Barbara Long: The Lady Saw The Big Punch


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

June 3, 1965, Vol. X, No. 33

The Lady Saw The Big Punch

By Barbara Long

Well, I saw the punch, the big punch, the punch that everybody says he didn’t see. It was a six to 10-inch overhand right crossing Liston’s left.

It was a grand fight, and I loved the minute of it.

The theories circulating about why Liston stayed down after 1 minute, 44 seconds of the opening round are patently absurd.

A fix? It would have been superfluous. Liston never had a chance. He’s an old man, seven to ten years older than his official 31. He’s slow and sluggish and never was much of a fighter. He had a nice psychic thing going against Patterson, but now he was up against a fast, strong, clever boy with enough chutzpah to take Normandy on D-Day. (The only time I’ve seen Clay faced down was at the Shalimar in Harlem when he came in making his club-hopping noises and old Ben Webster, without interrupting his solo, looked over his tenor and gave him a “Boy, I know who you are, but while I’m here, you’ll behave yourself” look.)

And why a fix? Fixes aren’t arranged for fun. There are still plenty of set-ups in boxing. Patterson came up by fighting easy, carefully picked bouts. He just fought one in Sweden on May 20 against Houston heavyweight Tod Herring. Marciano needn’t be proud of some of his early fights either. A fix is a purely financial arrangement, and you can always tell when one’ in because odds and money and the cats on Eighth Avenue around 50th start doing weird things. There was no betting money on the Clay-Liston fight, so even the round in which Liston went down wouldn’t make any difference. You couldn’t scare up a book last week. Any last-minute money? No more than 20 or 30 grand — and it came in against Clay. Fighters always gain a few pounds after they’ve ended their training, so when Clay weighed in a few days before the fight at 206 instead of the expected 210 or 212, some smart money thought it was a sign of nervousness.

The Herald Tribune-Black Muslim theory? According to Dick Schaap, Liston is really a Black Muslim posing as an unregenerate thug, getting arrested on drunk-driving charges only as a subterfuge. Liston was under orders to gain acceptance as the “White Hope,” which, amusingly enough, he did, against Clay who doesn’t smoke, drink, or get arrested, but talks a lot, doesn’t stay in his place, and in general bugs the hell out of the white community. Liston would go down in an obvious fake, and together he and Clay would show the White World just how stupid ofays are. Schaap’s theory rests almost solely, however, on the testimony of sportswriter Barry Gottehrer that he has never seen Sonny eat pork. A tasty theory — but thin.

No, everyone missed both the point and the punch. It’s important to recall the first Liston-Clay fight. Liston did try for the first few rounds, landing some punches, hurting Clay once or twice, but he couldn’t hurt the boy enough and he knew it. Even before Liston’s arm gave out and he stayed in his corner for the seventh, Sonny was badly busted up.

When he came out for the second fight it didn’t take him long to see that he was going to get hurt good this time. While Sonny’s done nothing but get older since that first fight, Clay’s been moving into the punching prime of 23. Liston wasn’t even able to reach the fantastically agile Clay, except for pawing jabs that didn’t hurt, and clay Landed an early right that momentarily stopped Liston.

When the big punch came, the punch that everybody claims they didn’t see, Liston was lunging forward clumsily and uncharacteristically low, throwing a left to Clay’s shouder. Clay’s hands were down unconventionally low, but as he started to raise a looping right, Liston’s left dropped, and Clay, right shoulder high, tagged Liston with a right over the left to the head, with enough impact to force Liston’s gloves together. The punch, which initially looked like a 3-incher, showed up in slow motion to be longer, at least 6 to 10 inches. Liston’s knees sagged. Clay tried for another left, but Liston was already down on all fours.

Then began the unfortunate misleading hanky-panky — Jersey Joe Walcott’s ineptness as a referee, the confusion over the count, etc. But that had nothing to do with the punch. The real drama was not in the sideshow but in the screaming of Clay to the fallen Liston, “Get up, get up!” He knew that Liston shouldn’t have been hurt so bad by a punch less than Clay’s best, he knew that a younger, braver man would have scrambled to his feet for more punishment, but he also knew that Liston was, as fighters go, a bum who would have no compunctions about staying down. Most pathetically, Clay knew no one would believe that the fight wasn’t a sham and that once again his fantastic talent as a fighter wouldn’t be taken seriously.

A public that doesn’t care about fights anyway would complain because they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth. (I have no sympathy for a crowd that refuses to support club-fighting and shows up only for $100 main-ticket events.) Reporters would say that a Liston who used to take police blows on the head couldn’t be hurt by that punch, ignoring the fact that when Joe Louis, certainly a greater fighter than Liston, came back out of retirement at 38 against a 27-year-old Marciano, he too would have been knocked out in the first round had rocky pressed the advantage of a stunning right just under Louis’s left ear. The old timers like Tunney would watch the fight on TV, sit in at Toots Shor’s afterward with Bob Considine and protect their own images by crying “Fix,” but if they have honesty left, they would admit to themselves they are glad they didn’t have to face this phenomenal boy. Joe Louis would say that he didn’t understand how anyone could throw a knockout punch from his toes instead of standing flat-footed.

Well, Clay’s in a dreadful position. He still has to prove he’s as good as he really is. If he fights Patterson, which is only fair since Floyd eliminated Chuvalo (although I didn’t like the decision and thought Chuvalo deserved an immediate rematch), he’ll chew him as bad and everyone will say, “So what? Who can’t?” Clay’s only chance now is to decisively beat a young, strong, courageous iron-jawed kid like Chuvalo who takes a punch well.

Meanwhile, the press and the public can bitch all they want to, but they should go back to the original films, stop grinding their axes (I’d be willing to meet Jimmy Breslin up at Gleason’s Gym and discuss his Big Gangster hang-up), and then go out and start celebrating a natural wonder.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]