Never have so many paid so much to sec so little as the more than 600,000 people who shelled out an estimated $4 million, either live in Chicago or via television in 260 theaters, to dimly perceive Sonny Liston's astonishing one-round knockout of Floyd Patterson. At first, the fans regarded the bathetic outcome in truculent silence; then, baffled and disgruntled, they spilled into saloons and living rooms complaining like mutinous lascars. There was a near unanimity of opinion, some of it by people who should have known better. The fight was fixed to set up a lucrative return match, they said. Patterson went into the ring a quivering coward, they said. Patterson was a bum made of glass. One theory, no more bizarre than the others, had it that the mob ordered Patterson to lose and promised him a one-sided High Noon if he didn't.
The genesis of all this wide-eyed theorizing and downright baloney was the fact that many spectators failed to see the knockout blows. One second Patterson was tottering against the ropes, the next he was collapsing like a bridge table. Those who did have a good look at the punches but were unfamiliar with Liston's work vastly underestimated their force. Liston is not a notably swift and flashy hitter, but that final left hook crashed into Patterson's cheek like a diesel rig going downhill, no brakes.
Annoyed fans who thought that Patterson should have beaten the count didn't know what they were talking about. There are no fighters extant, and precious few mammals of any variety, that could have beaten the count. The miracle is that Patterson was able to get to his knees.
By all the laws of logic and reason, the fight could not have been fixed. Patterson was destroyed so completely that he does not recall any of the action depicted in color on the following pages. He had no idea that he had been holding onto the ropes or, indeed, how he even got to the ropes. "Did I come off the ropes like I was going to throw a punch?" he asked pathetically. He was astounded to learn that he embraced Manager Cus D'Amato a minute after he had shakily regained his feet. "I must have still been groggy," he said, "because I have no knowledge of it. It couldn't have been me. It must have been somebody who looked like me, possibly my brother. You're sure I was hit? I thought I might have blacked out. Gosh, one of these days I'm going to start taking off my boxing trunks right there in the ring in front of all those people, thinking I'm in my dressing room already."
October 7, 1962
When Sonny Liston heard the soreheads' theories that Patterson was yellow or Patterson had gone into the tank, he reacted with typical simplicity. "That's got to be the most stupidest thing I ever heard," he said. "I felt enough of him under my glove on that last hook to know it was a good enough punch to put any man down hard. I looked at him close when he was going down and I took another good look when he hit the floor. He was gone. He surprised me for a tiny second when he got up on one knee, but then I could see he was like a man reaching for the alarm clock while he was still asleep. I admired the way he was fighting to make it. All of a sudden, I could see why Johan-na-son couldn't keep him down."
Liston will have no part of the theory that Patterson was cowardly. "There's a big difference between having fear in you and being a coward," he said on the plane ride back to Philadelphia. "I can have fear in me, too, and that kind of fear is good. Then I'd go into the ring and because I had this fear I'd try to take the other guy out as quick as I could. Patterson had fear in him but he wasn't no coward."
Said Patterson, in the careful manner he uses when he is being interviewed, "I definitely wasn't afraid. I wish to emphasize that. I was definitely not afraid. Perhaps I should have been. I have never been afraid of any of my opponents, no matter how big they are." (He was, perhaps, apprehensive about explaining the knockout to his children, but he solved the problem admirably. His oldest daughter, Seneca, 6, asked him what happened. "I told her it was just a game where we try to push each other down," he said. "This time he pushed me down. The next time I'll push him down. I asked her if she wanted to play the game. I let her push me down to show her how it was done.")
Liston claims Patterson wouldn't look at him during the weigh-in. Sonny is proud of his ability to stare an opponent down and figures that such matters are important. Patterson does not.
"I never looked any of my opponents in the face," Patterson says. "It's no sign of being afraid. I just find it difficult to look them in the face. I saw Liston's body. It looked tremendous but as soon as the bell rang the image became smaller. I guess my mind plays tricks on me." None of this is to say that Patterson did not fight a shameful, heedless fight, and he knows it better than anybody. "Boy," he said, "that was a terrible performance! I fought a fight that wasn't a fight. My mind just wasn't on the fight. It was what I call a lingering mind. Instead of forgetting everything but my opponent, my mind just lingered from here to there to the other place. The fact that my mind lingers is something I can't control. Now this isn't an excuse. I know what was wrong but I don't want to say what right now. First thing a beaten fighter looks for is an excuse. My excuse is I got hit. You know, my belly was in terrific condition. I had twoguys throwing a medicine ball at it as hard as they could every day. Only thing, Sonny didn't punch me in the belly. I fooled him, though. He said it would go five rounds.
