Your hair's white because you worry about every little thing," Sonny Liston (see cover) said, stirring his triple tea with lemon. If there were a market for an article about me by Sonny Liston, the week that had just passed would have been invaluable. I had been underfoot for breakfast, lunch, dinner, 5:30 road-work, one o'clock workouts, his evening walk and the filming of a movie in Hollywood, and in our mutual observation marathon Sonny was ahead. You think he isn't noticing; you learn he has counted the nails in your shoes. But I do know some things about Sonny Liston. I know that he can't ride the unicycle in his garage, that he doesn't like breast of chicken or mushrooms, that he is imperious, that he is a regular churchgoer and that if the building were on fire or the ship were going down I would look to Sonny Liston to tell me what to do. I know that Geraldine is going to have him out doing the spring work on the lawn this week.
On my first day in Denver, Mrs. Liston invited me to the house and, without being asked, waded into what she knows only too well is on people's minds about her husband. The big bear is Geraldine's lamb, but Geraldine said, "He don't set up and grin at me all day, either. I ask him a question and he gives me an answer and he's through. He's not a grouch, he's just got that look on him.
"And all this about how old he is. I know how old Charles is—I've got his birth record. He's 33 on May 8. If he's 40 years old he's catching up to his mother pretty fast."
Geraldine was wearing Kelly green, bright in her pale living room, which is full of tiny, fragile objects. It was difficult to imagine Sonny among them, but there was a leopard-skin rug that Geraldine says he stretches out on to watch television.
April 25, 1965
"The tour wasn't set up right," Geraldine said of the trip in 1963 which Sonny brought to an abrupt close when he flew home from London. "Everything came too close together, and everybody was sick. And then that Telstar thing came over in London [news of the bombing of the Birmingham church] and you should hear the things they ask you there, about the race problem. What are you going to say, that they did right, killing those little kids? Charles, he doesn't explain himself, but they kept bugging us, and he finally said, 'I can't take this any more.'
"Yes, we went to visit Cleveland Williams. He was pretty good when we saw him; he was eating. Cleveland, he cried. He said he knew he didn't deserve that. He wanted to fight, the police said. Charles would laugh at that.
"Charles is a good man, I don't care what the newspapers say. We've been married going on 14 years, and he acts like he loves me, whether he does or not, and he takes care of his home and that's all you can ask of a man. Charles is no preacher. I know he ought to be above reproach, I know he ought to be better than other people, but sometimes he do get into things. Like this Christmas escapade. Now you tell me, how many people don't drink at Christmastime? They have office parties. But all this to-do was over nothing. Charles wasn't driving, and they say to him, 'Get out!'
"So I call up the police station, and they say, 'No, he can't post bond.' 'Well, what did he do?' 'He was driving under the influence of alcohol.' 'Was he driving?' 'Well, no, not at the time.' There was an expert who studied the film, and he said Charles would have passed a test. But Charles wouldn't take it. They threw money on the floor and told him, 'Pick it up.' Charles said, 'You pick it up. I'm supposed to be drunk.' He said, 'If you want to lock me up, lock me up. Stop waiting for the newspapers.'
"People getting killed and shot down, and they put Charles' picture on the front page! That's stupid. They ought to be worrying about the world. He's just one little person in the world. He isn't hurting anybody. He hasn't had a wreck, he isn't beating anybody up. I don't hold up for wrong. If he was out fighting, hurting people, I'd be the first to say, 'Now you run along.'
"There was a woman on the radio here one day who said, 'People get murdered and raped, and the police never catch anybody, but every time Sonny Liston does a thing, they can catch him. I'm not a fight fan,' she said, 'and I wouldn't know Sonny Liston if I saw him but I'm sick of it.' "
On the way to the Listons' I had asked my cab driver what people in Denver thought of Sonny's struggles with the law. "I don't think people take it seriously," he said. "You take this cop who said he didn't know it was Sonny Liston until he got him down to the station and the sergeant says, 'Hi, Sonny.' He was following him for miles, the car says 'Sonny Liston' on it, the cop asks for his license, and he doesn't know it's Sonny Liston?" Every cab driver I was to talk to in Denver said substantially the same.
"You know what they said to him?" Geraldine asked. "They said, 'We don't want you here.' "
What exquisite sensibilities Liston has brought to light in, of all places, the Denver police and the sporting press! The Denver police are not as far along in living down their record as Sonny is in living down his; at the end of 1961 it was their distinction to have been proved the most systematically corrupt police force in the history of this country.
