Sonny Liston is still the heavyweight king. God save the king. God save boxing.
With chilling ease in the first round of their rematch in Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, Liston (see cover) hammered down ex-Champion Floyd Patterson. Actually, there was no fight. Liston simply bullied and bashed Patterson into the canvas like a street-corner tough smacking down a dreamy schoolboy. To Liston, Floyd was not an opponent, he was an annoyance—and, with crushing finality, the annoyance was brushed aside. It was done sullenly, without zest or cheer, and consequently it was an apt measure of the man Liston is.
This coldness does not, however, reflect on the champion's skills. It must be admitted now that he is a superb fighter. He is huge yet lithe, a rare blending of strength, balance and reflexes. His punches seemed harder than in the first Patterson fight 10 months ago. He probably is the hardest hitter since Joe Louis. "Liston is so big and strong it was almost like he was walking through the man," said onetime Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano after the debacle.
The end came at 2:10 of the first round, four seconds and two knockdowns more than Sonny had needed to beat Patterson in Chicago. The first knockdown occurred when Liston followed a flurry of body punches with a left hook to the head. The second came after a bludgeoning right-hand chop. Once more Floyd rose, only to sink before a cannonade of blows that hardly seemed aimed as they poured in on the hapless Patterson. Floyd got to one knee, but no farther. It was over. He had landed only one punch.
July 28, 1963
As the crowd of 8,000 dinned some surprisingly intense boos at Liston, he moved off to the dressing room—cool, dry, calm as a man completing an evening stroll. He was asked if he would fight boisterous Cassius Clay next. "Who is Clay?" Sonny deadpanned. Asked if Patterson should quit, he replied in Khrushchevian fashion: "Who am I to tell a bird he can't fly?" And he had heard the boos. "The public is not with me now," he said, "but they'll have to swing along until somebody beats me."
Meanwhile the shattered bird was a long time opening his dressing room door. When he did, he said: "Tonight I was not afraid. Perhaps I should have been." Patterson said he would not quit boxing, but Las Vegas had a message for him. At The Dunes Hotel workmen busily removed a sign that said "Go, Go, Go, Floyd Patterson. Next Heavyweight Champion" and replaced it with one that read "Welcome Elks."
Now it was Liston for whom the word was "Go, go, go." His victory had been a necessity, the gift of life itself. When he first challenged for the title last September, he had nothing to lose. On Monday night, he had, despite the 4½-to-1 odds, everything to lose. But if the victory is sweet to Sonny, it is murder for those around him. Sonny Liston probably is the most overbearing heavyweight champion ever.
It is part of the American dream that a man can rise above his past and be hailed as all the greater for it. In the old days, when Liston was lusting for the title, and the tough guys were obviously around, he was a personable man of rough graces. True, he had been a strong-arm guy in constant trouble but, so went the line, his background had to be considered. He was an illiterate Negro kid from Arkansas who had run away from home at 13 to buffet life in the squalid slums of St. Louis. He knocked around and was knocked around. He did time. All he needed was a chance. He was uneducated, but he was smart, had a good sense of humor and was observant. Full redemption would come with the championship. Then he would show the world the kind of man he really is.
Well, Liston has had the championship for almost a year now, and in that time he has become insufferable. He is giving back all the abuse he ever had to take. He looks upon good manners as a sign of weakness, if not cowardice, and he accepts gifts and favors with all the ill humor of a sultan demanding tribute. Most of the time he is sullen. A contemptuous grunt passes for speech.
