Prelude to a Riot
By Richard Oyama
It unreeled in my mental cinema in grainy black and white: The Bad Negro versus the Loudmouth. Those were the terms.
It’s February, 1964 at the Convention Hall in Miami Beach. Never mind Sonny Liston was a mob enforcer and glowered like a hellish furnace. At least he knew his place and wasn’t uppity like Cassius Clay.
Sonny was no Joe Louis, the deferential Brown Bomber. He was more like Bigger Thomas. But he kept his trap shut. Even if he was an ugly old bear.
So the smoke rings the arena and the singers and gangsters come out and the old fighters take their bows in the ring before their disappearance into tax debt, anonymity and brain trauma.
Sonny wears a hooded terrycloth robe. Clay bounces like the keys of the typewriters the ringside reporters pound. Malcolm X sits down front.
Sonny looks baleful in the huddle. It don’t matter. Clay circles left, flicking jabs and combinations, moving in and out, side to side, floating, stinging. His grace is terrible.
The newspapers report rumors he has converted to the Nation of Islam, that he is a Black Muslim, the Anti-Christ. But the bow-tied black men are not a conspicuous presence as they will be in Lewiston.
So the fate of America rests solely on the fists of Sonny the thug. Clay slips punches, ducks, bobs. He makes Sonny look old and slow, a Night Train running down. Clay’s speed is lightning in a jar, his time accelerated like funk tempos, his reflexes exquisite. He makes everything around him look shabby in his fierce beauty and shine.
Clay sees the punches telegraphed in Sonny’s dead eyes, a juju lucidity. There’s a cut under Sonny’s left eye. Through the fourth, Clay fights blind. It might be liniment from Sonny’s gloves. Dundee sponges his blinkered eyes. They clear. Clay survives. At the end of the sixth, Liston fails to rise from the stool.
The announcement comes on the radio. You can hear it on the streets of Harlem where people clump in twos and threes, listening to transistor radios. Clay inspires disbelief. I don’t believe this shit. Even at thirteen, I knew something significant had happened. Call it precognition. The Zapruder film, the endless slow-motion replays of Ali’s phantom punch at the rematch in Maine. History itself was being contested. Pho-tography was insufficient as a test of proof. It lies.
The era opened itself to a violent, hallucinatory magic.