Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The Meaning Of The First Sonny Liston-Muhammad Ali Fight

Over on The Stacks, we're republishing Murray Kempton's classic dispatch from the first Clay-Liston fight, in 1964; you can find the story below. Kempton was an elegant columnist and essayist with a great ear for the overtones and undertones of any public spectacle—mob trials, nominating conventions, HUAC hearings—which of course made him a natural boxing writer, too. In 1962, he wrote a column about Sonny Liston that contains two of the very wisest paragraphs ever written about sports:

We have at last a heavyweight champion on the moral level of the men who own him. This is the source of horror which Liston has aroused; he is boxing's perfect symbol. He tells us the truth about it. The heavyweight championship is, after all, a fairly squalid office.

But Sonny Liston is as bad as anyone around him. He will therefore take care of himself. He also can, if he is as true to his essential character as he shows every sign of continuing, be a heavyweight champion who will be the discredit his profession has needed all these years. He has already helped us grow up as a country because he is the first morally inferior Negro I can think of to be given an equal opportunity. He will help us grow up further if he destroys the illusion that a man whose trade it is to beat another man senseless for money represents an image which at all costs must be kept pure for American youth.


Those paragraphs should be tattooed on the forehead of every pious hack who thinks of sports as an apparatus of moral discipline. Kempton understood the private terrors Liston aroused in the public, and two years later he understood how that dynamic had shifted to accommodate the loud, clanging arrival of Cassius Clay. Read the piece. It's as good as sportswriting gets.