As for the sporting press, until Sonny came along it had never given anyone reason to suspect the mid-Victorian delicacy of its feelings. But suddenly there the sportswriters were, twittering about boxing's good name being dragged in the dust by a man with a record, a man who might be lying about his age, a man who was rude. He didn't talk, so the press indulged in profound analyses of his character on the basis of what he hadn't said, and speculated about his having illegitimate children. Liston has provided the press with the two great answers to two alltime dumb questions. "How long would you like to retain the title?" "Well," he said, "that's like God asking a man how long he wants to live." And, "How did you feel about losing it?" "I felt like the day the President was shot."
Teddy King, Liston's timekeeper, had invited me to dinner. He and his friend Melinda and I were sitting in his living room talking peaceably about Lent when there was an explosion in the dining alcove. Plaster sprayed across the table and smoke still hung in the air when Teddy got to the door. "Sonny? You out there?" Sonny came in, immense, unimaginable, looking pleased and happy with his firecracker. He did not look so pleased and happy when he saw me. He sat down and wordlessly dealt Teddy a gin-rummy hand—the room had shrunk by half—and I picked up The Denver Post and reread several articles that I had found vastly uninteresting the first time.
Finally Sonny said, "How do you like Denver?" I told him. "How do you like your job?" I told him. He asked me when I was going back to the hotel. "In an hour or so." "I'll pick you up."
He did come back, and gravely handed me into the new white Cadillac convertible. "Would you like a nightcap?" He took me to the Elks Club, everything else having closed at 8 on a Sunday night in Denver. A peculiar law, I thought. Sonny thought so, too. "If you're going to be drunk, you're going to be drunk by 8, right?" It wasn't my point, exactly, but it was a thought.
Sonny was welcomed by an Elk with a faintly apprehensive effusiveness and a deep concern as to what he might want—Sonny gives people, except for Geraldine, the feeling that they had better please him, but he offers no clue as to how he is to be pleased. It is disconcerting.
The Elks Club is a swinging place. I drank beer, Sonny drank orange soda, and we considered the scene in silence. You don't talk over the music at the Elks Club on a Sunday night. I was watching the dancers. Sonny, it turned out, was looking at the mantelpiece. "Looks like this place used to be a house," he said with interest.
On the way to my hotel Sonny pointed out the City and County Building—"That's the prettiest thing you ever saw when they decorate it for Christmas"—the capitol, with a dome covered with gold Sonny said they had found in the cellar, and the mint, which he felt he would mostly like to visit with a bushel basket. We passed a patrol car; it had the good fortune not to climb the curb in spite of the two officers virtually hanging out the window to stare at Sonny.
Some days later we passed the police again. Sonny had just leaned out his window to bark at a dog, and the police laughed. Sonny murmured something unenthusiastic. "Oh, come on," I said. "They were smiling." "Yeah, smiling," Sonny said. "They smile with one hand and write you a ticket with the other."
In Hollywood there was a press conference held, either because of Sonny's scene in Bill Sargent's movie about Jean Harlow or because of the fight with Clay in May, depending on whether you listened to the Harlow producer or to Harold Conrad, the fight publicity man. The Cabana Room of the Beverly Rodeo Hotel was a mess of wires and men with cameras and tripods and reporters with drinks; Sonny was smiling.
"How much do you want to weigh, Sonny?"
"What do you weigh now?"
"About 220." Somebody said that he doubted it.
"Are the Denver police trying to harass you in any way?"
"Like anything else, you can always find a bad apple. I think they're jealous of a man riding around in a fine car."
"How does it feel to be more of a hero than a villain? Clay is more of a villain now."
"It doesn't do anything."
"Does it make you feel any better inside?"
"Not exactly. You don't feel good until it's all over."
"Sonny, did you really underestimate Clay?"
"Yes, I think I did."
"How hard did you hit him?"
"I would say I didn't hit him solid at all."
"Did you discover anything about Clay?"
"I would say that I had too small sparring partners."
"Why couldn't you get Clay during the round he couldn't see?"
"I thought he could see pretty good. I could say I couldn't see too, but I can. You don't think he was telling the truth, do you?"
"You talk about your sparring partners being better."
"I got Amos Lincoln. He's 6 feet 3, and I got another one from Pittsburgh, he's 6 feet 3."
"So they'll be something like Clay in style?"
"Lincoln," one of the reporters said. "He says that by the time he gets a chance at you, you'll be in jail."
