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"?
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Advertising guru George Lois was the creative force behind the iconic Esquire covers from 1962-72.
Do you want to see this cat come down your chimney?
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.
Lois spoke to Sonny Liston's victory over Floyd Patterson with a Patterson look-alike out cold
on the canvas in an empty 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.
Lois featured Muhammad Ali as
a classic martyr in April 1968.
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."
Patterson posed with Ali to tease a piece written by Patterson himself.
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.
Truman Capote and Howard Cosell were among the 10 cultural luminaries featured on the November 1969 cover of Esquire.
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.