When Ingemar Johansson sat down one day last week before a movie screen in the conference room of the Hotel President in Geneva, Switzerland, he never had seen Sonny Liston fight—in the flesh, in movies or on television. He had a firm opinion about him, though. He had heard what a cold-hearted killer Liston is in the ring, about his massive fists, his skull-jarring jab and the chilling power of his straight right hand. As a virtuoso of the straight right hand, which won him the heavyweight championship of the world and all but won it for him a second time, Ingemar was impressed by these reports, many of them from experts whose opinions he respects. At the moment of sitting down he was willing—with Liston still unseen—to say he believed that Liston would take the heavyweight title from Floyd Patterson when they meet in Chicago on the night of September 25. And though there has been little betting action as yet, the odds agreed with Ingemar, making Liston a 7-to-5 favorite over the champion.
Then, for the next hour or so, watching movies of Liston in the Golden Gloves, Liston winning a decision over Eddie Machen and Liston stopping Willi Besmanoff, it dawned on Johansson that, although Liston did have all the terrifying qualities ascribed to him, he needed the kind of opponent on whom they could be worked. The films were a revelation to Ingemar and they changed his mind about Sonny Liston and the outcome of the big fight.
The revelation occurred in Geneva, because that is where Ingemar and his bride, the stunning Birgit who graced his training camps, now reside in a modest apartment while a more commodious home is being built for them in the suburbs. Recent winner of the European heavyweight championship by an eighth-round knockout over Dick Richardson of England, Ingemar is a trim six pounds over fighting weight, does roadwork daily after a long morning's sleep, golfs and swims, and recently succumbed to the blandishments of a couple of waiters at Geneva's M√∂venpick restaurant to play center forward on their soccer team. He seems, in fact, to be more athletically active than he was when he was training for his three Patterson fights.
Nor has he by any means retired from boxing. He has even been negotiating for a fight with Archie Moore, tentatively considered for the Tijuana, Mexico bullring, where he would be safe from U.S. and Swedish income tax pursuit. About taxes, which have driven so many fighters into poverty after lucrative careers, Ingemar is now serene. He has his own sizable treasury tucked away in impregnable Swiss banks, his fishing trawlers and real estate in Sweden are productive and, like many another man of means, he has become a patron of the arts. He has begun a collection of abstract paintings, which are on display in his apartment. There is some prospect, though, that the Swedish government will confiscate his fishing trawlers if it decides that he is not a bona fide resident of Switzerland. Despite this outlook, Ingemar is imperturbable.
August 12, 1962
"I have enough in the banks here," he said, waiting for the room to darken and the screen to light up. "I do not worry about such things. Nobody can touch what I have in the banks."
The screen brightened and began to show Liston mauling a Golden Gloves opponent to a decision. It was not a stylish performance, even for an amateur. Ingemar turned to the man running the projector.
"The film is turning too slow," he said. "Can you speed it up?"
"That is normal speed," the man said.
Ingemar shrugged and turned to watch Liston against Eddie Machen in a fight that went a full 12 rounds because Liston never could catch up. (Ingemar had knocked Machen out in one round to win his successful chance at Patterson's title.) Liston, doggedly stomping after Machen, seldom could get within serious punching distance of him. And that explained why Ingemar thought the movie projector was faulty. It wasn't the projector. It was Liston.
"My God, he is slow," Ingemar said, as Machen easily evaded Liston time after time.
Johansson studied in silence as Liston advanced and Machen backed, as Liston missed with left hooks and fell short with straight rights, none of which made him look more than ordinary. Then Liston landed one of his very impressive jabs, the kind that has been described as the best since Joe Louis.
"He has a very long left," Ingemar said approvingly. "It is long and strong."
"Machen is running all the time," he continued, as the second round progressed much like the first. "It would be better if Machen attacked, because he is the fastest one. To attack is the best guard. As soon as Machen does something, like when he starts a combination, it goes through. But he has no—how would you say it?—desire?"
That was the word. Machen's main desire seemed to be for survival.
Ingemar remarked that Liston's style in this fight was very much like the one he himself used against Patterson at their third fight in Miami.
"And in my opinion," he went on, "it was almost successful. I almost had him." He had, indeed. He was thinking how he knocked Patterson down in the first round, perhaps to be deprived of a quick knockout by the fact that the eightcount rule, normally waived in championship fights, was oddly retained for this one. Patterson took an eight count standing, while Ingemar was forced to stand by at a time when his opponent was most vulnerable. As it happened, the champion had enough time to recover from the effects of the right.
Ingemar studied Liston carefully for another round.
"It looks as if he did not have the right balance on his body," he said, "and he slings the left hook. I should like to see Rocky Marciano against him. Marciano would have knocked him out. As soon as Machen does something against him he is stopped."
