WHAT happened to Tom Peters between the weigh-in for the Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay world heavyweight title fight and the fight itself was … Tom Peters got drunk.
Tom Peters often got drunk but not at such an important time as this. He was, after all, the boxing writer for the Globe, a London tabloid newspaper second only in circulation to the five-million selling Daily Mirror.
Tom Peters had filed a sparkling report on the weigh-in, which had made the Globe’s front page with a pointer to the longer version of the story on the back page.
The Globe’s readers had read how the young upstart Cassius Clay had taunted the world champion, had called him a bear, and the readers were eager for more.
Peters had noted that Clay’s description of Liston had been an apt one. At the same time, in his back page report, Peters had gone against popular opinion in boxing ranks to predict that Clay, the boy from Louisville, Kentucky, would beat the world’s most feared boxer, Liston, who had dispatched his predecessor Floyd Patterson in the first round of two title fights, knocking him to the canvass on both occasions.
The readers of the Globe were asking why should it be different for the inexperienced challenger, with just a few fights under his belt.
Peters had the answer. He noted Clay’s speed, and the possibility he might wear down his bigger opponent over the 15 rounds.
And here was Peters, his readers hanging on his every word, lying drunk on the floor of the main bar of the Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach, just an hour out from the fight.
Peters had been drinking all day before and after the weigh-in. The excitement of the event and the fight to follow had clearly go to him, but the other boxing writers from Britain who had been drinking with him were surprised at how drunk he had become.
He was always known to be a heavy drinker, from the time he had first gone to the United States to cover Rocky Marciano fights in the early 1950s, and through the Patterson era.
In recent years, however, Peters had crossed the line that divides “Someone who likes a drink’’ from a problem drinker.
As Peters lay on the floor, after collapsing while ordering a round at the bar of the hotel, the boxing writers discussed what to do with him or, more to the point, how to sober him up.
He was moved to a sofa but merely asked for more drink, trying to get to his feet and proclaiming he’d be all right in time for the fight.
Coffee was ordered, a big pot of it, before Peters slumped on the sofa again and three of the correspondents took him up to is room and put him to bed.
What to do next? they asked, grouped in a huddle in the bar.
Do they telex Peters’ office, and tell the Globe the bad news. Or do they, as one suggested, write Peters’ report for him, each contributing a round.
It seem an incredible, even bizarre, thing to be discussing, but the loyalties within the fraternity of boxing writers went deep. And wasn’t it Peters, the most senior of the group, who had always given everyone help and encouragement when they started out, irrespective of what publication they worked for and whether it was a rival of the Globe’s?
After a brief discussion, with no opposing voices, the fraternity of boxing writers decided to cover for Peters, in the hope their ruse would not be tumbled.
Each writer would be given a round, each journalist drawing a folded piece of paper from a beer glass, the pieces of paper numbered from one to 15, the scheduled duration of the fight.
Round one went to the man from the Daily Mirror, a racy tabloid like Peters’ own newspaper and Britain’s biggest selling publication.
It was good the Mirror man, Ben Johnstone, would be first out of Peters’ corner because his style of writing would not be so very different from Peters’ own, but with some subtle differences. There would be some boxing cliches rescued from the Peters’ archive that Johnstone had studied of old.
Next up was to be writer from the Manchester Guardian, Rod Harris. The Guardian carried the flag of the liberalism in the north ofEnglandand was so well respected for its writing that it had a sizeable circulation in the south amid the intelligensia in schools, colleges and universities.
Following Harris would be Len Ashton, of the populist, British chauvinistic Daily Express, the newspaper of Lord Beaverbrook which inBritain’s late colonial period had still promoted paternalistic imperial domination.
Round four would come from the pen of the correspondent of the Daily Worker, the organ of Britain’s Communist Party. Communists were barred from entering the United States but the Daily Worker’s boxing writer, Ted Grove, had sneaked into the country pretending to represent a Caribbean newspaper.
