This is plottingtime in boxing. Just as auto manufacturers draw up designs in March for nextyear's models, so do members of the top heavyweight camps hatch schemes inFebruary for the year ahead. The tax bite on a title bout is such that therecan only be one or two a year, and the intrigue behind lining one up is enoughto drive Machiavelli mad. Last week, plotting was at peak pitch in the lairs ofChampion Floyd Patterson and Challenger Sonny Liston.
The Pattersoncamp is a triumvirate: the champion, Lawyer Julius November and Manager CusD'Amato. Up until Patterson's defeat in the first Johansson fight, D'Amato wasthe kingpin, but since then the three have been wrangling among themselves insemisecrecy, much like Russia, Red China and Albania.
The difficultybetween D'Amato on one hand and November and Patterson on the other now centersover competition with Liston. D'Amato wants nothing to do with Sonny. Novemberwould like to see Patterson fight Liston next—at least that is what Liston saysNovember told him—and Patterson, at present anyway, agrees with November. Forone, Patterson's pride is hurt: Liston has been saying Patterson"fears" to fight him. "I'm a man," Patterson says. "Any mancan say he'll beat me, but no man can say I'm afraid of him." In Washingtona few weeks ago Patterson said that Liston, who has had his troubles with thelaw (SI, July 17, 1961), "has paid for his shortcomings. They tell me hecarries himself like a tough guy. But maybe that's because he had no education.He's had a pretty tough life. I think Liston will realize the responsibility hehas to the boys of America if he wins the championship." Later Pattersontold a friend, "Right now, plans call for me to fight Liston in New York inJune."
All this drivesD'Amato to desperation. An intense man, he has become even more wound up. Theeyeballs roll more furiously, the black Homburg is clamped more tightly on hishead and the mouth stretches even more to the side in conspiratorial grimace.He is a voice whispering in the wilderness.
February 12, 1962
D'Amato'sobjection to Liston is his management: he believes that the rough Italian handof Blinky Palermo, the Philadelphia racketeer, still controls Sonny as it didwhen Palermo's puppet, Pep Barone, was managing Liston. When Liston supposedlybought back his contract from Barone last May and hired George Katz instead,D'Amato remained unmoved. A couple of weeks ago Liston announced he was dumpingKatz and taking on a new manager, Jack Nilon, a food concessionaire. Inreporting this, United Press International said that D'Amato had okayed Nilonas manager, a misstatement that prompted D'Amato to explode: "There's nochange—whether it's Nilon, rayon, cotton or silk!" Told that Nilon is achurchgoing Catholic and has a brother who is a Jesuit, D'Amato exclaimed,"I don't give a damn if he was the Pope!"
What excitesD'Amato's suspicion—and he is a most suspicious man—is that Nilon, like Katz,is a Philadelphian, and Philadelphia is Blinky Palermo's home turf."Philadelphia people are always considered," D'Amato says. "This isa peculiar thing. Are there no other people? It could be Chicago, Los Angeles,New York. Why only Philadelphia people? As far as I am concerned, I see nochange in the situation and see no reason to change my opposition to thefight."
At this writing,D'Amato is traveling around the country on mysterious errands doing what he canto prevent a Liston-Patterson fight. "When I want to go from A to B, I goto Z first," he says cryptically. He cares not a whit for Liston's drawingpower at the gate; Patterson, he says, can make as much money fighting two orthree lesser opponents.
