What I'm Watching: Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston


I consume a lot of media in a lot of different forms: books; comics; audiobooks; video games; music on vinyl, CD, mp3 and streaming service; blogs; newspapers; magazines; shows and movies on DVD and Netflix; videos online. Every so often, I’ll even fire up my cassette deck and my old battleship of a LaserDisc player. A recent viewing made me appreciate not just the sheer quantity of media that we can now find online, but the ways in which the consumption of online media can knit together and enhance all the other media in my life.

My wife is not a major sports fan (though, as a Wisconsinite, she does bleed Packer green and gold), so I was surprised recently when she said she wanted to watch the 2009 documentary Muhammad and Larry. I’m an old boxing fan, so I was game; as a bonus, I learned that the film, part of ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” series, was directed by the late, great documentarian Albert Maysles, whose work I’ve always admired. Netflix offers many, if not all, of the “30 for 30” films via its streaming service, so we dialed it up and settled in.

Muhammad and Larry, despite its bland title, is a fine film, and it confirms what I recalled about the waning days of Muhammad Ali’s career: He let his ego get the better of him, and signed up to fight against younger, stronger opponents who walloped him but good. The film, just the fourth released under the “30 for 30” banner, documents the penultimate fight in Ali’s career, in which he lost by TKO to Larry Holmes in the 10th round.

Indeed, three of Ali’s five career losses came in his last four fights; conventional wisdom holds that he should have retired after defeating Ken Norton (for the second time in three bouts) in 1976. By the time of his fight against Holmes in 1980, Ali was nearly 40 and had slowed down visibly; the film suggests that the Parkinson’s disease from which the champ has long suffered had already made its first, if undiagnosed, incursions by that time.

Muhammad and Larry is a fine film in Maysles’ signature “direct cinema” mode, and it contains some terrific footage of Ali and Holmes in their respective training camps. It’s worth a look for any sports or film enthusiast, but it’s not the text I want to focus on here. My wife knows little about Ali or boxing in general, but this film piqued her interest, so she asked me to recommend some books. She quickly blazed through Robert Lipsyte’s book Free to Be Muhammad Ali, a biography that, though aimed at a teenage audience, serves as a fine and well-written introduction to a man whom I consider to be, along with P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill Cody, among the most quintessential and important figures in American history. Curious about Ali’s early-career bouts in 1964 and 1965 with Sonny Liston, she then went on to read Nick Tosches’ exquisite book The Devil and Sonny Liston. Tosches takes the minority opinion that Ali was a boring loudmouth and Liston was the more compelling of the two fighters; my wife found herself agreeing with that position, and expressed an interest in watching the boxers’ two fights. YouTube came to the rescue; using my smartphone and the nifty little Google Chromecast that we got recently, I found the video and slung it to the TV, on which we watched crummy-but-still-viewable kinescopes of both bouts.

Here’s the path, so far, of these interconnected media:

Viewing a streaming film via Netflix —> reading two dead-tree books —> viewing another streaming film via Chromecast and YouTube

That’s not such a tortuous path, but it did inspire me to think about how the fight kinescopes found their way to my television. From the evidence in the video and from what I know about media industries, here’s the best I could figure about the route taken by the video of the first Ali-Liston fight:
1. The match was originally recorded by the television cameras of a now-defunct closed-circuit network called Theater Television Network, which had the relatively unusual practice (as its name suggests) of broadcasting its shows not to home TVs but to movie theaters. Kind of an early version of those special events that movie theaters have now: live broadcasts of operas, etc.

2. For purposes of preservation, the fight broadcast was recorded on film, creating what is called a kinescope, likely in 16mm format. Kinescopes were crude things — they were made by pointing a film camera at a TV screen — but have proved their historical value time and time again.

3. That kinescope was, somewhat ironically, converted back to video so that it could be easily rebroadcast. At some point, it was mastered to commercial-grade videotape — the frequent video glitches evident in the footage are characteristic of videotape “tracking errors.” (Remember adjusting the tracking knob as a kind of kitchen-sink fix-it for VHS errors? Ah, those were the days.)