He acts this way toward almost everyone. Of course, he can cop a plea with the press by claiming that he has been unfairly treated because of his past. What counts, however, is the way he deports himself with bootblacks, porters, maids, waitresses. As a onetime nonentity himself, he might be expected to know how they feel. Yet he has carried into his public life the bullying and cockiness that he uses to intimidate opponents in the ring. This was amply evident in Las Vegas last week, and the public did not like it. Listen to a Negro busboy at the Thunderbird, where Liston trained in Las Vegas: "Sonny Liston is just too mean to be allowed around decent people. They ought to ship him back to Africa. No, make that Mississippi." An actress from Los Angeles, who knows him: "Liston has no feelings. He doesn't care about anyone or anything, just himself. I hope Patterson kills him." A blackjack dealer: "Liston is just no good. The other day he was going to the Thunderbird to work out, and there was a line of people waiting by the barricade to get in. The man selling tickets moved aside to let Sonny by. Instead Sonny kicked the barricade down. Now, that was completely unnecessary. It was a mean and stupid trick. But that's just how Sonny acts—mean and stupid." A Negro porter: "He's mean. Why? Because he's just mean."
None of this bothers Liston. "I've always said that I don't care what the public says as long as I get the money," he proclaimed in Vegas.
The only people he seems to get along with are kids, priests and tough guys. The first two offer no threat, and the tough guys speak his language. In the years when Blinky Palermo was around, Sonny paid attention. But now that Palermo has withdrawn, at least into the distant shadows, there is no one to tell Sonny what to do. "I'm the boss," he says bluntly, and he means it. None of his entourage dare to speak up. Should one of them anger the boss, he growls, "Get out of my face!" Should his manager, Jack Nilon, call him over—"Oh, Sonny, would you come over here, please?"—his answer is to turn his back. Nilon's ulcers have been dancing for months. He avoids Sonny. He even went so far as to leave camp for a week with the excuse that he had to play in a golf tournament back home in Philadelphia. But Nilon has to stick around to get his investment back in the Clay fight. He is about $150,000 in the hole so far, and he has to stay to get even. Sometimes it does not seem worth it.
Harold Conrad, the fight's publicity man, got so fed up with Liston that he refused to have anything more to do with him. Once Conrad took Liston to Toots Shor's in New York for dinner. Shor, who regards himself as the father of all athletes, wanted to meet Sonny. When Conrad brought the beaming Shor over to the table, Liston refused to look up from the steak. "I don't shake hands when I'm eatin'," he growled. Shor was speechless. Later he told Conrad, "Don't you ever bring that bum in here again!"
"I told Sonny off," Conrad says. "That he understands." Perhaps because of this, Conrad was occasionally able to bludgeon Liston into cooperating. But this gambit does not always work. There is no telling with Sonny.
Ben Bentley, Liston's personal publicity man, is completely demoralized. Nilon hired him so he could absorb some of Liston's abuse. Going into the last week of training, Bentley was so intimidated that he was afraid to tell Sonny there would be a regular press conference after each workout. "He's a very moody guy," said Bentley warily. "I just don't know how I'm going to tell him."
Liston, who is superstitious, broke Bentley in fast. "He's the most superstitious fighter I ever met," says Bentley. "He told me not to sit on a trunk or ever throw my cap on a bed. He wouldn't train at The Dunes [where Patterson trained], because four other fighters trained there and lost." Sonny knocks on wood for luck. When asked if he knocks wood when he enters the ring, he snarled, "I don't knock wood. I knock heads."
Soft soap for the car
Sonny arrived in Las Vegas with his car, a black Fleetwood Cadillac with a white leather top. It is equipped with air conditioning, two telephones, a TV set and a metal plate with the inscription, "This car was specially made for Sonny Liston." His initials are on the door, there is a crucifix on top of the dashboard and a pair of tiny boxing gloves hangs from the rearview mirror. The car has to be washed with a special soap that Sonny likes. He just loves that car. And what did he do? He turned it over to a terrified Bentley with instructions to keep it safe for him.