In the Listoncamp there is just as much maneuvering going on. Although Patterson's apparentdecision to fight Liston makes the question of Liston's alleged mob ownershipsomewhat academic, it is worth noting that Blinky Palermo is back inPhiladelphia. Blinky, or Blink as he is known to intimates, is about to becomea pressed rose in the album of social history unless he can beat a 15-yearsentence in a federal pen for conspiring to muscle in on Californiawelterweight Don Jordan. He is out on bail appealing the case and, according toone knowing fight manager, "Blink wants nothing to do with boxing orListon. He's completely out of the picture. All he can see is those 15 years inthe can." The knowing fight manager admits that Barone was a mere front forBlink but insists that Blink's interest in Liston ended when Barone sold Listonhis contract for $75,000. The manager insists the sale really took place,although the sum of $75,000 seems a suspiciously small price for a 50-50 sharein a $1 million-plus property like Liston. He explains that Blink was hard upfor cash because of his court case. "Blink has mortgaged his house,"the knowing manager says. "The poor slob is broke—he's in tap city. Hecouldn't care whether Liston lives or dies." D'Amato remains skeptical."He hasn't gone away yet," he says of Palermo.
With Blinksupposedly out of the way, three other men are left around Liston: George Katz,Jack Nilon and Morton Witkin, a Philadelphia lawyer. Witkin is Liston'sattorney. (He has also represented Palermo.) Witkin is a longtime Republicanpolitician who served in the state legislature from 1925 to 1936, and for thelast five years there was his party's floor leader in the House. He is theauthor of the Witkin Act, a law making it a criminal offense to carry a gunwithout a permit, which he modeled on the New York Sullivan Law.
Witkin's mainconcern is getting Liston the fight with Patterson. "He's ready, willingand anxious to fight Patterson anyplace anywhere in the world," Witkinsays, "and he's ready to assure Patterson that if he wins and becomes theheavyweight champion of the world he's willing to post a substantial portion ofhis purse, under proper conditions, that he will fight Patterson a return matchwithin a specified time. And for this first fight he will fight under thepromotion of any promoter selected by Patterson and/ or his manager or hiscounsel." And then Witkin adds, "Patterson can't get a quarter unlesshe fights Sonny Liston. Who's he going to fight? If he's going to make money in'62, he's got to fight Sonny Liston. If he doesn't, the public won'tgo."
Liston himselfhas Patterson on the brain. "I've been dreaming about him for three or fourweeks," he says. "It seems like it's hard for us to get together, andthen we're signing the contract, and then I wake up and it's just a dream. I'venever had a thing like this on my mind." When and if Liston does fightPatterson, he has no doubt he'll knock him out. Asked how long the fight wouldlast, Liston says: "About five rounds, if it would go that far. It wouldn'tgo over five rounds." Liston doesn't plan to fight anyone until he meetsPatterson for the title. Right now he's spending his time working out lightlyin the gym a couple of times a week and taking instructions,, along with hiswife Geraldine, to become a Roman Catholic. (Patterson also is a Catholicconvert.)
Liston is veryclose to Father Edward Murphy, a Denver priest who volunteered to look afterSonny when he got into a scrape with the Philadelphia police last summer. Whilein Denver visiting Father Murphy, Sonny became disenchanted with Katz. Listondidn't expect Katz to go with him to Denver—Katz, who doesn't like planes,trains or ships, rarely gets as far from Philly as Atlantic City—but he didexpect Katz to call him on the phone to see how things were going. "When Iwas there, he never called me," Liston says, pouting. There was also theproblem of Katz's considerable ego. "If you put a thousand dollars on thetable and told Katz, 'You can have this or your picture in the paper,' "Nilon says, "Georgie wouldn't hesitate. He'd take his picture in thepaper." Nilon recalls the time he was strolling along the Atlantic Cityboardwalk with Katz. "The fight's gotta come,' he's saying. Only he's nottalking to me but to all the people within two blocks. 'I'll make a champ outathe bum,' he says. 'I had Gil Turner.' I dropped back. I didn't want to be withhim. I was embarrassed. In another world? He's in orbit! He's toomuch!"
None of this setwell with Liston, who has an ego of his own. Contrary to some reports,doubtless derived from Liston's semiliteracy, Sonny is not a yea-saying UncleTom who can be led by the nose. He has considerable cunning and should hebecome the champion he would follow in the pattern of a Sugar Ray Robinson, aking whose attendants seem always to be hopping up and down begging forhandouts. "This guy," says Nilon, "parts with money like a guy withno arms."
