Once upon a time—say a week ago—all was order and serenity in the heavyweight picture. Sonny Liston was the champ. Floyd Patterson would get a return shot at him on April 10 in Miami Beach. And coming up hard behind was a logical contender, Cassius Clay ("Liston must fall in four"). But suddenly the whole heavyweight picture turned once more into the scene of chaos that has often characterized it since Rocky Marciano retired. Liston announced that he was having the miseries in his left knee. His manager, Concessionaire Jack Nilon, thereupon said the Patterson fight was off indefinitely. Meanwhile, the broody Patterson was having troubles of his own. He was still concerned about the "shame" of being destroyed last September and, on top of that, he was on the outs with his manager, Cus D'Amato. And to complete the confusion, Cassius Clay, the "logical" contender, proved to be made of papier-m√¢ché in a fight that he barely managed to win from Doug Jones (see page 16).
The beginnings of this tangled tale came a month ago, when Liston pitched camp by the pool of the Casablanca Hotel in Miami Beach. Shortly after he arrived, he hurt his knee swinging a golf club for a freelance photographer. Nilon promptly called in two local doctors, Duke B. Baird and Patrick J. Barry, who said Sonny probably had strained a ligament, though there was a chance he had torn a cartilage. They told him to stop training until the knee felt better. Sonny laid off for 17 days, and the fight, originally scheduled for April 4, was put back to April 10. Two weeks ago, Drs. Baird and Barry examined Sonny in his cabana by the pool. They said it looked as though the strain had healed. They told Sonny he could resume training but to take it easy at first. Sonny beamed with delight. Even with his bum knee, Liston said Patterson didn't have a chance. "With my leg cut off, they might say it's a close fight," Sonny laughingly boasted. Nilon went along with the gag, but warned, "Sonny will not fight unless he's in perfect condition."
None of this reassured the promoter of the fight, Championship Sports, Inc., Roy Cohn's outfit. April 10 represented their last chance to get a money crowd in Miami Beach; after Passover the town is dead. They were well aware of the fact that Nilon had never wanted the fight there, but in Baltimore, where he has the concessions for the new arena. (Unlike orthodox fight managers, who think about the gate money alone, Nilon also thinks of Liston in terms of hot dogs, hamburgers and parked cars.)
Moreover, Nilon had made no secret of his dislike for Cohn and company. He refused to be seen with any of them in Miami Beach, and he went around knocking them loudly as "a bunch of rank amateurs." He and Liston also publicly predicted that the fight would draw poorly. "They could put this fight in a phone booth and it wouldn't sell out," said Sonny. "If you had to pay, would you go?" But there apparently was little either Nilon or Liston could do. CSI held the rematch contract in which Patterson had the right to name the site.
March 25, 1963
Then last weekend Nilon announced that Sonny's knee was hurting again and that the fight was postponed indefinitely. He said that Sonny would fly to Chicago for a week of rest and then be examined by a specialist. The specialist would tell Liston to light or to have surgery. In any event, said Nilon, "the fight is positively off for at least a month. The earliest Sonny can light is the second week in May. We want the fight. We want to get rid of it, and the sooner the better. I don't have to say why." The "why" he didn't say is that Cohn and company have Sonny legally boxed in for the rematch. What Nilon also didn't say is that the Preakness falls on May 18 in Baltimore, and a fight that weekend would probably draw a fine crowd. With Clay now a clown instead of a contender, at least pro tern, Nilon and Liston need big money fast, and Nilon has always said Baltimore was best.
On Sunday morning Cohn and company reluctantly conceded defeat. Their feeling was that, while Liston had undoubtedly strained the ligament originally, Nilon was now using it as a gimmick to dictate terms. "Nilon's a Machiavellian wise guy," said Harold Conrad, the publicity man. "Liston's supposed to be resting his leg, and he's going nightclubbing. He's all over town!" Fortunately for Fred Brooks, Cohn's friend who is in charge of Sports Vision, the outfit handling the closed-circuit TV, there is a nonappearance insurance policy that will offset most losses. But CSI is not so lucky, and Cohn probably will blow $50.000 invested in the Miami Beach fiasco. "CSI had insurance on every fight but this one," Brooks said. "Wouldn't you know it?"
