Maybe Mohammed Ali came not to destroy boxing but to fulfil it. But he destroyed it nevertheless. Before Ali, boxing was an existentialist art form in the same way as jazz and the blues were existentialist art forms. By existentialist I mean places where people were busy drowning and it was an impertinence to try and save them. A sense of ruin and defeat inevitably haunts every moment in these arenas, prowling around as a principle, where as Dylan knows, there’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all. From the thirties to the fifties this was boxing’s domain: Ali brought in the sixties and its revolutions and like everywhere else, nothing would ever be the same again. .
The familiar note of monochrome requiem is the sombre music of the fight game pre-Ali, a fag and whisky dive mix of Miles Davies sax cool and Charles Hoff noire snap. What came after Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston was a different kind of meaning, one which took almost all of its power from Ali himself. And with his passing there’s not a lot left. Boxing’s a marginal player for an increasingly dwindling audience on satellite tv, no longer able to carry messages about ourselves that go deeper than, for example, the average game show greed or WWF circus camp routine or ‘Fight Club’ Extreme-Fighting chic. .
Before Ali boxing carried a different kind of truth. Sonny Liston was the perfect symbol of that truth, the last undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World before Ali. Sonny Liston, the man who more than probably threw his two fights with Ali – certainly anyone who has seen the footage can’t see any reason for his quitting on his stool in the first one and let’s be honest, he just plain fell down and stayed down without being hit at all in the second - what truth he brought with him was the reputation of being indestructible without zeal, corrupt in a metaphysical sense and dangerous in the way decadence is always dangerous. And think about it – if Ali is the perfect symbol of a new set of truths – then it was only because Liston allowed Ali to exist that we had such a symbol. Ali is Liston’s gift, brought into being through ‘The Big Bear’s’ own ennui, as perfectly realised as anything in Camus, Sartre or Beckett. .
A police record – maybe a murder rap, someone forever being surveyed by the forces of law and order, a man whose knowledge of what was going to happen next depended on ‘whatever happened in the dressing room first,’ a man who knew what was going down, who on his first visit to Las Vegas in 1960 surveyed the scene and quit Vegas that time saying ‘I’m not staying in any big-assed hotels that segregate,’ who kept his age vague and affiliated rumours precise, this was the truth out of which he forged his life. The deal, the fix, the price, the information – Sonny Liston’s boxing world was about gambling to the final limit, of making the right kind of bet at the wrong time for a reason, the same reason – to always return to his first hate, suffering. .
And when finally dead in his house, alone and undiscovered for a week, needle marks, blood, heroine, dope, a man of substance either OD’d or ‘seen to,’ the official verdict came back as ‘natural causes’ and all the people in the know were left laughing that hollow laughter that’s just a way of accepting doom. Paul Bowles has a character ask in his novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’ if ‘…any American can truthfully accept a definition of life which makes it synonymous with suffering..’? Liston did. That’s what boxing used to be about. .
Bruce Jay Friedman wrote about Liston in 1974, the year he died, for ‘Esquire’ magazine. ‘Requiem For A Heavy’ (1) is a sharp, punched up piece of prose that outlines this existential Liston. Friedman wrote the screenplay of ‘Stir Crazy’ amongst other film scripts, as well as numerous essays and a couple of novels and this essay has the store of fact and image tenaciously held on to so that what he presents has the impression of things stamped upon the mind - buzz, movement, activity, gusto – it works like a fast, in-the-stew B-movie. Its worth reading again just for the hundreds of brilliantly imagined insights into what Liston stands for – and the rigorous exclusions which leave you to try and guess just what other meanings there are hanging around the page. .
When a cabbie trips over Liston’s grave in South Las Vegas, the smallest in the graveyard, and comments that he wants to get his camera and photo it, saying “it’s a great symbol,” Friedman has the visitor with him fire back; ‘Don’t bother… Besides, it’s not a symbol. It’s just a small grave.’ You read that and you know that you’re being given the accidental edge of the alien space where disaster and comedy accommodate Liston’s suppressed human tragedy – but in a way which allows the tragedy to remain suppressed if you want it to be. .
The force of this Kafkaesque life, where ‘from a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back’, for which boxing can rightfully be said to be an objective correlative, comes from this refusal to unravel itself and make itself explicit. And so we are reminded of the poignant truth of what boxing used to mean, a physical embodiment of Rimbaud’s rejection of beauty – ‘One evening I seated Beauty on my knee/… and I found her bitter/… and I insulted her.’ .
Perhaps it’s right to bury boxing – boxing’s so last century - but what Friedman reminds us of is something of the sullen grandeur it used to contain, where, in the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘everyone is born a king, and most people die in exile – like most Kings’. .
1. Now reprinted in Bruce Jay Friedman : ‘Even The Rhinos Were Nymphos’ University Of Chicago Press 2000