Cassius Clay Hits Denver

June 10th, 2016 1:14pm - Posted By: Mark Cohen

On November 4, 1963, the world heavyweight champion was Charles “Sonny” Liston. Liston had a powerful build and an intimidating demeanor. He was a hard man to like, but experts respected his ability in the ring. They believed he was just too tough and strong to be beat. Though most people don’t know it, Liston lived in Denver. He owned in a nice home in an otherwise all-white neighborhood on Monaco Parkway in Denver.  

In the summer of 1960, a young man named Cassius Clay won the Gold Medal in heavyweight boxing at the Olympics in Rome. The brash young man then began a professional career that put him on a collision course with Liston. After beating Archie Moore and Henry Cooper, Clay had earned a shot at the title.

Liston did not want to fight Clay. He did not like Clay’s antics and he likely knew that Clay could be trouble in the ring. Liston liked to slug it out with his opponents. But a fighter like Clay would not stand toe to toe with Liston; Clay would move a lot, jab a lot, and stay outside where Liston’s power could not hurt him.

With Liston in no hurry to fight Clay, Clay began a public campaign to force Liston to give him a shot at the title. Clay publicly insulted Liston, repeatedly referring to him as, “the big ugly bear.” Clay repeatedly harassed Liston and accused Liston of ducking him.

By 1963, the public pressure on Liston to give the bras kid from Kentucky a shot at the title was immense. That was the fight the people wanted to see. After much negotiation, Liston and Clay agreed to fight. The fight contract was to be signed in Denver on November 5, 1963. And that brings us back to the date I began this column with – the day before the contract signing.

Clay had to get from Chicago to Denver to sign the contract, so he chartered a bus. On one side of the bus was painted, “WORLD’S MOST COLORFUL FIGHTER: CASSIUS CLAY.” On the other side, “SONNY LISTON WILL GO IN EIGHT.’’

After making a few calls the Denver newspapers and radio stations, Clay and his pals rolled into Denver on the evening of November 4, 1963. According to the Denver Post, Clay and his entourage first drive through Denver’s 5 Points neighborhood – a black neighborhood – looking for Liston. Residents gawked as Clay put on a show. Asked what he was doing, Clay shouted, “I’m bear hunting. Liston’s too ugly to be champ. The champ should be pretty like me.” Residents told Clay that Liston did not live in 5 Points; they directed him to Liston’s home on the Monaco Parkway in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood.

Sometime around 3:00 a.m., Clay’s bus pulled up to Liston’s home. Clay exited his bus and immediately began shouting. He sent his photographer to knock on Liston’s door while another friend honked the horn on the bus. The entire neighborhood was soon wide awake.

Liston opened the door wearing polka-dotted pajamas and brandishing a fireplace poker. Clay challenged Liston to come out and fight, but five police cruisers arrived almost immediately. When the ruckus ended, Clay and his friends boarded the bus bound for a local hotel.

Liston and Clay signed the contract the next day at a Denver hotel. Las Vegas established Liston as a 7 to 1 favorite. On February 25, 1964, in Miami, Liston and Clay entered the ring, the winner to be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. The quicker Clay ran circle around Liston and peppered his face with jabs. By the end of the sixth round, Liston’s face was covered with cuts and bruises. Liston refused to come out for the seventh round and Clay became the heavyweight champion. The next day he announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Many of you know the rest of the story.

Ali returned to Denver one other time. It was fifteen years later, and a lot had happened in those fifteen years -– the JFK assassination, the Beatles, Vietnam, the moon landing, Watergate, and the energy crisis. In the summer of 1979, Ali fought the most famous man in Denver – Broncos’ defensive end Lyle Alzado – in a charitable exhibition at Mile High Stadium. The fight did not raise as much money as Alzado’s charity had hoped, but tens of thousands of fans got to see the heavyweight champion, who was arguably the most famous man on the planet.

Ali became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and a leader of the black civil rights movement. He also became the first man ever to win the heavyweight championship three times. He lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. He died on June 3, 2016. Rest in peace, champ.

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The True Story of Dock Ellis

March 10th, 2016 9:10pm - Posted By: Mark Cohen

Dock Ellis was a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 1970’s. A black man, he was outspoken on matters of race. He made no secret of his use of pot, speed, cocaine, and alcohol. It was the Seventies.

On June 12, 1970, Ellis was scheduled to pitch for the Pirates in San Diego in a game against the Padres. Ellis had crashed the previous night at a friend’s home in Los Angeles. And for whatever reason he decided to drop some acid (LSD). LSD is a psychedelic drug that can cause a variety of sensations such as distorted senses, vivid colors, and hallucinations.

Ellis woke the next morning and took more acid. Shortly thereafter, his friend’s girlfriend told him he was pitching that day. Ellis told her she was wrong. It was June 11th and he wasn’t scheduled to pitch until the next day. She told Ellis he was one day off, it was the 12th.  Ellis did not believe her until she showed him the sports page from that morning’s paper.

Realizing he had screwed up, Ellis caught the first flight to San Diego. Still suffering the effects of the LSD, Ellis arrived at the clubhouse and suited up. Then he swallowed some Benzedrines to try to counter the effects of the LSD.

