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“Cassius X: The Transformation of Muhammad Ali”

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BOOK REVIEW by THOMAS HAUSER — Music was the lifeblood of cultural change in the 1950s and 1960s. Cassius X: The Transformation of Muhammad Ali by Stuart Cosgrove (published by Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press) focuses on Cassius Clay’s involvement with the Nation of Islam in the years leading up to his 1964 triumph over Sonny Liston and the expanding reach of what Cosgrove calls “Black music” during that time.

Cassius X is divided into six chapters with a coda entitled “Requiem.” Each chapter is set in a particular city – Miami, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, London, and Miami again – that was the site for one or more pivotal events in Clay’s life. In each instance, Cosgrove describes Clay’s life and the music scene in that city in depth.

For example, the first chapter (“Miami”) includes a graphic portrayal of racial injustice in the segregated American south as well as Clay’s early involvement with the Nation of Islam and the origins of his friendship with Sam Cooke (a pioneering singer and songwriter of that era). The second chapter (“Detroit”) contains an interesting recounting of a 1962 journey that Cassius, his brother, and Sam Saxon (who introduced Clay to the Nation of Islam) took to Detroit to attend a Nation of Islam rally overseen by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. In “Philadelphia,” the racist underpinnings of Dick Clark’s enormously influential “American Bandstand” television show are explored.

Cosgrove is a Scottish author, journalist, television executive, and TV host with a scholarly interest in music. He’s passionate about his subject and puts words together well. His writing is infused with interesting nuggets of information such as the fact that three records recorded by Sonji Roi (Ali’s first wife) were released after their marriage fell apart. But there are problems with his work.

The biggest problem is that Cassius X is riddled with factual inaccuracies. The red flags begin to appear in the first chapter when Cosgrove writes that Tony Esperti (Clay’s third professional opponent) was “assassinated in a mob hit” in 1967 by a member of the Gambino crime family and adds, “The coroner described it as the perfect execution – a single lethal bullet to the brain.”

“That’s interesting,” I said to myself. I made a note to praise Cosgrove in this review for that bit of information. Then something in the back of my mind cautioned, “Wait a minute!”

Muhammad Ali fought fifty different opponents in his 61 professional fights. I keep a list of which opponents are still alive and the date of death for those who are no longer with us. Tony Esperti died in 2002. I have photographs of him that were taken in 1979. Yet Cassius X dramatically recounts his 1967 “execution” in a Miami steakhouse. In reality, Esperti was the perpetrator of the crime in question.

Unfortunately, there’s more.

Cosgrove writes that “more myths have congregated around Sonny Liston than any boxer before or since.”

I take issue with that. Let’s start with Joe Louis who (among other myths) inspired the allegorical tale of a black prisoner in the moments before his execution crying out “Save me, Joe Louis!” No one is said to have cried out, “Save me, Sonny Liston!”

Cosgrove also writes, “Liston won twenty-six consecutive bouts over five years, and his title-winning victory on September 25, 1962 [over Floyd Patterson] broke the record for consecutive heavyweight victories.”

But Rocky Marciano won 49 fights in a row and retired from boxing with an unblemished record. Joe Louis won 34 fights in a row after his 1936 loss to Max Schmeling. The last time I looked, 49 and 34 were more than 26.

Cosgrove writes that Angelo Dundee “panicked” after Henry Cooper dropped Cassius Clay with a left hook in round four of their 1963 fight. That’s not true. To the contrary, Dundee saw Clay through the crisis.

Similarly, the fatal 1962 encounter between Emile Griffith and Benny Paret is mis-told. After writing that Griffith was “the reigning welterweight champion” at the time (he wasn’t), Cosgrove states that Grffith “lost control” during the final sequence of punches and informs readers, “Referee Ruby Goldstein was tugging at Griffith from behind, pulling him off. As Emile, berserk, struggling passionately in Goldstein’s embrace, was dragged away, Paret, now obviously senseless, crumpled slowly and collapsed.”

That’s inaccurate. All Cosgrove had to do was go to YouTube and watch a video of the fatal round. If he had, he would have seen that Griffith stopped throwing punches and stepped back the moment that Goldstein intervened. Is simple fact-checking too much to ask of a seasoned professional like Cosgrove?

Errors like these make it difficult to know how much of Cosgrove’s factual recitation in other areas (such as music) can be trusted.

Here I might add that Cosgrove writes of a week that the writer Tom Wolfe spent with Clay in 1963 and states, “Wolfe sensed that his simplistic poetry and superficial boasting disguised a deep understanding of business and finance.”