An Irish head ofsteam
Jack Nilon,Liston's manager-to-be, is a peppery little man with salty speech. "I'm awild Irishman," he says. "I run with a head of steam." Now 41,married and the father of six, he is the president of Nilon Brothers Inc.,Catering Engineers, with headquarters in Chester, Pa., hard by the Sun ShipYards on the Delaware River. The company is a closed corporation owned by Jackand two of his brothers, and it now grosses "in the millions."
Times haven'talways been so good. The son of an immigrant blacksmith from Galway, Jack Nilonjoined the merchant marine after finishing high school and served on tankersduring the war because they had "less rats" than freighters. The warover, he decided to go into business for himself. With a bankroll of only $45,he made sandwiches and soup at home, which he peddled from a fruit stand toconstruction workers. Business grew quickly—"I was only 25 and kind of ahustler," he says—and he took in his brothers. Today Nilon Brothers Inc.operates cafeterias for such industrial giants as Gulf Oil and Sun Oil and runsthe concessions at the U.S. Open golf tournament and the Army-Navy footballgame.
At the 1960 Openat Cherry Hills in Denver, Nilon met Father Murphy, and it was Father Murphywho introduced him to Liston last year. "I never went to Liston [aboutmanaging him]," Nilon says. "Liston and Father Murphy came to me. Ididn't go to them. I said, 'I'll think about it,' and the more I thought themore I liked the idea." Nilon admits he is new to managing. "I'll befrank," he says. "If Sonny was ranked No. 8, 1 wouldn't want to handlehim. But he's No. 1. Everyone comes to him."
Nilon disavowsany connection with Palermo. "Never met the guy," he says. "Neversaw him. Never want anything to do with him." Asked what "elements"D'Amato fears in the Liston camp, he says, "A helluva left and a helluvaright. But hell, I don't blame Cus—he took a blown-up light heavyweight andmade him a lot of money." Nilon disposes of Katz, who has refused tosurrender his 10% interest in Liston, with equal ease. If Katz won't give uphis share, Liston will pay him his 10% until the contract expires 18 monthsfrom now. In the meanwhile, Nilon will become the actual manager, though whatpercentage he will get from Liston's purses is not yet determined.
Nilon isconvinced Patterson must fight Liston—"he's the biggest gate today. Don'tyou forget it"—but in case he doesn't, Nilon expects the National BoxingAssociation to declare Liston champion. As for Liston's past troubles, Nilonsays, "Sonny's nothing but a playful kid. A big kid. A kid. Why does hereach into his pocket and pull out an electric bulb that lights up? I think anew image should be created. The boy has been persecuted enough. I think Sonnyrespects me. I stress the point, 'Sonny, you have the world in the palm of yourhand. Keep your nose clean.'
"You know, hehates Patterson. He'd fight him for a dollar. Right out in front. For adollar!"
OPINIONS ONLISTON'S RIGHT TO FIGHT
Sport's liveliest"moral" controversy rages over Sonny Liston. Is Sonny fit to challengefor—and possibly hold—the championship? There are persistent rumors andallegations that Liston is still controlled by the racketeers. And there isListon's own police record. Now 28, Liston has been in trouble with the police10 times in the last 11 years for reasons ranging from suspicion of gambling toa charge of robbery. He has been convicted only twice: in 1950 he was sentencedto five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary for first-degree robbery, andin 1957, 2½ years after he had become a professional boxer, he served ninemonths in the St. Louis Workhouse for assaulting a policeman with a dangerousweapon.
One view is thatin this day and age we cannot afford a U.S. heavyweight champion with Liston'sunsavory record. A second is that he ought not to be allowed a fight until hecan prove he is free of mob control. A third attitude is that Liston owessociety nothing—he is not on probation or on parole or out on bail—and isentitled to a chance to make good. Finally, there are those who contendemphatically that they don't care what kind of man Liston may be outside thering as long as he is a good fighter inside it.
