Blog post from April 2009. As an epilogue, I saw ‘Phantom Punch’ not long after I wrote this. It was okay, but I would’ve loved to have seen Friedkin’s effort.

The statements inside (of a magazine) are useless unless there is a statement on the outside.” George Louis

Magazine covers nowadays are, for the most part, atrocious. Wandering past a newsstand, or visiting Borders is a numbing experience. As print media slowly chokes around us (only this week, Maxim UK followed its US sibling to the grave), I feel for the displaced staffers and freelancers, but I won’t mourn a few less aesthetically displeasing publications trying to lure me into a browse through an exclamation mark overdose. Wired UK relaunched after it’s ill-fated 1995-97 outing (the whole sorry saga is relayed here) and the new edition, released this month lacks the flair of its US counterpart. The Guardian featured a gallery of the original UK covers, and honestly, I’ll take a sand-faced Neil Gaiman, given the choice of that and the staggeringly obvious. Still, it’s early days.

The Magazine Publishers Of America top 40 covers of all time from 2005 is, by and large, a chasm apart from the 2008 shortlist from Magazine Week’s ‘Great Cover Debate’ (the oft ripped-off Neville Brody’s work on The Face being an exception) in which a Radio Times cover depicting a fucking Dalek was deemed an all-time great.

Esquire US has resorted to some mix and match trickery, as well as last September’s electronic trickery to lure readers in, but it’s a shadow of its former self – still, I’ll take it over the look of the UK’s edition in all it’s Monocle-lite visual blandness. Under the editorial direction of Harold T. P. Hayes between 1961 to 1973 it was groundbreaking – as described in this Vanity Fair piece from 2007, and George Lois was the visual architect. Given that this administration correlated with a golden age for heavyweight boxing, it’s unsurprising that some of the finest portraits of its practitioners were Esquire covers, and while it’s not even close to Christmas time, the ‘Sonny Santa’ of the December 1963 cover was wilfully unseasonal, but a revolutionary magazine moment in time as well as a stunning standalone image – Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston, the 24th of 25 brothers and sisters. And not an exclamation mark in sight.

‘Covering the ’60s: George Lois, The Esquire Era’ recounts the impact of the issue – “…it set the spirit of the magazine for years to come. Sports Illustrated said: “Four months after Liston won the title, Esquire thumbed its nose at its white readers with an unforgettable cover. On the front of its December 1963 issue, there was Liston glowering out from under a tasseled red-and-white Santa Claus hat, looking like the last man on earth America wanted to see coming down its chimney.” And Time magazine described the cover as “one of the greatest social statements in the plastic arts since Picasso’s Guernica.” Ho, ho, ho.”

The shoot itself, also documented in William Nack’s 1991 Sports Illustrated piece ‘O, Unlucky Man’, was according to George, fairly problematic, until Joe Louis leant a hand – “Sonny Liston was perfect for the part. By now he was known by everyone as the meanest man in the world. He was a sullen and surly champion, a “street nigger.” He had served time for armed robbery and didn’t give a damn about his image. This newest heavyweight champion of the world flaunted his surly, menacing image at a time when rising racial fever dominated the headlines. The early ’60s were the years of Freedom Rides, of Dr. Martin Luther King, of black revolution, of rising racial tensions. I was looking into the eyes of a changing America. I explained the idea of a black Santa to Liston’s advisor and idol, Joe Louis.

“That’ll be the day,” said Joe skeptically, but he went ahead and twisted Sonny’s arm. For the shooting, Carl Fisher and I went to Las Vegas, a place Liston called home because he was a notorious dice freak. We got set up in a hotel room with Carl’s photographic gear, ready to capture the Western world’s newest Santa and snapped the first shot. But Sonny wouldn’t stay put. He couldn’t resist the crap tables in the lounge. We snitched to Joe Louis. He lumbered over to Liston’s table, grabbed his ear, wrenched him around and led him back to the elevator. “Git,” he whispered in Sonny’s ear. “Git!” Bent over like a puppy on a leash, Liston returned to the room and we photographed the first black Santa to our hearts’ content.”

I don’t feel Sonny has ever been given the spotlight he truly deserved since. As with Joe Frasier, the Ali publicity machine and ‘good natured’ banter gone astray, plus a deeply problematic ‘good vs evil’ approach to these bouts, especially in subsequent documentations and accounts, has let to an opponent being misrepresented, and in the case of Liston, given the circles he ran in and his mysterious death, unfairly demonised, undermining the fact he was a fighter who would annihilate any of today’s mediocre Ring Magazine heavyweight rankings.

There’s some good studies of his life out there, shrouded in uncertainty as it was – ‘Night Train’ (published in the US as ‘The Devil And Sonny Liston’) by Nick Tosches is a hard boiled affair that focuses on the seedier side of boxing at the time. Back in 2000, William Friedkin was slated to make ‘Night Train’ into a movie starring Ving Rhames, with Friedkin promising, “this is probably the edgiest of all my films. There will be no attempt to whitewash Sonny Liston or make him more likeable.” It never happened. However, ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ and ‘The Five Heartbeats’ director Robert Townsend has wrapped a biopic called ‘Phantom Punch’ with Rhames in the lead. Never the populist choice after the Ali defeats, the film remains without a distributor.

The 2001 BBC documentary, ‘Sonny Liston: The Champion That Nobody Wanted’ and b-movie king Jeff (‘Just Before Dawn’, ‘Squirm’, ‘Blue Sunshine’) Lieberman’s ‘Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion’ documentary for HBO deserve your time. His grave (which wrongly cites his birth year as 1932, when it’s apparently somewhere between 1925-28, a mistake caused by the lack of a birth certificate – his date of death is ambiguous too) arries a simple, typically no-bullshit obituary, “A MAN” – something the media seemed to forget on the run-up to and long after his passing.

Here’s some highlight footage (including his appearance in the Monkees’ flop ‘Head’) set to James Brown’s cover of ‘Night Train’, plus the bizarre Andy Warhol and Sonny ad for Braniff in its entirety.