The tale of Lucien Banks

8 Oct
  1. Good Morning,

Lucien Banks never really wanted to be famous. He was just an ordinary Joe from Birmingham Ridge, Mississippi who moved to Motown for the sake of a job. He was a regular blue collar worker with the Ford Motor Company, making ends meet, getting through life as best he could. But Lucien showed a degree of skill and promise in another field which would help boost the monthly income.

At 6″2′ and approximately 191 pounds he was certainly athlete material and he could undoubtedly fight. Accordingly, to supplement the income he went to the gym and took up boxing. That was a decision that would lead to a modicum of success, and which would tragically cost him his life. Banks had developed to such an extent that whilst never a ranked fighter, he was seen as a tough opponent for any up and coming heavyweight. He had a good knockout record and he had upset more than a few undefeated fighters in his time. Then he met Leotis Martin.

For 9 rounds Banks dominated the previously undefeated and smaller Martin, but in that 9th round Leotis swung at Lucien and connected high up on the temple and Lucien went down. As was common at the time, the ring canvass had previously been broken and torn– and then repaired with a light coating of cement. Lucien’s head struck such a concrete patch and he was out cold. Although he regained consciousness and answered questions from the doctor and others, he later lapsed into a coma and died in hospital. Leotis Martin was devastated. It proved to be Lucien Banks 25th and final fight in a division full of good boxers and fighters. He had faced a few well-known names in his time before his untimely death at 24. Leotis Martin went on to face and beat more than one world champion and was coached by someone who was to become a legendary trainer with many champions under his care- Yank Durham. Yet you are likely to have never heard of him unless you are a boxing nut. As for Lucien (Sonny) Banks, he was to gain a degree of fame after his death.

It was in Bank’s thirteenth fight that his real moment of fame came. He was on the undercard at Madison Square Garden and had already developed a reputation as an up and coming fighter. His young opponent was deemed a good match and whoever won the fight would take some kudos from the night and would have an enhanced reputation as a result of victory. The fight went out live on TV.

Things went according to plan for Sonny in the first round. The two fighters moved around one another. Banks was an old fashioned head tucked in fighter. Flat footed, he cut off the ring in an attempt to make the centre of the ring his own. Don Dunphy, the legendary commentator, said ” If Banks does anything here, it will be early. He is reputed to be a power puncher- with the power mostly in his right hand. Reputedly because we are only seeing him for the first time. But reports say he has fast hands.”

At that point his opponent steps into Sonny’s path. Sonny ducks some lefts and rights. His opponent’s momentum is such that his right hand has dropped as he prepares to unleash a left. Sonny takes his chance and unleashes a powerful straight left. Sufficiently powerful that it knocks his 6″3′ 190 pound opponent clean off his feet and dumps him clean on the floor. Sonny has knocked out 9 of his previous twelve opponents and within the first round of this fight he has the upper hand as his opponent has felt his power and hit the canvass– perhaps as expected!

Except, as Sonny looks on from the other side of the ring— Cassius Marcellus Clay Jnr gets up!

Not only does he get up, the referee has to hold him back, rub down his gloves, push him back in the corner and give him the count. Clay appears to hear none of this, He simply stares across the ring at Sonny with sheer unadulterated rage, menace and intent in his eyes. The remainder of the fight is a battle of left hands. Sonny with thudding deliberate blows, Clay with repeated sharp lefts that pepper Sonny’s face. Sonny’s swings now seem to catch fresh air while his face becomes a magnate for his opponent’s leather. In the second round, Clay dances to the left in a blur of speed around foot soldier Sonny and unleashes a left upper cut which now sends Sonny to the floor. By the end of the third round, referee Ruby Goldstein considers stopping the fight. The ring Doctor allows the bout to continue “with caution” but with less than 30 seconds of round 4 gone, Goldstein has seen enough and brings proceedings to an end.

Afterwards, Clay said “I guess that was the first time that I was knocked down as a professional. I had to get up to take care of things after because it was rather embarrassing with me on the floor. As you know, I think I am the greatest- so I am not supposed to be on the floor.”