I don’t know what Wolfe “sensed.” I do know that it’s ludicrous to suggest that Clay (or Muhammad Ali) had “a deep understanding of business and finance.”

That brings us to Cassius Clay and the world of music.

Cosgrove equates Muhammad Ali’s ultimate success with the rise of rhythm and blues and (ultimately) hip-hop to become “the preeminent form of popular music in the world.”

Reinterpretations of history are always welcome when solidly grounded. And there’s a lot of interesting information in Cassius X about Clay’s transformation to Muhammad Ali, the Nation of Islam, and the music of that era. But there are times when Cosgrove’s methodology of viewing Clay through the prism of music comes across as forced.

I’m not a scholar with regard to popular music from the 1950s and 1960s. But I know it pretty well, having lived through that time. Lloyd Price and Chubby Checker (acknowledged by Cosgrove to have been important figures during that era) have been guests for dinner in my home. My first real bond with Ali when I began spending time with him while researching Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (published in 1991) was music.

Muhammad was four years older than I was, but we’d grown up with many of the same songs. We’d drive from the airport to his home in Berrien Springs or be in his car on the way to a restaurant. We’d pop a tape of songs sung by black recording artists into the cassette player and sing along.

“I can’t believe you know all the words,” Muhammad said to me one evening. “I never would have thought it.”

Cosgrove has an impressive resume. Among his many credits, he’s the author of a three-book study of soul music. That said; there are places where he falls victim to hyperbole in advancing his thesis. Twist and Shout, first recorded by the Top Notes and made famous by the Isley Brothers (two black vocal groups) was not “the song the Beatles had become synonymous with” when they came to the United States in 1964. A Christmas Gift for You featuring Darlene Love and the Ronettes was not “one of the greatest pop albums of the era.” It was a celebration of a certain style of music but a repetitive and formulaic compilation. Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is an excellent recording but not “universally acclaimed as one of the greatest live albums of all time.”

Cosgrove writes that sports columnist Jimmy Cannon “erupted when he learned about the Beatles meeting Cassius in Miami” in 1964 and that Cannon wrote, “Clay is part of the Beatle movement. He fits in with the famous singers no one can hear and the punks riding motorcycles with iron crosses pinned to their leather jackets and Batman and the boys with their long dirty hair and the girls with the unwashed look and the college kids dancing naked at secret proms held in apartments and the revolt of students who get a check from dad every first of the month and the painters who copy the labels off soup cans and the surf bums who refuse to work and the whole pampered style-making cult of the bored young.”

That’s a dramatic quote. But Cosgrove puts it in a misleading context. Cannon wrote those words in 1966 after Ali was reclassified 1-A by his draft board and uttered the words, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” That was more than two years after Clay met the Beatles.

And Cosgrove writes about Clay’s dalliance with singer Dee Dee Sharp as a serious relationship before characterizing it more accurately as a “brief affair” and then exaggerating its gravitas again.

There’s also some sloppy copy-editing. By way of example, Cassius X states that Sonny Liston refused to allow Liston-Clay I to be shown on closed circuit in theaters in New Orleans “if the seating in New Orleans was not segregated.” I assume that Cosgrove meant “integrated.”

These flaws are disappointing because Cosgrove has a lot to say that’s of interest. At its best, Cassius X contains some very good – even enlightening – material on the evolution of music in the 1950s and 1960s and Cassius Clay’s sojourn through that time.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel 

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Thomas Hauser is the author of 52 books. In 2005, he was honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America, which bestowed the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism upon him. He was the first Internet writer ever to receive that award. In 2019, Hauser was chosen for boxing's highest honor: induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Lennox Lewis has observed, “A hundred years from now, if people want to learn about boxing in this era, they’ll read Thomas Hauser.”

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In a One-Sided Beatdown, Batyr Jukembayev TKOs Shopworn Ivan Redkach

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In a One-Sided Beatdown, Batyr Jukembayev TKOs Shopworn Ivan Redkach

The noted trainer Brian “BoMac” McIntyre had two fighters on tonight’s ProBox card in Plant City, Florida, and brought along the ace of his stable, Terence Crawford, to provide moral support.

The main event, contested at 140 pounds, had an Eastern European flavor pitting Kazakhstan’s Batyr Jukembayev against LA-based Ukrainian Ivan Redkach. Jukembayev, Crawford’s stablemate, needed no moral support as Redkach fought a survivor’s fight for as long as it lasted. A 33-year-old southpaw, the Kazkh won every second of the fight until the mismatch was halted at the 2:18 mark of round five.

