A ringside seat
By DAVID HORSPOOL
What does this picture make you think of?
To a prosaically-minded sport editor at the TLS, it is one of Neil Leifer's classic shots of Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, on May 25, 1965, when Ali defeated the former heavyweight champion Liston for the second time, knocking him down in the first round with what, according to taste, became known as the "phantom", or the "anchor" punch. According to the rules of boxing, Ali shouldn't have been in that position, and Leifer shouldn't have been able to get his shot, or the even more famous one in which his right hand is curled, ready to do more damage – an image that has been called the greatest sports photograph of all time. The champ should have retired to a neutral corner to let the referee, Jersey Joe Walcott (himself a former heavyweight champion) begin the count. In fact, the contest can be classified as the only sporting world championship ever decided by an editor. In this case, Nat Fleischer, Editor of Ring Magazine, who pointed out to the ref (wrongly, it might be argued), that "the fight's over" as pandemonium reigned. Such was the respect accorded Fleischer, Walcott stopped the bout: that's what I call editorial interference.
When I saw a book with this picture on the dustjacket in our offices, I naturally made a grab for it, while wondering "can there be any more to say about Ali?" Well, there may be, but not in this book, the title of which is The Iliad, by someone called Homer, who seems to have been trained, or "translated", as the publishers put it, by a professor based in Rhode Island, Edward McCrorie. Apart from its unusual choice of cover image, the book seems to be in every other respect a straightforward new version of the epic poem. So where does Ali fit in? (And why, by the way, in the caption on the cover, is he described as "Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali", when he had already announced his conversion to Islam by the time of the second Liston fight?)
Unless I've missed it, the editorial matter and translator's preface offer no answer. Ali, of course, was something of an oral poet himself. Could it be that "Big Ugly Bear", "The Gorilla", "The Mummy", "The Rabbit" (Ali's nicknames for Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Floyd Patterson – though my favourite is the one he gave Ernie Terrell: "The Octopus") are the modern equivalent of Homer's epithets, "Odysseus of the many wiles", or "swift-footed Achilles"? Perhaps, but maybe the idea this particular picture is meant to promote is a reminder that all fighting involves boasting and naked aggression, even if the people who do it look beautiful, and the boxers, at least, aren't necessarily inviting death.
The Homeric moment this image most brings to mind for me is when Hector stands over Patroclus as the Achaean lies dying at his hands. "Lie there, Patroclus! and with thee, the joy / Thy pride once promis'd of subverting Troy", as Pope translated it; in Christopher Logue's War Music version: "Why tears, Patroclus? / Did you hope to melt Troy down?"; Edward McCrorie goes for: "Patroklos, likely you claimed you'd plunder our city". According to the best accounts from ringside in 1965, Ali said "Get up and fight you bum! You're supposed to be so bad!"
The book will be passed from the sports to the Classics editor for a more informed assessment.