There was a silence. Sonny did not speak. Finally the reporter admitted, "I was kidding. Amos didn't say that."
"I didn't think Amos would say that."
"Sonny, you didn't finish the fight. Do you think if there had been no contract for another fight you would have stopped?"
"My trainer stopped me."
"Why did you let him stop you? As I remember the action that night the trainer said you stopped it."
"He asked me why I couldn't reach him."
"Sonny, how old are you?"
"When did you stop counting?"
"How old's your daughter, Sonny?"
"The oldest one?"
Thirty-two was the figure that Geraldine had mentioned back at the ranch; be that as it may, it is difficult to convey the quality of the maliciousness of the last questions. They were baiting Sonny, in a curiously spiteful, effeminate way; the word for it would be catty—if catty were strong enough.
Someone sensible was moved to ask, "Do you think the press has been fair to you?"
"I don't think so," Sonny said. "I sold the gloves I won the title with for $800 and I gave it to cerebral palsy, and when I had my wife's surprise birthday party and there was a lot of food left over I put it in the car and took it down to skid row for the guys who can't afford anything. There's two sides to everything. If I do anything good, you never hear about it."
"Do you really want to put Clay away, or do you just want part of the $5 million? Do you want to regain the respect of the fans?"
"Yes, I do," Sonny said. "It isn't the money. The money means more to the Government."
Everybody said what a good conference it was, how nice Sonny had been. I passed Geraldine, who was saying to somebody, "As long as he's married when he comes home. Ain't no man married when he's away from home." Everything was very cheerful.
So it was certainly interesting to see the papers the next morning. It tinned out that Sonny had "snarled," "snapped" and "sneered," that he seemed to have been lying about his weight; that he had embarked on a campaign to change his image. "Following a dinner party thrown by his wife he distributed the extra food to residents of skid row in Denver. Much to Liston's sorrow there were no members of the press in the area that night to write of his generosity," The Herald Examiner said, snidely.
The next day after breakfast there was a long stretch of lobby-sitting while we tried to find out when Sonny's scene in Harlow was to be shot; there was a rumor that it would be put off for two days. Sonny got on the phone and said laconically, "I got this fight coming up," and the shooting was unpostponed. Conrad had an appointment set up at 20th Century-Fox for Sonny, to discuss a role in a new movie version of Stagecoach, but Sonny suddenly stood up and stretched and announced that he was going to get a manicure. "A manicure—you can have a manicure anytime," Conrad said. "You can't talk to producers anytime." "Yes I can," Sonny said, leaned over Geraldine's chair, kissed her twice and walked out the door.
Sonny breezed through his fight scene that night, once an appalled Conrad had straightened out a small misunderstanding. "They thought in this scene he was going to take a dive!" Conrad said. "Can you imagine even conceiving of it!" Conrad, livid, went off to talk to the director, and the script (if there was one) was rewritten. The scene finally went off to everyone's satisfaction. We went late to dinner at Scandia—very grand—where Sonny ordered trout. "A fish?" our host, a friend of the Listons, cried. "Is that all you're eating, a fish?"
"You betting on Cassius Clay?" Sonny inquired, and Geraldine scraped at the trout. "Walnut all over it again," she said. Conversation was desultory. It was past Sonny's bedtime, and there is nothing theoretical about Sonny's bedtime when he is in training. He reached for Geraldine's hand and subsided into a sort of predessert coma.
"You really that sleepy, Champ?" A stranger had stopped by his chair. Sonny said that yes he was. "Married to a pretty girl like that, and you're sleepy!" the man went on—recklessly, I thought. Sonny was now regarding him carefully. "We've been married a long time," Geraldine said, with saving good nature, and the man left.
Sonny ordered cherry cheesecake with two scoops of ice cream. "They used to say," he observed, "that bananas and whiskey would kill you. But I knew a man used to get a stalk of bananas and a gallon of whiskey, and he lived to be about 90." Geraldine had heard something similar about watermelon and whiskey—the whiskey cooked the watermelon inside you, or something, and it was almost certain to be fatal.
Sonny got up and swung Geraldine's chair and mine around, and we went to wait for the car. Sonny yawned. "I can't stay up," he said. "My feet swell."
"Are you really Sonny Liston?" a woman asked him. "May I shake your hand?" Sonny shook her hand. A man stopped. "Hey, Champ, you gonna win it back?"
"Got to," Sonny told him.