It was the fifth straight win for Jukembayev (23-1, 17 KOs) whose only defeat was inflicted by Subriel Matias, the current holder of the IBF world title at 140. Redkach (24-7-1) was stopped for the fourth time including a fight with Regis Prograis where he succumbed to a phantom low blow. Now 38 years old, he should not be allowed to fight again. His showing tonight bore stark evidence that he is completely shot.

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a 10-round junior lightweight affair, Jonhatan Cardoso, a 25-year-old Brazilian, advanced to 17-1 (15) with a split decision over LA’s Adam “Bluenose” Lopez. This figured to be a fan-friendly fight and didn’t disappoint. Both fighters threw punches in bunches although Lopez’s workrate declined in the late rounds.

Lopez, now 17-6-1, is better than his record. His first five losses came against opponents who were collectively 109-6 at the time that he fought them. The son of the late Hector Lopez, an Olympic silver medalist for Mexico and a three-time world title challenger, “Bluenose” doesn’t have a signature win, but has a signature moment. He knocked Oscar Valdez down hard in their first of two meetings, a fight he took on 1-day notice when Valdez’s original opponent was scratched after coming in 11 pounds overweight. As a pro he has limitations, but is a high-octane fighter who rarely has a bad fight.

Two of the judges favored Cardoso. Their tallies were 99-91 and 96-94. The dissenter favored Lopez 97-93. The scores were all over the map, but the right guy wn.

Also

In the TV opener, Omaha-bred junior welterweight Charles Harris Jr scored a unanimous 6-round decision over Oceanside, California’s Kyle Erwin. The judges had it 58-56 and 59-55 twice.

A protégé of “BoMac,” Harris Jr., who began his pro career in Mexico at age 16, improved to 9-1 (7). It was the second pro loss for Erwin (7-2) whose lone prior defeat was the result of a cut.

In an unrelated matter, today (May 22) was the day that Ryan Garcia’s B-sample would be opened and analyzed. So we were all led to believe.

Confoundingly, it appears that opening the urine specimen and testing the contents aren’t performed on the same day. Dan Rafael enlightened us. “Will take a few days for results but certainly possible it could stretch into early next week due to weekend and holiday,” Rafael tweeted today on his Fight Freaks Unite platform.

Why wasn’t this made known beforehand so that fight journalists could plan their day accordingly? I place the blame on the New York State Athletic Commission.

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Oleksandr Usyk from a Historical Perspective 

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Oleksandr Usyk flipped the heavyweight division onto its head this past Saturday night in the Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, travelling a long way from home to seal his greatest victory. Usyk, small by modern heavyweight standards, towers over most men at 6’3″ and 220lbs and sporting a reach that lineal champions Ezzard Charles or Joe Walcott would have killed for. Things have changed though, and in the middle rounds of his war with Tyson Fury, Usyk suddenly appeared tiny. Fury, a giant at around 6’8” and over 260lbs seems a heavyweight for this century. Usyk, a journeyman in the most ancient sense of the word, feels like a throwback to a more savage time. His greatest achievements have taken place on foreign soil. The last time he boxed at home was almost a decade ago and given the situation in Ukraine and given Usyk’s 37 years, it is unlikely he will ever box there again.

Usyk took chances in the seventh and especially the eighth to take charge of a fight that seemed to be slipping away from him. In the vertigo inducing ninth, it was he, not Fury who appeared the giant. Usyk draped the Englishman over the ropes like so much fresh meat and tenderised him to within an inch of unconsciousness, the sheer hugeness of Fury perhaps preventing a referee’s intervention on behalf of his opponent, and not for the first time. Against both Deontay Wilder (the first fight) and Otto Wallin, a more squeamish official would have stepped in and stopped the fight, and here, too, there was a case. If Usyk seems a throwback, then Fury has been refereed like one, spared stoppages likely to be inflicted upon his peers, he was allowed once again to continue boxing, as Joe Louis was against Max Schmeling, or Jack Dempsey was against Luis Pirpo. But with Fury buckled at the knees, Usyk seemed the true heavy man in the ring.

In historical terms, Usyk is not a small heavyweight. He would have dwarfed “The Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson in the ring and loomed large over “Big” George Foreman. Usyk has every attribute necessary to make an unpleasant evening for Joe Louis, but it should be noted that while his footwork and speed and technical excellence would be the source of the discomfort, his excess of height and reach are the wildcards. Usyk would seem two to three weight classes bigger than Rocky Marciano, mainly because he is, and the towering Sonny Liston would look up. Circus strongman Jess Willard and the mob-sponsored Primo Carnera would both look down on Usyk – but not by that much. Usyk would stand eye to eye with Muhammad Ali but prime-for-prime he would outweigh him by ten pounds, as he would Larry Holmes. We must skip Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield and reach all the way into the Lennox Lewis era before we find men from history that truly out-size Usyk on a consistent basis.