All this was true, but Machen never pressed an advantage through the fight. As the 11th round dragged to a close, Ingemar sighed.
"I tell you one thing from what I have learned," he said. "I thought Liston was much better. Does not Eddie Machen hit hard any more?"
And in the 12th he observed that the timing of a left-right combination (just about the only combination Liston possesses) was "not good." Nor did he think much of Liston's right by itself, for it seemed much too predictable.
"A right hand should go like Sugar Ray Robinson's did when he was at the top," Ingemar explained, savoring the memory of Sugar Ray's right exploding out of nowhere. Against Machen, and later against Patterson, Ingemar's own right was thrown in just that way.
There was the official decision in favor of a seemingly bewildered Liston, and then Willi Besmanoff, a consistent loser, came on the screen. This was almost a year before the Machen fight and, as Ingemar pointed out, Liston had been slimmer then, which might account for the fact that he also looked faster against Besmanoff, whom he stopped in the seventh round. Ingemar observed that Liston looked strong when Besmanoff closed with him but that neither appeared to know anything about infighting.
"Besmanoff just goes in and does nothing," he said. "But Besmanoff looks better than when he was fighting Archie Moore [who twice defeated him in 10 rounds]. Right away I can see that."
He gasped as Liston let a perfect knockout opportunity slip by and was himself exposed in the process.
"Oh, Marciano would have kayoed him very fast!" he said, thinking, no doubt, that Ingemar Johansson might have done the same with such an opportunity. He admired Liston's jab once more but pointed out that it was too slow, for all its ponderous power, and this meant that a faster fighter would slip it. Liston was missing with his hook, too, Ingemar noted. The never-brilliant Besmanoff was, in fact, slipping the jab and blocking the hook or, at times, moving inside the hook and catching only the force of Liston's forearm.
"Liston is very easy to hit with a straight left himself," Johansson went on, watching Besmanoff do it. He remarked that he had been told that no one ever has subjected Liston to a body attack—a fact of some significance, since Patterson's body attack is painfully powerful. He has often used it to weaken opponents for the knockout.
"I understand Patterson is counting on that," Ingemar said. "Some friends tell me."
After the knockout, which had been increasingly predictable, we adjourned to the bar where, over a Coca-Cola, Ingemar pondered what he had seen.
"I tell you," he said finally, "that after I see these films I think more of Patterson's chances."
Against Patterson's chances, he felt, was the champion's proven susceptibility to straight punches, the kind Liston throws.
No sport for ladies
It would be financially advantageous for Johansson if Liston were to win, since another Patterson-Johansson fight is most unlikely, whereas a Liston-Johansson fight would be a distinct and lucrative possibility. But Johansson likes Patterson as a person and shudders to think what would happen to boxing if a man of Liston's background were to win the title. The welfare of the sport means much to him.
"I wish with all my heart that Patterson would win," he said. "Boxing is not a sport for ladies, but you have to keep a standard and it would hurt boxing if Liston is champion. I would like to fight Liston and if he wins I would get a chance at the title again, but I am sure Patterson would not fight me again. So if Liston wins, it is good for me. But I would not want to see him win."
Still mulling over the probabilities after what he had seen, drawing on his deep knowledge of Patterson's abilities and weaknesses, he suggested that Patterson should not attack with his left hook because in doing so he would run the risk of Liston's long-armed jab.
"Neither should he stand and look," Ingemar continued. "If I may give him advice, I would say that he should start all the time with the left jab—left jab. He should do this for a couple of rounds and Liston will tire very fast because he is used to always coming in. That is what made him look good and made the others tired very soon. But if someone does it to him then he is the one who will be tired."
He did not think Patterson would have to worry much about Liston's left hook, his weakest punch.
"Liston is not putting his body into the hook," he explained. "It is all his arm. There is no power in it, which he could have if he used his body.
"Patterson cannot wait. He cannot let Liston come to him. I keep saying that because Liston is coming all the way and that gives him more speed than he has. He is always starting before the other fellow. Patterson must not let him start."
Johansson recalled how he had fired Liston's latest opponent, the ludicrous German, Albert Westphal, as a sparring partner in United Nations exhibitions on the Gaza Strip. Westphal could not even offer a token show to entertain the crowds. Liston knocked out Westphal in the first round with his first serious punch. It was clear that Ingemar was running through his mind the possibility that Liston's reputation had been built on the bodies of many similar stiffs. To an extent this may be true, but it is also true of most fighters making the long climb to recognition.
Then Ingemar summed up:
"I thought before I saw these films that Sonny Liston will win but now I am changing my mind. Closer I can't come. It's a tough thing to say who will win a fight because in fighting anything can happen. It's so hard. I do wish Patterson would win. He is very easy to hit with the straight left and straight right, but it looks to me that Liston is too awfully slow to beat him."