Even before this whole uproar started, there were unusual developments in both the Liston and Patterson camps. Contrary to rumors that Sonny was fat and sloppy, he looked fit a week ago Sunday when he resumed training by the Casablanca pool. He was perhaps 10 or 15 pounds above his usual fighting weight of 215, but his hips were slim, and he took his customary pounding in the stomach with a 14-pound medicine ball thrown by his trainer, Willie Reddish. In fact, Liston's first performance was excitingly impressive. His punching was sharp, and his timing was on. The crowd got a big kick watching his fancy footwork as he skipped rope to a thundering recording of Night Train. He has remarkable coordination and rhythm. Because of his size, people often assume he is slow and awkward. Actually, he is as graceful and gifted an athlete as one could want to see, and a number of knowing boxing men consider him the finest heavyweight since Joe Louis.
The day before Liston resumed training he showed the film of the September light in a private dining room of the Casablanca. He sat in the dark, grinning as the crowd on the screen booed him. When he and Patterson met for the referee's instructions, he glared at Floyd. "See Sonny stare him down!" Nilon exulted. Liston disagreed. "Why should I want to stare him down?" he asked. "Watch, this is what makes him nervous—when the bell sounds."
Liston watched the rest of the film in silence. When it was over he said, "I should have had him the first two punches. He was faster duckin' down than I thought he was. I should have been aimin' at his chest instead of his head, and then I would have caught him. I'll train for speed. I got the reach. He can't fight out, he gotta come in. What can he do? What's the style where they fight with their feet? Siam? Yeah, well they ain't brought that over yet."
He dismissed the idea of Patterson's using his speed to get in and out quickly. "Get in and get out?" he asked in amazement. "Get in and get out—that's what I made sure he did!" He laughed. "The only thing I say is to have the people in the theaters holler, 'It's a rerun, but they cut it!" "
He had scant regard for any other contenders. "Johansson should be arrested," he said. "Hey, Jack," he called across the room to a wincing Nilon, "give me Johansson for a birthday present!" Clay, who had yet to look bad against Jones, drew a snort, though Clay would be a big money fight. "Why, I could pay my doctors' bills," Sonny said. "The only thing I'd have to do with Clay is a lot of roadwork—because he's gonna run like a thief." Clay had first predicted that Liston would fall in six should they meet, but Liston said, "By the time of the sixth round, I'll be halfway through the victory party. Clay! Let me tell you a story. Once I was in the country on a very cold day. Very cold. It was snowin', it was snowin' hard. I was out in a field. The snow was about four feet deep. And there was a little bird shiverin' up on a branch in a tree. It was cold, and he had no food. Up above in the sky was a hawk circlin' around. Just circlin'. All of a sudden a big white horse comes along, and he puts some manure under the tree. The little bird sees this, and he flies down from the branch and has himself a good meal. He's so happy! He flies back up to the branch, where he starts singing', 'Tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet.' And the big hawk circlin' up in the sky hears him, and he swoops down and eats him! And the moral of the story is don't get too frisky when you're full of manure."
Around the Casablanca, Liston was affable with the guests. But with reporters he was sometimes sullen. Asked a question, he would look the other way. Then again he would call a question stupid (Liston: "That was a stupid question." Reporter: "It was a bantering question." Liston: "'Don't give me any battering questions"). Nilon said Liston was only kidding. "If Sonny calls you a bum, he likes you," Nilon explained. "If he calls you a blanking bum, you're in. And if he calls you a no-good blanking bum, you're really a friend."
The latest delay in the fight didn't exactly cheer Floyd Patterson's spirits. Knocked out in 2:06 of the first round last September, he has been brooding for close to six months now. After his defeat he escaped home, disguised in a false beard, and at his training camp in Tropical Park he talked ironically of the rematch. "Thousands of people will bring stopwatches," he said, starting to giggle. "All through the first round they'll be looking at those watches. After two minutes they'll start to count—2:01, 2:02, 2:03—and when it gets to 2:07 they'll jump up and start clapping and cheering: 'Yea, hurray for Floyd!' Even if I get knocked out the next second they'll say I lasted longer. They'll say, 'Yes, sir, Floyd Patterson is sure an improved fighter."'
