Thursday, August 24, 2006

Nick Tosches: Night Train

I wasn't going to bother reading Night Train, by Nick Tosches, all the way through; I was going to just dip into it, because I thought it would be a collection of press clippings, put together by a sports journalist in his newspaper library. But it turned out to be much more than that.

Night Train, you see, is a biography of Sonny Liston. Sonny who? Ah yes. It behoves those of us of a certain age to remember that not everyone is familiar with famous names from the past. Who now recalls Nelson Eddy or Jessie Matthews?

Sonny Liston was briefly the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, in the early 1960s. In his day he was widely regarded as unbeatable. It took a talent like that of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali to beat him, and then in dubious circumstances, as Tosches explains.

Charles Sonny Liston was a black man, born in extreme poverty, in Mississippi, to a family which was essentially still in slavery. Liston's genetic origins lay in west Africa, where one tribe had gleefully enslaved another for centuries, and when the white man arrived, seeking to purchase human beings, he was welcomed as an extension to the market. Thus for Sonny Liston it was as natural as breathing that he should belong to someone else. And for the whole of his life he did belong to someone else: usually one of the shadowy figures (all of them white men, naturally) who controlled professional boxing.

No one, not even his mother, knew the date of his birth, and even the year is doubtful. And when he died he was dead for several days before he was found, so no one is sure about that either. Or the cause of death.

Liston received virtually no schooling, and though he eventually learnt to write his name, he was for all practical purposes illiterate. When he had finally developed into an enormous and rather frightening black man, he was soon in trouble with the law, and ended up, inevitably, in prison. And it was there that he seems to have been taught the elements of boxing, even though his hands were too big for normal gloves.

He was passed from 'manager' to 'manager', as slaves are, and so long as he had money in his pocket and food in his belly he seems to have been content with the deal. When he was able to drive a nice car, and find a white woman to sit beside him, he was happier still.

Tosches (or one of his assistants) has done some serious research on Liston's early life, and he explains all these early purchases of Liston's contract in some detail. But it's complicated, and a chart would have come in handy. But by the late 1950s the position was clear. Liston was regarded as a serious contender for the heavyweight title, and hence he was a potential earner of income on a substantial scale. He belonged to Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo, the latter of whom was known as Mr Gray, or The Gray.

The heavyweight champion at that time was a black man called Floyd Patterson. Patterson was regarded, to use a word which Tosches does not hesitate to use, as a 'good nigger'. Few people in America wanted a black heavyweight champion at all, but if they had to have one then Patterson would do. He was polite, did not talk politics, and had a discreet lifestyle.

When Patterson lost the heavyweight title to the Swedish boxer, Ingmar Johannson, the Deep South rejoiced, and the film of the fight took huge money at the box office. When Patterson beat Johannson in a rematch, hardly any cinema south of New York bothered to show it. For his part, Liston offered to fight Patterson and Johannson on the same night.

The idea of a Patterson/Liston title fight was unwelcome to almost everybody. Liston was a bad nigger. He was owned by the Mob, and even the dimmest journalists were beginning to understand that. Liston was everything that Patterson was not. He didn't give a shit about anyone, and it showed in his face. Not even the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People liked him! Said its President: 'Patterson represents us better than Liston ever could or would.'

No one wanted the Liston/Patterson fight then, except the people who actually buy the tickets. And in the end they got what what they wanted.

Liston won easily of course. No one could sensibly have doubted it. And he won the rematch. But nobody liked him. He was not a popular champion. He was not cheered when he stepped into the ring.

Except once. There is a little-known incident in Liston's life, and I wondered if Nick Tosches would mention it. He does.

Shortly after the second Patterson fight, Liston went to England to fight a few exhibition rounds. Now in England, of course, there was and is plenty of racial prejudice. But boxing was a very popular sport in those days, and the heavyweight champion -- any champion -- was revered. Furthermore, the British attitude to good niggers and bad niggers was not the same as the American.

In the UK there was a feeling that Patterson was a bit of a pansy. It simply wasn't considered appropriate that the heavyweight champion should be a polite, soft-spoken, church-going sort of a guy; it was thought that a champion ought to be the kind of man who would snarl at babies in prams, and rip the head off anyone who gave him a hard time. Liston -- Old Stoneface -- fitted the bill entirely.

The result was that when Liston stepped into a British ring, in front of a huge audience, he was greeted with a roar of approval which came from deep down in some primitive part of each man's belly. The crowd rose to their feet; noise was fantastic and it was elemental.

This was a wholly new experience for Liston. No other crowd had ever given him any such a welcome. And do you know? That man was touched. Touched! Somebody actually loved him! 'I am warm here,' he said, 'because I am among warm people... When I return to the United States I will be cold again, for the people there are cold to me now and have treated me badly.'

But Liston, never let it be forgotten, was a slave. He was owned by Blinky and Frankie. Both these men were by then in trouble with the law. But even when they were sent to prison they continued to control boxing from inside.

And the trouble with Liston was that he was more trouble than he was worth. Yes, he was the champion. But he was not popular. Cops were always giving him trouble, and Liston's management was always having to pay them off. He was not a stable family man. Polite society feared and despised him.

