THE PREFIGHT MOODS OF SONNY LISTON

Before he left for his bout with Clay, Sonny's training in Denver took him to some strange places
November 02, 1964

One mile up on a mountain 13 miles west of Denver is the Shrine of Mother Cabrini. Half a mile above and beyond the shrine, looking down from the summit of the mountain, is a statue of the Sacred Heart. More than three hundred and fifty steps, flanked by big patches of flowers and the Stations of the Cross, lead past the shrine and up to the statue. Nearly everyone who has ever climbed to the summit speaks first of its beauty and then of the humility and aloneness that he feels there.

One day last week, as it has twice a week for the last three months, a car pulled up to the base of the mountain at 6 a.m. Three men stepped out: one bulky with mournful eyes hidden by a faded red baseball cap, one pale and wiry, and the third a man of massive features, his face immobile and framed by a tightly drawn hood. The three paused, looked up and then began to walk. Soon the hooded man ran. He ran nearly a mile along a sharply twisting path, stopped and then walked a short distance before running past the shrine and up the spiraling steps to the statue. He ran all the way and when he reached the statue, alone, he jogged in place, then paced about, his immense torso weaving, his hands in synchronized motion. Then he jogged back down the steps.

No one knew why Sonny Liston, once depicted as Santa Claus but more often seen as a sullen misanthrope, insisted on making those weekly visitations to the top of the mountain. No one, not even Willie Reddish, his trainer, or Stanley Zimmering, his physical fitness man, or a local priest who is his own private Father Flanagan, knew what Liston thought about while bathing in this serenity or, for that matter, what he has thought about during the long, lonely months of preparation for his return, title fight with Cassius Clay in Boston. By now it is a universal question whether Sonny Liston thinks at all.

Indeed, there was an aura of thought suspended or even revoked in the Liston camp at the Amid Karate & Judo Club in south Denver where the champion trained for three months before going to Boston last week. The long room, of soft décor and ornamented with pictures of bullfighting, was always somber; after one made a number of visits, Liston and his small band of flacks seemed to take the form of monks filing into a dining hall as each workout began. There were no newspapermen jabbing Liston with questions. "As far as the Denver papers are concerned," said one local reporter, "he doesn't even exist." Despite rumors (none confirmed) that Liston was drinking or roaring about at night in his black Cadillac, Denver seemed bored with Sonny. Only a few spectators were present for the workouts, usually old men with big bellies gazing awestruck at the glistening ingot of muscle grunting before them, or little girls staring blankly at Liston's feet skipping rope to the babbled lyrics of Night Train.

Archie Pirolli, Reddish, Zimmering and Teddy King make up the inner circle of Liston's camp. Pirolli's title is training camp manager. A boxing camp without a Pirolli is like a hunting lodge without a moose head. He belongs. Pirolli is fond of cigars, pointless monologue and wordy exaggeration. He employs both of the latter in resurrecting the dear, dead days of boxing. In Denver he enjoyed keeping people away from Sonny Liston. "No, no, you can't see 'im today," Archie liked to say, regally waving his cigar. "He's hungry. Ya ever been hungry?" Another day he might deny an audience simply because "Archie said so." Pacing up and down like the "brains" awaiting the outcome of a bank robbery in some old movie, Archie kept muttering: "I know his moods. I know his moods." Reddish, a porpoise of a man who looks sad even when he smiles, is not as articulate as Pirolli. King, Liston's valet, is positively mute. Zimmering, Sonny's close friend and confidant, is a soft-spoken young man, a combination of social worker and physical culturist. Unpaid, Zimmering is genuinely devoted to Liston as a human being (this at least makes him original). "A victim of his environment," Stanley likes to say before presenting a verbal graph of Sonny's life. At the Denver camp, also, were a stray named Crawford (Liston picked him up one time and decided to stake him to three squares a day) and a few sparring partners named Foneda Cox (he also was in charge of turning on the record player), Amos (Big Train) Lincoln and Leroy Green.

Liston showed up each afternoon at 1:15. By 1:35 everybody was in his proper place: Reddish in a corner, wearing his red cap like a baseball catcher; King hanging on the ropes, rubbing a stopwatch; Pirolli pacing up and down near the front door. Soon Liston entered and peered out over the room like a great sphinx. Satisfied with the view, he began his exercises. Then he worked two rounds with Cox, a shifty fellow with a nose like a lump of putty. Liston just chased him, using only a left jab. Cox never threw a punch; he was just there to sharpen Sonny's left. After two rounds Cox's nose always looked a trifle larger. "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, that's what you look like," Liston said once after finishing with him. Cox did not laugh. Liston then worked with Lincoln for two or three rounds. Lincoln is a tall, angular young man with a goatee, who secretly believes he will be the next heavyweight champion of the world. He was still optimistic, even after Liston came close to mashing his rib cage with a left. "I wouldn't wanna be Clay," Amos mumbled later.

After Lincoln, Liston worked on Green, a cross between Chubby Checker and Archie Moore; he looks like Moore and moves about as if he is forever hearing the lewd sound of a saxophone. Green likes to boast about his ring savvy, and his moves bear him out. "Sonny hasn't hit me yet," he said. "But that don't mean nothin'. I'm kinda special. Ain't nobody hits me. But Sonny'll kill Clay after workin' with me." A couple of other sparring partners were not as fortunate as Green; Liston sent two of them home in one week. Both were disturbed about the treatment they received. "Ain't no playin' this time," Sonny grunted.

Liston has a difficult time getting sparring partners. A manager, if he cares just a little about his boy, is not going to feed him to Liston, and this, so Liston says, was mainly responsible for his loss to Clay. His fodder for the last fight was too light and fragile; he just could not hit one of them. "That's what happened against Clay," he says. "That's what happened to my shoulder. I had to use muscles I never used in training."