"I'm not depressed so much because of myself but because of the people, the public. They were behind me. Now I've gotten almost a thousand letters. That's going to make me give a very good account of myself the next time. My opinion of Liston was correct. I just have to change myself to a certain degree—my mental attitude. I have to have a reason to fight at my best; to win just doesn't seem to be enough reason for me. Something has been done to me by Sonny Liston and now I have much, much more reason than winning. I want my championship back. I'm not saying I'm going to get it. That's boasting. People don't want to hear that. They want to see it."
When the return is held (it will be held, and relatively soon), Patterson will enter the ring to boos and epithets. In this one miniature fight he lost practically all his public support. He went in as the sentimental choice of the sports-writers (60% of whom picked him to win): they had reasoned that his speed and versatility would prove him too much for a man who was not even able to knock out Eddie Machen, and they also figured that the Paul Bunyan tales coming from the Liston training camp were just the usual prefight hoopla. Many were influenced unduly by reports of a planned coup by the big "betting interests, the so-called smart money. This report had it that a gambling cartel had placed a quick $25,000 bet on Liston as soon as the fight was signed, making Liston an instant 8-5 favorite. Then the smart money would lie low until just before the fight, at which time it would make huge bets all over the country—on Patterson. Thus they would get the benefit of theodds that they themselves had set with a relatively small initial bet the other way.
But the truth turned out to be the precise opposite of this fiction. After a brief flurry of Patterson betting on the afternoon of the fight, the smart money came flying down on Liston. Although the final odds were reported as 7½ to 5 Liston, the fact was that in Chicago, where much of the last-minute action took place, there was so much bet on Liston that the odds soared to 2 to 1. In Las Vegas, Jimmie (The Greek) Snyder's final line was 9 to 5.
The hapless Patterson bettors thought they had the fight strategy all figured in advance. Floyd would go inside on Liston, fire away and then run like a thief in the night. He would not close in until the accumulated inside damage and Liston's own frustration had sapped the challenger's strength and will. Alas, this pattern never developed, and, as it turned out, existed only in the minds of the hopeful Patterson fans. "I had no plan," Floyd admitted glumly in the dressing room. "I should have started faster than I did. Liston's a fast starter. But it's usually the procedure to feel out an opponent in the first round. He surprised me."
In the fight's first exchange, Patterson slipped under Liston's jab and threw a strong left hook past Sonny's ear. The force of the blow impressed Liston, as he admitted later, and he danced lightly back with far more grace than had been expected of him. This was to be Patterson's only attempt to dominate the fight. Aside from one leaping right, he never used his speed again. Occasionally h; took a step back but he never tried to fly beyond Liston's reach. Instead, he stayed inside and in that hard ground lost the fight. It was a passive, abstracted acceptance—like a steer dreamily awaiting the sledge. It was "the lingering mind" which has bedeviled and hindered him as a fighter. Besides this dazed surrender, Patterson did not punch enough and frequently tried to clinch with Liston, which is as implausible a way to fight a strong 215-pounder as one could imagine. In these feckless clinches he only managed to tie up one of Liston's arms. A grateful Liston foundthere was no need to give chase. The victim sought out the executioner. In the clinches Sonny mauled Floyd at will, beating him about the kidneys with his free hand. Body weight was a factor here, too. Liston draped himself over Patterson, leaning on him with his forearms while Floyd meekly struggled. Liston often moved him around into more comfortable range and position like a painter arranging a still life. Once he grabbed Floyd by the neck and yanked him into a clubbing right; frequently he held the champion by the shoulder or arm to set him up for a hook.
At first Liston's punches were long and seemingly without direction. Floyd evaded many of these by radical crouching and bobbing and weaving, but some collided with his back and arms. "I could see practically every punch coming," Floyd said, "but he threw so many slow punches." When about one minute had elapsed, Liston whacked him to the kidneys and Patterson's legs seemed to lose their bounce. All told, Sonny banged Floyd with perhaps a dozen kidney shots, some of them random punches. But at least four were telling, landing on or below the white elastic of his trunks. After the first of these, Liston, shortening up, connected with two double hooks high on the head. He stepped back, as he frequently did, as though examining his shot group. In the next encounter, Liston drove a right uppercut to the body that lifted Floyd off the floor. He fell into a clinch. Two left hooks made him stumble back. He grabbed the top strand of the ropes and slid along themand off while Sonny held fire. There followed a left hook, a grazing, downward right and then the ultimate left at a static target.
