Heavyweight in waiting

By knocking out Zora Folley, Sonny Liston clearly earned a shot at the title but he has little reason to expect he will get it soon
July 31, 1960

When Sonny Liston left the high white ring in Denver last week after knocking out Zora Folley, he strolled arm in arm with a cop to his dressing room as though he were taking a turn by the sea—and in a way he was. A sea, or at least a surf, of hands washed against him. They reached out to touch his robe as he passed, to hold for a moment his great dark fist, to get an autograph on a ticket stub or matchbook cover. A young man, one of 9,252 in the Coliseum, pounded Liston on the back. His hand flew up in pain and astonishment. "Jeez," he said. "He's hard." As Folley had found, early on.

The fight had started with an ominous ringside sally. "Let's go home early, Sonny," a man shouted to Liston before the first bell. Beneath his terry-cloth carapace, Liston smiled down indulgently. His heroic forearms rested on the ropes, and he looked, up there, like a captain on the bridge of his ship. Yet, in the first round, Liston did not assert his command. Folley, whose trunks were the color of liverwurst and tailored by his manager's shirtmaker, won it with a scholastic display of counterpunching. Liston stalked him but kept his distance, except for an occasional jab. Folley, in slow retreat, hit him with at least seven smart rights to the head and some classic one-twos which were, alas, more famous in their execution than their intensity. It looked, in those early minutes, as though the cautious, earnest boxer could, indeed, hold off the big hitter. This was, however, a premature, illogical conclusion; as they say, artillery is the logic of kings. In the second round, Liston's corner told their man to crowd Folley. So he bulled him into the ropes, and with slow, prodigious, alternating blows, dropping like John Henry's hammer, turned him this way and that before felling him with a right hook high on his fine, ascetic head. Folley crashed face down.

There followed a rally of splendid courage. There is one kind of cowardice, but many kinds of bravery. Folley's was not dumb or enduring or desperate, although, ultimately, it was folly. He advanced with the certitude of the blind until he found Liston in the center of the ring. Then he confidently stood his ground, implacably firing accurate rights and lefts from his stately, distant stance (picture a man looking through a spy glass on a pitching deck). Liston hunched down, cowering behind his massive forearms, and waited. The punches flew off him the way bullets ricochet off Superman's red, white and blue chest. Finally, Liston shrugged open his arms and spilled Folley on his face with another ponderous right. The count again reached nine, and Zora was scrambling up when the bell ended the round. He was only on his feet for 18 seconds of the third. At that point another cumbrous right landed and he pitched forward as before. He did not get up. It was Liston's ninth straight knockout, his 21st in 31 fights. He has lost only once.

"My plan was to box him," Folley said later. "I didn't. I thought I could knock him out." "I figured he'd run," said Liston. "In that second round, though, he was throwing them all good. I think he hits the target better than Patterson."

Thighs like silos

Liston, of course, is Patterson's No. 1 challenger. How good is he? His body is so awesome—arms like fence posts, thighs like silos—it is reassuring to hear him speak and not utter some terrible atavistic growl. A little over 6 feet, he weighed 215½ pounds for Folley, 3½ more than in his last fight. This, he said, was deliberate. He figured he might have to go the full 12 rounds and (quaint notion!) carried the extra pounds as one would carry additional provisions.

Liston is not a quick hitter, nor is he particularly nifty on his feet. "Patterson will outspeed him," Folley said, and no doubt he will. Liston is not a clumsy man, however. He has the little moves and deceits of natural fighters—actions and reactions which cannot be learned or mimicked. Marciano, for instance, never had them. And he knows what he's up to: "Folley started to respect my left, so I faked with the left and threw the right."

Liston can be hit, which is true of every heavyweight, and though, eerily, he was neither out of breath nor sweating at the end, he must be mortal. He seemed, with Folley at any rate, to be indifferent defensively. His defense is the gate-crossing of arms a la Archie Moore, but he trusts too much to the toughness of his head. Against Patterson this could be catastrophic. Folley also failed to hit Liston in the body with any consistency, a technique which might have slowed him up, much as Patterson slowed Johansson, tenderizing him like a cube steak. It also is not demonstrated how Liston would behave if forced to give ground.

But can he hit! There is power in both his left and his right, even though the fists move with the languor of motoring royalty or as if passing through a gaseous envelope more dense than air. By knocking Folley out, Liston reduced the number of deserving contenders for Floyd Patterson's title by one-third. Remaining are Liston and Johansson, whose privilege is more contractual than logical. Patterson's first obligation, properly, is to conclude his protracted series with Johansson, apparently in Los Angeles on November 1. Will he then meet Liston? Probably not, although Floyd, a man of his word, has insisted he is willing to fight him.

While in Europe on an exhibition tour next month, Floyd and his unlicensed manager plenipotentiary, Cus D'Amato, expect to have a meeting with Harry (The Hoarse) Levene, the London promoter, to try to make a Patterson-Cooper fight. Henry Cooper is a bright lad with a proper left, who trains above a public house called the Thomas à Becket. He is at present ranked No. 5. "As a result of Liston's quick victory over Folley there is a tremendous publicity campaign for him," D'Amato grumbled the other day, as though publicity were something that blew off a swamp. "But I haven't forgotten that Cooper beat Folley two years ago." (Like other great men, D'Amato has a knack for reshaping history to his purposes. Johansson knocked out Cooper three years ago.)

Liston has a sense of history and design, too. In the dressing room after the fight, the photographers asked him to pose with his corner. His seconds cheerfully held up their hands, circling thumbs and forefingers as if shilling for Ballantine. Liston stopped everything, flourished a Churchillian V and instructed his seconds to do the same.

The following day it was announced he will fight Eddie Machen, the No. 4 heavyweight, in Seattle on September 7. A man can't just sit around cooling his 14-inch fists.

TWO PHOTOSA MIGHTY LEFT rakes Folley before first knockdown, gently cradles fan Bobo Nagy, 3 (below), in postfight press conference.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)