‘The Murder of Sonny Liston: A Story of Fame, Heroin, Boxing and Las Vegas’ by Shaun Assael (2016)

“As time passed, Sonny stayed in the conversation but not as an icon on his own. Eventually he became part of other people’s stories. He was the springboard for Ali, the model for Foreman, the guy who always scared (but not faced) Frazier”

Charles “Sonny” Liston was the 25th of 26 kids who grew up with no birth cert and no prospects.  Boxing became his escape, albeit temporarily, from a life of crime that saw him serve time in prison for assaulting a cop.  His career was dominated by  mob control and overshadowed almost entirely by the emergence of Ali, Foreman and Frazier.

Liston is best know for two things – quitting on his chair in Ali-Liston 1, and being the guy on the canvas in the iconic photo of Ali from Ali-Liston 2. A life defined by defeats rather than the tale of a desperately poor, illiterate kid who became World Champion. A life defined by where he fits in the narrative of other, better remembered figures.

Sonny canvas

I was fascinated by Liston from the first time I saw the classic photo.  I grew more interested when I first read the wonderful King of the World by David Remnick. It led me to Night Train by Nick Tosches which I adored as a teenager for its dark moodiness (whether it holds up particularly well, I’m eager to find out).

Recently published, The Murder of Sonny Liston is part sports book, part true crime, part conspiracy theory.  It looks back at Liston’s life primarily through the time and place – Las Vegas in the early 1970s – of his final few years and the (potential) mystery surrounding his death. Las Vegas is as much the central character as Liston is and the two seem perfect for each other. Assael paints a picture of the various low level mobsters and the even more intriguing cops who tried to either stop them or join them. The book, partiularly the first third, oozes noir – the setting is dark, gritty with the smell of booze, sex and drugs almost wafting through the pages.

This is a mini biography of Liston with a bit about his childhood and more of a focus on the later years of his career – particularly post his fights with Ali. Reading this book without the Liston backstory might leave you a little short as to where he fits in to American life at the time. Assael covers the key points – his lack of a birth cert, his poor education, his status as the ‘bad guy’ morphing into the ‘not as bad as Ali guy” (for white America at least) “trouble-making black man”.  Liston’s mob connections are touched on but the book doesn’t get into detail on how Liston, and much of boxing, ended up controlled by mob.

This picture of Liston’s later years is depressing.  Yet in some ways, Liston had it better than many of his fellow retired prizefighters did. He had a nice house, a wife who tolerated his misdeeds, and he appeared to still have his faculties. He undoubtedly was cheated out of plenty of money, but he didn’t become a shambling wreck despite continuing to fight until he was nearly (probably) 50.

Sonny cover

Overall, The Murder of Sonny Liston, is an enjoyable and entertaining read which loses is way in the final third.  It works better when its about Liston and Vegas than when its about The Murder. There is more on Ali’s return to boxing post suspension than there needs to be, but its always entertaining to read about Ali.

Ultimately the book becomes more crime than sports orientated. As suggested by the title, it becomes more about a death than about a life. The speculation mounts as to whether Liston was actually murdered rather than died of natural causes. Assael builds an interesting but not totally convincing case and lays out the prime suspects.  There is no ‘aha’ moment, no realisation of overlooked evidence.  Just the grim reality that Liston appeared on an inevitable path towards a dark ending.

Some of the conspiracy theories are probably too readily accepted – I just don’t believe the Nation of Islam promised Liston a cut of Ali’s future fights if he threw their second bout.

By the end of the book, its hard not to feel that Assael is more interested in the cops and drug dealer tales from 70’s Vegas than he ever is in Sonny Liston. Even in a book about his death, Liston still becomes simply a part of other people’s stories.

liston ticket

And here’s 12 I prepared earlier

Before starting this blog, I very occasionally reviewed books on Goodreads.  This post captures 12 long ago, and in many cases forgotten, musings on a wide selection of sports books.  Some of these are in the re-read pile and will get a fuller, updated review when I get to enjoy them again.  These 12 cover a range of topics including: Boxing’s 4 Kings, Brazilian and German football, Irish cycling and drugs in sport.