Standing on the mound, Ellis was disoriented. He had trouble identifying the batters. He knew they were swinging bats and that sometimes they stood on the left side of the plate and sometimes they stood on the right side of the plate.

It wasn’t pretty. Ellis walked eight batters and hit one. He later wrote, "I was zeroed in on the (catcher's) glove, but I didn't hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and the bases were loaded two or three times. The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn't. Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until it turned to powder. They say I had about three to four fielding chances. I remember diving out of the way of a ball I thought was a line drive. I jumped, but the ball wasn't hit hard and never reached me."

But a funny thing happened. Ellis struck out six batters and did not allow a single hit. The Pirates won the game by a score of 2-0.

The odds of a major league baseball pitcher throwing a no hitter are 1 in 1,548. The odds of doing it while under the effects of LSD are probably more daunting. To this day Ellis’ feat remains of the greatest athletic achievement ever by a man on a psychedelic journey

Dock Ellis died of a liver disease at the age of 63.   

 

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Remembering Norris Weese

September 27th, 2015 11:40pm - Posted By: Mark Cohen

Great Moments in Denver Broncos History: Remembering Norris Weese 

When most Denver Broncos fans think about great Broncos players, they think first of John Elway.  That is as it should be.  Then they may think of Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, Steve Atwater, Randy Gradishar, or Tom Jackson.  Older fans may also recall Floyd Little, Haven Moses, and Dr. Charley Johnson. These players had long, successful careers with the Broncos.

This article is not about a great Bronco.  Norris Weese played only four seasons with the Broncos (1976-1979).  He was an undersized backup quarterback.  In his entire NFL career he completed 143 of 251 passes for 1,887 yards.  He had twice as many interceptions as touchdowns (14 to 7).  He had 69 rushes for 362 yards.  And he punted 53 times, 52 of them in 1976 when he also served as the team’s punter.    

Norris Weese may not be on the list of great Broncos players, but for those who were Broncos fans on October 16, 1977, Norris Weese is and always will be a cult hero – a freakin’ legend who will live forever in Broncos history for a single play. 

On that day the Broncos played their arch-rivals, the hated Oakland Raiders, in Oakland.   Both teams were 4-0.  The Raiders were coming off a Super Bowl Championship and were heavily favored.  Denver had been the laughingstock of the AFC for most of the franchise’s existence.  Before the game, veteran Sportscaster Charlie Jones said, “I don’t think anyone can beat the Raiders right now.”

Leading 14-7 in the second quarter, the Broncos lined up for a 32-yard field goal that would extend their lead to ten before halftime.  Denver’s kicker was the 37 year-old veteran, Jim Turner.  Turner was last of the straight ahead on kickers.  Today’s kickers kick soccer style and some even kick barefoot, but Turner always wore black high top football shoes with square toes and kicked straight ahead.

Jim Turner was a reliable kicker, but not a great athlete.  He had a paunch around his middle.  Denver Post columnist Woody Paige once quipped, “Turner runs the hundred yard dash in about three days.”

In those days the backup quarterback almost always held the ball on field goal attempts.  So Turner, Weese, and the rest of the team lined up for the field goal attempt.  They would have been happy to go into the locker room at halftime with a ten point lead.

The snap was perfect, and Weese placed the ball down.  But then something funny happened.  Weese had a better idea.  He pulled the ball back as Turner swung his right leg through to finish his kick.  Weese rolled right looking for an open receiver or tight end Riley Odoms, but the coverage was solid.  And then Weese looked back to his left.  And there, all alone, was the overweight 37 year-old field goal kicker in high topped shoes who had drifted out to the left flank.  Weese floated the ball to Turner.

And then, for a few seconds, nearly every person in the Mountain Time Zone held their breath, waiting to see if Turner could catch the ball.  He did.  Then the old man lumbered into the end zone in his black high tops for one of the easiest touchdowns in league history.  Turner later said of the play, “I ran into the end zone out of fear. Speed wasn't involved.”

The Broncos went on to humiliate the Raiders by a score of 30-7, picking off Kenny Stabler seven times, with Broncos Linebacker Tom Jackson taunting Raider Coach John Madden on sideline by yelling, “It’s all over fat man.”  (To this day there is a website for Broncos fans called It’s All Over Fat Man at www.itsalloverfatman.com).  That may have been the most important regular season play in Broncos history.  It changed the rivalry forever.  Denver trounced the Raiders and went on to the team’s first Super Bowl that season.  Since that day the Broncos have had one of the best winning percentages in the NFL. 

It’s not clear whether the Weese to Turner fake field goal was a designed play or whether Weese made the decision on his own.  It didn’t look like a designed play.  Weese looked like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.  I like to think Weese made the decision on his own. 

After Turner retired, a reporter asked him about that play.  Turner said, “Sometimes it aggravates me.  I kicked 304 field goals in my career, and that’s all they want to talk about, that play.”

The Broncos named Weese their starting quarterback in 1979, but a knee injury ended his career.  He became a certified public accountant in Denver.  Norris Weese died of bone cancer at the age of 44. 

Thanks for the memories, Norris.

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