Cassius Clay took up fighting as a twelve year old, when one day someone stole his bike! He was livid and said in front of the local Sheriff that when he got his hands on the thief he would “Whip his ass!” It was the Sheriff who told him to go and get boxing lessons so as to ensure that when he went to whip the thief’s ass– he didn’t get his ass whipped!

That phrase, and that incident was to prove prophetic. Clay- or Ali as he became– would demonstrate all the anger and aggression of that moment in analogous situations throughout his life. He would never shirk a fight in or out of the ring on a point of principle– and he always believed that he could and would…. win. He was the only heavyweight over a period of twenty years to have fought every single ranked contender and beaten them! He is also the only boxer in the boxing hall of fame who has victories at world title level over another seven hall of famers. Yet, if I may borrow a footballing term, he was the greatest exponent of “parking the bus” in the ring. He frequently said that that you cannot hit what you cannot see or what is not there to be hit. He absolutely took on board the words of the Sheriff and whatever happened always tried to make sure that he did not “get his ass whipped” first and foremost. In the boxing ring if you don’t get your ass whipped then you tend to win.

That is not to say Ali was not a great aggressive fighter. There has never been another boxer of his standard who was forced to miss almost 4 years of a career at his prime. When he returned, he was not the same lightening quick shadow that had danced around and bewildered Liston and destroyed the likes of Cleveland “the big cat” Williams. That younger Ali had a mercilessly cruel streak in the ring. Not the biggest puncher, he nevertheless deliberately and methodically whipped the ass of both Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell in the cruellest of fashions. The Terrell fight is famous for his repeated taunting of Ernie whilst simply refusing to finish the fight. Both fighters maliciously fouled that night with elbows and shoulders– the reports of the fight show that even experienced commentators were uncomfortable with the exhibition of foul play from both and the absolutely cruel whipping exhibited by the victor.

Yet Ali’s sense of what he would stand for, stand against and what and who, he would and could beat explain that cruelty and that determination. As a young boxer he had been sent to train under, and be managed by, the former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. Everyone in Boxing liked Archie and respected him, but Archie just could not cope with the young Clay. He wouldn’t follow instructions, wouldn’t keep his hands up, wouldn’t do manual chores around the gym, and just wouldn’t do what he was told. So Archie sent him packing saying that whilst he was talented, he didn’t have the right attitude.

Young Clay wanted his boxing to be both an art and a science– but an art and a science that would be accompanied by a mental attitude that spelled out that he was boss and that he would do things his way– which would include a complete psychological war against his opponents in and out of the ring.

The young Clay would eventually fight the ageing Archie some 8 months after he defeated Sonny Banks. The fight ended in the fourth round with Archie flat on the Canvass after 4 knock downs with braggadocio Clay standing with arms raised over the stricken veteran in a show of ugly triumphalism. It was Clay’s way of making a point. Yet Clay admired his vanquished victim but never let him forget that he (Ali) always—always— knew best.

Archie Moore was in George Foreman’s corner in Kinshasa when Ali didn’t dance anymore and instead allowed big George to unleash those murderous booming punches which brought cries of “Oooh” from the crowd when they landed. Long before the fight’s conclusion, Ali was trapped in Foreman’s corner with George swinging at him with great arced blows which would have scythed most men in two. Archie Moore was right below them screaming” Hit him George, Hit him George” when quick as a flash Ali turned Foreman and leaned in on him preventing him from swinging those big punches. Staring over George’s shoulder Ali looked down on his former trainer and opponent. He then stretched his eyes wide and put on that manic stare that we have so often seen and shouted down to Moore– in the full knowledge that George was listening– ” Sit down old man because this is AAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL OVAAAAAH!”

And so it proved!

Ali annoyed many folk with his boastful and brash stance. But the thing is he stood up– and kept standing up when someone knocked him down. He just didn’t know or contemplate what it was like to get his ass whipped. He stood up to Government, Boxing authorities, army regulation, bigots, and just about anyone who spoiled for a fight. Whatever the tactics he just made sure that he did not get his ass whipped.