Ringside.jpg    Drama     fifa.jpg  brazil

1) ‘A Ringside Affair: Boxing’s Last Golden Age’ by James Lawton

A Ringside Affair is a love letter to boxing from one of the UK’s great sportswriters. Each chapter covers one of the great fights or fighters that Lawton had the immense pleasure of witnessing throughout his career. It’s clear that the era of the Four Kings
(Leonard, Hearns, Hagler and Duran) stands out as the golden age of the title, but it’s the career of Iron Mike Tyson which clearly shines through in the book. Lawton’s admiration for young Tyson’s talent is only topped by his disappointment at the Tyson’s eventual troubles and crimes.

Lawton’s accounts really bring the fights to life as well as placing them clearly in their time and place. His passion and love for the sport shines through. Its a work of remembrance and of celebration as Lawton reflects on his career.

For all fight fans the book is a fantastic summary of 30 years of top level boxing. It’s excellently written and will make you want to pull out the you tube videos and track down the great boxing books.  I highly recommend it.

2) ‘Drama in the Bahamas’ by Dave Hannigan

An entertaining and in-depth look at Ali’s last fight and the sad spectacle it was. The book is best enjoyed by someone well versed in Ali’s life story – it paints some characters a bit too thinly for anyone coming to Ali;s story without a reasonable knowledge of the cast of characters that surrounded the Champ.

Hannigan paints a picture of an Ali who is his own worst enemy.  It is apparent that there is no is villain guiding Ali to fight one last time. It really appears to be Ali himself and his own desire for attention and love that motivates him to take one more totally unnecessary and disproportionate risk.

Like all Hannigan’s work, it’s an enjoyable read and a welcome addition to the library of Ali books.

3) ‘The Fall of the House of Fifa: The Multimillion-Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer’ by David Conn

I greatly enjoyed this book on FIFA’s troubled history. Its extensively researched and well written. As a follower of David’s writing in the Guardian the book lives up to expectations.

Its a sad reminder of the scale of corruption and the breath of individuals involved. Blatter emerges as not quite the villain but rather the enabler and master politician. There is plenty of new material even for those following FIFA closely, especially a fascinating interview with a post retirement Blatter.

The only criticism is that it is a bit too detailed at times. Sometimes the narrative could be shortened and there is a bit of repetition at times.

All in all its a highly recommend for anyone interest in football politics or just good journalism.

4) ‘Shocking Brazil: Six Games That Shook the World Cup’ by Fernando Duarte

Very enjoyable history of Brazilian football. Examining the most successful team in history by focusing on their lowest moments, Durate paints a convincing narrative of the impact each of these games had on shaping the team.

One of many books to come out in the lead up to the Brazil World Cup, Durate captured a lessor seen angle of the 5 times champions.   Considering that the worst defeat of all was yet to come – who will ever forget that 7 – 1 – its a timely book and one that will remain relevant as Brazil try to rise again in Russia.

The writer is also a very entertaining journalist and great as a guest on football podcasts.

Das reboot   Match  vol  nowehere

5) ‘Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World’ by Raphael Honigstein

A really enjoyable read with great insight into the rise and rise of German football.  At times the narrative jumps between time periods and between the national team and domestic games in a confusing manner.   A good companion piece to ‘Tor! The Story of German Football’ by Ulrich Hesse to complete the picture of how the world champions became the world champions.

6)’Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga’ by Ronald Reng

Ronald Reng is the author of the heart-breaking, beautiful book ‘A Life Too Short’ about the late Robert Enke.

His second book to be translated to English, Matchdays, is a biography of Heinz Hoher – a real journeyman of German football – a bit of a Wes Hoolihan as a player (talented but often stuck as a flair player in second division) and a bit of an Alan Pardew as a manager (decent at bottom half/middle table teams) but a complete ****.  Hoher is quite the character – quitting jobs on a whim, drinking to the point of collapsing on first day of a new job, just missing out on Dortmund job to Hitzfeld.

Reng uses Hoher’s story to tell the story of the Bundesliga from its inception in the 60’s to current day – how it has changed and how the German public’s attitude towards it evolved.

All round an enjoyable, if slightly overlong, read.  The style takes a bit of getting use to – although I’m not sure if it that is the author’s style or a result of the translation.

