Sportswriting Competition 2012 – 1st place:
by Oliver Goldstein
Miami Beach, where Cassius Clay has come to dance –
Miami Beach, where Cassius Clay has come to die –
And we’re reminded everyday that this is a day at the end of your life: that this is a day at the end of your life. And when you come to die, how do you want to be remembered?
Just a day at the end of your life: Miami Beach, Convention Hall. February 25, 1964. A day at the end of your life: the blood and the heat, the blood and the sweat; lumbering motionless silent.
It’s the waiting that gets you, gets you every time – the waiting that gnaws at your veins and chews at your skin: the silence and nothingness purring before you, stretching out a day into weeks, a morning into years, hours into centuries, minutes into eternities.
Four weeks spent chewing the cud, six months outside the ring: six months since you laid Patterson out a second time, six months in Europe, in England, in Ireland, six months with Geraldine and Nilon and Willie, with Harry Levene squeezing out pennies and Brian London spitting out chicken, with Peter Keenan and the brothers Kray – sparring soft with Fonedo Cox, smiling real gentle for white folk, shaking hands and nodding heads: being the responsible role model the heavyweight champion of the world should be, the kind of man we here at the New York State Athletic Commission will proudly present to the people in the Garden, a role model, a Liston, our Liston…
Six months of Dundee and Clay, MacDonald and you, Mailer and Miller and Merchant and McKinney, whispering round corners and peeping through keyholes: the hot paranoia, the unforgiving blackness.
Whispers of injury, of illness, of ill-preparation; whispers of crime, of drink, of moral violation. The fatigued murmurs of insipid men, spinning webs, that Sonny’s trained with cab drivers, sparred dead men; that he’s drank himself stupid and stupider still. That Liston is great, but will fall in eight. That he’s too ugly to be champ –
That the champ should be pretty, like me.
Whispers that follow like a tedious argument of the bloodiest intent: the world champion we never wanted, a Liston, to whom we grant contempt and distrust, arrest warrants for confetti, police cordons for ticker tape, to whom we offer Saturday night kicks and a ready word, all for our tongueless brute, our beastly monster, our Sonny Liston…
But six months narrows down to four weeks, four weeks to two days and two days into a night: time ceaselessly rolled over and over, collected and calibrated in watches and jars, motioned patiently towards its outbreak of sound and fury, of Liston and Clay, of hype and hyperbole blurring into the flat reality of your fists and his:
Miami Beach, Convention Hall. February 25, 1964.
Willie tapes your hands, locks them into a white fist, marries them to a tribal task – stands you up, stretches the shoulder, greases your brows: readying you for conflict, for Clay, Clay, Clay, and the lights and the crowd and the steady beat of a jab and a cross and a 1-2-3.
Night Train ghosts through the room – jab, jab – as Willie gently claps you on the back – feint the right, throw the left – while Joe Louis breathes into your ear that this is boxing, this is it. This is legacy, Joe mutters. This is it.
Eternity lapses. Time ushers you through her corridors, Willie by your side, Joe behind you: scything and skinning your way to the eighteen foot pen in the middle of Miami Beach in the heart of the Convention Hall in the centre of the world.
It’s a pen for dogs, for hounds –
It’s a pen for ears, for eyes –
It’s a pen for Clay and a pen for you.
They’re here to watch you, all of them, here for you: adorned in the black trunks with the white trim, your cotton field myth nurtured centuries ago, your giant palms and brown leather life knitted by a dateless birth and a voiceless future, offered up to contemptuous eyes and damning shakes in an arena hot with blood and sweat and sticky paranoia…
Taking up their seats and their stubs and their golden tickets and nodding and needling and noting that Sonny Liston comes to kill and Clay can only come to die.
Because it’s tonight: because you’re Liston and he’s Clay, running hand in hand towards history, running into the mouth of hell –
Under the supervision of the Miami Beach boxing commission…
The mouth of hell –
This bout, 15 rounds for the world heavyweight championship…
Of hell –
From Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius Clay…
Hell, hell, hell –
In the black trunks with the white trim, Sonny Liston…
Hell, hell, hell –
Barney Felix brings the two of you together, tonight’s entertainment, sweat and fury and violence glistening on your forehead, and you stare into his eyes, deep into the eyes, pouring into the eyes – searching for Patterson, for Williams, for Folley and the rest, searching for fright, for fear: and finding nothing. Confidence returns your glare, arrogance disarms your stare: I got you, sucker.
All around you, they’re baying for blood: for Clay, Clay, Clay; all around you, they’re lusting for blood: for you, you, you…
Time drags. Someone somewhere stokes the fire: Liston and Clay, born to tangle, a collision ordained in the heat of a nether long ago; Liston and Clay, bound and chained and barely off the boat, dragged into conflict by the proclamations and amalgamations of this white idyll and these white ideals and this searing transcendent transparent transpiring dream…
You had a dream once – you were going to be heavyweight champion of the world, the heavyweight champion you knew you could be, a heavyweight champion untying the shackles of cotton and farms and names and history – but they’re baying for blood, for Clay and for you, for Clay and for you, and Felix steps away and time drags some more and Willie leaves the ring and the furious very now is here…
He’s quicker than expected: feet smoother, hands swifter than you imagined; but you grunt out a jab and thrust with a right, limbering up, loosening up – deer in the headlights, running into an American dream drunk with lust teetering at the wheel…
But he’s quicker than expected, much quicker: and you’re lumbering in there, slumbering in there, as he whips your jaw with a bad left hook and a hard right cross – and it’s you, you’re the deer in the headlights, America streaming and sliding and flattening your red and your white and your blue paper myth…
And it’s a day at the end of your life: punching and kicking and stomping and screaming against an oncoming tide of clay and Clay and the good ol’ U.S. of A. rushing you, flooding you, drowning you –
Just a day at the end of your life: Miami Beach, Convention Hall. 25 February, 1964.
Willie thrusts you down into the chair – Sonny Liston is falling apart here against the underdog Cassius Clay, breathes the ringside announcer – and you’re falling apart here impotent permeable penetrated: to the gloves, for the eyes, Pollino and potions, pouring, pouring, pouring –
And you’re out of the chair and into the ring: into the ring where there is no air, only the blood and the sweat, the blood and the heat – yours and Clay’s, knotted together, interminable tenants of the world and the ring, as you thrust towards him with stiff legs and a stiff heart and you smear the leather across his pretty face.
Cassius Clay is falling apart here against the overdog Sonny Liston, and he’s flopping and flailing and moaning and wailing, but your legs are stiff, stiff, stiff, and your shoulder is numb, numb, numb, as you blindly chase the blind bat blind yourself to the history chronicled already.
The longer it goes, the more he sees: the longer it lasts and the less you see – sound and vision and sense and smell torn open, ripped apart by the lefts and the rights which lacerate your forehead, puff up your eyes, excoriate your myth – and you’re slumping into the corner and Willie’s rubbing at your legs and Pollino’s reaching for the liniment but it’s over, it’s done, your body finished and your heart resigned.
You barely see the legend being fashioned before you – something about the Greatest – as you slumber out of the ring, lumber through the arena, the world as dead to you as you were to it when it dragged you out of a womb and set you down to grow in an empty corner of a vacant lot: dateless and anomalous, born in a land of never somewhere, just another negro in another negro family, a brutal myth like Langford like Hector like Louis like Liston.
It’s how it comes to be at the end of your life, Sonny: you, who wrote me a million times over; they, who wrote you a million times over, Sonny…
Just a day at the end of your life, the deer in the rush of the dream and the clay –
The dream and the clay –
For you were born, and you lived, and you died.