On Speed: Fifty Years Forward G.O.A.T.—Part Two

By Michael Schmidt on February 6, 2014
On Speed: Fifty Years Forward G.O.A.T.—Part Two
Forty-three out of forty-seven “boxing experts” picked Liston by knockout. (Getty Images)

What would Budd Schulberg say of the soul sucking sport that fifty years later still has not addressed his emptiness?

February 25, 1964 / Liston vs. Clay, No. 1

“He’s all pretense and gas…In a way Clay is a freak…He is a Bantamweight who weighs more than two hundred pounds.”—Jimmy Cannon (pre-fight)

“He used to fight like a lightweight in a big man’s body.”—Angelo Dundee

“He was just so damned fast.”—George Chuvalo

“Films indicate that his jabs are one-third faster than Sugar Ray Robinson, the great middleweight’s, were – so he is not just fast for a big man, he is fast for a midget.”—Wilfred Sheed

“The Lessons of Life amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.”—Wallace Stegner

It is a Las Vegas July, 1963. Hot, but not unbearably so, for a literary giant feasting of letters, while observing of pugilistic giants. The heat, on average this time of year is 40°C (104°F), perhaps that much inner self made more; a twenty-year marriage soon to disintegrate, an exposé, made into a legendary film, now some years back, of all that was boxing including its stark ugliness, exploitation, and of leeches and connivers. It was a screenplay not only showing the boxing world raw but as well the soul depleting love that was all of the authors to hold of the Sweet Science. I wonder if he felt alone. It no doubt left him ostracized in the boxing world, which in his own words, was a grand juxtaposition that involved purity, grace, and the artfully lonely. 

Some six months later, removed from The Dunes, and the Thunderbird Hotel, and back at home in Mexico City, his Patterson vs. Liston II poster was already “curling and fading with age” in the trunk of his station wagon. It was one month prior to Liston vs. Clay I and he was about to put pen to paper to lament “The Death of Boxing?”

The legendary Budd Schulberg’s main Protagonist to his lamentation was “Gaseous,” and a “Clown Prince,” while also being the “perpetrator of both the big laugh and the big lie.” Here further was a young man yet to have “mastered his trade.” The Protagonist, an “inexperienced boy, speedy of hand and foot, blasted off to stardom in an era when propaganda takes precedence over performance.” The aforementioned comments were not Schulberg’s malice of thought but rather fear as to what was going to happen to the young Protagonist shortly. In a broader boxing sense the young Protagonist’s end result would be the next version of a broken down (or worse) character from one of Schulberg’s Hollywood movies. 

The legendary Schulberg’s pre-fight reasoning was sound. “Last spring in the Garden solid citizen Doug Jones exposed him as a rangy boy, fast with his hands, but totally ignorant of infighting and highly susceptible to a punch on the jaw. Even Patterson could beat him and to put him in with Liston too soon may stigmatize the promoters as accessory to legalized murder.” Pre-fight polling by UPI had forty-three out of forty-seven “boxing experts” picking Liston by knockout (a percentage of the range to make my good friend Frank “The Bear” cringe (see “On Experts” August 30, 2013). Another survey of sixty-two writers polled had only three picking the young Protagonist winning.

There were those that had expertise born of untold hours in dressing rooms, quiet, dark and damp gyms and in corner observation born of blood and toil. Cus D’Amato felt that if the Protagonist moved he had a chance and Sugar Ray Robinson felt the Protagonist would win by knockout as his speed would be the decisive factor. Conversely the legendary Billy Conn felt the Protagonist was a “freak, just an amateur.” Heavyweight Champion and Cinderella Man James J. Braddock felt the seven-to-one odds were ridiculous and that the Protagonist had a “good chance.”

One month later, Schulberg’s Protagonist, put to paper as “the Boy” was now The Man and what was the man, Liston, was left, quitter to a stool and of a lonely corner. Cassius Clay had walked into the ring that night, calmly listened to referee Barney Felix’s instructions, looked at Liston, and quietly whispered “I got you sucker.” Less than thirty minutes later he finished his work, in shocking artistic fashion, and had made a sucker out of many “experts.”

What Clay/Ali exhibited that night was an astounding and rarified exhibition of speed coupled with a chin and willpower graced of iron. He came out in the first minute of the round and gave Liston a taste of speed, and when he had his opponent’s legendary power whispering wind like close but miss to his ebony jaw, he pivoted shortly thereafter of that first minute and started to lightning bolt hurt Sonny with astonishing hard right hands. 