So the boys in charge of Liston decided to use him to generate income in a different way. They would put him into a fight against a young big-mouth called Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali). This was a fight which no experienced observer expected Liston to lose, so the betting odds on Clay would be generous. And the wise guys who owned Liston would arrange for him to take a dive.

To Liston this was business as usual. His grandfather had been a slave, his father little better, and Liston himself had always been owned by the Man. He was used to it, used to doing what he was told.

Of course Sonny wasn't the brightest guy in the world, and when he threw the fight there were complaints. And suspicions. But the research by Tosches and his team has established, at least to my satisfaction, exactly what happened. Liston's owners bet huge sums (by the standards of those days) on Clay, and they cleaned up at 8 to 1.

It is said that there is no honour among thieves, and the chief losers in this operation were the illegal bookmakers in other parts of America. Patsy Anthony Lapera, a gangster from Reading, Pennsylvania, was interviewed by Tosches. He says: 'Lots of bets were laid off with the Mob in Cleveland and Vegas. These guys took the other Mobs.'

There was a rematch, naturally. And Sonny lost that one, with an even worse acting performance than the first time.

After that there were a few more fights, and then obscurity. Chuck Wepner, the last man to fight Liston, said that, up close in the ring, Sonny 'looked like he'd been around the block quite a few times. They said he was thirty-eight, and he looked like he was maybe fifty.'

Effectively, like many another black champion both before and since, Sonny Liston was broke. He went back to the only other way of earning a living that he knew: crime. The details are fuzzy: maybe it was selling dope, shylocking, or just plain intimidating those who needed to be intimidated. Whatever, he soon wound up dead.

A doctor pronounced Sonny Liston dead on 5 January 1971; he had been dead, it was estimated, for about a week, and after that amount of time it was hard to tell why. But as the body lay face down on the metal slab, one thing was clear. The Coroner could see copper-coloured whipping welts, old and faint. 'The only thing my old man ever gave me,' Liston had said at one point, 'was a whipping.'

This is the story that Nick Tosches tells us. It's not a long book -- 260 pages -- but a substantial amount of time, money and effort has clearly gone into it. The lengthy acknowledgements section includes at least two researchers and assistants. Whether this investment has paid off for author and publisher I rather doubt, but it has gone some way to ensure that this book is a classic of the genre.

In the US, by the way, this book is known as The Devil and Sonny Liston, and the cover image is flipped. Go figure. Publishers are funny people.

Nick Tosches, it turns out, is a man with a considerable reputation for doing a rather high-class biography. Subjects include Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin. The author's style, in the Liston book, is a curious mixture of the street-wise tough guy and the elegant, educated European classicist. This raised my eyebrows at first, but I came to see it, before long, as entirely appropriate to the book's subject.

Try this for an example:
He just was what he fucking was: Charles L. Liston, mightiest of men, sharpest of dressers. He had more pasts than most people had socks. Go on, pick a past. They were all the same to him: sand slough and alleys, bar-rooms and prison cells, fancy ass big bad gangster men and bent-down cotton pickers. All the same. Working for halves here, Boss, working for halves.
The life story of Sonny Liston illuminates for us many aspects of American life. It is a story which requires a wide frame of reference if it is to be understood, and if that understanding is to be successfully conveyed to the reader; it requires a grasp of many aspects of history and human psychology. Nick Tosches seems to me to have all those.

There is an irony at the heart of Sonny Liston's life story. It is that Liston was a man who succeeded in the land of opportunity and who became, as a result, briefly famous and, by his standards, rich. But in the land of the free he was never a free man. He was born and died a slave.

No wonder then that some of the people who knew him as a young man, cops and priests, who tried to draw the best out of him, felt nothing but pity when Tosches came to interview them, several decades later. 'Poor kid,' more than one of them says. 'Poor kid.'


Anonymous said...

Great piece Michael!
Liston like so many others was subjected to the Mob system of management.
Boxing was all to often a sad life for those like Liston, George Chuvalo and others.

I have Nick's book Dino on my book shelf. A rather disturbing portrait of the actor/singer.Good but not flattering.

Anne Weale said...

Unexpectedly perhaps, as I'm not into boxing, I enjoyed your post about Sonny Liston. Re your point - "Who now recalls Nelson Eddy or Jessie Matthews?"

Thanks to Wikipedia, it's easy to look up unfamiliar names.
Eddy is at
and Matthews at
I remember hearing Eddy's glorious voice on my ancient great-aunts' gramophones when I was a little girl.

Martin said...

Good stuff, GOB! But that's Ingemar Johansson, not "Ingmar Johannson". I once saw him in his old age, handing out free tastes of prefab meatballs in a grocery store in Stockholm.

Peter L. Winkler said...

I'm very skeptical about Tosche's claims that Liston threw his figjhts with Clay, especially since the same accusation nwas made about Clay's fight with Floyd Patterson.

I've seen films of the Clay-Liston matches and I think that Clay did the same thing to Liston that he later did to George Foreman. Clay used trchnique to defeat a brute firce boxer who didn't have any.