Round five would be reported by the gentleman from The Times, Quenton Plunkett, and round six by John Brewer, working for the News Chronicle, the main voice of liberalism in Britain that had yet to reach the red brick universities up north, as the Guardian did.
Nine other correspondents were lined up, in case the fight went that far, despite predictions from most of the correspondents, barring Peters, that Clay would not last the pace and the distance.
Within an hour the fight was underway and the telex machines in London were humming with the reports of its progress.
Gunslingers on the street. It was high noon at last. All the talk was now over, it was time to show who had the fastest draw. The champion Sonny Liston and the pretender after his crown, Cassius Clay, eyed each other from their corners, in those crucial seconds before the bell. It seemed like a lifetime. The seconds like years. Liston, with all the firepower, the man who had blasted former champ Lloyd Patterson off his thrown, scowled. The young gun, Clay, fixed him straight in the eye, the bullseye.
All had gone strangely silent now, the silence of anticipation, the silence finally broken by the clang of the bell and all hell breaking loose. A cacophony of shouts and screams from the audience. Clay jumped forward, eager to get at his foe. Liston came with a swagger, the confidence of a man who had put more experienced opponents if not in the ground, on it. He just strolled to the centre of the ring, meeting the forward rushing Clay just a few strides into his slow, casual step; hunched forward, stopping Clay in his tracks with a deadly stare, a stare like a bullet, a snarl on his lips. Clay danced away after landing his first punch. He was showing movement, skipping, swaying from side to side, coming in and then retreating. Liston followed him, looking for his target, and he finally snapped a punch, getting Clay right between the eyes. Clay shrugged off the shot, wounded but prepared for more and he let Liston know it. Clay showed a good fast jab, and then some quick combinations, but nothing to hurt Liston. Liston was not in prison yet, the single cell with bars facing the dusty drag, the one he had known in his career as a criminal when the sheriff’s Winchesterrifle butt couldn’t tame him. Would Clay’s weapons hurt him now? Clay, known to have a punch, didn’t have a rifle butt, but he had a Colt .45 and he was going for it.
Cassius Clay had cut a fragile figure sitting in his corner, fragile, that is, compared with the might and power and brute force of the brooding Sonny Liston on the other side of the ring from him. If Clay was the fighter who would float like a butterfly before stinging like a bee, this was definitely his lepidopteran phase. The butterfly had grown in strength over the early fights leading to the contest of all contests after emerging from his pupa stage during the Olympics. He had his wings bruised along the way, notably the sheen shaken off them in that famous encounter with Henry Cooper when he was put on the canvas, but he came back. Butterflies, in spite of their fragile beauty, are resilient after all. They survive rain and storm and come back just as strong. There was beauty in this butterfly, a shimmering, sculpted shape, a wonder of nature, handsome and strong. In contrast, a dragonfly (or was it a flying beetle?) rested in the corner across the ring, bulky and without poise and elegance.
Out came the butterfly for the second round. Yes, he flouted as he said he would, and, as in the first round, he stung with a fast jab, and lightning combinations. Clay raised his arms in a flapping movement to regain his balance after his forays into Liston’s space. He presented an ethereal figure, rising above bedlam, the noise, the tension, the atmosphere heavy with cigarette and cigar smoke, and just a little hate. No. Liston was not a beetle or a dragonfly. He was more of that branch of zoology that is of the mammal kingdom. He really was a bear, an angry one, rising and flaying at the air as Clay flitted by in flight.
St George was ready to slay the dragon. From the start of the third, Cassius Clay opened up his attack. He had been cautious during the first two rounds, locating the dragon’s cave, that space at the edge of the ring where Liston could retreat and hide, against the ropes where he could ward off the blows Clay rained down on him. St George had to lure the dragon Liston out of that cage with the only way he knew how: with taunts. But not spoken taunts, taints with the fists. The quick jab, constant and consistent to Liston’s eyes; the quick conbinations, the sly blow to the body. This is how Clay did his talking and the words were the ones that Liston didn’t want to hear.