In the second round Liston landed, and landed hard, with no outward effect. By the third round it was Sonny back on his heels with his legs not looking so secure. No Heavyweight would have beaten Clay/Ali that night! 

Sports Illustrated named the first Clay-Liston fight as the fourth greatest sporting moment of the 20th century. As for Clay, then post-fight Ali, one is only left wondering how much greater the legacy in consideration of those missing three and a half years which commenced at the tender age, but age of prime, twenty-five years old, twenty-nine wins, no defeat. While the return of the King showed a personality who had no aversion to his then worldwide celebrity, certainly, in contrast, he appeared to fight, not of what he was, but as a cliché of his former self; not quite as fast but trying the same motions, not as often up on the toes and “dancing,” and every so often not even remotely in the same physical condition. 

A few years after retirement Ali, in a moment of non-jocular humility, was asked where he rated himself, all time, amongst the Heavyweights. He responded that realistically he would like to be remembered as the best of his era. That he was!

At his best he fought the best. When he may have been at his very best time past him. When no longer his best, he came back, and he still beat the best. Perhaps that is one of the greatest measurements of the self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time). The other is the enduring nature of his stardom. A 2012 Time magazine article had Ali as one of the twenty most influential Americans of all time in terms of, amongst other things, visionaries and cultural ambassadors. The list included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford amongst others.

Fast Forward Fifty Years / Floyd & Manny

This February 24th Floyd Mayweather will be thirty-seven years of age. Manny Pacquiao will be thirty-six years of age this year. Enjoy them now! They are both great and special in their boxing time. As can be said of a legendary list of their predecessors, in their boxing uniqueness, there will only be one Manny Pacquiao and there will only be one Floyd Mayweather. Such is their greatness exhibited by length of career and consistent high level of skill set. However, they have not and will not be dragon slayers, one to the other, in their prime. They will not bear witness to the privilege of kindly spoken boxing history in not taking the measure of each other in their prime. How else can superiority, greatness as it were, be established in the era that has been theirs? 

All for one, one for all, Muhammad Ali sought out and took with him the measure of his greatness forward, in beating the best of his era in the likes of Liston, Frazier and Foreman. To the Champion: fast forward of speed, fifty years past, February 25, 1964 and as the greatest of his era, to the era of self-inflicted loss, and the era of return greatness. His legend endures!

Side Note

Manufactured boxing landscapes! Boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, for the bulk of you, march to the pre-patterned publicity drumbeat and fall in line. You will post your blogs, listen to your experts, follow the television and promotional releases and wonder who possibly would be a next good fight for Floyd Mayweather. Keith Thurman is an undefeated world champion knockout artist. I leave you to your own conclusion as to what would happen if Keith Thurman got in the ring with Amir Khan! Sergio Martinez is one of the Middleweight Champions of the world and a great one at that. Sergio Martinez advises that he will knock Miguel Cotto out in five rounds. Miguel Cotto is a legendary warrior who has never fought at Middleweight. I ask you to envision what would happen to Miguel Cotto if he was in the ring with Gennady Golovkin. I ask you to consider what would have happened if Lucian Bute had been in the ring with Kovalev this past weekend. Stevenson vs. Kovalev! Mayweather vs. Thurman! Golovkin vs. Martinez! 

“Nobody asked me but…” what would Jimmy Cannon say of today’s boxing business model. What would Budd Schulberg say of the soul sucking sport that fifty years later still has not addressed his emptiness? 

On Speed: Fifty Years Forward G.O.A.T.—Part One
On Speed: Fifty Years Forward G.O.A.T.—Part Two

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Sonny Liston vs Cassius Clay (Original)

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  1. El Bastardo Magnifico 03:00pm, 02/24/2014

    SOLD FOR $836,500- almost 50 years to the day- this past weekend Heritage Auction sold Ali’s gloves worn for and against Liston in their first fight!!!

