Last week was a hectic one for Jack Nilon, manager of Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston. Nilon rang out the old year by laying plans for the new, and if all his plans come true 1963 will be a good year for boxing—and Nilon. As of now, Liston expects to defend his title twice, and there is the possibility of a third fight. "Sonny," said Nilon, "will be a fighting champion and he will defend against all comers."
The first comer probably will be Floyd Patterson in March in Baltimore. Nilon zoomed up to Brooklyn from Chester, Pa. last Thursday night to talk to Floyd, and Floyd is inclined to go along. But if he should balk, Nilon will give someone else, probably Harold Johnson, the shot. Although Nilon deems the return-bout contract with Floyd void (Liston hasn't been paid in full for the Chicago fight last September), he feels "a moral obligation" to give Floyd first crack. "I was very much impressed by Floyd," Nilon said after their meeting.
Nilon is attracted to Baltimore because of a new $16-million civic center. "It seats approximately 15,000 people," he said. "It's the most modern in the country—the finest I've ever seen. They have a population of one million to draw from. Washington is only 40 miles away and Philadelphia 90 miles, an hour and a half by train. I believe we'd sell out without any strain. Baltimore's a great sporting town."
Sweating out the money
The promoter has not yet been selected, but it is likely to be Championship Sports, Inc., the outfit that is run by Roy Cohn and the Brothers Bolan, Tom and Al. Although Nilon and Liston have a long list of grievances against C.S.I., Nilon thinks it may be better to go along with them this one last time instead of getting in an involved legal hassle that could kill the year.
Nilon's main complaint is that Championship Sports still owes Liston $207,000 from the Chicago gate, which the Internal Revenue Service seized. So far, Nilon has managed to sweat $100,000 out of Championship Sports, mainly by dint of calling Tom Bolan at odd hours to ask where the money is, but he and Sonny want the rest. To make sure that they get the rest, he has filed suit against Championship Sports, the Federal Government and Graff, Reiner & Smith, the closed-circuit TV firm. "Sonny's money is protected about as well as it could be legally protected," said Nilon. To make sure that Sonny will get all his money in March, Nilon is demanding that Championship Sports post a bond. "There absolutely will be no fight unless Sonny Liston's money is bonded," said Nilon, "and it will have to be with a reputable bonding company. None of those fly-by-night, moonlight jobs. We wouldn't even consider fighting for Championship Sports without the bond."
Nilon's dislike of Championship Sports grew stronger after his Thursday night talk with Patterson. Said Nilon: "I asked him a direct question, 'Who is responsible for Sonny receiving only 12½% of the [Chicago] gross?' Floyd said that he merely told Championship Sports what he wanted: 55% of the ancillary rights and 45% of the live gate. But the Bolans have always said that it was Floyd Patterson who insisted that Sonny get only 12½%. It was Championship Sports' doing, but they blamed it on Floyd. And when Floyd told me this, Tom Bolan, who was in the meeting, didn't say anything. The real truth is that it wasn't Patterson that hosed Sonny, but Championship Sports."
Nilon has little respect for any of Patterson's advisers, except, oddly enough, his manager, Cus D'Amato. who did all he could to stop Patterson from fighting Liston. "Doesn't a mother protect her children?" Nilon asked. "I think Cus D'Amato is a great manager. Cus knows. He was doing what he thought was in Floyd's best interest, and I think the fellow came up a genius. I don't bear any grudge against Cus for protecting his fighter. There isn't a man in the United States who knows more about the fight game. But it looks as if he's out. In my opinion, there are certain people who are misleading Floyd."
If Nilon has his way with the March fight, it will be on free home TV, not in theaters. "I think the world should have the opportunity to see what a great fighter Sonny really is," he said, adding, "dollarwise, I think we'd be just as well off. It would be great for the boxing business—I think the boxing business owes it to the American people. We get the World Series, football championships, everything else, so why not the heavyweight championship? The networks would go after it. If it doesn't go on home television, it will only be because of the greed of the promoters. And I'll say that to their face."
The second fight will be against Ingemar Johansson. "To be honest," Nilon said, "we want to fight Ingemar in June in Philadelphia. I think he's a good puncher, he's big and he's strong." The promoter of the fight will not be Championship Sports, but Intercontinental Promotions, a Pennsylvania corporation of which Liston is president and largest (50%) stockholder. The other stockholders are Nilon's brothers, Robert and James (45%), and the law firm of Kassab, Cherry and Curran (the remaining 5%). (Morton Witkin, Sonny's old Philadelphia lawyer, has been dismissed. Nilon won't say why, but he is obviously happy.) "I have no equity in the promotion," said Nilon. "In the state of Pennsylvania a boxer can be a promoter. The manager cannot be. It's all been checked out legally. This will be the promoting group [big smile] unless someone makes a better offer than this group can."
Nilon is undecided on a third opponent for this year. He would not commit himself other than to say he and Liston would like a third fight. Asked about Cassius Clay, Nilon laughed and said, "A great fighter."
There are two ways Sonny can miss out. One is to get in more trouble with the law, the other is to lose his title. Nilon had answers for both. Sonny was harassed by Philadelphia police, said Nilon, "so he moved 1,000 miles away" to Chicago. There, said Nilon, he has been showing what a splendid fellow he is by visiting orphanages and hospitals. "Look at this," he said, handing a clipping across the desk. It was a story from a Milwaukee paper, headlined, NO SCOWLS OR GROWLS: CHILD'S PLEA FETCHES SONNY. The story went on to call Sonny's surprise visit to a children's hospital "heart-warming." In the adjacent column was a picture of a smiling Sonny about to devour a huge stack of flapjacks. "Sonny's an entirely different man since he became champion," Nilon said. "He understands now." The Milwaukee paper made mention of Sonny's traveling companion, John Grayson, a Chicago detective. "He was assigned to our training camp," Nilon said. "Sonny has taken a liking to him, and he's taken a liking to Sonny, and he's been at Sonny's side ever since." Nilon clearly thought a detective was as good a pal as Sonny could wish for.
The greatest fighter
The idea that Sonny could lose his title made Nilon laugh. "Sonny's the greatest fighter of the century," he said. "I believe Sonny would take Joe Louis. He's bigger, stronger, and I don't believe that there is any man who can withstand the impact of Sonny Liston's punch. Joe Louis had a great left, but Sonny hits harder with his left. I think Sonny has the greatest left hand that the fight game has ever seen. And he's so fast, that's where everybody underestimated him."
Although Nilon refused to name a round, he did say Sonny would knock Patterson out again. "Sonny hasn't hit Floyd a good punch yet," he said. "What I consider one of Sonny's better punches. I actually said a Hail Mary that Floyd wouldn't get off the floor [in Chicago]. If he had, he would have gotten hurt. You know what Sonny told me going into the ring? He said he would knock Floyd out in the first round. He said, 'If I don't, I will lie down in the ring before the second round in disgrace.' Now that is the truth. He told me that walking down from the dressing room to the ring. He'll be champion for five to seven years. No one will touch him. I don't see anyone in sight."