Yeah, I'm sure Tosches or one of his researchers has some old geezers who can tell some third hand hearsay stories about da' Mob and betting, and such stories are usually worth about what such stories usually are, which is little.

I wonder if Tosches took the simple expedient of seeing if there were FBI files on Liston and epecially his handlers. The FBI surveilled practically everyone and routinely wiretapped many people in the mob.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the excellent review of the Liston book--this is one I shall look forward to reading. Sadly, to most, the tragic Liston is remembered only as a punching bag for Clay (Ali).

I might note that Ali was as unpopular as Liston in those years--many considered him a frothing lunatic and draft dodger. There were those who rooted for Liston merely to see Ali "get his due."

Anonymous said...

Great review. I never thought I'd want to read a book about a boxer but I do now.

I remember my father - an harrumphing type - saying that Clay was marketed as the boxing National Velvet - young, witty, handsome, charming and, above all, the underdog, as he was shorter and lighter than his opponent. So Liston HAD to lose, for the fairytale to come true.

I hope you're right and Liston truly didn't give a shit. Whether he took a dive or not, this is a tragic story.

Maria said...

What a great and informative review. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The life of Sonny Liston (always Charles to the family) is one of the most depressing you could ever imagine.

It gives the lie emphatically to those nauseous positive thinkers (positive stinkers, more like) who tell us that we all have infinite possibilities, and if only we try hard enough we'll make it in the end. The story of Sonny Liston is truly the story of a man who never had a chance.

Boxing was a closed book to me until I wrote a couple of articles on 19th-century bareknuckle prize fighting a few years ago. Then I began to understand what it's all about. Things have changed for the better, but throughout history the typical boxer has been from the bottom rung of the social ladder, and has been used and abused by ruthless men who have cast him aside the moment he ceased to be profitable.

Boxers have always been exploited by the likes of Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo, and no one was ever exploited more assiduously or more heartlessly than Sonny Liston. His life perfectly illustrates the distinction between being employed and being used.

I've often thought that his story would make an absorbing if depressing book, and I'll read Night Train with great attention. But it strikes me that it cannot be easy to excite interest in a tale so unrelievedly dark. You need light somewhere, if only to accentuate the shade, but in the life of Sonny Liston there was none.

Shakespeare wouldn't have been interested. Shakespeare's tragic heroes were all men of real possibilities (and real achievement) who were brought down by a tragic flaw. Sonny Liston never had a chance; it didn't take flaws to destroy him

My knowledge of his life, (not that extensive, I admit) has always been a sort of guilty secret -- something I'm almost ashamed of knowing. When I'm feeling down, I sometimes think about Sonny Liston. And he never fails to make me feel a lot worse.

Thank you, GOB, for buggering up my day.

Anonymous said...

Interesting footnote for those who don't know: Chuck Wepner, the last man to fight Liston (in the ring), also fought Muhammed Ali in 1975. Wepner was, of course, a big-time underdog in that fight, but managed to knock Ali down in the 9th before he was stopped by Ali in the 15th. This was the fight that inspired Sylvester Stallone to write the screenplay for Rocky. Wepner's face also cut very easily, so he was known as the Bayonne Bleeder. One sports reporter dubbed him Chopped Chuck. Wepner once guessed that he received over 200 stitches in his career, but 72 of them were from the beating Liston gave him. When that fight was stopped the doctor asked Wepner how many fingers he was holding up. Wepner replied, "How many guesses do I get?"

Anonymous said...

About the first Clay fight...Liston tried to cheat to win by burning his gloves, and (it should be mentioned) fought his ass off, and still lost! According to Bert Sugar, both Liston and his corner admitted this, in private, much later--when the stakes weren't as high--not to mention having tried similar tactics in other fights.

Tosches is a great sports writer, and The Devil and Sonny Liston as well as Night Train are outstanding books. However, he cannot will that first fight into being a fix! No matter how well it fits his characterization of Liston, or how much he (and others) wanted and still want the invincible Liston to have an out.

Technique beat out pure power. It is not the first time or the last that has happened. I suppose the mob also told Tyson to take Holyfield eleven brutal, hard-fought rounds, just for the sake of appearances. That is not how a fix works...

Something else to think about, why would Ashe Resnick feed his obedient cash cow (his "slave" if that's what you like to think of Liston as) to a hungry lion, an angry, young, radical black separatist who would forfeit his title rather than offer the smallest token gesture to what he viewed as the white establishment, the Man? For one big payoff? I don't think so.

The mob would have known about Clay's leanings even if the media at the time did not. It is their job to know. I mean, it's life and death for them to know.

I agree, the second fight being a fix is very possible and perhaps even probable, but the first fight? Again, just watch the fight!

Brilliant blog, though, top notch and an interesting read.

vanzare apartamente cluj said...

It is a brilliant story, made me reflect on what is the meaning of human life and what we can accomplish in this life. Thank You

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Anonymous said...

Hey All,

I got hooked into Nick's writing from Hellfire - the Jerry Lee Lewis biography.

Nick and I are working on a music album where he has written lyrics for the songs. We are trying Kickstarter to raise funds to make this album happen!

Please donate if you can.