Esquire covers commemorate boxing's prime   

Updated: May 8, 2008, 12:56 PM ET

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There was a time when the sport of boxing actually had what one might call "juice." Boxing once enjoyed broad cultural capital, as evidenced in words such as "pugilist" and phrases such as "the sweet science," which echoed across everything from sweaty boxing gyms to haughty literary salons. I am reminded of boxing's back-in-the-day ethos every time I see the George Lois-designed Esquire magazine cover from December 1963. This particular cover features a close-up of boxer Sonny Liston's mean mug, while he sports a red and white Santa Claus hat. Might this image be what The Godfather of Soul had in mind when he said "Santa Claus go straight to the ghetto"?

George Lois

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Advertising guru George Lois was the creative force behind the iconic Esquire covers from 1962-72.

The creative influence behind this Esquire cover and 91 others was advertising genius Lois, whom Charles McGrath of The New York Times recently described as "one of the most influential admen of his generation." From 1962 to '72, Lois designed iconic covers for this celebrated magazine, and many of these covers are currently on display as part of an exhibit celebrating Lois' work at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Lois' body of work stands out for its brilliant minimalist design and for the social statements that these cover images made with minimal use of text. There was a time when people would often recite the cliché, "A picture is worth a thousand words." I'm not sure how well that idea holds up in the digital age, but to view the Lois covers now is to understand how to communicate through imagery in an era when society wasn't dominated with so many different media options, as is the case today.

Sonny Liston

Esquire magazine

Do you want to see this cat come down your chimney?

Several of Lois' more provocative covers featured boxers such as Liston, Floyd Patterson and, of course, one of the most photographed figures of that era, Muhammad Ali. The Lois boxing covers remind us that there was a time when boxing was both popular and culturally significant beyond the ring. The sport often served as a metaphor for life, and the Lois covers captured this essence in both meaningful and highly stylized ways.

The Liston cover conveys all of this without a word of text, other than the magazine's title and date of publication. The idea of a black Santa Claus in 1963 was especially radical in those pre-Civil Rights Act days. The image of Liston as Santa Claus was even more off the chain than that.

Liston was an unreformed ex-con who once worked as "mob muscle," prompting speculation that some of his fights throughout the years had been fixed, including his second fight against Ali. This certified thug with street cred to spare was, in many ways, ahead of his time. He had served time in the pen for armed robbery and seemed to be proud of it. Liston was so gangsta that he ended up getting kicked out of three different cities -- Philly, St. Louis and Denver -- all because of his beef with the cops. Liston's especially antagonistic relationship with the "po po" was legend long before similar stories involving today's athletes and rappers became commonplace.

Floyd Patterson

Esquire magazine

Lois spoke to Sonny Liston's victory over Floyd Patterson with a Patterson look-alike out cold
on the canvas in an empty arena.

Trust me, Liston was the last cat you wanted to see come down your chimney. It didn't matter if you were black or white, either, as the feeling about Liston was virtually the same across the board. The NAACP was so concerned about having to deal with the fallout of Liston's visibility that it had encouraged Patterson not to fight the heavily favored Liston for fear that a Liston victory would retard racial progress. Lois spoke to Liston's eventual victory over Patterson on the October 1962 cover, which featured a Patterson look-alike lying knocked out on the mat of an empty boxing ring in a vacant arena.

What the Liston cover reminds us of is that boxing always needs a good villain. Ever since Liston boxing descendant Mike Tyson left the stage, this role has gone largely unfulfilled. With no real villain, the sport now lacks the drama that fighters like Liston once so readily conjured up. Ali's successful rise would not have had nearly the dramatic impact that it does had he not originally defeated Liston, the irascible antihero, to become the youngest heavyweight champion ever at the time. Of course, Ali's embrace of the Nation of Islam and eventual refusal to serve in Vietnam earned him the wrath of many as well, but these same actions also made him a hero for many others.

Muhammad Ali

Esquire magazine

Lois featured Muhammad Ali as
a classic martyr in April 1968.

Lois would do three Ali-themed covers during his 10-year tenure at Esquire. The most famous of these was the April 1968 cover featuring Ali as a classic martyr. The champ, dressed in his boxing gear, stands with his head slightly tilted, his body filled with arrows. The caption "The Passion of Muhammad Ali" speaks softly from the cover's lower right-hand corner. The cover became so popular that it was reproduced and sold as a protest poster.

There was also the August 1966 cover that featured Ali and Floyd Patterson with the cover story "In Defense of Cassius Clay" written by Patterson himself. Then there was the November 1969 cover that was inspired by Ali as well. Ten cultural luminaries, including film director Sidney Lumet, artist Roy Lichtenstein, author Truman Capote and, of course, Ali's most ardent supporter, Howard Cosell, stand in the center of a boxing ring under the heading "Muhammad Ali Deserves the Right to Defend his Title."

Muhammad Ali

Esquire magazine

Patterson posed with Ali to tease a piece written by Patterson himself.

Ali's impact on the sport of boxing lingers to this day. I'm not going to say that the sport needs another Ali because that's like saying a religion needs a new god. Though Ali's charisma has never been, nor will it ever be, matched, there have been other boxers since his time who have been at least charming, if not charismatic in the same way. Though I was never a fan of Sugar Ray Leonard -- give me a break, I'm from Detroit -- or Oscar De La Hoya, both fighters drew many fans while being cast as the "golden boys" of the sport; in De La Hoya's case, literally.

Which brings me to the sport's current torchbearer, "Pretty Boy" Floyd "Money" Mayweather. Though Mayweather is hands down the best fighter in the sport now, he has no competition. Boxing has always revolved around real rivalries. This would include rivalries such as Louis/Schmeling, Robinson/LaMotta, Ali/Frazier, Leonard/Hearns, Pryor/Arguello and Tyson/Holyfield, among others. Mayweather has no real rival, so it seems as though he wants to embody both the hero and villain in the same body, as though he were trying to be both Ali and Liston at the same time. With the sport in decline and disarray, with no one to pose a real challenge, Mayweather finds himself doing deals with wrestling promoters, a sure sign that the future does not look good for the sweet science.

Ali Defense

Esquire magazine

Truman Capote and Howard Cosell were among the 10 cultural luminaries featured on the November 1969 cover of Esquire.

Boxing used to be the sport of all sports. The choreographed barbarism and the undisputed truth embodied in the raw but formal nature of this particular blood sport prompted evocative magazine covers and erudite literary essays. In many ways, the sport became so much more than just a sport. It referenced a world where the two-fisted battle against the demons of everyday life spoke to a nation in constant transition. At a time when many Americans found themselves fighting against something large, ominous and seemingly unbeatable -- be it the infectious disease of conformity, the forces of racism, or reach of the military industrial complex -- the sport provided a context, a reference point for doing battle, for fighting the good fight.

Lois captured all of this with evocative photographic imagery that encouraged either deep thought or utter outrage, depending on the spectator. Though the Lois covers are still with us, the metaphor of boxing that he so often used to make his points lies in a prolonged coma of mediocrity. Suffice it to say that if Lois were still doing Esquire covers today, the sport of boxing wouldn't offer much in the way of worthy subject matter.

Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator, and The Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at USC. The paperback edition of his "hip-hop history" of the NBA, "Young, Black, Rich and Famous," is now available.


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