Friday, 6 June 2014

Boxing oddities: Liston's lonely hearts club band

Apart from the obvious fact that they were both World Championship-winning boxers, the menacing former heavy champ Sonny Liston and former light-heavy boss John Conteh also have something else in common: they've both appeared on the covers of chart-topping albums.

Liston was one of the icons featured on Peter Blake's cover design for the seminal 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, while Conteh graced  the sleeve for Paul McCartney and Wings' 1973 mega-seller Band on the Run.

Ironically enough, given his appearance on the front of arguably their greatest album, Liston was no admirer of The Beatles, who he'd seen perform live in February 1964 when the group visited Miami, having already taken New York and Washington by storm. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on 9 February had been a runaway success, garnering huge ratings in the process, so the Liverpool band were promptly booked for a swift return appearance on Sullivan's show on 16 February, to be filmed at the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach.

Miami at this time was abuzz with the frenzied build-up to the first Liston-Clay fight, with both fighters completing their preparations for the contest in the Florida city ahead of their showdown at the Miami Beach convention hall on 25 February.

Liston, along with legendary former champ Joe Louis, was in the audience for the Beatles' Miami appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and was left unimpressed by the mop-topped pop stars, allegedly telling boxing promoter Harold Conrad: "Are these motherfuckers what all the people are screaming about? My dog plays drums better than that kid with the big nose."

A couple of days later, The Beatles, along with photographer Harry Benson, were hoping for a photo shoot with the intimidating Liston who was, at that time of course, the reigning World Heavyweight Champion. Liston was widely viewed by the public and most boxing experts as all but indestructible, so The Beatles figured it would be good publicity for them to meet the champ.

However a hostile Liston rejected the opportunity to be pictured with "them sissies", so Benson set up a photo-call with Clay instead, much to The Beatles' initial chagrin. Before meeting the challenger, John Lennon apparently dismissed Clay as "that big mouth who's going to lose".

Ironically enough, the ensuing photo call produced a series of memorable shots of Clay clowning around with the band which would rapidly acquire iconic status. One week after the shots were taken, Clay conquered Liston after six rounds; he promptly renamed himself Cassius X and then Muhammad Ali and would soon be seen as a global icon. Meanwhile The Beatles went on to conquer and perfect popular music like no band before or since.

Given their famous meeting with Ali, it's somewhat strange that it was Liston who ended up on the Sgt. Pepper cover. Artist Peter Blake ended up incorporating Liston, or rather his waxwork from Madame Tussaud's, into his design after hearing that the waxwork model was going to be melted down because Liston was no longer world champion. Blake duly rescued the model from the furnace (or wherever Tussaud's melt their models down) and placed the waxwork of Sonny in a prominent position on the left hand side of the album sleeve.

Blake is obviously still quite enamoured with Sonny. He named Liston his "favourite sportsman" in 2012 and today the original waxwork can still be found at his studio in Chiswick, west London. Blake guards it with pride, even preventing it from being taken to Bath for a recent exhibit of his possessions, declaring: "he's rather fragile, so he doesn't go anywhere any more ... he's my guardian here."

In many ways I'm glad that it's the somewhat tragic figure of Liston who made it on to the cover of Sgt. Pepper, rather than Ali, who has had enough tributes and adulation to last countless lifetimes. Liston certainly fits the description of a 'lonely heart'; he died in mysterious circumstances in 1970 and was always viewed with suspicion by the public and fight experts alike because of his shady past and Mob links. I think there's something quite wonderful about the fact that he's immortalised in one of the greatest pieces of pop art the world has ever seen. Even if he did think The Beatles were a bunch of sissies ...

Author's note: I'll be taking a closer look at John Conteh, his friendship with Paul McCartney and his appearance on the Band on the Run cover in the next few days.

Luke G. Williams

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