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SI 60 Q&A: Talking Sonny Liston and the craft of writing with William Nack

An SI 60 Q&A with William Nack, the author or the brilliant 1991 bonus story "O Unlucky Man," about the sad life and tragic death of one-time heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
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In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th annivesary, is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to run in the magazine. Today's selection was "O Unlucky Man," a brilliant profile of Sonny Liston by William Nack. It first appeared in the Feb. 4, 1991 issue. associate editor Ted Keith spoke to Nack about the story, his writing process and what he thinks caused the death of the former heavyweight champion.

SI: How did this story come about?

NACK: I had started to do historical pieces for the magazine, and the focus groups had found that there was a lot of interest in them. And they kept asking me to do it. I enjoyed it. At one point [around 1990] Steve Robinson, a senior editor who loved this historical stuff, said “Would you be interested in doing a piece on Sonny Liston?” I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do that, he sounds like a good subject.” He said, “OK, can you get it here in five or six weeks?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll do my best.”

I went into the library at SI and I spent an entire day reading clips of Sonny’s life and Xeroxing them. I did this for like 12 hours. That was my usual procedure. One of the clips said that upon his death his wife, Geraldine, had discovered the body when she had returned home from a trip. And the first thing I thought of when I read that was, This is my lead. I want to lead the story with Geraldine discovering Sonny’s body. I liked the device because it would allow me to establish where I was with this character and then flash back to his entire career and then end with the funeral and visiting his grave. It all kind of flashed to me how I wanted to organize it.

I thought if I could start here a flashback would be able to encompass his entire life and then I could bring it forward. I knew that he was buried in Las Vegas, that was in the clips, and I knew that the procession had been down the strip. I thought that was interesting. I figured I could find people who had witnessed it or could talk about it.

SI: How did you track down his former wife?

NACK:It took me two or three weeks to find Geraldine. All sorts of trails had run out and I just couldn’t find her. And I really tried. People said, "I think she’s in St. Louis," but there was no listing for her. At some point I contacted a film production company that was trying to do something on Sonny’s life. I got ahold of this guy and he said, "I know where she is." I said, "Oh my God, can you give me her number?" He was a little reluctant but he finally gave me her number.

I had all my demeanors prepared, and I called her on the phone and she answered. I said, “I’m Bill Nack from Sports Illustrated, and I’m doing a long story on your late husband.” She said, “Oh really.” I said, “I’m really interested in what he was like as a person.” I didn’t go right into the death. She said he was a great guy, loved kids but “I don’t know if I want to talk about him.” I said “I’m not doing a book or anything. This is a chance to talk about Sonny for a very large audience.” I used to say this to people: Sports Illustrated had the longest reach of any magazine in America because it has such a long shelf life: 20-25 million people. She said “OK, I suppose enough time has passed, but this is still painful for me. What would you like to know?” I said, “I understand you discovered his body. I’d like to know the circumstances.”

And she went into this long description, and she said, “Well, I came home and all these newspapers were in the driveway, and all the lights were on and I had our child, and the lights were on in the pool and I thought that was all peculiar.”

We talked about this for quite awhile. I asked if there was anything peculiar about the house when she came in. She said yeah, the odor was terrible. And my heart sank and leaped at the same time. Because this was a great fighter who had died and she discovered him with her child in hand. I said, “I’m sorry, I’m a journalist. What did you do then?”

“I went into the kitchen I found food that had been rotting in the kitchen.”

“Then what did you do?”

“I went upstairs and I looked in the bedroom and there he was.”

I said, “What about the child?”

She said, “I said 'Let’s go, let’s leave.' And I got him out of there.”

Then we talked about a dream she’d had in the shower and how she’d had a premonition of this. I found it all very eerie and strange. I'd been in this business long enough to know you don’t make this stuff up. Her breathing changed, she was obviously emoting it, feeling it. It was a substantial part of the story.

As things went on it all just unfolded perfectly.

O Unlucky Man: Fortune never smiled on Sonny Liston

SI: What were your impressions of Sonny Liston before you started this story?

NACK:One of the interesting parts is that Las Vegas is a schizophrenic town. According to a book I had read called Vegas by John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion’s late husband, there are more churches in Las Vegas than anywhere. And on the other hand there’s the strip, there’s hookers walking around, you know what I mean?

What I found is that Sonny lived a schizophrenic life. There was the boisterous, heavy drinking, hard living Sonny that Geraldine didn’t know, because he never revealed that half of it to her.

In 1990, I had been divorced and I was living with somebody here in Virginia, and so my life was kind of settled actually. From 1988 until 1994 or '95 when I did the [Rick] Pitino story were the most productive years in my life at SI. The story that changed my life at the magazine was about Ernie Davis. Peter Carry, the executive editor, said he wept when he read it. It was a really poignant story. He was the first black Heisman Trophy winner and he died of leukemia before he ever played a down in the NFL.

That was for the 25th anniversary of Ernie Davis’ death. He died in May of 1963 and here it was around May of 1988 and somebody, I think Steve Robinson again, asked me, “Would you like to do a piece on Ernie Davis?” I’d never done a history piece for the magazine before. I said, “Is anybody alive who could talk about him?” He said, “Oh sure.”