Size, as Usyk has proven, is far from everything. Big by historical standards, he is small by modern standards. What else is now true in the wake of the seismic fistic events of Saturday night? Firstly, Usyk is unquestionably ranked the #1 heavyweight in the world. Of this, there can be no dispute. Accounting for his two wonderful defeats of another “super” heavyweight, Anthony Joshua, he is 3-0 against the rest of the top five and sitting unassailably at the head of the heavyweight table. More, and I have been surprised to see it disputed in some corners, Usyk is now almost as equally unassailably the pound-for-pound number one. The only fighter breathing the same air as Usyk right now is Naoya Inoue. Inoue has been operating at or near the highest level for longer, but the level of his opposition has not been as rarefied. Comparing the first phase opposition defeated by Naoya to the murderer’s row of cruiserweights that Usyk ran into during the Super Six series can lead to only one conclusion. Although Naoya’s busy, weight-class-bursting style has topped him out for most of the past two to three years, only one of these men has consistently been beating bigger, taller, longer opposition at the highest level, and that is Usyk. It is not a matter of opinion – he is the smallest man in my heavyweight top ten.

01 – Oleksandr Usyk

02 – Anthony Joshua

03 – Joseph Parker

04 – Tyson Fury

05 – Filip Hrgovic

06 – Zhilei Zhang

07 – Agit Kabayel

08 – Daneil Dubois

09 – Martin Bakole

10 – Joe Joyce

Usyk lives among giants now and where there is parity of height (Kabayel) he is the lighter man by 15 pounds. This is not true of Naoya, who despite his weight-hopping, still manages to run into fighters of the same height and of shorter reach. The opposition argument is narrow, but the relative size opposition is not and there is no pound-for-pound credential more significant than that of consistently out-fighting bigger men. Usyk has done so and will continue to do so for as long as he fights. There is simply no smaller man in his class.

Not since the heyday of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield has a lineal heavyweight champion consistently fought bigger men and not since Mike’s hype-infused prime has a heavyweight menaced the number one pound-for-pound spot. Usyk has not enjoyed anything like the same machine support as Mike did; indeed, he has laboured in the shadow of more prominent men until such time as he thrashed them. He is a true manifestation of pound-for-pound glory in the unlimited class. Where does this leave him in terms of all-time standing?

I am reluctant to rate active fighters for reasons that are obvious enough; Usyk could be pole-axed in three by an irate Fury in a December rematch and all this ink is for naught. But what I am willing to do is play let’s pretend and imagine Usyk as retired and consider his place in heavyweight history now.

Usyk’s raw numbers are low-grade at just 22-0 with 14 knockouts. Worse, most of this was built in the cruiserweight division and not the heavyweight division. Against men weighing in as heavyweights, Uysk is essentially 7-0, and only 3-0 against ranked opposition. On the other hand, one of these victories came against Daniel Dubois, now ranked, and the 3-0 was posted against Tyson Fury, generally held to be the best or second-best heavyweight in the world, and Anthony Joshua, ranked behind only Fury at the time of his first fight with Usyk. So, when he stepped up, he stepped up to tackle the best in the world and has become lineal as a result. It’s a hard ledger to wrestle with, but fortunately we have a career that is comparable in the shape of Gene Tunney.

Tunney, a career light-heavyweight, earned a heavyweight legacy built of essentially one man: Jack Dempsey. Past-prime and inactive, Dempsey was ripped apart by Tunney in their legendary first fight and did better in a losing effort against the genius “Fighting Marine” in a rematch, much like Joshua did against Usyk. Tunney then boxed the limited but game Tom Heeney and retired. The rest of his heavyweight career was spent beating great middleweights like Harry Greb and limited losing-streak gatekeepers like Charley Weinert and Martin Burke. One thing that must be noted is that Tunney is matching men who are smaller than Usyk’s cruiserweight opposition to his heavyweight credit. Men like Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev would have been big men in Tunney’s era, but they aren’t counted towards heavyweight legacy for the Ukrainian – either would constitute Tunney’s second-best heavyweight scalp, I think. Tunney’s wider resume does not necessarily include fighters who compare that favourably even to Dereck Chisora or Chaz Witherspoon, the men who make up Usyk’s second layer of opposition.

