July 12, 2013
One particular boxing match in Las Vegas a half-century ago may have been quick, but still carried some weight.
Nevada long has been an important spot for boxing matches. Back in 1897, Nevada legalized boxing so it could host the heavyweight championship fight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Gentleman Jim Corbett. In 1910, Reno hosted the big battle between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. Many great boxers have fought in Las Vegas.
But one of the more unusual matchups pitted Sonny Liston against Floyd Patterson, half a century ago. Patterson had been an Olympic gold medalist and world heavyweight champion. Liston went to prison for assault and entered boxing after his release. In 1962, the two men fought in Chicago and Liston knocked out Patterson in the first round. The rematch would be held in Las Vegas. They were to fight in April 1963, but Liston hurt his knee while swinging a golf club, so they fought on July 22 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Again, Liston knocked out Patterson in the first round. Patterson lasted four seconds longer than he did in the first fight.
This fight was important in more ways than just deciding the heavyweight title, or even bringing tourists and money to the Strip. One of those present was a younger fighter, Cassius Clay, not yet known as Muhammad Ali. He came to Liston’s training camp and taunted him while he shot craps in a casino. He wanted a chance in the ring with Liston. He got it and defeated him twice, the second time with what became known as the phantom punch.
Ali would go on to fight five of his biggest matches in Las Vegas. As for that punch, many have claimed that Liston was tied to the mob and took a dive. Whatever happened, Liston did come back to Las Vegas, not just to fight twice more, but to live. He was found dead at his home on January 5, 1971. The cause of death remains uncertain. Drugs may have been involved but tests were inconclusive.
Ali and Liston both were in the midst of the civil rights movement. Ali was the center of controversy over becoming Muslim, changing his name, and refusing to fight in Vietnam. Liston had little to do with the movement, although he made some comments about it, but some felt his prison record made his victories a setback to racial progress.
Yet they have another connection to civil rights through the Liston-Patterson fight that Ali attended in Las Vegas. In 1960, in the Moulin Rouge Agreement, most Strip and downtown casino owners had agreed to let African Americans to patronize their resorts. Local civil rights leaders were happy about that. But the next step was to get better jobs for African Americans and they weren’t having much luck. Jim Anderson of the NAACP came up with an idea: demonstrate outside the convention center when Liston fought Patterson. With other leaders like James McMillan, the NAACP put together lines, but negotiations began. Governor Grant Sawyer, publisher Hank Greenspun, County Commission Ralph Denton and others worked out a settlement with civil right leaders for more jobs—some, as McMillan put it, but not enough.
Making things even more interesting, NBC News had a crew here for anchorman David Brinkley to do a report on boxing. If the demonstration had taken place, one of the country's most prominent newscasters would have been here to cover it.
Liston vs. Patterson. JUST a boxing match? Hardly.
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