The History of Theatrics in Combat Sports Part I - Clay vs. Liston

07_beatles_ali_medium In the wake of Brock Lesnar's win over Frank Mir at UFC 100 we are experiencing a focus on personality and theatrics in the fight game.  Rather than allow this to simply be passed over as a product of a former WWE star I will be taking a look back at the history of theatrics in combat sports in a multi-part series beginning today with Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay.


Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat, if Liston goes back an inch farther he'll end up in a ringside seat. Clay swings with a left, Clay swings with a right, just look at young Cassius carry the fight. Liston keeps backing but there's not enough room, it's a matter of time until Clay lowers the boom. Then Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing, and the punch raised the bear clear out of the ring. Liston still rising and the ref wears a frown, but he can't start counting until Sonny comes down. Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic and our radaring stations have picked him up somewhere over the Atlantic. Who on Earth thought, when they came to the fight, that they would witness the launching of a human satellite. Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money, that they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.

Those words were written by Cassius Clay prior to his first fight with Sonny Liston.  As much as we romanticize Ali now the truth is, there was a large segment of the population that could not stand this young black man conducting himself in such an immodest manner.  In fact, LA Times writer Jim Murray had the following to say about the Liston/Clay fight:

the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin--180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout. The only thing at which Clay can beat Liston is reading the dictionary. . . . His public utterances have all the modesty of a German ultimatum to Poland but his public performances run more to Mussolini's navy.

Obviously at the time this was not Muhammad Ali, American Hero.  Instead it was the shamelessly brash Cassius Clay, who was going to get his mouth shut by the 7:1 favorite Sonny Liston and his crushing power punches.  There were practically no sports reporters willing to go on record as giving Clay a chance, most even going as far as to say that Liston would knock out the kid in under a round.

The fight almost didn't happen due to Clay's association with Malcolm X and his rumored conversion to Islam.  With Liston being such a big favorite it was a very real possibility that Clay's conversion would kill whatever interest was left in the bout.  In the interest of not having the bout canceled and "selling" the fight to the public Clay agreed to wait until after the fight to announce his conversion (the day after the fight he announced he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali).

In the weeks building up to the fight Ali was showing up at Liston's training camp with a busfull of press and his entourage shouting insults at Sonny while he worked out.  He kept up the outbursts leading to the weigh-ins before the fight which saw Ali do the following:


Debate rages to this day as to if the challenger believed all that he said about Liston or if he was simply "talking to himself" to build up his confidence as Floyd Patterson asserted.  Ali himself had my favorite take on his hype and how much he believed.  From David Remnick's great book "King of the World":

Finally, the writer Mort Sharnik said, "Cassius, all these things you're saying about Liston, do you really mean them? Do you really think you're going to beat this guy?"

"I'm Christopher Columbus," he said slowly. "I believe I'll win. I've never been in there with him, but I believe the world is round and they all believe the world is flat. Maybe I'll fall off the world at the horizon but I believe the world is round."

The world did prove to be round for Cassius as things went exactly as he had predicted; he battered Liston with speed and movement forcing the champ to quit on the stool before the seventh round.  Following the win Cassius celebrated by declaring himself "the greatest" "king of the world" and talking about how Liston was not even a match:

The rematch highlights the fact that Clay (now Ali) was still seen as a villian as he was booed upon entering the ring and during fighter introductions.  After landing a right hand in the first round which knocked Liston down Ali stood over him shouting to "get up and fight, sucker!" and posing over his downed opponent while the referee (former world champ Joe Walcott) tried to make the count resulting in the most famous picture in combat sports history:


One takeaway from this article for MMA fans should be that what Brock Lesnar does is not all that different from Ali in his prime.  Is he as eloquent or graceful in his style as Ali?  Absolutely not.  But he is a man who sells fights despite a personality that flies in the face of what is expected and appreciated by the majority of the press and fanbase.

And the real question is this:  What is more of a pro wrestling tactic?  For Brock Lesnar to be himself despite how abrasive his personality really is...or for what has become the norm in MMA.  For guys to talk a big game, fight, and then hug before saying that they were just "selling the fight."  Isn't that what sports entertainment is based around?  Pretending that a storyline exists where it does not to get people interested in watching an event?

I know some people won't like hearing it, but right now Brock Lesnar reminds me of Ali much more than he reminds me of a WWE star.  He is a guy who says and does what he wants despite what people think and lets that sell fights for him.  Guys like BJ Penn are the ones truly practicing sports entertainment tactics with pre-fight trash talk only to say afterward that they didn't mean it and were jusy hyping a fight for the fans.  Creating a storyline out of thin air is a WWE move, just being a jerk because that is your true personality is not.

I just want to say one last thing.  Certain members of the MMA press need to study up on thier combat sports history and stop pretending that somehow Brock Lesnar is a first of his kind personality shattering the norms of combat sports.  To me he is just another outspoken combat athlete trying to prove that his world is round.

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