Christopher James Shelton,
Boxing Historian

Recalling a man
who decked
'The Greatest'
Sonny Banks, who died fighting, would have turned 70

B&W No. 3 | Sonny Banks decks Muhammad Ali | The Ringside Boxing Show
Sonny Banks sends Cassius Clay to the canvas

By Christopher James Shelton
Historian for The Boxing Amusement Park


 June 29, 2010 should have been a happy 70th birthday for Sonny Banks. It should have marked the beginning of a terrific decade. My grandma had her best years during her 70s. Widowed and dating a fellow widower, she dressed elegantly for twice-a-week dances. There were similar aged social friends. Family gatherings. No more 9-to-5 work and the thankless job of parenting. The 70s are for retirement, earned leisure, and the joyous, unconditional love of grandchildren.    

June 29th, 2010, will instead be a (mostly) ignored milestone of this shy Southerner turned “blue collar working-class stiff” who never desired fame, but only a steady job with a pension. Fate is cruel, and yet with a single left jab, Sonny Banks earned an immortality that he never sought.

June 29th, 2010, marks the 70th birthday of a long-deceased Mississippian who shares a special and unique clique with three others (Henry Cooper, Joe Frazier, Chuck Wepner). Maybe they were not The Greatest, but remain the only professional pugilists who ever knocked him down.


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February 10th, 1962: Cassius Clay, 6-foot-3, 194 pounds (10-0-0, 7 knockouts) versus Sonny Banks, 6-foot-2, 191 pounds (10-2-0, 9 knockouts). LOCATION: Madison Square Garden, New York City. Broadcast for live television.

Don Dunphy: Round one. Ten rounds scheduled. Clay in the white trunks. Banks in black...


Sonny Banks steps forward. Cassius Clay bounces on feet as his active hands search for an opening. Banks steps forward and lands hard right to chin. Banks continues forward while pushing Clay back to ropes. Pugilists clinch. Clay wrestles free. Banks steps sideways flat footed. Clay bounces on dancing feet.


Don Dunphy: If Banks does anything it figures to be early. He is a power puncher ... Banks' power is mostly in his right hand...


Clay steps forward and throws a quick, hard left jab to head. Banks successfully head ducks. Banks has head and body low. Clay grazes with an awkward short right near the top of opponent's lowered head. Clay pushes off and dances on bouncing feet. Pugilists stalk one another. Clay slows his dancing feet as he steps forward with a left jab to face. Banks successfully head ducks.


  Don Dunphy: Banks is reputed to have quick hands like Floyd Patterson. I say 'reputed' for we are seeing him for the first time ourselves...”


Banks raises his lowered head and lands a hard left jab to chin. Banks follows with another hard left jab that lands to chin. Clay extends his left jab arm. Banks throws a hard left jab to face. Clay smothers the punch and holds his determined foe. Banks powers Clay backward into the ropes. Pugilists clinch. Clay slowly forces Banks sideways. Banks forces Clay backward. Pugilists wrestle for control within their clinch. Pugilists push off and separate. Clay bounces wildly on dancing feet. Banks stalks and slowly steps forward. Clay has his hands lowered. Banks has his hands steady at chest level. Clay steps forward and lands a hard left jab to jaw. Banks attempts an awkward short right to head that misses. Clay confidently backs and bounces on feet.


Don Dunphy: Cassius Clay is the most loquacious heavyweight since Jack Sharkey. He is ranked #9 by Ring magazine. Banks is unranked...”


 Banks steps forward with an aggressive hard left jab to head. The punch wildly misses its target. Clay places left jab glove and arm on top of foe's head. Clay lands light left, right upper body punches. Clay snaps a hard left jab that lands to jaw. Banks backs to corner ropes. Clay steps forward and lands a right to head. Banks deflects damage with another head duck. Banks raises head. Clay aggressively attempts to pin Banks' head with his right arm while setting up his left. Clay releases his right arm hold while he throws a compact left to face. Banks seizes the brief opening to fire a straight left jab that lands clean to chin. Clay is knocked backward onto his butt and then lies flat on back.


Don Dunphy:There goes Clay on the floor...


Clay rolls over and stands again. Clay bounces on feet as if to step forward. The referee intervenes as he aggressively grabs Clay and pushes him back. The referee begins a mandatory eight-count on the undefeated Olympic light heavyweight champion.


Don Dunphy: “Banks apparently has power with either hand. All of the damage is coming from his left.”