The dragon was breathing fire but as he went after Clay, leaving the safety of his cave, Clay hit him with several combinations. St George had out his lance, and a piercing blow cut Liston under the right eye. A mountain of a bruise, a volcano, rose from Liston’s face and then Clay drew his sword and drew blood from a cut on the left eye, with a stinging right. Liston came back with two combinations and a body punch. He was still breathing fire, but Clay escaped round three with hardly a singe.
Clay, the honest voice of black endeavour, was having his say. The fight was fast becoming a metaphor for the class struggle. Clay the working-class boy trying to make good, Liston the capitalist lackey, Liston the reactionary, the man Mao might describe as a roader, a capitalist running dog. An apt description for a strong-arm boy of the Mafia, the poisonous manifestation of capitalism.
Clay had gained the ascendancy, after a flurry of blows early in the round. He coasted now, employing a strategy to wear Lisdon done by making him cover more distance than he wanted to around the ring. It was Mao’s long march for Liston. In frustration, Liston caught Clay with what looked like a low blow, and then tried to head butt him in a close encounter, when they grappled with each other near the ropes. “Break’’ shouted the referee and Ali was watchful for the late blow as he moved away. A capitalist breaks all the rules of society, it’s look after number one, greed, forget the collective conscience, and the revolutionary Clay – who threw his Olympic gold medal away when he was refused service in a white segregationist cafe – was not to be swayed.
Clay, the noble pugilist, complained to his trainer Angelo Dundee, he had something in his eye. Mr Dundee studied his face carefully and wiped it with a towel. Still Clay complained in those vital moments. “Just get out there,’’ Mr Dundee shouted. “But stay away from Liston `till your eyes come right.’’
A new strategy was required, hit and run, or ambush, instead of stand and fight. Clay had to make a choice. Like Hannibal in his cruisade against the Romans, it was a battle against the odds, but strategy and guile would win out in the end. Hannibal was on his march to Rome. He had crossed the Alps in the early round, signalling his intentions. He had consolidated, and now must come the final push. In round five, despite discomfort in his eyes, Clay was laying the foundations for victory. Clay’s strength lay in his faith in those around him. He trusted and listened to them, paricularly the wily Angelo Dundee. Clay remained the general, he was his own man, but Mr Dundee had his ear, like the old warhorses who surrounded Hannibal. “Stay away’’ Mr Dundee was calling to Clay throughout round five. And Clay listened above the roar.
Clay dodged and floated and weaved and bent backwards to avoid the blows blasting towards him. He was looking to a bigger picture, a landscape that spread before him where ambushes and traps could be planted for Liston.
Hannibal had pioneered a strategy for war, a strategy that would last 2000 years, a strategy to beat the Romans that would be used in some of the great battles of history; Wellington at Waterloo, Napolean outside the gates of Madrid, Montgomery at Al-Alamein, Stalin’s generals at Stalingrad. The feint, the diversion; the ambush, Clay knew of such things and in the context of his own warfare, the battle in the boxing ring, Clay appeared to be mapping a pugilistic plot that would last as long as men put on gloves.
David and Goliath, good versus evil, little man against the brute. Clay had virtue and innocence, portrayed in his street poetry. Honest, enthusiastic. He loved his mum. What had Liston? Was he a fighter the common man could warm to, to look to for inspiration, to look up to. And the little man, if you could describe a perfect human specimen who stands six foot three inches in his socks and weights a muscly 200 pounds as such, was dominating the fight. He was in control, seemingly scoring at will with every punch in the book, from the jab to the uppercut. We won’t even mention the combinations, certainly Liston did not see them, just felt their combined blows, an accumulation of pain.
It was a campaignAmerica would never forget, as big as the taming of the Wild West. As the bell rang for the seventh round, Liston remained on his stool. Sensing defeat, he just lingered there. A twitch from those massive fists, a heavy heave of those knees suggested he might rally for Custer`s last stand. No, Liston was to be Sitting Bull.