By an artful combination of runs, dodges, slips and grabs, glib-tongued Eddie Machen, a contender of dubious ferocity, last week managed to stay 12 rounds with Charles Liston, the usually awesome No. 1 contender for the heavyweight crown. Liston was the winner, as expected. But to the surprise of 7,682 first-hand observers Machen was still erect at the end, and still snapping peevish insults at his baleful opponent.
For nearly 58 minutes Machen taunted the slow-thinking, 211-pound Liston. "C'mon, big boy, punch," he said. "C'mon, show me the big punch." And as both fighters slipped on their robes to await the decision Machen sneered, "Wanna go couple more rounds, big boy? Couple more, huh?" Milling ringsiders gasped when Liston lunged at Machen, then pulled back contemptuously.
The decision was unanimous for Liston, but his string of nine straight knockouts was ended. And he is, of course, no closer to a title fight with Floyd Patterson than he was the night of July 18, when he knocked out Zora Folley in three rounds at Denver. This first, and hopefully last, meeting between Liston and Machen, the prudent No. 2 contender, was unsatisfactory and at times laughable. Once Machen almost gained enough leverage along the ropes to throw Liston out of the ring. Another time, in the 11th round, Liston lunged at Machen and was penalized for a low blow, his second of the fight. Machen sank to the canvas, and the referee, Whitey Domstad, seemed to start a count, but switched plans and called for a commission doctor. None appeared. After a minute's respite the two fighters continued. They wound up swinging at each other after the bell, a brief melee which saw Domstad, who is also mayor of Bremerton, Wash., take a glancing blow on the cheek.
Change of allegiance
At the end the pro-Machen crowd had switched its allegiance to Liston. "I don't pay 20 bucks to see a track meet," growled a ringsider. (Following the fight Machen complained that he had hurt a ligament in his arm six days earlier.) Least satisfied of all was Liston, who was denied the simple, atavistic joy of knocking out his 22nd opponent in 32 fights. In the dressing room after it was over, he sank his chin on his chest and sulked through repeated questions about his failure to score a knockout.
"You want me to get in there and fight by m'sef, huh?" he suddenly burst out. "When other man won't fight, when he keeps runnin' and won't fight, how you gonna make a fight? I'd have a better chance knock-in' out Patterson than that guy."
For Liston, whose long-jawed face is a large mask of hostility toward strangers, it was an enormous speech. He has a way of building up an unnerving silence before responding to a question. Frequently, he drops his head and simply refuses to answer. A Seattle television announcer, working up a taped, prefight show, spent three hours with Liston before he finally was able to obtain six minutes of air time.
Liston trained at the Snohomish County Boys Club in Everett, where his reputation as a punishing slugger and a man with an unsavory past drew large crowds. He was pitiless with his sparring partners. One day, for instance, he became violently enraged at Elmer Hardy, a four-round preliminary spar boy, who grabbed and held on during a scuffle in the corner. Liston threw Hardy clear, brought up a tremendous left upper-cut that left his hired hand sagging helplessly on the ropes. Sonny stepped back and yelled three times: "Don't grab—fight."
Monotonous but Sonny
Geraldine, Liston's wife, attended his training camp and did all his cooking. His training diet seldom varies from steak and, for a reason he hasn't explained, goat's milk. Sonny got his name while fighting as an amateur. "Guy yelled, 'Hey, sonny,' " Liston says. "Promoter says, 'That the name you gonna fight under?' I says, 'yeaahh.' That's how I got it."
Pep Barone, his manager-of-record, assures people that Sonny is basically a pleasant man ("when he knows you"), who likes to joke during long walks, is trying to learn golf and is addicted to television. "He seems unfriendly because he's kind of shy," says Barone.
Sonny is also virtually illiterate, which may explain his shyness in a world of literate men. His wife has been trying to teach him to read—and he can write his signature now—but generally Liston is content to parrot the words of Willie Reddish, a generously built former Negro heavyweight of modest accomplishment who is Liston's trainer and appears to be his best friend. When a question is addressed directly to Sonny, Reddish jumps into the inevitable impasse and answers for him. Sonny then will often echo his words.
When Sonny did talk
Liston did speak up for himself about his golf game, however. "I'm still learnin'," he said recently. "Guy's still teachin' me."
At this point there was a long, chin-down silence, then an abrupt speech with gestures.
"Too busy. Too busy gettin' out these heavyweights"—one of his monstrous hands, which require specially made gloves, cut through the air to indicate a swath—"too busy cleanin' out a path to the title."
For a reason insufficiently explained, Liston and Machen developed a genuine dislike for each other before they got near the ring to fight. Sonny explained later, "I dislike 'em all."
Machen said, "Liston is the bully type of man. He kept staring at me like he's gonna eat me alive."
At the weigh-in, Machen endured the stare for fully three minutes, then taunted the bully with, "You ain't scarin' nobody, Sonny."
Sonny's stare turned to a disdainful scowl and, with excessive wit and charm, judged by his normal standard, he replied:
"You maybe ain't scared now, man, but you gonna be scared tonight."
After the fight Machen put aside his personal animosity toward Liston long enough to evaluate Liston's chances against Patterson, should the two ever get together.
"Liston will win," Machen said with certainty. "Some fighters, like Ray Robinson, can fight good goin' back. But Patterson fights best com-in' on. So does Liston. When you get two fighters in there who fight comin' on, someone has to back up, and I think it would be Floyd."