  2. Mike Schmidt 01:38am, 02/24/2014

    Sorry for the late reply Nicolas- have been on holidays. Very very valid point. Liston certainly looked more fit, hard, faster etc if one goes back and looks at his Big Cat Williams fight. Paul Gallender, who has written articles at boxing.com and is the author of an extremely interesting book, “Sonny Liston, The Real Story Behind the Ali/Liston Fights” page 154, gives some VERY INTERESTING INFORMATION- ” In Miami, Sonny send for Joe Louis’s personal physician….Nobody outside of Liston’s camp knew that he had injured his left shoulder so badly during training that it hurt him every time he hit the heavy bag…...Due to his injury Sonny sparred only 91 rounds in training and by scaling a career-high 218 at the weigh-in he would enter the ring a very heavy 224 or 225 pounds…..” Would a prime and in shape Liston have won against young “Clay”?? Styles and perhaps not but most certainly one could entertain a different highway of history in a major way if Sonny had been fit. Thanks for the post Nicolas- Excellent point

  3. Mike Schmidt 01:28am, 02/24/2014

    50 Years tomorrow!!

  4. nicolas 11:42pm, 02/17/2014

    I think that the greatest mistake that Liston had was perhaps the feeling of invincibility. He had three straight victories from late 61 to 63 with first round knockouts. three rounds only. Only one fight in 62 and one fight in 63, both against Patterson. I remember with Gerry Conney, I knew he could not win fighting Homes, with only three fights in 80 and 81 totaling six rounds.

  5. Mike Schmidt/El Bastardo Magnifico 02:57pm, 02/11/2014

    The Crooner and the Catwoman!! I keep getting him mixed up with Bobby D. I think James was in the Gidget movies and in real life Bobby married Sandra Dee- go figure- Lee of course was a sexy Catwoman , Ms Universe and was- I think I got this - in Barnaby Jones- the Pops from Berverly Hillbilly’s- shist- Buddy Ebsen

  6. Mel 02:44pm, 02/11/2014

    Very good Mike. With James Darren and Lee Meriwether

  7. Mike Schmidt 12:27pm, 02/11/2014

    Lastly!!! For you guys that emailed me last five days- you know who you are and thanks much- great positive feedback.

  8. Mike Schmidt 12:18pm, 02/11/2014

    Sometimes we get busy and forget to thank - TheRingsideBoxingShow, Philboxing, YouK news, thanks all for putting us up and putting up with us. Fearless Editor as always and to Julie and Christy as always thanks a ton- if I was 90 years younger and single!!! If they make a tandem of Publicist’s any more gorgeous than the both of you- nah, impossible- you make agency work easy and thanks Jensen wherever the hell you are or aren’t. Mission complete in Panama- great country, great People

  9. Mike Schmidt- El Bastardo Magnifico 12:13pm, 02/11/2014

    Sorry for the delay in response- in order: 1) Thanks Peter, I thought the quote fit the feel 2) Irish Frankie yes by all means parlay we shall with Frank the Bear holding the tick- Kovalev KTFO Stevenson early and in violent nature, Mayweather wins the toughest fight of his life befitting of a rematch, and GGG K.O’s Sergio again in a statement K.O.  If we are wrong let the ghost of Moe Dalitz pick up our marker!!!! 3) Sneak always a pleasure- I had a kind of love hate in regards to Ali- too much clowning in the ring and not respecting his talents- it cost him 4) Richard, again thanks 5) Champion Whip as always much appreciated- see you soon amigo- Johnny Kalbhenn being inducted into K- Hall of Fame end of April at Edelweiss- don’t be late 6) Mel you had me on that one for a bit- the intro to the old T.V show of course. 7) Tex- awesome- a triggered memory- glad to here- whenever I think of one of these old fights it usually triggers a place, a face, a happening, time spend with a friend or family… 8) Frank!!!!! Wo bist du??? Thuringia?? Thanks- an honor 9) Koolz - agree, agree and more agree 10) Yes Don, again you got it. 11) Donald- hey who comes more passionate than you- how about chasing Bob Arum down at MGM to give him shit about fights to be made- you got it lad!!! 12) Thank you Cutman C. V. - see you back in Panama March 22 baby- bolt down the hatches here comes the kid, Juan Huertas ( sparring with his good buddy Felix Verdejo recently amigo . Say hello to Pops and El Gato Boyd. 13 ) D.W- google “Muhammad Ali- Speed” by Reznick Productions and Gorilla Productions- beautifully done. 14) Eugene- agreed- for a good pre-fight article go into the Sports Illustrated archives on Ali vs Williams the week before the fight. Thanks again to all for the positive feedback- a pleasure. Always great to go back and read these great boxing writers, Cannon and company, W.C Heinz, up to Mark Kram, Hauser, etc etc what a list of great writers over the years!!!!