The point is, Tunney was made a legend for defeating a champion. Both Fury and Joshua were active, physically enormous fighters that Usyk simply unmanned with a type of genius Gene Tunney would have stood to applaud. Tunney appended to his light-heavyweight career the important part of a heavyweight career – the part where you fight and beat the champion, and it has made him a stalwart of heavyweight history. This, Usyk too has achieved, but I have been more impressed with Usyk’s summit than Tunney’s. To be direct: Usyk should rate higher at heavyweight than Tunney.

What that means is that the top twenty at heavyweight is the minimum Usyk can expect from history’s eye should he retire undefeated. In such a case, I would place Usyk in this sort of company:

18 – Ezzard Charles

19 – Oleksandr Usyk

20 – Jersey Joe Walcott

21 – James J Corbett

22 – Peter Jackson

23 – Ken Norton

24 – Max Schmeling

25 – Vitali Klitschko

26 – Riddick Bowe

27 – Gene Tunney

Also illustrative of a point is Tunney’s career pre-heavyweight. Tunney, every bit as brilliant as Usyk in the ring (although notably smaller, and successful against notably smaller opposition), laced up his gloves on close to ninety occasions and his level of competition dwarfs that of Usyk. That is no indictment. All it really means is that Usyk isn’t among the thirty greatest fighters ever to have drawn breath, like Tunney is. He can join an enormous and star-studded cast that includes Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins and Carlos Monzon in that. I do think, though, that Oleksandr Usyk’s career, were it to end tomorrow, could be readily compared to that of Evander Holyfield and that means that an unbeaten Usyk, lineal cruiserweight and heavyweight champion of the world, current pound-for-pound king, is within spitting distance of a list that captures the fifty greatest fighters in history.

56 – Ruben Olivares

57 – Wilfredo Gomez

58 – Vicente Saldivar

59 – Oleksandr Usyk

60 – Evander Holyfield

61 – Ted Kid Lewis

62 – Lou Ambers

63 – Rocky Marciano

64 – Abe Attell

65 – Manuel Ortiz

A retired Naoya Inoue would join him in the top seventy, I think, and a retired Bud Crawford the top ninety.

Boxing is dead, haven’t you heard?

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Another Victory for Ukraine as Berinchyk Upsets Navarrete in San Diego

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Whether it was inspiration or perspiration, Ukraine’s Denys Berinchyk motored past Mexico’s Emanuel Navarrete by split decision to become the WBO lightweight world titlist on Saturday.

Just hours after his fellow countryman Oleksandr Usyk became undisputed heavyweight world champion, Berinchyk joined the club.

“This is a great night for all people of Ukraine,” Berinchyk said.

The undefeated Ukrainian Berinchyk (19-0, 9 KOs) gutted out a win over Navarrete (38-2-1, 31 KOs) who was attempting to join Mexico’s four-division world champion club in San Diego. The lanky fighter known as “Vaquero” fell a little short.

Through all 12 rounds neither fighter was able to dominate and neither was able to score a knockdown. Just when it seemed one fighter gathered enough momentum, the other fighter would rally.

A butt caused a slight cut on Navarrete in the 10th round. That seemed to ignite anger from the Mexican fighter and he powered through the Ukrainian fighter the next two rounds.

In the final round Berinchyk bore down and slugged it out with the Mexican fighter as both relied on their weapons of choice. For most of the night Navarrete scored with long-range uppercuts and Berinchyk scored with overhand rights.

After 12 rounds two judges scored it 115-113, 116-112 for Berinchyk and one 116-112 for Navarrete. Ukraine gained its third world titlist in one a week. Berinchyk joins Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko as world titlists.

“He’s a very tough guy,” said Berinchyk of Navarrete.

Welterweights

A battle between undefeated welterweights saw Brian Norman (26-0, 20 KOs) knock out Giovany Santillan (32-1, 17 KOs) in the 10th round to become the interim WBO titlist.

For nine rounds both welterweights engaged in brutal inside warfare as each tried to beat the sense out of each other.

Norman worked the body early as Santillan targeted the head. Neither fought more than two inches from each other.

The younger Norman, 23, connected with a right cross during an exchange that wobbled Santillan in the eighth round. From that point on the Georgia fighter began setting up for his power shots. Finally, in the 10th round, uppercuts dropped Santillan twice. In the second knockdown Santillan went down hard as referee Ray Corona stopped the fight immediately at 1:33 of the 10th round.

Other Bouts

Heavyweight Richard Torrez (10-0, 10 KOs) knocked out Brandon Moore (14-1) in the fifth round for a regional title.

Lightweight Alan Garcia (10-0) defeated Wilfredo Flores (10-3-1) by decision after eight.

Photo credit: German Villasenor

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