7) ‘Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager’ by Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin is modern footballer’s great chronicler.  He examines the less beautiful side of English football shining a light on the real life experiences of those who live and breath the game.  Living on the Volcano focuses on the stresses of football management – showing the cost, the emotion and the real lived experience of managers at almost every level of the game.  It is an interesting and enjoyable read that offers a unique perspective of the job we all love to try on a computer game.

The book does suffer from Calvin at times being a bit too close to some of the subjects.  Its hard not to get the sense that he lets the fact he grows to like many of his interviewees/subjects as people get in the way of his objectivity as a football journalist.

8) ‘The Nowhere Men’ by Michael Calvin

Before data, analytics and youtube, talent needed to be scouted. Calvin’s book offers a fascinating insight into the enclosed world of football scouts in the UK

It chronicles a profession teetering on the edge – slowly being replaced by technology (and those who use it) yet a profession that continues to prove that data alone can’t tell you everything.

Above all, the love of football some of the scouts who work for mileage only is amazing, inspiring and heart-breaking all at the same time.

roche   Race   Running with Fire   Nike

9) ‘Born to Ride’ by Stephen Roche

Very interesting and enjoyable book. A chronicle of a time when Irish cyclists ruled the world.  Roche really was some rider had an incredible career and I wish I had been older in 1987 to have been swept up in the Roche/Kelly era.  Roche’s book is well worth a read for any cycling fan.

As with all cycling books, the issue of drugs hangs over every story like a bad smell.  Roche does at least address the drugs controversy which emerged after he retired.  His position is not entirely convincing and it is very hard not to believe his accusers.  Roche may have been part of the problem, and is definitely not willing to be part of the solution, but his achievements should not be underesimated.  If he was clean, its doubtful there has ever been a greater Irish sportsman.

Hunger by Sean Kelly is a very good companion book to give Kelly’s perspective of days that Irish cycling will never see again.

10) ‘The Dirtiest Race in History’ by Richard Moore

Moore is better known as a cycling journalist and writer.  Here, he moves away from cycling to the other sport dominated by drugs.  He crafts the story of the 1988 Olympic 100m final where Ben Johnson smashed the world record then dramatically failed a drug test.  Will there ever be another Olympic final where so many competitors had their legacies tarnished as the testers caught up with the cheats?

The book provides an in-depth look at Johnson’s rivalry with Carl Lewis and both of their journey’s to Seoul.  Johnson’s assertion that, while he was on lots of drugs, he never actually took the drug that the test found creates a bizarre and intriguing story.

It is well written, well researched and entertaining.  It provides an interesting look at drugs in sport in general – although Moore’s eagerness to believe in Team Sky over the years totally unfairly taints his comments on drugs in sport in my eyes.   Highly recommend.

11) ‘Running with Fire: The True Story of Harold Abrahams’ by Manterrk Ryan 

Very enjoyable biography of the 100m Olympic gold medalist and legend of athletics officialdom. Charts the prejudice he faced for being Jewish, his fantastic athletic career and even more successful (and interesting) administration career after he retired.

A must read for any fans of Chariots of Fire.

12) ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight.

Every long lasting company needs its origin myth.  What is unusual is the founder telling his story so long after the fact. Shoe Dog is both a sports book and a business book.  It is much better than I would have expected.

Knight tells the story of the founding of Nike and its early years before it broke into the big time.  It ticks the usual boxes of near disaster, dramatic recovery and eventually incredible growth.

What becomes clear is that for Knight, the early years are where is heart remains. It is a loving reflection on the days before he became a bazillionaire and a love letter to Steve Prefontaine.

I would have liked it to go a little further and look at the signing of Jordan and the groundbreaking nature of that change for Nike and for sport.

Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore is a great companion piece to round out the story of the technical genius that combined with Knight’s business brain to change the sporting world.

 

 

He shook up the world – the greatest books about The Greatest

My cousin boxed for Ireland as a youngster and just missed out on the Atlanta Olympics.  My uncle, is father, was my intro to boxing and to boxing books.  I was first exposed to Muhammad Ali as a young kid watching some old tapes in my uncles house.

