Thursday, 22 October 2015

Sonny Could Lick All Them Cats

I've become determined, all of a sudden, to become more accomplished at writing verse, so I'm going to use this blog to that end for a while.

I decided to write six poems about Sonny Liston. I thought they might end up being about an imaginary Sonny Liston, but they're mainly on the real Sonny Liston or tangents from that.

You need a soundtrack to read these poems and I'll supply one.


Night Train - James Brown
Sonny Could Lick All Them Cats - Chuck E Weiss
Sunny - Morrissey
Love Love Love - The Mountain Goats
Song for Sonny Liston - Mark Knopfler
Glenn Tipton - Sun Kil Moon
We Didn't Start the Fire - Billy Joel
Rumble in the Jungle - The Fugees
Babe I'm On Fire - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Don't Feel Right - The Roots



And a brief bibliography

Night Train (aka The Devil and Sonny Liston) - Nick Tosches
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times - Thomas Hauser
King of the World - David Remnick

So, here are the poems
  1. The Ballad of Sonny Liston
  2. The Long Arms of Tommy Hearns
  3. If God Judges, He Surely Judges Like This
  4. The Sonny Liston Appreciation Association
  5. The Night Train
  6. I’ll Write a Book About Sonny Liston


A man was born they know not when
Of stone and hate and power
The same man died they know not how
They know not at what hour.
The man was Charles L. Liston
Or Sonny as he’s known,
Though he grew up as no one’s child
And died disgraced alone.

The yellow-shirted bandit,
nicknamed by the police,
He roamed through old St Louis,
disturber of the peace.
Sonny robbed, he mugged and burgled
Although the sirens wailed.
That juvenile delinquent boy
became a grown man jailed.

A priest said that kid Liston
He looks like he could swing.
He may not read, he may not write
But he’ll fit in the ring.
Well, Sonny was a natural,
He crushed each man he hit
They put him straight in with a pro –
Two rounds and the pro quit.

Sonny left the jail house fit and
Ready for the game.
Golden Gloves brought triumph
And growing local fame.
His exploits got him noticed
By every suited hood.
It took him up the ladder,
But not for lasting good.

Cops kept their eyes on Sonny,
Then put him back inside,
He got out and left for Philly
And would not be denied.
He beat every contender,
Too strong, too mean, too hot.
They tried to stall him in court but
At last he got his shot.

Even President JFK
Begged the Champ to win,
"This Liston’s bad for business,
Discredits his black skin."
But Patterson had no answer
To Sonny’s fierce left hook.
In Fight 1 and in the rematch
One round was all it took.

He went back to Philadelphia
Pleased and proud as hell,
Stepped off the plane to blank silence -
Sonny’s face just fell.
He dreamed once he became the champ
He’d earn a bit of praise,
But they could not forgive Sonny
His sullen, doleful ways.

This big mouth from Kentucky
Came for Liston’s crown
So brash, at last Sonny was not
The most loathed man in town,
But Cassius owned the talent
And the tide of history.
Not to say Sonny’s collapse
Does not remain a mystery.

Cassius became Muhammad Ali,
Liston was forgotten -
A chapter to be written off,
Regrettable and rotten.
Sonny’s life was swallowed up
Into crime and drugs.
The champ became just one more of
the underworld’s paid thugs.

So ignored was Sonny Liston
In Vegas living Hell
No one noticed for a week
He’d heard his final bell.
At the grim delayed discovery
Gleeful rumours spread -
Mishap, suicide or the mob
Needed their stooge dead?

That was the end of Sonny Liston,
Who never stood a chance,
A victim of his own great strength
And tragic circumstance.
He never had the love, the glory,
Never got the money
But those who know, they know full well
No one hit like Sonny.


I fixed a fight in sixty-eight for Joe Gallo,
So I was told.  I made the calls, I picked the round,
I ruined a young man’s life for fifteen thousand flat.
I managed Sonny for a year, made no attempt
To halt his fall. I bought him blow, I kept him low,
I told him Clay wouldn’t take the calls I never made.
 I never killed a man myself, but never saved
A life where lives, by straight words whispered, could be saved.

I live less than one thousand miles from Vegas now,
Could drive there in one day if needed, but going back
To Vegas is the last thing I would ever do.
The last big fight they gave me, I already half knew
My half-remembered face would not be seen again
In Caesar’s or the Grand. I bet on Hands of Stone
To flatten Tommy Hearns, cut off his skinny legs.
Duran was punctured, flopped head first to ground in two,
It felt like Hearns was drilling me through - you’re next, punk,
This ain’t your night, this ain’t your life, you’d better run,
But know these arms will catch you up by round fifteen
And know my sting’s like nothing else you’ve felt before.

I watched Hearns-Hagler pay-per-view, a hotel room
In dark New York; a few blocks over from the court.
 As Tommy flailed half-drunk and bust, all bets were off,
I wished I could go back. You pull out now, dumb fuck,
They’d say, those lucky clowns who trapped their willing rat,
You’ll wind up in a shallow grave, whichever way.

This farmhouse in Montana is no place for me
To watch what little boxing is on free-to-air
These days, to watch my back, to turn each corner, look
With bloodshot haunted eyes for Tommy Hearns’s jab.


