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At least three of those who fought Muhammad Ali are dead: Sonny Banks, Zora Folley, Sonny Liston. There may be more; a couple of the early opponents can't be located. Banks, strictly a left-hooker, was the first to knock Ali down (the others were Henry Cooper and Joe Frazier, and all three did it with left hands). He put him on the seat of his pants in the first round of their Feb. 10, 1962 fight in Madison Square Garden. More astonished than hurt, Ali got up at the count of two and TKO'd Banks in the fourth. Banks died on May 13, 1965, three days after suffering head injuries in a bout with Leotis Martin in Philadelphia. Folley, a stately, accomplished boxer, was past his prime when he met Ali on March 22, 1967 and was knocked out in the seventh round of the last fight in the old Garden. Folley died at the age of 41 in Tucson after striking his head on the edge of a swimming pool while horsing around.
Liston, from whom Ali won the title in Miami Beach on Feb. 25, 1964 when Sonny didn't come out for the seventh round, and whom Ali knocked out in the first round in Lewiston, Maine 15 months later, was found dead in his Las Vegas home on Jan. 5, 1971, in effect from an overdose of heroin. He is buried in Paradise Memorial Gardens near McCarran Airport.
However, there are those who don't buy that Liston OD'd; they say he was murdered. Among them is Harold Conrad, who did the publicity for four of Sonny's fights. "He was scared to death of needles," Conrad writes in a forthcoming book. "I remember when he was training for the second Ali fight and was coming down with the flu. The doc was going to give him a shot of B-12, but when Sonny got a flash of that needle, he wanted to throw the doc out the window. Another thing, Sonny was a heavy boozer, and heroin isn't a boozer's bag. He smoked a little pot and did a little snorting but he never went for hard drugs.
"When Sonny retired from the ring he had some dough stashed, but not very much, and he was looking for action. Some very tough citizens were running a loan-shark factory out of East Las Vegas, and since Sonny used to be a head knocker for the unions around St. Louis, they figured he'd make a perfect collector and they hired him. But he wasn't satisfied. He wanted a bigger piece of the action.
"Meanwhile, Sonny was getting drunk around town, making scenes and putting pressure on these guys. Being the former heavyweight champion of the world doesn't cut any ice with the Shy-locks. They're not about to let anybody cut into their turf. So one night they took him out on a party. After he got stinking drunk, they took him home, jabbed him with an OD and that's the end of Sonny.
"I talked to a guy I knew in the Vegas sheriffs office, and here's what he said: 'A bad nigger. He got what was coming to him.' I don't buy that. He had some good qualities, but I think he died the day he was born."
Liston was born on a marginal cotton farm outside Little Rock, Ark., most likely on May 8, 1932. His father was married twice, and Sonny was the product of the second marriage. He believed that there were 25 children all told, that his mother had 12 or 13, but he could name only nine. His father beat him every day, and if he missed a day, Sonny would go and ask him, "How come you didn't whup me today?" He hardly went to school; he ran away to St. Louis when he was 13. When he was 16 he weighed 200 pounds and began running with a bad crowd. The St. Louis cops picked him up more than 100 times; he was formally arrested 19 times and convicted twice; he did a stretch in the state penitentiary at Jefferson City where he learned to box. The day Sonny was paroled a benefactor bought him a chicken dinner. Liston merely stared somberly at it. "Why don't you eat it?" the man asked. "I don't know how," Sonny said. He also didn't know how to read or write, although later he could laboriously inscribe his name.
All he could do well was fight, but, as it turned out, not well enough. Ali exposed him for what he was, a one-way fighter; he could only go forward. And, like all bullies, if you took away his confidence, made him miss, he became unsure, desperate, a mere shadow of his intimidating self. Sonny once said, "A boxing match is like a cowboy movie. There's got to be good guys and there's got to be bad guys. That's what the people pay for: to see the bad guys get beat. So I'm a bad guy. But I change things. I don't get beat." But he did, the day he was born.