Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Director Report Card: Jeff Lieberman (1995)

6. Sonny Liston: 
The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion

Lieberman's first documentary “But...Seriously” wold air on Showtime. His second documentary, “Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion,” would air on HBO the next year. While “But...Seriously” would come and go without much attention, Lieberman's “Sonny Liston” doc would receive a little more critical attention. It would pick up an Emmy and a CableACE award. The film was also released on VHS, though a DVD release has naturally not followed. Luckily, it can be found easily on the internet.

As the title suggest, the hour-long documentary follows the life, career, and death of boxing champion Sonny Liston. It begins with his birth, the exact date of which was never exactly determined. It follows the man through his troubled childhood, his early run-ins with the law, and his eventual discovery of boxing. From there, the man's powerful left hook saw him quickly rise through the ranks of professional boxing. Even after becoming the heavy-weight companion, Liston's career was followed by controversy. Eventually, after a rivalry with an up-and-comer named Muhammad Ali flared out, Liston would start boxing in Las Vegas before dying mysteriously.

Here in 2018, black athletes are criticized for all sorts of ridiculous reasons. This, of course, is not a recent phenomenon, as racism is born right into the ugly heart of America. “The Life and Mysterious Death of a Champion” depicts Sonny Liston as being persecuted by the law his entire life. It seems Liston was set on the path towards prison from an early age. Even after becoming a successful athlete, Liston was still badgered by law enforcement. He was chased out of several towns. He often had altercations with cops, most of which were provoked by the officers. Rumors of throwing fights and mob involvement, some of which seem to have a basis in reality, would follow him his entire career. It seemed Liston never shook the assumption that he was a thug throughout his whole life.

“The Life and Mysterious Death of a Champion” is primarily made up of archive footage and interviews. The interviews are with friends, family, rivals of Liston as well as trainers, other fighters, and sports journalist. Through these interviews, conflicting images of the man emerge. According to some, Liston was a mob enforcer, a criminal, a braggart, a womanizer, and a drug addict. The other interviews say that, as long as he stayed sober, Liston was a stand-up friend. He loved kids. He was shy and awkward during interviews. Despite being a fearsome boxer, he was supposedly afraid of needles. Though only an hour long, Lieberman's film gives us a good look at a complicated and multifaceted person.

One of the most compelling aspects of Lieberman's documentary is the part detailing Liston's rivalry with Muhammad Ali. When they first meet, Ali is still known as Cassius Clay. By this point in his career, Liston had defeated former Heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson early in two bouts. Some say he had become complacent and was rolled over by the bettered trained Ali. Yet there's more intrigue surrounding this fight and the inevitable rematch than just that. Some suggested Liston attempted to cheat in of the fights, throwing a chemical into Ali's eye. Others suggest he intentionally fell in the fight, at the order of the mob. Either way, it's interesting to contrast the two fighters: Ali, a then-controversial figure who would soon be elevated to iconic status, and Liston, a somewhat misunderstood man with a troubled personal life.

As the title indicates, the film eventually details the circumstances surrounding Liston's death. His wife found him dead from what was alter ruled a drug overdose, a combination of weed and heroin. Friends and family claim no drug paraphernalia was found around his body. The authorities point out that family members will often clean up the bodies of loved ones. Some say it was well known that Liston was a drug addict. Others suspect he might have been murdered, his death being set up to look like an overdose. It seems that contradictions followed Liston even up to his dying day.

As someone with very little interest in the history of boxing, I still found “Sonny Liston: The Life and Mysterious Death of a Champion” to be a pretty compelling film. Within an hour, it sums up a man's life while also suggesting the social and political issues that swarmed around him at the time. It's a portrayal as much of the man as the times he lived in. Lieberman hasn't made a documentary since, and I suspect his stop-offs in the genre was something of a compromise, but both of his effort proved to be solid experiences. [Grade: B]

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