A cricket player, seventeen, obsessed
With justice from on high, a foolish soul,
A decent bat, vice-captain of his school,
this dusty 90s summer afternoon,
A motley travelling team of men descend
Called Incogniti, inexplicably.
The boy recalls five years before, the same
Assorted bunch of bulky bearded blades
And bowlers brought their bonhomie to Barnes –
While he, yet then, obsessive cricket fan
Spent happy hours outside the fence, or, bliss!
within the scorebox, watching, keeping note,
Recalls a little ball of spinning wiles,
All jokes and tricks behind his lefty wrist,
His name was Liston, written in the book,
His chirping team mates called him Sonny Boy.
Those five years later, “Sonny” Liston, much
The same in look and wits, returned with his
Anon’mous band of braggarts, there to teach
These boys a lesson – cricket for grown men.
What’s in this name, the boy he feared the worst,
The day was long, his play was off, his own
Left arm refused to yield to his command.
His mind laid traps but only for himself,
The men set in and dug themselves a score
To strike concern within these youthful hearts.
As wickets fell, the boy had feet of clay –
His usual role as rock beyond today’s
Loose, fretful mindset. Duty called with dread
Death rattle, nonetheless. A day to save!
But Sonny Liston had a different plan –
Deceptive loop and, to left-handed bat,
That dangerous spin away which needs sharp mind.
No ball came near the middle of his blade –
An ugly sequence of embarrassed prods.
At last, the misery appeared to end –
A nick, thank god, looped to the hands of slip.
But no, to ground. This toil must carry on.
Come on, then, boy, let’s fill them with regret.
Bed down, stick in, your form will sure return.
But no! Another edge looped up to hand!
Good god! What chance! Another gift disdained.
And then, the boy, had he been of sound mind
Would sure have counted up his lucky breaks,
As he had managed countless times before,
Re-energised and saved the blessed day.
This time, a different monologue prevailed.
You don’t deserve to be here anymore –
It’s time to place your fate before your God –
When next this Sonny Liston throws it up,
Then charge and swing, and if you should connect,
The day is yours, the Lord lends his support.
It seemed like such a good plan at the time.
A looped leg-break, the feet move down the track,
A lofted drive, a sightscreen to be cleared …
Was the idea … the truth was more prosaic …
Head in the air, feet stranded out of crease.
The end of that. The Lord has picked his side.
Suffice to say, his team was unimpressed –
Repeatedly “responsibility”
Was uttered coldly. But the boy, by now
Perversely proud, would not apologise
that sporting justice meted from on high,
in Sonny Liston’s portly guileful form,
was best accepted, even best embraced …
this stance, no doubt, you’ll be surprised to hear,
met even more lukewarm of a response.


Che Guevara, Brian Lara,
Desmond Tutu, Adrian Mutu,
Iron Maiden – should have stayed in
No one thinks the same as me.

Cotton Traders, Oakland Raiders,
Guns ‘n’ Roses, Edwin Moses
Pulp, Oasis – smug, dull faces
No one wears the same as me.

England rugby, Scotland rugby,
I can’t mingle, so much Pringle,
Endless gilets, boredom relays
Am I the only member-to-be

Of the Sonny Liston Appreciation
& Admiration Association
Sonny is the Man for me,
But I’m his only fan, sadly …


I boarded the night train in dark grey Perth
Weary and wired to find that my berth
Was not in a bed nor cabin my own
But a seat in a carriage with persons unknown.
“Facilities” intoned the guard with louche spite
“extend to a bar and your own reading light”
Small blessings determined I should make the best –
“this night may not offer me glorious rest
But there’s smooth ale for drinking and tough words to ponder,
A life to uncover then a mind to let wander.
I’ve a bio to read about old Sonny Liston
Destroying whomever he laid his right fist on”.
Sonny would train to the sound of James Brown
Singing out loud the name of each town –
“Carlisle! Penrith! Preston! Runcorn!”
Sonny’s huge shadow getting its funk on …
Three hours in after three cans of Deuchars
I’m dreaming of Gretna and thinking ‘bout Leuchars,
frontier town shoot-outs and old sons of slaves
never receiving the ovations they crave,
never beloved and never set free
to stay on their feet against Clay nor Ali,
never the liberal’s civil rights dream,
Too rough, too exploited to fit with the theme
Of King and Baez, of Johnson and Dylan -
Whoever the foe, this Liston’s the villain.
Five hours have past, my drunk eyes are stinging
I hear the night train but James Brown’s not singing,
It’s the low southern blues haunting my ears,
Sonny’s cornering me – “time for the final arrears”
The baleful visage of a man born for pain,
Beating against the sides of my brain.
“I’m parched, Sonny Liston, get me a drink
And I promise I’ll change the way people think
about bad Sonny Liston, unsolved mystery,
ghost of the night train, pariah of history”.


Sonny Liston found a way to turn hate into love;
Death did not defeat him like Muhammad’s phantom punch.
He might well not believe it if you told him of the songs
And books written to save his soul long after he is gone.

I’ll write six poems about him just to tell him someone cares
About the misbegotten, vilified and easily led.
There’s no worthwhile 20th century if Sonny is erased,
The light will shine upon him, though too little and too late.

I’ll write six poems for Sonny Liston, making one for every round
He lasted with Ali on the grim night his life fell down.
History needs it villains, but those villains need a break -
Sonny Liston’s afterlife need not be marked with shame.

Line the streets of Philadelphia ‘cause it’s Sonny Liston Day.
History’s been rewritten and his reputation saved.
All around St Louis I hear crowds of people shout
God save Sonny Liston, you can’t keep a champion down.

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