When Sonny seemed in a good mood—good moods seem to strike him the way other people get depressed—Bentley would humor him with jokes, but jokes Bentley carefully figured out would humor him. "Here is one," said Bentley. "Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi dies and goes up to heaven. He knocks at the pearly gates and announces himself. St. Peter replies, 'We's bin awaitin' fo' you.' "
According to Liston's intimates, two things bother him right now. One is his inability to read and write, the other is the race problem. "Sonny is frustrated," Nilon said one day by the pool at the Thunderbird. "He is frustrated because he can't read. See that sign over there, 'Please Register with Lifeguard'? Now, Sonny doesn't know what that says. For all he knows, it might say, 'Free Drinks.' It's embarrassing to him." Once, when Nilon first met Liston, they drove from New York to Philadelphia with Sonny at the wheel. He did all right until he came to a bewildering cluster of parkway direction signs pointing to "Jersey South," "Shore Points," "Jersey North." He just froze. Without saying a word, Nilon flicked his index finger toward the correct route, and he kept doing it for the rest of the trip.
The race problem is especially irksome because Sonny just does not know what to do about it. He resents the fact that many Negroes did not want to see him become champion, and he openly scorns the NAACP. "The NAACP didn't want Patterson to fight me for the title," he says. "They wanted to make this a political business. They wanted to take the sport out of it. When Joe Louis was fight-in', they didn't ask a man's past. Then after I won the championship they had the nerve to ask me for $500."
When the recent demonstrations took place in Birmingham, Sonny thought of flying there. Asked why he did not go, Sonny said, "They don't fight fair. They don't fight my kind of fight. I ain't got a dogproof butt. Some cop puts a hose on me, and I'll forget where I am." Of the sit-ins he said, "Those people are crazy. They say love when some guy is beatin' on their head or burnin' their house. Me, if they burned my house, I'd burn theirs, and if they beat me, I'd beat them." (At about the same time Floyd Patterson, who had gone to Birmingham, was saying of militant Negroes: "Two wrongs don't make a right.")
The picture of Sonny at home differs from that of Sonny on the road. St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago—these have all been home towns to Sonny. He and his wife, Geraldine, a pleasant woman, now live in a four-bedroom brick ranch house in an integrated neighborhood in Denver. They moved there from Chicago last spring. "Chicago was the wrong town for Sonny," Nilon says. "You know what Chicago's like."
The Listons like Denver. "It's really nice," says Mrs. Liston. "You can hear the birds sing." Sonny says he could live there for the rest of his life. He likes training in the thin mountain air. He figures that training in a high altitude increases his endurance. "I like Denver because it's a clean city," he says. "No smoke, no smog. That's why I'm gonna knock Patterson out in a hurry. They'll be smokin' in the auditorium and that bothers me."
At home Sonny likes to cut the grass and ride his bicycle around the block. He has little to do with people. "Sonny's not what you'd call a mixer," says his friend, Father Edward Murphy, the Jesuit rector of St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Denver.
A big tease
"He isn't moody," says Mrs. Liston. "He isn't shy. He is just a person who don't talk much." A lot of his talking is done by phone from his car. "He'd rather people call him in the car than at home," Mrs. Liston says. "I call the car his office." The home number is private; the car number is listed in the phone book.
In the evening Sonny likes to lie down on the living room floor and watch cowboy shows on one of six television sets in the house. His wife looks at comedies on another set. "I get tired of all that killin'," she says.
Sonny, or Charles, as Geraldine always calls him, is a tease at home. "He loves to tease," she says. "He used to scare me to death when we were first married. He'd come into the house without me knowin' and I'd be hummin' and singin' and all at once he'd tiptoe up behind me and scare me to death. His mother said he used to keep her jumpin' all the time. I hear a noise now and I say, 'All right, Charles, come out.'
"When he's out he will sometimes call up on the phone in a high voice. He says, 'Could I speak to Mr. Charles Sonny Liston?' and I say, 'He isn't here right now.' And he says, 'Could you take a message?' He's just a tease."