The next day we visited the 20th Century-Fox lot and saw the Peyton Place set. "That's Allison's mother's place," Geraldine said, "and there's The Chronicle. Mr. Herendon killed this boy's sister, but her husband went to jail for the murder."
"You talking about that story again?" Sonny said. He stopped Geraldine and with a large finger gently brushed something from her eye. "This is Mr. Herendon's shop here," Geraldine continued, unperturbed. Sonny opened the door of the Peyton Place real estate office and leaned in to shout into the dust, "All right, stick-up!"
At the airport Geraldine lost a button from her coat and couldn't tie the short ends of the threads together. "Geraldine," Sonny said, "you got two left hands." He dropped the button. "And I've got four." He fixed it, finally, with a safety pin of mine that I decided was expendable after all. On the way back to Denver he seemed just perceptibly more cheerful—he sang, in a husky, private voice, all the way from the airport.
At 5:25 a.m. two days later, I stood on a street corner until I heard him shout from the edge of the city golf course. With him was Chauncey Hudson, a sparring partner—if "partner" is a feasible term for a 170-pound bespectacled, scholarly-looking amateur in the ring with Sonny Liston. It is Chauncey's function to keep away from Sonny, a function he is eager to fulfill, but his success is indifferent. Sonny keeps nailing him, sort of by mistake. He is using Chauncey to increase his speed, and when you increase your speed it is harder to pull your punches, he explains. Chauncey is pronounced "Chancy" around the gym, and why not?
Sonny wore dungarees and heavy shoes, a hooded sweat shirt and jacket, a towel around his neck. He peered solemnly out of this cocoon. "How long you been there?" He and Chauncey danced around a little, waiting for Sonny's trainer, Willie Reddish. It was cold. Two great birds flew over. "What are they?" I asked. "Ducks," Sonny said. "Canada geese." said Chauncey. "Yeah, geese." Sonny agreed. He looked up into a tree at another bird, a small fat one. "That's a robin." Willie drove up at 5:30. "Well, everybody's looking cheerful this morning," he said hopefully.
Sonny started off at a slow jog, and Chauncey followed. Willie and I got into the car and crept after them.
"I get the impression," I said to Willie, "that Sonny wasn't as happy about winning the title as he was unhappy about losing it." "Well, he did say, right after he became champion, 'I don't feel no difference,' " Willie said. "But after he had the title a while, it kind of grew on him. He realizes now what it meant, and he wants it back." I thought of Sonny, answering the question about whether he was going to get it back. "He didn't concentrate before," Teddy King had said. I would sooner be in the way of a laser. I thought, than in the way of Sonny's concentration now.
Three-quarters of the way around the course Sonny picked up the pace and lost Chauncey, then stopped for him, and they walked in. "Before we leave, we'll run around twice," Sonny said. "Without stopping." "We?" Chauncey inquired. "We," Sonny said. "Sonny's always trying to deflate me," Chauncey said. "He took my last bit of reserve when he speeded up back there." "Make you do better next time. I'm gonna get you going around here full speed."
Sonny stopped bouncing on the balls of his feet and climbed the narrow pipe fence. He balanced there, a bulky, hooded silhouette, standing in air, the sun rising behind him. He walked the pipe, turned the corner, walked another section and jumped down. "I'm going to walk the whole thing," Chauncey said, and fell off after half a section. "Too fast," Sonny said. "You got to do it slow." I fell off after half a section. Sonny kindly did not comment upon my style. It was 6:15. Sonny left for home, to bring Geraldine the paper, have an egg in milk and watch the Three Stooges on television until he went back to bed.
That afternoon things tightened up a little. His first big sparring partner, Don Smith from Pittsburgh, 239 pounds, had come in the night before. He looked young, big, fit and, at the end of the workout, depressed.
"You can't get sparring partners for him," Archie Pirolli, the training-camp manager, said. "These fellows get $50-$60 a day, they have no expenses, they get the best of food, but 'Archie,' they say when I call them, 'how would you like to just drop dead?' "
Sonny started with Chauncey and ran him around the ring for a while. Then Smith. "Do you have any superstitions about which glove you put on first?" Teddy asked him politely, holding the gloves. If Smith did have, it didn't help. Finished with him, Sonny got back to Chauncey. He knocked him to his knees with a left to the ribs, then got him several times in the head, and then in the ribs again. "Time," Teddy said.