Through with his "shock absorbers" (as Pirolli calls them), Liston worked three rounds on the heavy bag and three rounds on the light one. He skipped rope for three rounds, took about a dozen whacks in the stomach from a medicine ball thrown by Reddish (who was usually puffing at the end) and finished his workout with two rounds of sit-ups. Then he rolled on the floor briefly, and stood on his head. Finally King helped him on with his white robe, wrapped his head in a towel, and Liston trudged off to the sanctity of his back room. The choreography never changed. In three months Liston was trimmed down from 235 to 214. "We gonna take 'im in at 210 or 212," said Reddish.

"What's with Liston now?" I asked Zimmering, the architect of Sonny's magnificent physical condition.

"He's there," said Zimmering.

"Yeah, he's right there," added Pirolli.

"Where?"

"Right there," Zimmering said, holding his hand out and rubbing his fingertips with his thumb.

"Where's that?"

"You can feel him there," Zimmering said. "He wants to go. It's like putting your fingers on the fuse of a stick of dynamite. He can go 20 rounds right now. This time he's being trained for 15 rounds with Clay."

"Was he ready the last time?"

"I don't know nothin' about that," Zimmering said, looking away.

"What are ya, a cop or somethin'?" asked Pirolli.

"Well, was he ready?"

"Ask Willie," said Pirolli.

"Willie?"

"What you tryin' to do, put me on the spot with that question?" Willie frowned. "Forget about the last fight. Right now only counts."

"Another cop," said Pirolli, shaking his head.

"I'll tell you this," said Stanley. "Physically, he's ready for this one. Five and a half miles of roadwork every morning. No fighter likes the roadwork, but Sonny is out in front of his house every morning waiting for me. He'll be able to go 30 rounds by the time we get to Boston."

"Does he ever mention Clay?"

"No. Never mentions him."

"What does he talk about?"

"His dog, Jackie."

"For two hours?"

"Yeah, he likes the dog. Then I drop him off at the house, and I call up later. I always say, 'Car 54, this is Car 57. Where are you?' "

"Where is he?"

"Watching television. Cowboys. He likes cowboys."

"How's his shoulder?"

"Perfect. I've been working with him on a certain exercise for three months, and it's as good as ever."

I asked Pirolli if Liston was in the mood to talk. Pirolli paused a moment, then said: "No. Not today."

"Why not?"

"The man's vicious. He just wants to think about the fight. He don't wanna see nobody."

"Tomorrow?"

"Yeah, tomorrow, but don't come on like a cop," Archie advised.

The next day Pirolli whispered to me: "He's in the mood. He's a barrel of fun today."

Liston was sitting in a little corner of his dressing room. Big beads of sweat rolled down his face. He looked up and growled something that sounded like hello. The interview lasted approximately five minutes. Liston said that yes, he did respect Clay and he did not think Clay was a buffoon; that yes, he did take Clay "too lightly" the last time and that he did not particularly care if Clay was a "Mooslem." No, it was not true that Clay needled him to the point of distraction and thus psyched Liston out of the fight. "I didn't pay all that stuff any mind," he said. Asked if he had any plans for Clay in Boston, he said, "Yeah, a bad night."

"Haw, haw," laughed Pirolli. "Great line. Great line."

Sonny squirmed. The interview was over.

"Great interview," said Pirolli, walking out. "Just a barrel of fun today."

The next day Pirolli, morose and nervous, walked up and down the room.

"How does he feel today?" I asked.

"No, even before you ask, you can't see him, not today or tomorrow," Pirolli said. "Not never," he added, as if remembering something.

"Why?"

"The man don't wanna see nobody. He calls up last night outta the clear blue and says: 'Archie, you want me to win the light?' I say, sure, yeah, Sonny, yeah, I wancha to win the fight. Well, then Sonny says: 'Keep that writer and everybody away from me. I only wanna think about the fight.' The man has spoken. Watcha want me to do? You wanna see 'im? Go git a gun. Go git a warrant from the D.A. I'll tell ya, the man is vicious. All he wants to do is fight and think about fighting."

Later in the day Liston finished his workout, walked over to me and exploded into a tantrum. Words piled upon words in a kind of wild' poetry.

"You been around city hall. I was told you been around city hall."

"Where is city hall and why would I be around there?" I said.

"I know you been around city hall. You been checkin' up on my record. Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Ya ever hear people talk about him? If they gonna talk 'bout him, they gonna talk 'bout me. Why poor old Joe Louis, a wonderful guy like him, they even talked about him. You know they gonna talk about me. Oh, man. someday I gonna write a book, and I gonna talk about some people."

Suddenly he stopped, turned and pranced away, throwing a Hurry of punches as his image came to meet him in the wall mirror across the room.

Liston is still Liston, socially primitive and sadly suspicious and forever the man-child. But there was something crawling through his mind in Denver, something that smoldered beneath that thick layer of bitterness. It permeated his camp, and you could feel it and it made you wonder what kind of man will be facing Clay this second time.

"A hurt man," said the priest. "He is a humiliated man. He drops by here now and then. Just to talk. Not about Clay. Not about fighting. He seems lonely, and he just wants to talk. You can sense a difference in him, and you can sense the way he feels about this fight. Now and then he goes over and talks to my housekeeper's little girl. She always says, 'Uncle Charles, you is a big bum.' Sonny just laughs."

Maybe, by some effect that staggers the imagination, Sonny Liston discovered that for himself some time ago. Humbly, up on a mountain 13 miles west of Denver.

PHOTO PHOTOWHILE DOING ROADWORK SONNY RAN UP STEPS TO STATUE OF THE SACRED HEART

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)