830 E Burnside
[Editor's Note: Besides being one of the most important songwriters at work today, the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle is also a much better music writer than I'll ever be. So instead of sullying the guy's life's work with my masturbatory prose, I decided just to give him room enough to do his own sales pitch for his upcoming show at Doug Fir. Enjoy.]
One characteristic of the present age is that nobody thinks self-promotion is crass anymore. People are always telling you why you oughta support their efforts, and everybody thinks that's just fine. "Howzabout 10 reasons why people oughta come see your show?" offers my editor as inspiration for this piece, but it makes me a little uneasy. Admittedly, playing any live shows at all is a type of self-promotion, but what am I supposed to do: stay home and watch old boxing matches? I thought you'd never ask. Here, then, are the top five Sonny Liston matches I would watch if I were at home instead of coming to Portland to spray blood on the whole front row:
1. Sonny Liston vs. Albert Wesphal (12/4/61, Philadelphia): You wouldn't think that a grainy black-and-white frame of some poor sap lying flat on his back in the middle of the ring after less than a round's worth of boxing would be that compelling, would you? That is why you are not invited to watch this fight with me, which is like watching a wrecking ball collide with a paint can.
2. Sonny Liston vs. Ponce De Leon (9/17/53, St Louis): As far as I know, no footage of this fight actually exists, so I will have to watch it in my head. With the lights out. While listening to Beethoven: The middle quartets, maybe. Take that, so-called Fountain-of-Youth discoverer! Here's mud in your eye, Spanish explorer-type! This was Liston's second pro fight; he was young and happy to get work; over the course of the next 10 years, only one guy, Marty Marshall, would beat him, whom Liston would subsequently pummel in the rematch.
3. Sonny Liston vs. Floyd Patterson (7/22/63, Las Vegas): Another short, ugly one. Liston took Patterson's title away in September of '62, then gave him a rematch 10 months later. Second verse, same as the first: Liston cleans house. Patterson was past his prime, but even a well-conditioned Floyd Patterson wearing a Kevlar vest and a fencing mask couldn't have withstood Liston's jab at this point in time. It was a fearsome thing. The worst thing about it was how it didn't even look like he was putting any effort into it. Oh, sure: he closes out his fights with the requisite killer instinct, flailing purposefully, smothering his opponents in blows when he has to, or when he can. But the jab, that's the heart of his arsenal, and the way he just hangs it out there like a 100-pound weight for your face to collide with... straight ballet, man. Horrible, fantastic ballet.
4. Sonny Liston vs. Gerhard Zech (5/29/66, Goteborg, Sweden): This is Liston's first fight after his second loss to Muhammad Ali (technically his first: Their first bout together, the one in which he lost his title, was Liston vs. Cassius Clay). Any fighting Liston does during 1966 and 1967 will take place in Sweden; he will knock out anybody dumb enough to get in the ring with him. You have your choice of romantic explanations for what's going on in Sonny's life at this point: Shamed by two consecutive losses to a new kind of heavyweight, et cetera, et cetera; fleeing the corruption that forced him to throw two consecutive world title fights, et cetera; eager to return to the pure practice of his craft somewhat removed from the world spotlight, et and I do mean cetera. What I know: Zech is game, and clinches and sprints and dances for seven rounds, clearly having studied the Clay and Ali films, and where is he at the end? On the canvas, man. Face down. Lying down on the canvas, wishing he'd taken a job in an easier field, like land-mine recovery.
5. Sonny Liston vs. Chuck Wepner (6-29-70, Jersey City): Liston's last fight, which he won, knocking out Wepner in the 10th round. Chuck Wepner is said to have been the inspiration for Rocky Balboa, since you could hammer his face until it looked like a flank steak and he still wouldn't fall down. The important thing about this fight, to me anyhow, is that the only footage of it that exists is from a hand-held camera and has no audio. I am helpless before an artifact like this.