Rick Cleveland

Mississippi's Sonny Banks was the first pro boxer to knock down Muhammad Ali

Rick Cleveland new column sig as of Sept. 1, 2007.
Rick Cleveland new column sig as of Sept. 1, 2007. Clarion-Ledger

The black and white video, from Madison Square Garden in 1962, is beyond grainy, but you can easily make out that the graceful man in white trunks is future heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

More accurately, the slender, svelte guy wearing white trunks is the man who would become Ali. On Feb. 10, 1962, the day he fought a man named Sonny Banks on national TV, Ali was still known as Cassius Clay.

You can discern that the two men are about the same size and that they hit one another extremely hard. The announcer tells us that Clay, the former light-heavyweight Olympic champion from Louisville, Ky., is fighting for the third time on TV. And that Banks, from Detroit, is making his TV boxing debut.

The announcer says that the 21-year-old Banks is reputed to have tremendous power in his right hand, especially early in fights. His record is 10-2 and all but one of his victories has come by knockout. Clay, just turned 20, is undefeated through 10 fights. As a pro, he has never been knocked down or seriously challenged.

That changed that night. It happened in the first round. Banks, fighting from a crouch in one of the corners, hit Clay with a right to the face and Clay fell backwards onto his butt. Clay quickly bounced up at the count of two, but the referee gave him a standing eight-count.

From that point, Clay pretty much took over the fight. All these years later, it is still amazing to see such a large man throw combinations of punches so quickly and precisely. Indeed, he does appear to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

In the second round, Clay's left-right combos, thrown with the speed of a featherweight, took their toll. A left hook to the chin knocked Banks to the seat of his pants. As Clay had, Banks quickly got up, but the damage, in this case, was done. Clay knocked Banks all over the ring in the third round. The referee stopped the fight in the fourth. Banks wanted to continue. The ref wouldn't let him, and that's a good thing.

In the post-fight interview, Clay said: "That was my first time knocked down as a professional. I had to get up to take care of things after that because it was rather embarrassing, me on the floor. As you know, I think that I'm the greatest and I'm not supposed to be on the floor, so I had to get up and put him on out, in four as I predicted."

And I know readers wonder where I am going with this. Why bring up a non-title fight from 54 years ago?

Well, there's this:

Sonny Banks wasn't really from Detroit and his name really wasn't Sonny. He was Lucien Banks and he was from Lee County in northeast Mississippi, near Tupelo. Details, as they say, are sketchy. He was born in the farming community Birmingham Ridge, about halfway between Tupelo and Saltillo. As so many black Mississippians did, his father headed north and took a job in an auto factory when Lucien was young and Lucien followed him there.

So, the first professional fighter to knock down the legendary Muhammad Ali was a largely unknown Mississippian.

And what happened to Lucien "Sonny" Banks? You could look it up. I did.

He continued to fight as a professional for three more years, winning far more than he lost. Most of his victories were early knockouts.

But on May 10, 1965 in Philadelphia, Banks fought Leotis Martin, an accomplished fighter who would later knock out Sonny Liston. This time, Banks took a horrific beating and the referee did not stop the fight. Martin knocked out Banks in the ninth round. Boxing was, and is, a terribly brutal sport.

Three days later, Banks died from injuries suffered in the fight. He was 24 and he is a footnote in history: a Mississippi native, the first man and one of a select few to knock down "The Greatest."

Rick Cleveland is a syndicated columnist and historian of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. His email address is rcleveland@msfame.com.

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