Instead of O.K., the commission came up with a kayo when Sonny wanted a license
May 06, 1962

Meeting in Manhattan last week, three men gave boxing its biggest jolt in years. The men were General Melvin L. Krulewitch, James A. Farley Jr. and Raymond J. Lee of the New York State Athletic Commission, who were to rule on the application of Heavyweight Challenger Sonny Liston (left) for a New York boxer's license. The promoter of the proposed Liston-Floyd Patterson fight, Championship Sports, Roy Cohn's outfit, took it for granted that Liston would be licensed. Recently Championship Sports announced that the heavyweight title match would be held in September, and probably in New York.

For two hours the commissioners read through a thick dossier compiled by two investigators, Dan Dowd and Frank Morris, who had visited Philadelphia, Sonny's adopted home town, earlier in the week. Neither Dowd nor Morris uncovered any "new" information on Liston; they merely collected various available reports and documents.

Among the papers the commissioners examined were Liston's police record (two convictions, one for armed robbery), his testimony before the Kefauver Committee, reports on his activities by the Pennsylvania state police, and a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED article, Cant a Fellow Make a Mistake? (July 17). For what it was worth, Krulewitch, Farley and Lee also read over the Fifth Amendment testimony given to the Kefauver Committee by Blinky Palermo and John Vitale, two old hoodlum associates of Liston. And, finally, the commissioners looked into Liston's dealings with Pep Barone, his former manager and a Palermo front man. Last year Barone agreed to dissolve his contract with Liston for $75,000, the money to come from Sonny's future purses. Since then Liston has paid Barone $18,000 (from the Albert Westphal "fight" in Philly last October), but the New York commissioners were leary of Liston's paying Barone any more money from any fight they might sanction. They figured that money that went to Barone wound up with Palermo, now running loose pending appeal of a 15-year Federal sentence for conspiracy.

By the time Krulewitch, Farley and Lee had finished reading everything, they found themselves in unanimous agreement to refuse Liston a license. This decision was not the result of any one thing in particular about Liston; it was everything about Liston. For an hour the commissioners worked over a release giving their verdict. They toyed briefly with the idea of telling Liston to reapply later, say in six months or a year, to show he could stay out of trouble, but they decided against this because they did not want to soften their verdict.

The key section of the release read: "We do not take the position that Liston's police record alone bars him from a license in this State. We do, on occasion, in the process of rehabilitation, license applicants with records. Important figures in the boxing world have achieved distinction, despite an original unsavory background including a police record....

"The history of Liston's past associations provide a pattern of suspicion. His association with Vitale, Palermo...and others is a factor which can be detrimental to the best interests of professional boxing and to the public interest as well. We cannot ignore the possibility that these longtime associations continue to this day. The wrong people do not disengage easily." What the commissioners were saying, in effect, was that they were not primarily concerned with Liston's past indiscretions but that there was a strong suspicion he was still controlled by gangsters.

A few minutes before the commission distributed copies of the release, Harold Conrad, Championship Sports publicity man, was telling reporters that the Liston fight would be held in either the Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds on September 17 or 21. Cohn and company were so certain the commission would okay Sonny that no other cities were being considered. When Conrad got the release, his eyes glazed. When he came to, he sidled over to a phone to call Al Bolan, Cohn's working partner in the promotion. "Al," he whispered, "they denied it." Silence for a moment. "They denied it," Conrad said again. Then he read the text of the decision. Conrad hung up and told the reporters he had been unable to get in touch with Bolan.

Neither Bolan nor Conrad—nor Roy Cohn, for that matter—had any real reason to be shocked. For weeks it was known that at least one commissioner, Farley, was against licensing Liston. But, instead of sounding out the commission beforehand, they had announced the fight as a fact and dismissed Liston's application for a license as a mere formality. Thus this becomes the latest in a long list of Cohn-and-company fiascos.

At home in Philadelphia, Sonny professed unconcern. "I will continue to train as if nothing had happened," he said. Morton Witkin, his Philadelphia lawyer, was indignant. Wrapping himself in the flag, he called the New York action "unfair, unjust and un-American."

Champion Patterson only added to the confusion. "What if they did that to me?" he added. "You know how many times I went to the police station when I was nine years old?" The generous champion missed the point that Sonny is 29, and that it was Liston's associates or owners—more than Liston himself—who had brought about the nixing of the fight. Floyd's lawyer, Julius November, announced the bout might be off. "Patterson," said November, "has the right to name the site, according to the contract signed by the three parties March 16. Patterson selected New York City; Liston cannot get a license here. Therefore the contract is void."

Meanwhile, other state commissioners began popping up. Alfred M. Klein, chairman of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission, who looks upon Liston as a young man firmly on the path toward purity, said his group would be happy to get the fight for the city of brotherly gloves, and Chairman Joe Triner of the Illinois commission was equally eager. "If they want to bring the fight to Chicago," he said, "they can rest assured that Sonny Liston will be given the right. I'm a firm believer in rehabilitation." The fact that Sonny lied twice to the Illinois commission when he got a license there in 1958 (he forgot to tell them about his 29 months in the pen, and said he was licensed to fight in Missouri where he was actually under suspension) should make no difference. A million-dollar gate covers a multitude of sins, at least in Illinois.