"Time," he said again. Sonny resumed chasing Chauncey around the ring. He got him in a corner and pounded at him a little; he hit him in the stomach and Chauncey went down on all fours. He got up. "Chauncey, run. Do something or other," Willie suggested, and Chauncey looked at him piteously, all mouthpiece and eyes. Sonny hit him in the head and knocked him through the ropes. "I was trying to hold you up," he said. "You were?" Chauncey said.
Sonny moved on to the big bag. "Time." Sonny began. Sweat seemed to gush from him. "Stay loose, come on, jab—good," Willie murmured. Teddy stood, small, trim, neat, feet apart, looking at the watch. "Time."
Smith was shadowboxing in the ring, panting hoarsely. Sonny, while I was in Denver, had not drawn a labored breath. "Time." Sonny left the big bag. He paced. He touched his forehead to the leather of the smaller bag, waiting. "Time." The sound of Sonny working the small bag can be almost too much to bear. You feel your nerves stretch, the explosion of the final blow is nearly painful. Fortunately, Sonny jumps rope next; Lionel Hampton's Railroad Number One and Sonny's soft, heavy treading-out of the music against the light slap of the rope are a little easing. Everyone stares at Sonny; sweat pours down the backs of his legs, his socks slide down over the tops of his high-laced shoes; we are all in a kind of trance.
"Don't let him get you into a corner," they say. "Now how in the world am I going to keep him from getting me in a corner?" Chauncey says later. "Sonny cuts my appetite," he went on, outside in the sun. "How?" I asked him. "Emotionally or physically?" "I don't exactly know. I don't know whether it's the tension, or what." "Why do you do it?" "I don't know that either," he said. "I ask myself. It's a challenge." I laughed. "A challenge to do what? Knock him out?" Chauncey agreed, ruefully, that knocking Sonny out did not really fall within the scope of the challenge. Maybe it was just working with the best. Don Smith was looking young and disconsolate. There were places, one felt, that he would have preferred to be.
On Palm Sunday, Sonny came straight to the gym from church, to mess up Don Smith's nose again. It bled all over his shirt, it bled all over the floor. Teddy King poured water down the back of Smith's neck, and Sonny had him hold his head under the cold water faucet.
"That guy's going to leave, isn't he, Teddy?" Sonny said later in the car. "Well, he wants the doctor to look at his nose," Teddy said. "He could have a doctor here look at it, but he wants to go back to Pittsburgh."
"Did you tell him it was the altitude?"
"I told him," Chauncey said. Sonny delivered Chauncey and Teddy and took me along home for dinner. I mentioned Smith's nose to Geraldine, and she said, "Charles, you hitting him too hard?"
"No," Sonny said. He came out of the kitchen and handed me a glass of orange juice with honey in it, and he shortly disappeared. He had told Geraldine he wanted to eat at 5:30, and at 6 she was fuming. "Now this does make me mad," she said. "Charles, you know that makes me mad." Sonny hobbled across the living room, pretending a paralyzed right leg, and kissed her.
Geraldine carved the chicken, and Sonny asked the blessing. In the middle of dinner Teddy came in, muffled in a sort of mackinaw. "Joe's here," he said, meaning Joe Louis, "but he's in bed." "He's always in bed," Sonny said. "You going to walk with me?"
He and Teddy and I went out into a cool, strange twilight. It was the evening of the day of the tornadoes farther east, and the twilight in Denver was purple and queer. Sonny and Teddy talked about Joe and kites and fertilizer for the lawn and sang, but different songs. "I always tell Charles he should make a record," Geraldine says, "and he won't. He says, 'I do one thing at a time.' "
Sonny Liston is not a Shirley Temple. But, as Geraldine points out, "Charles gives money to Gibbs and Dorsey—blind from fighting. He gives money to Johnny Saxton. What does the World Boxing Association give them? Not a crust of bread, not a quarter." Sonny helps other people; he gives time and money to causes and charities; he makes speeches, which he does not particularly enjoy doing; he visits children's homes and institutions. "That hospital in Allentown [for crippled children]," he says. "You think you've got it bad, you go there and you know you've never had a dark day." Which is to say that Sonny does assume what some call the responsibilities of a person in his position. Why does anyone want him to be a Shirley Temple? Sonny Liston is intact. It is his pride that the baiters are after. They want him to give, but he is not likely to. "I'll say he's not," Teddy King says.
"The police, they don't really bother me," Liston says with unwonted mildness when asked about them in this context. "They just all want to be Elliot Ness. If you're a gangster you want to be Al Capone. If you're a cop you want to be Elliot Ness." As to pride, apart from the police, Sonny says, "I got to win this fight, if that's what you mean."