"Floyd was frightened all right," said Ben Skelton, one of Patterson's sparring partners, "but it wasn't of getting hurt. He had stage fright. He never did the things he trained all those months to do. It wasn't that he couldn't do them. He did them beautifully just a few days before the fight."
What a strange champion Patterson was. What a suffering, bewildered and confused man. He fought superbly only twice in recent years against Archie Moore and against Ingemar Johansson the second time The rest of his fights ranged from bad to mediocre. Often it was only his condition and reflexive responses that sustained him until he was charged up enough in body and devoted enough in mind to concentrate on his tough trade. He appears to live in continuing dread of critical examination and appraisal when he stands alone, practically naked, before millions. Is it rejection he fears? Listen to him: "Losing is nothing to be ashamed of. It is something to hide from. Because if a person is defeated he feels shame. This is me. I try to change but I can't." After the fight he hid behind an absurd disguise of false mustache and beard as he drove home to New York. He had a mustache and a beard ready for the second Johansson fight, too, and he even brought them to his fightlast December with the outclassed Tom McNeeley. "I don't take no chances," Floyd says, "but if I had lost to McNeeley I would have put them on in the ring."
It was said after the Liston fight that Patterson had been one of the major hoaxes of the ring, sort of a Cardiff Midget, and that it was only due to D'Amato's matching him with inferior opponents that he had remained champion as long as he did. They said, too, that D'Amato was right in his unsuccessful campaign to keep Floyd from meeting Liston. ("Cus was wrong," Patterson says, heatedly. "If there's ever a man out there who can beat me and I don't fight him I want to give him the title. How could I feel like a champion otherwise? If I should beat Liston the second time—and there's a small possibility that I will—I'll give him another chance at me.") Patterson is a good fighter with a weak chin and—even more costly—serious mental problems that prevent him from fully applying his considerable skills. The only heavyweights of consequence he hasn't met are Eddie Machen and Zora Folley. Both are average hitters and there is little doubt that he could beatthem. Patterson is, at the moment, the second-best heavyweight in the world. But he is second best by a remarkably wide margin.
Sonny Liston would appear to rank with the better heavyweight champions. He has deficiencies in boxing skill, and a Jack Johnson or a Joe Louis—also big, strong men, but with greater skill—might have beaten him in their prime. But this is futile speculation. Liston is far and away the class now and there appears to be no one around to challenge his supremacy. Young Cassius Clay might give him a fair tussle in a few years, for here is a swift and dazzling boxer and a strong hitter, too. He might be able to fight Sonny the way everyone thought Floyd would. But at the moment, Cassius is far from ready.
"Possibly this victory will give Liston a chance to see himself," Patterson reflected the other day at his home in Yonkers, N.Y. "I think he's a great fighter but people won't accept him because he's not a great man. But he can be a good man if he gets the chance to show what's within him. I think it will surprise a lot of people. People said when I talked this way before the fight that I was just using psychology on Liston, or enhancing the sale of tickets or that I thought I was somewhat of a saint. Well, the fight's over and I still say it, so the first two are out and I'm obviously not a saint. I'm speaking now as a man—not as an exchampion. If they'd only believe Liston was any kind of a human being."
Though it hardly seems plausible that Sonny has shucked his mob goombars (the Justice Department and the responsible state athletic commissions should be even more vigilant in examining what happens to his money—when he gets it), Liston appears to be growing as a human being. Events shape people as much as people shape events and winning the title seems to mark the emergence of a more thoughtful and mature Liston. Certainly he is not without a few Patterson-type sensitivities. The night after the fight he awakened a friend in his hotel room to express hurt over a newspaper column that had included such observations as: "So it is true—in a fair fight between good and evil, evil must win," and "A celebration for Philadelphia's first heavyweight champ is now in order. Emily Post probably would recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti we can use shredded warrants of arrest."
