimately, sometimes not), the mafia saw him as a huge money maker but also an expensive nuisance and the Nation of Islam saw him as a threat to their man Ali becoming champ. Tosches persuasive claim is that these forces, plus Sonny’s own demons, finally flexed their muscles, and Liston took a dive in the second fight.

But as persuasive as this argument is, this is also where Tosches’s intense Ali-hatred comes in too strong. He dismisses Ali as someone who was too mainstream when he was Cassius Clay and then the darling of egghead intellectuals once he became a dissident. Tosches can’t even admit that Ali was a good fighter, much less an important anti-war voice, and instead paints him as an obnoxious, self-serving, media driven star. Ali may have been all of this, but he also deserves credit for the rest of his career and his fight against racism and Vietnam.

At the same time Tosches goes too far in defense of Liston at times. Yes, he presents us with the known facts around the numerous allegations of sexual assault against Liston, but he has a habit of presenting them straight—just the facts. But when Liston spends an hour at an orphanage, and enjoys playing with the kids and they enjoy him—it turns into a theme that comes back over and over and over again as proof that he was an okay guy. I think Tosches does a bit of a disservice to Liston in his attempts to paint him as someone who was secretly brilliant and kind. He was a bad man, and that’s okay, it doesn’t make him less important or less manipulated by the mob, politicians and American culture.

Tosches’s book isn’t new, it came out in 2000. And it seems to have been written just in time. Many of these interview subjects were in their 80s and 90s when Tosches finds them and their insights are vital to the success of this book. We get to hear it straight from the guys who were there. The cop who arrested Liston? Here he is. The guy who knows who rigged which fights? Still alive (at the time). Sonny’s half brother who remembers him as a child? No problem. Tosches’s leg-work is breathtaking and it’s doubtful that anyone could gather more information without the discovery of someone’s secret archive.

This book is required for anyone who cares about boxing’s past, but this is also an important book about American history and the role of sport in society. And if you’ve admired Ali in that famous photo, then you deserve to read the other half of the story.

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