One of Liston's closest friends is Mike Zwerner, an 11-year-old he met in Miami Beach last March. It was while trying to outdrive Mike on the golf course that he strained his left knee, causing the cancellation of the rematch in Miami Beach. Later, when he went to pose for a photographer with a golf club, he realized how bad the injury was. When Mike got out of school early in June, Sonny insisted that the boy fly to Denver to stay with him. He bought Mike a motor scooter, and together they rode around the neighborhood, Mike driving, Sonny sitting on the back. "Sonny puts his feet out to stop, because my legs are too short," says the boy. When they are together Liston likes to joke. Liston: "It a plane crashed between Mexico and California, where would they bury the survivors?" Mike: "On the border?" Liston: "Survivors aren't buried." Another. Liston: "If there were two birds sittin' on a wire and one took a notion to jump off, how many birds would be left?" Mike: "One." Liston: "No, two. The bird only took a notion."
As the fight neared, the boy seemed to be the only person in camp who was at ease with Sonny. Indeed, on at least one occasion he sent Sonny to the crap table to roll dice for him—the boy being too young to be in the casino himself. When Sonny hit a cold streak with the dice, little Mike, standing just outside, pulled him out of action with all the aplomb of Casey Stengel yanking a pitcher out of the box.
The boy's father, Jack Zwerner, a well-to-do Miami Beach importer and manufacturer, says, "Mike is gaining experience that is rarely offered to a kid of his age, and I feel that the experience is going to help Mike and not hurt him. Sonny tells my kid to smile, and yet you can't get Liston to crack a smile. You can ask, 'Why doesn't he take a colored kid around with him?' This is to show that he is impartial. He knows that the kid is white and that some colored people resent it. Sonny has nothing to gain. Someone asked Sonny if Mike was a good luck charm. That was stupid. There is just a friendship there."
Another Liston favorite is a little Negro girl, Ira Rosemond, the daughter of Mrs. Petra Rosemond, Father Murphy's housekeeper. Whenever she sees Sonny she squeals, "Hello, you big bum." Sonny says, "Hello, you little bum."
Sonny and his wife are frequent visitors at the Loyola parish house. They are not Catholics, but they attend Mass on occasion. "One day," Father Murphy recalls, "we went down to Juvenile Hall, and Sonny was doing just fine. He loves children. Then a man came up and asked him for an autograph, and Sonny froze. I could see he was getting peeved, and so I said to him, 'You don't like to sign autographs for adults, do you?' and he said, 'I like to sign them for children—they have a future.' "
With Patterson out of the way, and Sonny in this kind of mood, what is likely to happen if he faces that child-man of boxing, Cassius Clay? Nilon says that a Clay fight is all but set for Philadelphia Municipal Stadium on the night of September 30. "Sonny told me that he only wants 10 days off, and then he'll be ready to go in training for Clay. The stadium seats 105,000, not counting the field. With seats there, 140,000." In addition to the live gate, Nilon sees the closed-circuit-television receipts helping to make a gross gate of at least $6 million or $7 million, "speaking conservatively." On top of all that, Nilon, a concessionaire, is agog over the thought of all the hot dogs, beer and parkable cars involved.
The promoter will be Intercontinental Promotions. "As far as Sonny and I are concerned, Roy Cohn and Championship Sports are finished," Nilon says. Intercontinental is a cozy little Pennsylvania corporation composed of Liston, who is president and owns 47½% of the stock, Nilon's two brothers, Bob and James, who also own 47½%, and the law firm of Kassab, Cherry & Curran, which owns the remaining 5%. Nilon himself has no equity in the corporation. Pennsylvania law prohibits a manager, but not a fighter, from serving as a promoter.
As for the fight itself, Liston has no doubt he will demolish Clay quickly. It looked, in fact, as though he might demolish him right in a Las Vegas casino last Thursday when Liston seemed momentarily to lose the restraint that has characterized the phony play-acting so frequently staged between the two. "Can't lick a Popsicle," he says of Cassius. "All he knows is how to fight with that big mouth." Almost all boxing men agree. None other than Cus D'Amato, Patterson's manager, says, "Liston compares favorably with any of the heavyweights of the past. Any of them. When somebody asks me, 'How does Liston compare with Joe Louis?' I have to stop and think. So you know how good a fighter Liston is."