It would become a dual of left hand jab punches. Clay's hand and foot speed, mixed with punch accuracy easily dominated the following two rounds. Clay scored a similar left uppercut knockdown of Banks in the second round. At the conclusion of the third round, referee Ruby Goldstein was close to ending the bout. The ring doctor looked at Banks and agreed it should continue with caution. Less than half-a-minute later  Goldstein intervened and waved the bout over.

Cassius Clay had publicly predicted a fouth-round knockout of Banks. Despite achieving the desired result, W-TKO-4, Clay was subdued, rather than celebratory, at the post bout news interview : “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.”

Six weeks later at Madison Square Garden, boxing was dealt a severe blow as prime-time entertainment when Benny 'Kid' Paret died from injuries sustained from a 12th-round knockout by Emile Griffith. Severe criticism against referee Ruby Goldstein, after years with an outstanding reputation, forced his career to end that night.

Clay continued his quest for the heavyweight title until February 25th, 1964, when he “shocked the world” and achieved his dream and loud public prediction.

Sonny Banks fought the famous giant, Cleveland Williams, a perennial contender for years, in July of 1964. It went into the record books as a sixth-round knockout loss for Banks, but his manager, Tom Ewald, insisted that Banks was not hurt -- merely exhausted: “(Banks) ran out of gas and took the count on one knee.”

The turbulent 60s were underway: (1) The assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (2) The Beatles conquering Europe and then America. (3) Andy Warhol and the pop art explosion. (4) A 1964 Presidential election that focused on whether Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, would utilize a nuclear bomb to end the Vietnam escalation of American troops. (5) Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Cassius Clay and the American Muslim movement. With the world and America in revolution, Sonny Banks quietly returned to his "real job" at the Ford Motor Company plant in Detroit.

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The Bulletin (5/12/1965): “(Philadelphia) Heavyweight boxer Lucian (Sonny) Banks is fighting the most important bout of his career. This one is for keeps. His life is at stake. The odds are against him.”

Sonny Banks was a blue-collar "meat-and-potatoes" man inside and outside the ring. He was an employee of Ford Motor Company first and foremost. Boxing brought in additional income.

Manager Ted Ewald: “We handled this boy because he's a fine character, and we thought he had fine prospects.”

Banks was a large, no nonsense, offensive pugilist with a hard punch. Fifteen of his 24 professional bouts were fought in Detroit. He was a sparring partner for Sonny Liston.

A lack of finesse gave Banks a certain commodity value. On four occasions, Banks was imported from Detroit to battle promising heavyweights. Banks was not some "stiff" to pad someone's winning record, but a challenging steppingstone against a power puncher. Banks had scored six first-round knockouts another four second-round KOs. Undefeated pugilists Cassius Clay and Jim Jones fought Banks at Madison Square Garden. Undefeated Lee Bates fought Banks at The Arena in Philadelphia. Two of those pugilists -- Jones and Bates -- suffered their first professional losses. Cassius Clay suffered his first pro knockdown. Banks had not fought in 10 months, but was once again imported from Detroit to fight on the home turf of a promising heavyweight with only one loss.


B&W No. 3 | Sonny Banks is killed | The Ringside Boxing Show

Banks takes his final count

Philadelphia's Leotis Martin had been a successful amateur boxer and was attempting to move up the professional ladder. His two most-recent bouts -- third- and first-round knockout victories -- occurred over the previous two months.

It was time to "advance" against a better pugilist, someone who could take his punch and hit back. Sonny Banks was deemed the best test.

There is a curious aspect of Banks as he stepped into the ring against Martin and it involves his weight. Banks was fighting 16 pounds heavier than when he battled Clay. The Philadelphia Daily News joked that Banks looked heavy and that it appeared he had not properly trained. According to Manager Ewald, this was a planned decision. Banks, at 200 pounds, weighed 18 more than Martin. Ewald insisted that Banks gain more weight. Ted Ewald: “(Banks) had fought at 200 pounds before, but we thought he was too light at this weight, and we felt he would be better with the added poundage.” It is a strange statement that makes no sense.

May 10th, 1965... Leotis Martin, 6'1, 182 pounds (14-1-0, 7 knockouts) versus Sonny Banks, 6'2, 207 pounds (18-6-0, 14 knockouts). LOCATION: The Arena, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Owosso Argus Press: “(Martin) won the first four rounds, lost the next four and was behind in the first few minutes of the ninth.”

Beaver Country Times: “The fatal blow was a right to the temple by the 182-pound Martin in the ninth round of their scheduled 10-round bout as the two fighters traded lefts and rights to the head on even terms. Less than two minutes earlier, (Banks) had staggered his opponent with a vicious right, which caused Martin to go into a clinch to regain composure. Then came the flurry of punches which ended with the tragic knockout.”