"First thing I thought," Sonny told his confidant, "was I'll never speak to that guy again. Then I thought, no, why be as small as him? I'll make myself be nice to him. It's guys like him I have to show, not the guys that do want to give me a chance. If I can make a guy like that change his mind someday, then I won something bigger than any fight in the ring. There's a lot of things I'm going to do. But one thing's very important. I want to reach my own people and tell them, 'You don't have to worry about me stopping your progress.' I want to go to colored churches and colored neighborhood groups. I want them to see me and hear what I have to say, what I have to promise. I know it was in some of the papers that the better class of colored people were hoping I'd lose, even praying I'd lose because they was afraid I wouldn't know how to act. I really don't believe they was all hoping I'd lose even though it was in some of the colored papers that way. But I wantthem to know how I feel. I remember one thing so clear about listening to Joe Louis fight on the radio when I was a kid. I never remember a fight that the announcer didn't say about Louis, 'A great fighter and a credit to his race.' Remember? That used to make me feel proud inside.
"Of course, I don't mean to be saying I'm just going to be champion to my own people. It says now I'm the world's champion and that's just the way it's going to be. I want to go to a lot of places—like orphan homes and reform schools and such and I'll be able to say, 'Kid, I know it's tough for you now and it might even get tougher but don't give up on the world. Good things can happen if you let them.'
"You know, before I won this title, I done some good things that I kept to myself because, well, I done them because I really wanted to and didn't want people to say, 'Look at this guy. He's putting on a show so we'll all think he's a good guy and let him fight for the title.' But now I got that title and I want to make a deal with sportswriters all over the world. If I do something bad, I want them to tell the world about it. But if I do something good, I want them to tell the world about that, too. When I said all I wanted was the chance to prove myself, I meant it. I never meant anything more. And if the time of the rematch comes around and I haven't proved myself, if they can't say I been a credit to my race, too, then I want to give Patterson the title back—just give it back. And he don't even have to fight me for it."
When Sonny returned to Philadelphia last week he said: "I think I'll get out tomorrow and do all the same things I've always done: walk down the block and buy the papers, stop in the drugstore, talk to the neighbors. Then I'll see how the real peoples feel. Maybe then I'll start to feeling like a champion. You know, it's really a lot like an election, only in reverse. Here I am already in office but now I have to go out and start campaigning."
It has been predicted that if Liston became champion it would be a greater blow to boxing than the death of Benny (Kid) Paret. Now they say that the mismatch in Chicago has killed boxing, that no promoter would dare stage a return bout because nobody would show up to see a rerun of that farce. But there will be a second bout and the fickle fight fans will return to see what Patterson can do. Whether Championship Sports will be around to promote it or Graff, Reiner and Smith to handle the ancillary rights is another matter. Internal Revenue agents seized all receipts the night of the fight not because of Patterson's disputed 17-year deferred income tax payment scheme but because the government wanted to be sure it got its excise and corporate income tax (CSI as well as GRS failed to file a corporate income tax return in 1961 and therefore have delinquency records).
Like a politician, Sonny Liston is making a lot of promises. The future of professional boxing depends on whether he keeps them. Before he hits the reform school and orphanage circuit he must demonstrate beyond doubt that he is free from mob control. It was said that Sonny ran his own training camp, but there were reports, too, that he went to the phone to talk to "them" whenever a big decision had to be made. If he can bring himself to tell "them" off rather than seek their counsel, if he will fight logical contenders two or three times a year, as he has also promised, then the Patterson-Liston fight will have been a forward step for boxing, despite its esthetic shortcomings. It's all up to the big man.
Beginning of the end for a man without a plan
The fight is less than two minutes old. His left glove dangling aimlessly on the rope, Floyd Patterson has already lost to Sonny Liston. Patterson does not know where he is, or even that he is in a ring. Now, immobile and defenseless, he is about to be hit with a deadweight sequence of punches—left-right-left. Eight seconds later...
Back on his feet but still hardly aware of what has happened, Floyd Patterson embraces Cus D'Amato, the man who warned him never, never to fight Sonny Liston. Some thought the touching scene meant a reconciliation between the two, lately on the outs. Then Patterson explained that even at this point he had no idea what he was doing. Behind the embracing pair, promising heavyweight Cassius Clay looms like a harbinger of intriguing things. If he looks a trifle nonplussed, it is because Liston has just told him: "You're next, Loudmouth."