SPORTSILLUSTRATED polled a number of prominent people, in and out of sport, on thesequestions. Some found the potato too hot and declined to answer. Others gavethe replies listed below:
John G. Bonomi,Special Assistant Attorney General, New York St ate, former assistant counselfor the Kefauver Committee: "I question whether Liston, as of now, shouldeven be licensed, let alone get a shot at the heavyweight title. I don'tbelieve he has demonstrated any real rehabilitation. Also, he hasn't gotten ridof his underworld connections.
"Here we havethe specter of a¬†possible heavyweight champion who is an example of howyou can get to be world champion regardless of your personal life—it you haveenough gangster support.
"However, Idon't think Liston should be barred forever. While I personally don't expecthim to change that much, I think it's possible that he could get rid of hisgangster associates and improve his record enough to fight in thefuture."
Jackie Robinson,retired baseball player and restaurant executive: "Personally, I would liketo see Floyd fight Liston, although I think Patterson would demolish the man.To prove himself to the public, I think Patterson has to fight him. Floyd hascontributed a lot to boxing but still hasn't been completely accepted. Lookingat it purely from Patterson's point of view, I'm in favor of the fight.However, I am disappointed that Liston's record isn't better and realize thatPatterson has to think of more people than just himself."
Branch Rickey,retired baseball executive: "It's plain greed on the part of somebody thatbrings a character of that type [Liston] into public view. I tried to believe Ihad enough respect for Patterson that he wouldn't get down to that level.Boxing is sick—a messy business. I don't think any human being gets beyond thestate of redemption. But I don't think Liston has given any indication he wantsto be redeemed."
Sir DavidHarrington Angus Douglas, The 12th Marquess of Queens-berry: "I would haverather thought it wasn't all that relevant whether or not Liston was a goodcharacter. If he's not in prison at the moment, he must currently be legallystraight. If he's a very good boxer, he must be entitled to a fight withPatterson. You might as well say I won't fight somebody because he's notChristian or not a white. After all, if a man breaks the world record forrunning 100 yards, it doesn't make any difference who he is. Your efficiency asa boxer, swimmer or runner is not terribly related to how nice a chap you are.If he's good enough, Liston should have his chance. It looks to me as ifD'Amato and Patterson think Liston would beat them."
Harry Golden,author: "Does not each state have its set of rules? Why then should therebe a problem if this Sonny Liston qualifies as a candidate?
"I once satin a pool hall and watched the great Babe Ruth shoot a game. Such language! Iknew Ty Cobb and some of the things he did. Great athletes. Marvelous. But Iwould not want any son of mine growing up like Ruth or Cobb.
"Ah, thisListon. Let me tell you a story. I once knew a man who raised birds. He took meto his field one afternoon, and it was bountiful with swaggering fat pheasants.A pleasant sight. They get along beautifully, he told me, until one might brushagainst the barbed wire and draw blood. Then the injured one is swarmed under,clawed, bitten and killed by the others. See—the man is down. Society kicks himand chains him.
"In my youthI was a great fight fan. I watched the best. A prize fight is stimulating.Dempsey. A real man. Is there any sports event which excites as much as theheavyweight championship of the world? A World Series, perhaps many thrills,but a lot of waiting in between.
"Theheavyweight championship fight is something all by itself. One can sit andwatch the participants come down the aisle. The suspense is dreadful andstimulating. The two men sit in their corners, and the hearts of the spectatorspound. Nothing like it.
"Deny Liston,who can use his fists, this chance? Free enterprise is at stake. We need ashock to get us away from our pat attitude on values.
"We allrecognize the fight game is rotten, gangsters, fixes. This Liston. Why not theright to become a champion? If he should win, would it not put boxing in itsproper perspective?