The Owosso Argus Press: “The knockout punch hit Banks on the left temple. He sank to the floor near his corner. First his knees caved in and then his trunk followed. Finally he hit his head on the floor in front of one of the judges. His arms flailed outward.”

Beaver Country Times: “Banks slumped to the floor and his head struck the canvas. He was counted out with one second remaining in the round.”

Philadelphia Daily News: “After being counted, Banks lay motionless as ecstatic Martin fans poured into the ring to cheer the man who came into the fight outweighed by 25 pounds. Several hundred fans crowded around the ring, prompting police to clear the area so Banks could be moved.

The Bulletin: “(Banks) was taken to the dressing room on a stretcher. He appeared to regain consciousness and answered several questions rationally. He asked for a drink of water but before he could sip from a glass, he lapsed back into unconsciousness.”

Doctor Ayella attended Banks for the important half hour following the knockout. Doctor Ayella was most concerned with head trauma due to the landing on the worn, concrete hardened canvas following the final punch. It would be 20 minutes before Banks appeared cognizant of his surroundings. Leotis Martin, on the threshold of his greatest victory, was relieved to hear that Banks was conscious and exited the building. Doctor Ayella asked a series of questions to Banks. The replies were mostly satisfactory. More than once Banks failed to respond to the command of raising his right knee. Banks requested a glass of water. Several seconds later Banks had a brain seizure and lapsed into permanent unconsciousness. 30-plus minutes had passed while the decision was being made whether the knockout was enough of an emergency to warrant an ambulance ride to Presbyterian Hospital.

The Free Lance-Star: “Brain surgery was performed Tuesday morning to remove a blood clot. Dr. Robert S. Andre, a Philadelphia neurosurgeon who performed the operation, ruled out the finishing punch as a direct cause of the subdural hematoma, or clot, in Banks' brain. He said the injury looked as though the boxer had been in an auto crash.”

The surgery was not a success. Dr. Andre's assistant released a public statement that Banks was in a coma from which he would not survive. Manager Ewald and Chairman of the Pennsylvania State Commission, Frank Wildman Jr., kept a vigil with the comatose pugilist. A distraught Leotis Martin visited the bedside. Teary and emotional, either Ewald and Wildman left the room or distanced themselves so that Martin could remain alone with the fighter who had been defeating him until the knockout. Most of Banks' relatives lived in Tupela, Mississippi. Only his younger brother, Jimmy, traveled from Detroit to the bedside. Leotis Martin: “I've been praying all day for Banks. It could have been me.”

The Pennsylvania State Commission decided before the death that it would be deemed an accident.

Frank Wildman Jr.: “Both Banks and Martin were in excellent condition; the bout was conducted in the proper manner; the referee (Joseph Sweeney) was alert; nothing occurred before the knockout to suggest any lack of care or supervision.”

Some of the public released information appears to be protective of Leotis Martin as the culprit of any wrongdoing. But these were the three likely factors that contributed to Banks' death: (1) Bad luck. (2) A poorly maintained ring canvas. (3) An unnecessary delay before hospitalizing Banks.

Time (5/21/1965), Milestones: “Lucian 'Sonny' Banks, 24, journeyman heavyweight boxer from Detroit, whose main claim to fame was his 1962 knockdown of Cassius Clay; of a blood clot in the brain, three days after he was knocked out in the ninth round by Leotis Martin; in Philadelphia. Banks was the 64th fighter to die of ring injuries in the last five years.” Four days later, heavyweight Champion, Cassius Clay, fighting for the first time under the name Muhammad Ali, defeated former champion, Sonny Liston, with a surreal first-round knockout.

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Christopher James Shelton

 Christopher James Shelton is a product of the American West Coast. He has lived in Los Angeles and San Ysidro, California, Tijuana , Mexico, and currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Shelton was the editor of CHEEERS Soundboard, the first solely written/produced mental health recovery center newsletter in America.  He has several credits as researcher/writer/interviewer for CyberBoxingZone including: “Scandal In San Francisco (1896).” “The Last Bareknuckle Championship Bout (1889)” and “The Art and Science of Daniel Mendoza.”

  His research discovery credits include 19th century pugilists George Godfrey, Professor Hadley, Tom Hyer, John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain.  Family interviews, mixed with historical research, include lightweights Jack Britton and Billy Hawkins. 

Shelton conducted the final interview with legendary Phoenix manager Al Fenn, and asked candid questions about George Foreman and H.I.V. with former heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison.  HIs favorite historical article, “124-year-old woman challenges John L. Sullivan for the title," recounts the life story of a feisty 19th-century female slave named Sylvie Dubois.

Contact Christopher Shelton