To Patterson's surprise, the crowds at his camp were sizable and enthusiastic. At the start he had joked, "Frankly, I doubt if anyone will come out here for my workouts. Certainly not if I charge them a dollar. Maybe if I make it a quarter and give Green Stamps I'll get one or two to come."
In his workouts Floyd, under the supervision of his trainers, Dan Florio and Buster Watson, made sure he carried his right hand high to stop Liston's heavy gun, the left hook. On the attack one day last week, he concentrated on straight right-hand punches, the kind that would beat through the arc of Liston's hooks. He always came snapping back with the right to guard his jaw.
No matter how formidable Liston is, Patterson is determined to redeem himself when the time comes. He is haunted by the first fight and by D'Amato's reluctance to make it. D'Amato has been absent from the camp. "I don't think my manager wants to be my manager," Floyd said. "What's the expression about leaving a sinking ship?" D'Amato, he said, did everything in his power to prevent the first fight with Liston. "Cus made it seem like I was ducking Liston because I was afraid of him," Floyd said. "And after the match was made he acted around the camp as if I were a kid going against my father. He never did warm up. When I needed him most he was very cool.
"Nobody wanted me to make the fight [because of Liston's unsavory background]. The NAACP, Senator Kefauver, boxing commissioners, everybody was telling me not to make the fight. I had every out possible. The letters from all those people disturbed me, so I finally got off by myself. I asked myself, should I or shouldn't I? Personally, I believed it was my obligation as champion to give the No. 1 challenger a chance at the title. Else what right would I have to call myself champion? If Liston was undesirable, why did they allow him to fight his way up to the No. 1 spot? But since they did, I didn't have the right to pass judgment. From the time I made the Liston match, letters poured in telling me I got to beat Liston for the good of this or the good of that. It seemed to build up in my mind so that it was no longer a fight but a matter of state importance. It became," said Floyd, smiling wryly, "the people's fight, and the people lost.
"I seemed to be thinking all the time I was training for the fight, and when I got to the fight my mind just turned off. I knew millions upon millions of people would be watching, including the President. It was a disgraceful light on my part, and I was shamed. But it wasn't as bad as the sportswriters made it out to be.
"I believe if a man accepts defeat without shame that his spirit is already beaten. My shame is my goad. This fight will be better. How much better I won't say. It's just not my way. I've never predicted what I will do. And after the fight is over, I never discredit my opponent, because to do that would cheapen my own efforts and skills. I may not sound confident, but it's what's inside that counts and nobody can see that. No matter how discouraged I may sound, it never has anything to do with my fighting ability. The only thing that surprised me about Liston was that he knocked me out. What will be different about this fight? This time I know what Liston can do, but I don't think he knows what I'm capable of."
While Floyd has been in Florida, D'Amato has been in England, campaigning with another one of his fighters. In an interview with SI Correspondent John Lovesey, D'Amato denied that he was on the outs but what he went on to say is hardly calculated to build confidence in Floyd. "I resent the people around Patterson who have distracted him," D'Amato said. "Their influence has stolen his attention to the extent that he cannot put up a performance that one would expect of him, and neither can he use the assets at his command.
"The lawyer and these promoters have confused Floyd's actions. They are responsible for such a lot of things. The business of the beard and so on. I'm completely confident that without distractions Floyd would have proved himself superior to Sonny Liston."
Liston, D'Amato explained, "is an orthodox fighter. And an orthodox fighter is predictable. He can be coped with." In the September fight, D'Amato said, Patterson was supposed to move in and out quickly on Liston. But instead of getting outside he stood only a foot away, giving Liston punching room for the knockout blows.
"Only a distracted or inexperienced fighter would have made that mistake," D'Amato said. Patterson, he went on, "did not feel Liston out in the alert and proper manner. He did something careless. He was like a man who has had a quarrel with his wife before crossing the street. His mind is elsewhere, his eyes aren't fully opened, and he's likely to be knocked down by a car. Liston was not better than him then, and he's not better now. The Patterson Liston defeated was not the fighter Floyd Patterson. It was the body, but not the arms, the legs and the mind. If he's rid himself of his distractions, he can beat Liston. Then he will show people what I've always said about him. To see a man beaten not by a better opponent but by himself is a disturbing thing to witness. It is a tragedy."