Jeff Evans

A writer's life, struggling on the coalface

Dawn of the Greatest: part 2

Cassius Clay-1

Part two of three, this post continues my article celebrating Cassius Clay’s upset victory over Sonny Liston.

Whether the walk-up crowd was affected by a radio report stating Clay had been spotted at the airport trying to leave town isn’t clear, but only a little over half of the 15,744 seats were paid for by the time the two fighters entered the ring. The challenger, despite looking calm and controlled as referee Barney Felix issued last-minute instructions, was a ball of nerves. “He was just a kid,” his ringside doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, would later say, “and that night he had no idea if he could really do what he had been saying he could do all along.”

Liston, on the other hand, had the confident air of a seasoned pro. He was there to do a job on Clay and expected an easy time of it. As the two men stood in the middle of the ring listening to Felix finish his instructions he fixed a menacing stare on the 22-year old challenger – there was no mistaking his intentions. Somehow Clay managed to hold his nerve – despite, as he later admitted, being genuinely scared – and just before the two heavyweights turned to walk back to their respective corners he took one last opportunity to rile Liston, exclaiming, “I’ve got you now, sucker!”

Back in his corner, Clay waited anxiously for the bell, all the while wondering if his tactics would see him survive Liston’s inevitable onslaught. His plan was to spend the first two rounds fighting on his toes – continuously moving to keep Liston off balance so that he couldn’t set the solid platform he needed to throw his thunderous jabs. Then he would coast through rounds three, four and five, defending himself while Liston expended precious energy chasing him around the ring. Finally in round six, he would explode into action, using his blistering hand speed to pummel the exhausted champ until the end came. It was a sound plan. Liston was sure to be lacking the stamina needed for a prolonged fight as he had only defended his belt three times in the preceding three years, and none of those fights had made it out of the first round. But still, it was only a theory.

Whether Liston himself had a plan of his own that extended past the desire to hurt Clay no one knew, but when one of his cornermen later reflected on Liston’s mood before the fight, he had no doubt that Liston was confident of winning. “Sonny never really expressed his emotions,” recalled Milt Bailey, “but before the fight, he was confident, just like all of us. We thought Clay was crazy, because he was acting the way a crazy man acts. But we also knew he was afraid because of the way he was talking, and at the weigh-in, he seemed full of fear. So we didn’t expect anything different that night. I know I didn’t think Clay had a chance. Sonny was so powerful, and nobody had stood up to him.”

There was just one problem. Liston expected a quick victory and had trained accordingly: the early-morning road runs used to build the stamina needed for longer fights were cut short or skipped altogether, and the raw intensity Liston had brought to the gym in his early days was missing. As Foneda Cox, one of Liston’s sparring partners, would later recall: “He firmly believed that he would kill Clay. I mean it, really kill him. Why work too hard?” Why indeed.

Dawn of the Greatest: part 1

Cassius Clay-1

Earlier this year I was commissioned to write a piece to mark the 50th anniversary of Cassius Clay’s stunning upset win over Sonny Liston. Fought before a small crowd in Miami, the victory handed Clay the heavyweight boxing title and launched perhaps the most storied sports career of our age.

First published in Skysport: the magazine, here is part one of three posts telling the story of the fight.

In the northern fall of 1963, Cassius Clay’s prayers were answered. After agitating for a shot at the heavyweight belt for months, he had worn the champ down. Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston, sick of the Louisville Lip’s relentless heckling, had finally decided that the only way to shut him up was to knock him down. For Liston, the fight, scheduled for 25th of February 1964 at the Miami Convention Hall, couldn’t come soon enough.

It’s hard to appreciate now, 50 years on, just what a one-sided fight it was expected to be, but most in the fight game were in no doubt at the time. Sonny Liston was, in the words of boxing promoter Harold Conrad, “… a mean fucker. I mean, he had everybody scared stiff. People talk about Tyson before he got beat, but Liston, when he was champ, was more ferocious, more indestructible, and everyone thought, unbeatable … They forget it now, but when Liston was champ, some people thought he was the greatest heavyweight of all time.”

When news of the fight broke, journalists were virtually unanimous in writing Clay off. Sports Illustrated’s Robert Boyle was among the first to turn on the challenger. “Cassius must be kidding. If he isn’t, he’s crazy to consider entering the ring against a virtually indestructible and demonstrably deadly fighting machine. Clay’s style is made to order for a massacre. He carries his hands too low, he leans away from a punch, and he cannot fight a lick inside. He will face in Liston an opponent with endurance, highly developed skills, deceptive speed, and strength enough to stun an elephant with either hand.” His counterpart at the New York Post, Milton Gross, was no less damning of Clay’s chances, “The simple fact is, Clay doesn’t know the business. He hasn’t had time to learn it. He knows publicity and he is a charmer … but he doesn’t know the trouble he’ll see when Sonny starts working him over with malice aforethought to do a butchery job on his pretty face.”

If the boxing scribes gave him no chance, Clay probably didn’t know it. He was too busy throwing barbs at the champ to read much of anything. “Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he‘s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons. I’ll hit Liston with so many punches from so many angles he’ll think he’s surrounded. I don’t just want to be champion of the world, I’m gunna be champion of the universe. After I whup Sonny Liston, I’m gunna whup those little green men from Jupiter and Mars. And looking at them won’t scare me none because they can’t be no uglier than Sonny Liston”

Clay’s taunting would provide the perfect smokescreen. While everyone, including an incensed Liston, was getting worked-up over Clay’s outlandish behaviour, Clay himself was preparing meticulously for the fight. When he wasn’t training or hamming it up with the media, he was spending hours studying footage of Liston’s most recent fights, noting, for example, how Liston relied on anchoring his legs to load the powerful punches that had finished so many of his opponents.