I wrote this story and it really kind of wrote itself and it was really kind of richly done and I organized it starting off with when he was sick and knowing he had leukemia and he was dying. Then I went out to Jim Brown’s house and I tried to ask him questions and he said, "Don’t ask me questions, let me tell you what I think and remember." Oh my god was he poignant.

I took a leave of absence and I came back and I did Pitino in 1995 and then I started to feel redundant. Those were really my key years at the magazine. But I was on a roll, I was very confident, I knew what I was dong organizing stuff. I was living a very good life with a lady out in McLean and it was good for my working life. I really kind of blossomed and Sonny was one of those stories that was an expression of what I was going through.

SI: How did the rest of the reporting work?

NACK: LemBanker, a gambler, was a little reluctant to start with but then he was OK. You know whose interview I liked was Johnny Tocco [Liston's former trainer]. He said Sonny always seemed to be coming in or out of alleys. Every once in awhile [as a reporter] you’d say, "That’s getting it." No question that gets it.

I’ve always done a lot of reporting because, as I told an audience not too long ago at a panel, I tried to write non-fiction that sounded like fiction but you can’t make anything up. It’s against the rules. That’s how I looked at it. I didn’t take license. Everything I wrote I can back up with a fact, a story, something I reported. You had to make the whole thing sound like a short story in literature with theme, dialogue, whatever makes fiction, but it’s got to be non-fiction.

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SI: What was the editing process like on this story?

NACK: They didn’t touch my stuff that much. I used to tell them, “Don’t mess with my meter.” I counted the beats when I wrote. I wanted it to read like iambic pentameter. If something is two syllables and you change it to one, f--- you. It reads smoother with two, it communicates better. The best compliments I ever had were when someone would say, “How long was that story you wrote?” “Five thousand words.” “Really? It read like two.”

I would count the beats, so if I had a one syllable word in a sentence that needed two syllables I would find one. Sometimes I found a better word. l worked hard at that stuff and I worked real hard at transitions.

A review of [my anthology] from Kirkus said, “Never has sportswriting veered so close to poetry.” That to me is a huge compliment. Some might say who cares. I like my stuff to read real smooth. That’s hard work.

SI: Did you do a lot of drafts?

NACK: No. In every story that appeared longform -- which is all of my bonuses, every single one of them -- I can tell you almost without exception that they were usually due on Monday and I tried to get my deadline pushed forward because I wanted to organize it better in my head. I’d fight for more time because I didn’t want to just knock it out. I kind of circled the pieces before I wrote them. I would start writing on Sunday morning at 9 o’clock. And everything was lined up very anally. And I indexed every single note. I would have interviews that were 10 pages, eight pages, single spaced and as I would transcribe my tapes I found I’d start writing and I couldn’t find the quote and it would drive me nuts, 20 minutes to find a g------ quote. So each person I interviewed I went into Microsoft Word and I’d put: "One: index: Pitino" and then I’d put "Numeral 1, page 1" and all the stuff that was on the first page, good quote on so-and-so. Number two: his life on the farm. Number three: quote on his mother. The whole page would be filled with references to what was inside and I’d say, "Oh here it is" and I didn’t have to search for stuff.

Saturday night I’d get it all lined up, get a good night’s sleep. I'd sit down at 9 the next morning and start writing. And I would not finish until 9 on Monday morning. I wrote 24 hours straight and all I did was drink coffee and pop Sudafed. I don’t know what was in Sudafed but it was like a very mild stimulant. I would drink coffee until 3 am the next morning, I’d have 5,000 words done and have another 1,500 to go. Then I’d go pop one of those little red things.

SI: Did you eat at all?

NACK: No, oh no. Can’t eat while I’m writing. I’d have an occasional glass of water, but by 9 in the morning I’d have 7,000 words done. If I couldn’t find an ending I’d sometimes fall asleep at the typewriter or computer. Didn’t matter when I finished on Monday, the editors just wanted to take it home with them on the train and then read it over their weekend.

I usually finished before noon and then I’d make myself a stiff drink, a couple of vodkas, and totally decompress and then I would go to sleep for 12 hours or 13 hours.

SI: Now that it's been almost 25 years since he died, what do you think happened to Liston?

NACK: I think he was murdered. Ash Resnick, a guy we mention in the story, I think either killed him or had him killed. That's what Martin Dardis told me. He said that’s what the cops thought. Ash was dead by the time I did this story and so you can’t libel a dead man.

I worked with Martin, an SI contributor and a lawyer who was played by Ned Beatty in the movie All The President’s Men and had subpoenaed the checks of the Watergate burglars. I said, “Marty, could you poke around Las Vegas with the cops?” He was really good with them, knew their language, knew what to ask. He had done something on the death of Liston several years before, something that wasn’t published. So he was familiar with the case. He went back and he talked to cops who had been around and he told me who they believed had killed him.

SI: What was the reaction to the story? 

NACK: It was huge. Very positive. One of the most positive responses I ever got to a story. People ask me today, “How did you organize that?” so there must be something about the way it was organized.

SI: Where does it rank for you among all the pieces you wrote for SI?

NACK: Sonny is second behind only "Pure Heart" [EDITOR'S NOTE: That story, about Triple-Crown-winning horse Secretariat, will be included in the SI 60 at a later date].