I remember thinking that how can he be the greatest when he lost so many times.  Surely “undefeated champion” beats “multiple times champion” every day of the week.  I remember watching Ali light the Olympic flame in Atlanta as a 12 year old and wondering why this guy was the hero, why was he loved so much by so many.  Then I read King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero (1998) by David Remnick.

Ali

Its been over 15 years since I read this book, not long after it was first published. As anyone who has read any Remnick will know, its written with the style and with the imagination that has characterised all of his work. It is a wonderful book.

It was one of the first books I read that put any sportsman in the cultural context in which they operated.  The majority of the book deals with the time-frame between Ali’s (then Cassius Clay) first heavyweight title fight against Sonny Liston, and the rematch between Liston & Ali.

I remember the vivid descriptions of Floyd Patterson – an incredibly sympathetic figure for a world heavyweight champion.  Sonny Liston too looms large in the book.  Most of all what struck me was that Remnick showed that great sportsmen are a lot more like you and me than we often think.   Remnick captured some of Ali’s lightening in a bottle and the reasons he became such a dominant cultural figure.   It showed me why, and how, a black man who converted to Islam and refused to fight became a cultural hero in a US where racism, love of military and fear of Islam have always been, and remain, at the very heart of the nation’s psyche. On a personal level, he showed me that sports books can tell you as much about a time and a place as any of the greatest literature.  A re-read is long overdue (along with a more detailed review).

Since then, Ali has loomed large in other boxing books I’ve read and loved – as the young brash Olympian in Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World (2008) by David Maraniss.  It captures the attractiveness of young Cassisus Clay and hints at the man he would become.  In Night Train (2000), Nick Tosches dark and wonderful book about Sonny Liston, life and the American Dream, Ali serves a counterpoint to the often overlooked and unloved Liston.  In Dave Hanningan’s excellent Drama in the Bahama’s (2016) he is the pitiful exploited figure unable and unwilling to listen to reason and call time on his wonderful career. Hannigan previously chronicled Ali’s fight in Dublin in the excellent The Big Fight (2002).

Shortly after Ali’s death, I saw repeated reference’s to Thomas Hauser’s iconic Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (1991) as the definitive book on Ali.  Regularly cited as the greatest book about the Greatest, I read it almost immediately.  It deserves every word of praise it receives.

Ali Hauser

Hauser’s genius is to present the reader with a unique compilation of different peoples’ accounts of Ali throughout his career and life.   The book presents Ali as who he was to those who experienced him – as well as adding many of Ali’s own words.  Hauser knows when to step away and let the protagonists tell their own tale.  He presents the good, the bad, and the ugly.  His wonderful skill, his bravery, his commitment, his beauty, his pacifism and his words.  And also his mistreatment of women, his misguided behaviour while in the Nation of Islam and his need to keep fighting when it was clearly the wrong thing to do.

By the end of the book, a hero emerges. His kindness, his grace, his love shines through.

More recently, I read Ali: A Life (2017) by Joathan Eig.  Its an extremely enjoyable and detailed book that deserves to be mentioned alongside the work of Remnick and Hauser but doesn’t quite reach their heights.  

ALi Eig

I was a bit sceptical as to the need for a new bio of one of the worlds most written about men. The wonderful cover of the book made me curious however and I wasn’t disappointed. However, Eig had superb access to the remaining members of the Ali entourage as well as access to huge volumes of new material, including FBI materials and analysis of the punches taken by Ali.  This new insight makes the book a welcome addition to the chronicles of Ali.

The book is an honest account of Ali, his contradictions and his genius. It captures what he meant to his time and place and why his legacy is so enduring.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable read and given its scope – being the first major biography published after Ali’s death, I highly recommend it as a one stop source in Ali’s incredible life. It is a book best read while pausing at the retelling each fight to watch the action on YouTube then savouring the description on the page. (Disclaimer – I received this book free of charge via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review).

By his later years, Ali became a figure upon whom millions projected the characteristics they wanted their hero’s to have.   What is clear is only a very special person could have chosen the path Ali did.  Only a very special person could have touched so many people – only a very special person could declare himself the Greatest, then make it clear that that was an understatement.

Ali’s story is also the story of his time and place.  He held up a mirror to the America he found – and dragged many people with him towards developing a more tolerant more loving worldview.  For a man who punched people for a living and once preached radical racial separation, its quite the achievement.