Remembering the Bear and the Butterfly

Original post: 6/7/2016

& Today, we’re awash in memories of Muhammad Ali. Somebody who actually was The Greatest.

I’ve even got a couple of memories.

I think I shook his hand once, when his name was Cassius Clay. It must have been the fall of 1963.  He was sitting on a barstool, spouting poetry in a black-and-tan club near Five Points at the southern edge of Denver’s black neighborhood. (We wouldn’t have said “black neighborhood” in those days. When I was growing up, it was most often described as Denver’s Negro ghetto. Or worse.)

Up on the east end of that neighborhood in those days, in a big fancy house on Monaco Parkway lived the sullen, scowling, angry, fearsome heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Sonny Liston. He’d bought the house after he won the championship in 1962 by levelling Floyd Patterson in the first round – the first-ever opening-round knockout in heavyweight championship history. A year later, he repeated the feat in a rematch with Patterson. Nobody thought anybody could beat Sonny Liston.

Sonny Liston
Sonny Liston

When this punk poetry-spouting kid from Louisville got a match against Liston, everybody was laughing. Liston, they said, was gonna make first-round knockouts a habit. They were regarding Cassius Clay in those days like politicos in 2015 were regarding Donald Trump. “Derision” is a good word here.

Clay, with a self-promoting brashness that the teen-aged Trump undoubtedly envied, blew into the champ’s hometown to sign the fight contract, riding in a bus painted with his slogan – one of the lines of one of his rhymes – “Liston Must Go in Eight.” Every bit an early-day Donald Trump, Ali was not averse to dishing out scorn and self-love – Liston, he told those of us traipsing around behind him, was “a big, ugly bear. A smelly, big, ugly bear.”

I’m the greatest,” he assured us.

I couldn’t tell you, after all these years,  the poetry he spouted from the barstool perch – did he say “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” that night? I can’t remember, but probably. Some of that doggerel also must have included lines from this oft-quoted stanza, predicting Liston’s demise:

“Now Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing,
And the punch raises the Bear clean out of the ring.
Liston is still rising and the ref wears a frown,
For he can’t start counting till Sonny comes down.
Now Liston is disappearing from view, the crowd is going frantic,
But radar stations have picked him up, somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought when they came to the fight?
That they’d witness the launch of a black satellite?”

And then, in the wee hours of one morning, the challenger’s bus was off to Monaco Parkway — reporters shaking their heads and tagging along — where Clay created a scene, trying to raise the champ from his slumber. All I can remember is wondering what Liston would do if he came out the door. He didn’t, and I was relieved.

Before they’d fought, I’d met Sonny Liston twice. The first time, as he stood in the doorway to his preacher’s office – “filled the doorway” would be a better description – he offered his hand. I took it, and my hand (not as small as Donald Trump’s certainly)  disappeared inside the maw of Liston’s massive claw. I think I’d been sent there to interview him about his troubles – he was always in trouble, you can Google that. I don’t remember him saying much – Sonny, with his preacher in the room at least, was pleasant, but a man of few words; I was never sure he actually knew many words.

The second time must have been late the evening of Sept. 18, 1963, three days after some KKK boys set off 15 sticks of dynamite under the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four pretty little girls. Liston had been on a boxing exhibition tour in England. Without explanation, he cut short the tour and headed home. One of the reasons, it was said, was his anger over the murders. There may have been other reasons – Liston troubles again – but we were never told.

We’d gotten word that his plane had landed in Chicago, and he had boarded a flight for Denver. A bunch of reporters headed for the gate at Stapleton International Airport, and gathered on the tarmac outside the gate. We could do that in those days.

As soon as the plane’s door opened, Liston, three-piece-suited and carrying a shillelagh (diamond-studded, it seemed), walked quickly down the stairs, into the crowd of pencil-poised reporters, and brushed us away. We followed him, striding swiftly along the outdoor concourse into the airport, trying to get something, anything, in the way of explanation.

“C’mon champ, tell us what’s up.”

Stone-face, stick clicking.

“You’re the heavyweight champ of the world, fer gawdsakes, tell us what’s happening.”

Nothing more than an intimidating glare, almost threatening. Through the baggage area, out into the cab lane. The questions continued. He may have mumbled something, but not much intelligible. He climbed into a waiting car and disappeared.

That was the last time I ever encountered the champ. Five months later I sat behind frosted windows in a car parked in Boulder, the radio tuned to the only news available  — not a live broadcast of the ballyhooed Miami fight between Liston and Clay, but a round-by-round summary aired at the conclusion of each round.

My expectations? Like most everybody else: Liston, the brutal bear, would simply murder Clay, the butterfly. I listened to the summaries at the end of each round, refusing to believe the broadcaster. “He’s gotta have this wrong.” By the third or fourth round, unable to actually see that Clay was dominating Liston, floating and stinging, floating and stinging, I started believing that sooner or later, Liston would cold-cock Clay and the game would be over. It was over soon, way too soon for Liston. He couldn’t get off the stool to answer the bell for the seventh round.

Clay had been wrong —

Sonny was gone much sooner than eight;
He was done before seven, off floatin’ in heaven.

& Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Knowing for sure that’s one thing Donald Trump won’t copy from The Greatest, I’m outta here.




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