"Liston, ah,Liston. Yes, let him fight. Tell them I'll be rooting for him."
Bill White, firstbaseman, St. Louis Cardinals: "By what I understand to be the Christianprinciple, every man should have a chance. And I think that if Sonny Listonshould become the champion it would help to further his rehabilitation—if hehasn't been rehabilitated already.
"From asports standpoint, the man deserves a chance if he is a good boxer. I know alot of writers like to write about 'a shining knight,' but I'm sure there havebeen champions of the past that were not the shining knights the writers mighthave made them out to be.
"Liston madesome of his mistakes when he was a boy, and these should hardly be held againsthim. I'm sure that with so much of the spotlight on him, as it would be if heshould win the title, it would make him a better man—if he divests himself ofany connection with unsavory managers. "But I don't think he would beatPatterson. Patterson's faster."
Dick Gregory,Comedian: "He deserves a chance to fight and he should get it. It certainlyisn't up to Patterson's manager to determine whether Liston should be orshouldn't be allowed to fight.
"If there wassome sort of board set up which ruled on these things, that would be all right.But no one man should be allowed the privilege of making such a decision. It'ssetting a bad precedent to do things like that. Why, no telling what wouldhappen in 20 years. A guy might get a traffic ticket and find himself in allsorts of trouble."
Harry Falk,commissioner, California State Athletic Commission: "I've worked prettyhard on this case, and I think there's a lot more to the story.... Themanager's end, for instance, is very bad. Liston previously had this manBarone, who was pretty well established by the Kefauver Committee as being afront for Carbo and other hoodlums. Liston was allowed to buy him off, andBarone still gets a cut from Liston's fights. For example, the Philadelphiaboxing commission is holding $18,750 from the Westphal fight to pay Barone ashis share. I can't consider that as evidence of a respectable record, whenListon is still turning over a share of his earnings to underworld elements. Asfar as California is concerned, none of Liston's purses could filter their wayinto the hands of hoodlums. That's not acceptable here and it shouldn't beacceptable elsewhere. The appointment of another manager doesn't solve theprior problem.
"Even ifListon had no manager problem, he wouldn't be licensed in California at thistime. He would be told to reapply at the first of next year. If in the interimhe went out and got a job and behaved in an exemplary manner, he would probablyget a license. But we reject people all the time who have more savorybackgrounds than Liston. I want to make clear, however, that I wouldn't barListon forever, just until he proved himself deserving of a boxing license. Mypersonal view is that someone with a record of that nature will be hard torehabilitate or reform, but I wouldn't deny him the chance to do so. If welicense Liston with the record he had, how are we ever going to clean upboxing? We'll have to license everybody."
Avery Brundage,president, International Olympic Committee: "The moral side of the sportprogram is as or more important than the physical side. With the tendency ofthe American public to make heroes out of their sports champions it would be aflagrant mistake to permit a man with a record of this kind to fight for theheavyweight championship of the world. Amateur sports have a clause to theeffect that persons of proven moral failings are not permitted tocompete."
Adam ClaytonPowell, Congressman and minister: "I believe that it is fundamental in ourdemocracy that every man should be given a second chance. And I also say that,regardless of Sonny Liston's past, he should be given an opportunity to provehimself and thereby have a new future. Whether he wins or loses, he will have anew future. If he doesn't have that chance, you will be sending him back towhere he came from."
Jack Hurley,fight manager and promoter: "Liston fighting Patterson for the heavyweightchampionship couldn't possibly cheapen and/ or damage boxing any more than thefree TV fights have done and are still doing."
HEIGHT: 6 FEET 1 INCH
WEIGHT: 212 POUNDS
REACH: 82 INCHES
CHEST: 45 INCHES
WAIST: 33 INCHES
BICEPS: 16½ INCHES
WRIST: 8½ INCHES
FIST: 14 INCHES