And when Clay wasn’t dissecting the champ’s style, he was upping the psychological stakes. He later explained his strategy in an interview with author Thomas Hauser. “I went to his training camp and tried to understand what went on inside his head, so that later I could mess with his mind. And all the time, I was talking, talking. That way, I figured Liston would get so mad that when the fight came, he’d try to kill me and forget everything he knew about boxing.”

 

What I’m reading

Michael king

I recently purchased this paperback collection of selected writings by Michael King. Published posthumously and with an introduction written by the great man’s daughter (writer Rachael King), the book is full wonderful writing.

Like William Zinsser’s work (On Writing Well, and Writing Places, and many other classics), I turn to Michael King’s writing when I want some inspiration or – just as often – when I need some help. When my writing becomes confused in one way or another, a dose of MK is a sure-fire remedy for it’s ills. His writing is clear and crisp and points the way for lost writers.

I never had the opportunity to meet the man while he was with us, but he has become one of my enduring mentors. If you can find a copy of The Silence Beyond, buy it and treasure it …

What I’m reading

Hemingway

 

A few months ago I bought a recent edition of Earnest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, a classic exploration of Spanish bullfighting that was first published in 1932. I’ve never been a big reader of Hemingway’s work, and it definitely has a few of his trademark sentences that force you have to take a double take, but apart from that, I’m enjoying the book.

It’s the second ‘Hemingway’ book I’ve read in recent months. Hemingway’s Boat (written by Paul Hendrickson and released in 2011) was a great find at the local library and I pretty much devoured it. Olivia Laing of The Guardian newspaper had this to say about it:

“While some of the more familiar elements are telescoped or sidelined (the drinking and divorces in particular are barely inked in), the lives of those who found their way aboard Pilar are deployed to remarkable effect. The hobo who spent a season working as an apprentice seaman and never recovered from the experience; the young diplomat in Cuba who had his wedding party at Hemingway’s finca and didn’t have a single bad word to say about the man. These relationships are used to reflect back something not just of Papa, but of an America that’s all but vanished now.

It helps that Hendrickson is a miraculously lovely writer. He twists and turns through time, moving sensitively between the books and life. He understands too the deep allure the ocean held for Hemingway.”

You can read Olivia’s full review Here.

 

 

Authors at Google

I love coming across interviews with authors. Yeah of course I’m like all the other suckers out there hoping to find the golden secret to easier writing (I can tell you once and for all there ain’t one!), but when I get over that, there are some really interesting authors out there to learn from. One of my current favourites is John Man.

If you haven’t heard of him, he is a British historian who mainly specialises in writing about interesting subjects like Genghis Khan; The Terracotta Army; The Great Wall; Samurai; and Ninja. His style is to take the reader along for a well researched and well written ride, describing the history of his subject while navigating today’s landscape.

His talk discussing his book The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan is HERE, and you can see who else has been interviewed for the series HERE.

Richard Rodriguez’s thoughts on revision

“Revision is writing. Revision is humiliation—Tuesday saying something less well than Monday. Revision is open to noticing connections. Revision is joy at precisely that moment when the sentence no longer seems mine but speaks back to me and haughtily resists further revision.”

Okay, even the least observant among you will recognise by now I have an unhealthy habit of finding and posting writers’ thoughts on the hardship of writing. I guess in part it’s because their struggles resonate deep with me, and I don’t want to think I’m the only one out here finding it next to impossible to put two coherent sentences together on paper without re-writing …

Anyway, enough about me and my demons. You can read more of David Michael’s great interview with Richard Rodriguez HERE, at the home of The Paris Review.

The N.E.A. interview series

tan-sml

Okay, I guess a few of you will already know about these, but the other day I came across the National Endowment for the Arts series of interviews with the likes of Amy Tan, Tobias Wolff, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Gaines and Rudolpho Anaya. The interviews look at the influences that shaped their lives and their writing.

You can view the NEA interview with Amy Tan HERE

A long weekend in Sydney

books

A couple of weekends ago my wife and I enjoyed a long weekend in Sydney. It’s a short 3-hour flight across the Tasman Sea to Australia from our home in Auckland, and we had a great time.

Of course one morning was dedicated to hunting through  second hand bookshops, and I found a couple of good ones in the suburb of Glebe, a short light rail ride from our CBD hotel.

Among the books I picked up and snuck home (just under the airline weight restrictions) were John Updike’s Due Considerations and a study of Khubilai Khan’s ill-fated invasion of Japan.

Buying Updike’s book was a no-brainer, and I’m really looking forward to reading it – I’ve been a big fan of his writing for years. I picked up Delgado’s book for another reason though: I want to study how he has structured his book. My next project will take me in a new direction and I’m super keen to get some reference points before I start to plan it.

Don’t Forget to Read About Writing

Earlier this week I came across this little gem of advice  on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog. It’s something I’ve written about in the past, but because I believe in it so strongly, I thought I’d share these words of wisdom one more time.

It’s easy to get so involved with writing, that reading can become a luxury to push aside. But, it’s so important to read about writing for the little nuggets of wisdom and pearls of inspiration we know, but somehow seem to forget.

Finding books that resonate with our writing lives and experiences might be rare, so when you find a great book, hang on to it!

You can read the entire post here: Don’t Forget to Read About Writing.

The art of mau rakau

Mau Rakau1-1

In November of last year I hired a car and drove down to the small Hawke’s Bay settlement of Takapau. I’d been invited to attend the 30th anniversary of Pita Sharples’ Maori weaponry school, Te Whare Tu Taua o Aotearoa, to document the weekend in words and photos. I was honoured to do so and it turned out to be an inspirational few days. Not only was it visually exciting, it was a wonderful experience to be among so many dedicated practitioners of the art.