  10. Eugene 04:35pm, 02/10/2014

    Well written article, great work Mike!  On that note, Ali’s speed and footwork during the first phase of his career were off the charts.  I thought Ali was at his very best a few years later in 1966 against Cleveland Williams.  That night Ali introduced the “Ali shuffle” and overall was in peak dominant form.  His footwork and hand speed were off the charts, way too much for Williams to handle.

  11. Durell 02:33pm, 02/10/2014

    Great article… Had to dig out some Ali footage, man his speed was astonishing! Hand & foot! Incredible for a big man. I think his pre fight antics got to Charles… On a side note: To be great you have to fight & beat the BEST in your era, Ali did it… I wish some of todays P4P’s would respect the sport & fans not just treat it as a business, though it is!

  12. Carlos Varela jr. 10:48am, 02/10/2014

    Best heavyweight of all time, just listen to Chuvalo comments on fighting Ali, compare to the actual champions or good heavyweights of this era, and they look like they are fighting in slow motion, a lot of good matches suggest gy Schmidty and a good excuse to keeping talking boxing with people who really care about the sport.

  13. Donald 10:37am, 02/10/2014

    Thought this was a well written article. Very engaging and thought out. You can tell it’s written with passion.

  14. Don from Prov 06:46am, 02/09/2014

    I believe that Mr. Cannon, rightly so, would be sickened by today’s boxing business model wherein “business” trumps “boxing” at far too many turns.

  15. Koolz 04:26pm, 02/08/2014

    Khan and Thurman?  Man Thurman would be one time on Khan that would be a fast fight.  I see Thurman beating him in four rounds as KO.

    Golovkin well forget it there isn’t anyone in his or around his weight class that can beat him.

    Yes Ali!!  Ali is the Greatest!  Ali Danced like he was Jumping rope, Bruce Lee copied his movements.  Ali was by far the fastest boxer Bruce Lee the fastest Human at punching. 

    Ali’s famous Ghost Punch.

    I think Kovalev would Ko Stevenson.

  16. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:57am, 02/08/2014

    Mike Schmidt-I enjoyed the article very much but I must tell you the “Side Note” is what really provoked my thoughts…..“I ask you to consider…..Stevenson vs. Kovalev! Mayweather vs. Thurman! Golovkin Vs. Martinez! “....I say parlay Kovalev to Mayweather to Golovkin…..do you concur, Counselor?....if not….why? I await your learned opinion….or do I have to wait for Clarence George’s and raxman’s tip sheets to come out.

  17. Frank Weber 07:34am, 02/08/2014

    I picked your article up from Phil boxing. A vision of today from a historical feel. Well crafted Mr. Schmidt. Of course Ali was well received in our country, Germany. To answer your questions: Cotto would not last three rounds with The Champion Golovkin and nor would Khan with Mr. One Time Thurman. The press releases will zero both of Golovkin and Thurmans name out of the equation. A shame.

  18. Tex Hassler 11:29pm, 02/07/2014

    It is hard for me to believe that nearly 50 years ago in Shreveport, Louisiana I watched the Clay - Liston fight on closed circut tv and paid to do so. To be honest I did not think Ali had a chance but I was soon proved to be wrong. Wonderful article that brought back memories.

  19. Mel 01:22pm, 02/07/2014

    Schmidty, “The Time Tunnel…lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages…”  Reminds me of your time travel back to the Concord Hotel and your Lost Summer Smoke Frazier article.

  20. Fitz The Whip Vanderpool 12:42pm, 02/07/2014

    Nice article Mr Schmidty , yes a (Cassius Clay) Ali was fast and could move like a lightweight but I think that what helps set him apart from other boxers is his gift to gab (poetry ) and he backed it it up with style. .thanks for the good read ~FTW

  21. Richard Ochnik 07:36am, 02/07/2014

    Great story

  22. Pete The Sneak 06:14am, 02/07/2014

    El Bastardo Magnifico, another gem. Was never a big Ali fan back in the day, but yeah, he did “Shake up the world” in boxing.. Also like the comparison between Ali taking on the best of his era while most of today’s ‘elite’ fighters are just making errors, in fighting everyone but the best…Peace.

  23. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:58pm, 02/06/2014

    Mike Schmidt-I enjoyed this thought provoking article. The “Side Note” presented some interesting questions as well. Keep’em coming!

  24. peter 03:15pm, 02/06/2014

    Thank you for this excellent article and thank you for resurrecting one of my favorite quotes: “The Lessons of Life amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.”—Wallace Stegner

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