Sports Illustrated's Ultimate Playlist (cont.)
Billy Bragg, 1991
The string arrangement is a bit weepy, but the tune has a spirituality appropriate to its subject: footballer Peter Knowles, who was a promising 24-year-old forward in The Football League in England when he abruptly walked away from the game in 1970. Knowles devoted his life to the Jehovah's Witnesses after he began to feel, as the song says, "The glory of the sports pages/Is but the worship of false idols."
Warren Zevon, 1987
Most songwriters grapple with the sport's morality in boxing songs. Not Zevon, who takes a swing at those who criticized Mancini after the 1982 death of Korean lightweight Duk Koo Kim, the reigning champ who was pummeled by Mancini, then fell into a coma shortly after the 14-round bout and passed away four days later. "They made hypocrite judgments after the fact," Zevon sings. "But the name of the game is be hit and hit back."
Mancini wasn't so cavalier about the tragedy; after Kim's death he fell into a depression. He was never the same fighter, but he did recover sufficiently to reclaim his lightweight crown in 1984 with a victory over Bobby Chacon -- a bout celebrated in Zevon's song. And Mancini was thrilled with Zevon, who died of lung cancer in 2003. "I was a big fan of his," Boom Boom says. "He was alternative before there was such a word. When they told me he'd made a record about me, I was stunned."
Sun Kil Moon, 2003
A different view of the Mancini-Kim fight -- from the canvas -- is presented in this beautifully melancholy ballad. Indie artist Mark Kozelek took Sun Kil Moon as his nom de musique, a reference to an obscure Korean bantamweight champ from the late 1980s. ("Great images with all three words, Sun Kil Moon," says Kozelek, who's that rare combination of emo rocker and fight fan. "I've probably used those words a thousand times in my songs.") He tells Kim's story in a 14-1D 2 minute homage with a Neil Young flavor. Says Kozelek, who has also written tributes to two other fighters who died young, Salvador Sanchez and Pancho Villa, "The Duk Koo Kim tragedy, with his mother and the referee committing suicide afterward -- I can't believe there aren't dozens of songs inspired by that. Books and movies are made about these guys, so why not songs?"
Mark Knopfler, 2004
It's a bluesy tune that perfectly captures the menace and mystery of the former heavyweight champ, whose death in 1970 was ruled a heroin overdose. The British guitar master sings of Liston's demise, "There was no investigation as such/He hated needles, but he knew too much." As for why he wrote it, Knopfler told The New York Times, "I was rooting around in my childhood, maybe the way you do when you get to a certain age. And I suppose Sonny Liston always stuck with me. One of the reasons why sports stays alive in us is that there's part of us that wants to keep the child alive."
Pernice Brothers, 2001
Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles, but it's easy to forget how quickly he flamed out. He won his last major tennis tournament the day after his 25th birthday and played only three times after that, sleepwalking into early retirement. Joe Pernice hasn't forgotten. He sets Borg's loss of interest to a dreamy melody that belies the Swedish star's ennui. The song can easily stand as a metaphor for a love affair that's played out.
Bonus Track: Moonshot Manny also by Joe Pernice, is a catchy, Latin-flavored 2004 tribute to slugger Manny Ramirez.
Ben Folds Five, 1995
A different look at Muhammad Ali, from later in his life. This is a poignant imagined conversation between the Champ and Howard Cosell as Ali's career is winding down: "My intention's become/Not to lose what I've won/Ambition has given way to desperation." "Boxing might have been a strange subject for a romantic waltz," says Folds. "But when something that's not normal gives me a chill while I'm writing it, even now, I don't question it -- I'm thankful."
Bonus Track: Check out Bette Midler's cover.
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