Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Beatle

I have been a fan of Rock and Rap Confidential for years, a webzine edited by critic Dave Marsh with contributions from a number of writers. It exists mostly as intermittent e-mail. Sometimes the e-mails and short and sometimes they’re long, and sometimes they contain linkable information, but there’s almost never anyplace to link to—there’s a Rock and Rap Confidential website, but it hasn’t been updated since May 2010.

A recent e-mail featured an excerpt from An Accidental Sportswriter, a new memoir by Robert Lipsyte, novelist, former New York Times columnist, and co-author of Dick Gregory’s autobiography. Marsh says, “Lipsyte is a longtime friend of RRC [Rock and Rap Confidential], although he admits that ‘I stopped reading it when I stopped recognizing the names of the bands.'” In the book, Lipsyte tells a story set in Miami during February 1964, when a brash young fighter from Louisville and four similarly brash musicians from Liverpool were about to conquer their respective worlds. It’s so good that I’d like you to read it, and if the publisher wants me to cease and desist, all he has to do is ask. It’s on the flipside.

I drove to the seedy old Fifth Street Gym (in what is now trendy South Beach) to watch Clay’s daily training session for the first time. He hadn’t arrived yet, but the gym was packed with tourists and sportswriters—Clay had been on the cover of Time for his coffee house doggerel readings (“This is the story about a man / With iron fists and a beautiful tan”) and his ability to predict the round in which his carefully chosen opponents would fall. He had not yet earned the right to challenge the champion, but boxing needed a box-office draw against the unbeatable monster [Sonny] Liston. Clay was considered a necessary sacrifice. It was hoped that enough people would pay to see the Louisville Lip buttoned for good.

As I climbed the splintery stairs, there was a hubbub behind me. Four little guys around my age in matching white terry-cloth cabana jackets were being herded up. Someone said it was that hot new British rock group on their first American tour.

I was annoyed. Bad enough this disgrace to poetry was sullying boxing, now these noisy mop tops were trying to cash in on the sweet science. (In preparation for the assignment I had read and reread A. J. Leibling’s The Sweet Science and carried my annotated copy with me. It would be some time before I began to figure out why so many of the boxing trainers and cornermen who seemed all but mute to me were masters of aphorism for him. Liebling was a superb writer.)

A British photographer traveling with the Beatles had tried to pose them with Sonny Liston, but the champ had refused—“Not with them sissies,” he was supposed to have said—and now they were settling for a photo op with the challenger.

At the top of the stairs, when the Beatles discovered that Clay had not yet arrived, John Lennon said, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” But two huge security guards blocked their way and crowded them into an empty dressing room. I allowed myself to be pushed in with them, figuring to get a few funny quotes. Had I understood who those four little guys were, I might have been too shy to become, briefly, the fifth Beatle. But then I was also clueless about Clay.

The Beatles were cranky in that damp dressing room, stomping and cursing. I introduced myself, rather importantly, I’m afraid, and they mimicked me. John shook my hand gravely, saying he was Ringo, and introduced me to Paul, who said he was John. I asked for their predictions. They said that Liston would destroy Clay, that silly little overhyped wanker. Then they ignored me to snarl among themselves again. Silly little overhyped wankers, I thought.

Suddenly the locker room door burst open, and Cassius Clay filled the doorway. The Beatles and I gasped. He was so much larger than he looked in pictures. He was beautiful. He seemed to glow. He was laughing.

“Hello there, Beatles!” he roared. “We oughta do some road shows together, we’ll get rich.”

The Beatles got it right away. They followed Clay out to the boxing ring like kindergarten kids. You would have thought they’d met before and choreographed their routine. They bounced into the ring, capered, dropped down to pray that Clay would stop hitting them. He picked up Ringo, the bittiest Beatle. They lined up so Clay could knock them all out with one punch. They fell like dominoes, then jumped up to form a pyramid to get at Clay’s jaw. The five of them began laughing so hard their impromptu frolics collapsed. That photo op is a classic. (Check YouTube; you might even see me.)

After the Fab Four left, Clay jumped rope, shadowboxed, and sparred as his court jester, Drew Bundini Brown, hollered, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rumble, young man, rumble!” Afterward, stretched out on a dressing room table for his rubdown, Clay pretended to fall asleep as reporters asked him what he was going to do after he lost.  Finally, a crabby old reporter from Boston said, “This whole act is a con job, isn’t it?” and Clay pretended to wake up and he said, “I’m making all this money, the popcorn man making money and the beer man, and you got something to write about. Your papers let you come down to Miami Beach, where it’s warm.” The Boston reporter shut up.

I think that was the moment when I began to wish this kid wasn’t going to get his head knocked off, that somehow he would beat Liston and become champion or at least survive and keep boxing. He would have been such a joy to cover, I thought. Too bad he’s got no chance. Too bad he’s only passing through, a firefly fad like those Beatles. We could all have had a blast.

My reverie of regret was interrupted by Cassius, poking me. He put his head close to mine and whispered that he had noticed me coming out of the locker room with the four visitors. “Who were those little sissies?” he asked.

On February 25, 1964, Ali defeated Liston in a 6th-round TKO to win the heavyweight championship.

A PBS documentary clip including comments from Lipsyte about Clay and the Beatles is here. Some video of their encounter is here. Buy Lipsyte’s book here. Subscribe to Rock and Rap Confidential here.

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