4. In all likelihood, that tape was duped at least once, and probably more than once, given the overall quality of the footage.

5. Someone digitized the videotape of the fight; that same person may or may not have been the one who uploaded it to YouTube — it's impossible to say. It’s still the Wild West out there with regard to ownership claims on the internet; this particular iteration of the digital version of the fight video contains a title card that directs the viewer to a Russian website. That site, though indecipherable to me, is clearly devoted to the career of boxer Max Baer. Baer died in 1959, and his career was over by 1941, so he never fought Ali or Liston. But I guess this website is catholic in its treatment of boxing history. In any case, just because some Russian guy slapped his URL across the first frames of this video, that doesn’t mean that he also digitized or uploaded it. I’m probably skipping several more digital steps here.

6. I searched for the video using my phone’s YouTube app, then sent it, via Chromecast, to my living-room television. If we had no internet, neither of these chains of events would have been initiated. We probably wouldn’t have sought out Muhammad and Larry without having access to Netflix’s streaming catalog. And I wouldn’t have known how or where to find the video of the fight if it hadn’t been on YouTube (legally or illegally). Even in the days of video stores, many of which had decent selections of sports videos, this particular fight video might not have existed or been in stock. The internet makes this kind of hunting much less of a crapshoot.

Speaking of crap, take note of the crappy image quality in that video — but don’t make too much of a fuss over it. It’s a small miracle that this priceless historic footage survives in viewable form, given the many transmogrifications it has undergone before appearing on YouTube. I’ve even come to find the kinescope’s tell-tale bright white “blooms” to be somewhat charming. Noticing them is akin to noticing the textured patterns left by the brushstrokes in a painting: An appreciation of the medium can contribute to an appreciation of the text.

And what a text it is. This, the first of the two Ali-Liston fights, has gone into the history books for a number of reasons. For one thing, it wasn’t even technically Muhammad Ali who was doing the boxing. This was one of Cassius Clay’s last fights before he cast off his “slave name” and remade himself. By the time he fought Liston 15 months later (in, of all places, Lewiston, Maine), Ali was Clay no longer.

Equally important to sports historians, this is the fight during which someone in Liston’s camp allegedly smeared the fighter’s gloves with an astringent substance that just happened to find its way into Clay’s eyes. Watch as, in Round Five, Clay blinks furiously and shakes his head constantly, apparently trying to regain his vision. To my knowledge, the use of this substance has never been proved, but Clay doesn’t look like he’s faking here.

The more vexing question is why Liston’s camp would bother with such illegal tactics. Liston is widely regarded as having thrown this fight, a fact acknowledged even by Tosches, a Liston apologist. After the sixth round, during which he does not take a particularly rough beating, Liston simply refuses to continue with the match. If he knew he was going to quit, why’d he allegedly try to blind Clay? The answer may — or may not — lie in the footage of this video. Though there’s plenty one can learn from watching this video, the last point I’ll make is that it shows just how different modern sportscasting is from its 1960s ancestors. Steve Ellis, the fight commentator, awkwardly relates precious little information that isn’t simply descriptive of what the cameras render obvious. Nearly everything he says is self-evident; former champ Joe Louis, on hand to do color commentary, adds little, demonstrating why he was a much better boxer than a sportscaster.

Most noticeable to me were the lengthy patches in which Ellis says nothing at all. These silences stood out to me because modern sports commentators just will. not. shut. up. It’s one of the reasons I almost never watch televised sports anymore. Those infernal yappers, with their databases and anecdotes at the ready, are more of a hindrance than a help to my enjoyment of any game.

I never really thought to search YouTube for old boxing matches, but now that I’ve started to dig into the catalog, I’m pretty excited about this. Every fight, from Jim Corbett vs. Bob Fitzsimmons to Mike Tyson vs. Buster Douglas, lives in its digital innards, proving once again that every modern technology offers us new ways to experience the past.