Foreman ( who the more I read I think of as only second to Ali in terms of inner human strength and worthy of admiration as a man ) says that Ali was not the greatest boxer and rates at least a number of others as better. Yet he then goes on to say that he is undoubtedly the greatest man and in a league of his own when it comes to fighting– drawing a distinct difference between boxing and fighting.

Ali– the once boy Clay– who was deemed too illiterate to Join the army when first interviewed— would go on to be a peace ambassador for the united nations, a special envoy for the US Government, be awarded doctorates from various universities and receive awards and recognitions from all sorts of places for the stances and fights that he picked outside the ring. He was voted as THE American who most represented the American dream, the American way of life and who epitomised the purpose of the constitution and the bill of rights. He was even granted, accepted and came to collect, the Freedom of Ennis County Claire where his Great Grandfather came from.

Yet, none of that would have come to be if like others before him, he hadn’t got up when Sonny Banks dumped him on his arse!

Sonny would die just a few months after Cassius Marcellus “shook up the world” after beating another Sonny– a big bad bear of a Sonny who many thought invincible. Young Clay overcame enormous odds to become world champion, and perhaps even greater odds to become the most famous man in the world and someone to whom Governments would turn. He has inspired generations of ordinary people and sportsmen alike, and come to epitomise the good fight against injustice, prejudice and man’s inhumanity to man.

He is undoubtedly a hero.

However, I believe that he would accept that he is no greater a hero than Sonny Banks. The meat and potato blue collar worker who supplemented his income from the Ford motor company by taking to the ring and who fought against those who were as good as they got at that time. Previously undefeated prospects tasted their first defeat at his hands, The young Clay first hit the deck at his behest. Banks was a sparring partner to Liston and many others who recognised his worth as a boxer. Leotis Martin went on to have a reasonable career fighting and beating many of the opponents that Ali faced including Sonny Liston, Karl Mildenberger, Jimmy Ellis and others. Yet until that 9th round, Sonny Banks was delivering a beating to him.

Sonny Banks was the 65th Boxer to die from ring related injuries in a period of 5 years. He fought to earn a few quid, because he had a big punch, a degree of talent and a family to feed. He died because he forgot to get out of the way, had never learned or mastered Ali’s ability to either get out of the way of a punch or quickly recover from one—— and because of a cheap concrete repair to a ring canvas in Philadelphia.

Four days after his death, The newly named Mohammed Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round of their rematch with the “Phantom” punch. No risk of hitting a dodgy ring patch for Liston. He went down and stayed down—- albeit to a punch that may have been landed more by the Bookmakers than Ali.

Ali is now in his 70’s . Apparently he has no right to be 70 ish at all with Doctors saying that his Parkinsons condition should have dimmed his lights for good by this time. Yet each and every morning the boy who was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior gets up– like he always has done.

Some might pity him and say that it is cruel to see a once great athlete in that condition and in those circumstances. Yet he has a loving family, is admired by millions and clearly is able to draw on his never ending yet astounding inner strength.

Today, Sonny Banks would have been 72 years old had he lived.

Alas……… fate decreed otherwise.


2 Responses to “The tale of Lucien Banks”

  1. Seumas MacFarlane-Barrow October 8, 2012 at 9:04 am #

    Magnificient. Wonderful recollections of a wonderfull era of boxing. I remember getting woken deep into the night to watch ‘The greatest’ . My family were not reallly into boxing. There was just something about Ali that was magnetic. As you say BRT, he was and still is a hero.

  2. Gerry October 25, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

    Nice article. I have never forgotten the moment in the Foreman fight when Ali knocked him down. There is a camera angle from outside the ring that shows more than just the punches. Ali actually dances as he hits! he moves in a circle around Foreman in a dance movement that went punch-2-3, punch-2-3. Its an amzing moment to watch. Art and brutality in a moment. I admire Foreman and how he picked things up after that catastrophic defeat but maybe someone should show him that film and ask him to judge Ali as a boxer AND fighter.

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