Let us examine Sonny Liston, boxing's erstwhile Ivan the Terrible, who now is reigning as the unofficial heavyweight champion of California, except for whatever bit of turf Jerry Quarry is standing on—and most likely that will be under siege soon. Last Saturday, in the Cow Palace of San Francisco, Liston ponderously thrashed young Henry Clark, an excellent golfer but a fighter with no more moves than a telephone pole. While this may advance Liston in the ratings of telephone-pole thrashers, it did little to quicken the hearts of promoters panting after legitimate heavyweight contenders.
The end of Clark came two minutes and 47 seconds into the seventh round, with the WBA's No. 5 contender swaying but still on his feet and with Liston remembering fondly the days when he was able to knock out an opponent, the referee and the fans in the first 10 rows just by scowling. For Liston, that would make it any time before Feb. 25, 1964.
"Four, five years ago," said Angelo Dundee, who has two of the world's three heavyweight champions in Jimmy Ellis and Muhammad Ali, "Liston would have knocked out a kid like Clark in one minute. Hell, in one punch. Here's a kid made to order for Liston, a kid who eats jabs, and Sonny has to hit him with everything but an ax for seven rounds before stopping him. And he don't even get him off his feet. Tsk, tsk."
The only thing unusual about the ending was that Clark was defenseless, with his hands at his sides. For the first part, he was defenseless with his hands up. Detecting the difference, Referee Frank Carter wisely moved in, wrapped Clark in a bear hug and muttered something like: "Hey, kid, what role are you playing, Marie Antoinette?" During these peace negotiations, Liston nodded, probably in relief, for surely it must be embarrassing to spend the better part of 21 minutes sledgehammering a wall without even loosening the first brick. For all the blows he absorbed, and they were many—including something like 30 straight before the end—Clark came out unpuffed and unbloodied, if nearly unconscious.
July 14, 1968
"Oh, God," Clark sobbed later. "I tried to beat him with brute force and that was impossible. I became angry at him and I went after him, and that was stupid, stupid, stupid. Every time I'd hit him he'd grunt and say, 'That's O.K. kid, 'cause now I'm gonna bust you one," and that made me mad."
In another room Liston was laughing and saying, "If I missed any punches it wasn't anybody's fault but mine. He sure as hell didn't duck any."
On the Thursday morning before the fight Henry Clark had lounged in the quiet of the Newman & Herman gym on Leavenworth Street and said that he knew how to beat Liston. Just two months earlier he had surprised everyone by upsetting Leotis Martin, and for this the benevolent WBA had bestowed the reward of a high rating. In an hour the gym would fill with spectators, and Liston would arrive for a prefight physical. But now there was only this big, good-looking kid dreaming of a million-dollar bank account and a life with nothing more violent than striking a golf ball.
"Liston thinks he's a big bad man." said Clark, and he snorted. "And he wants everybody to think he's a big bad man. He wants everybody to be afraid of him. He sees me and right away he starts to scowl." Clark tried on a scowl. He glared at his listeners. He growled. And then he broke up laughing. "That's how he does it. Now does that make me tougher? Shoot, when he does that, all I see is a fool."
"Hey, Henry," said Richard, Clark's younger brother and trainer, a 6'5" beanpole with a bedeviling sense of humor, "tell the man how you's so mean and vicious that you got named Man of the Year twice at San Quentin."
Henry Clark nodded. "That's right. The last two years, 1966 and 1967. I go up there and fight exhibitions. You talk about tough fights. Those guys got to try and kill you or they'll catch all kinds of hell from the rest of the guys. Exhibitions? Man, I just try and stay alive without hurting anybody. That's just how I'm going to box Liston."
"By staying alive?" someone asked.
The brothers whooped, and Henry Clark flashed a mouth loaded with gold. "No, by moving all the time," said Henry. "By punching all the time, by never giving him a chance to get set where he can do me harm. Not that he could. I saw him fight Bill Joiner. He was something awful. He's old, man; even his scowl is old."
(Liston stopped Joiner in seven rounds on May 23, in Los Angeles, and a week before it happened a West Coast promoter telephoned Angelo Dundee in Miami. "Get your Mel Turnbow ready," said the promoter. "Liston is stirring up a lot of interest out here, and I want to put him in with Turnbow three weeks after the Joiner fight." Three hours after the Joiner fight the promoter called back. "Forget it, Angie," he said. "Liston stunk out the joint. He's had it. No legs, no punch, no nothing. They even threw things in the ring.")
Henry Clark shifted his big body around—he's 6'2½" and 215 pounds—and watched the first of the spectators wandering in. "Yeah, and if Liston wants to see something really tough, let him go to Baton Rouge, where I lived," he said. "There you're either a sheep or a wolf, and you might say I was the leader of the wolves. I always was kind of big. All them little sheep had to pay 50¢ a week for protection—and you know who was doing the collecting. Walk across that town you either run or fight. And I didn't run. After I got to where I was whipping three or four guys at a time, I wasn't even getting a bad look."
More people began drifting in, and finally Liston arrived. He saw Clark and turned on his scowl. Clark laughed. Liston's scowl blackened, but he walked away, as though puzzled by the new world of big, muscular youngsters who laugh when they should be trembling.
For Clark, Liston trimmed to 219 pounds, three less than he was against Joiner and the other five nonentities he has beaten—people like Elmer Rush, Bill McMurray and, Lord, Gerhard Zech—since beginning his comeback. He looked trim and well-conditioned, and for the first nine minutes of Saturday's fight he did manage to stir small memories of the Big Bear of the pre-Muhammad Ali days. But when he hit, it was without the numbing power that had made him so fearful in the past. "Phew," said Dundee, who did the color for Howard Cosell on ABC's Wide World of Sports telecast, "he hit Clark some shots that should have torn his head off. Real bombers. But nothing happened. Right there is the tip-off."
For Clark, the first three rounds were brutal. Liston set a savage pace, and Clark made it easy by walking straight in or backing straight out. "I just wanted to let him know who was boss," said Liston. Clark was having enough problems trying to find out who was boss in his corner: his brother Richard, who was not a fighter, or his manager Joe Herman, who was first a fighter and has been a manager since 1914.
"Stay 'way from him. Don't get hurt. Don't let him hit you," said Richard.
"Get in and fight, for God's sake," said Herman. "Richard, shut up! Henry, throw some punches, do something."
"Stay way away," said Richard.
"Get in there and hit that big ape," snarled Herman.
Before it was over Richard was crying and Herman was storming, and the confused Henry was trying to decide if he should fight or run. Meanwhile he was taking a fearful beating. Before Referee Carter stopped it, Herman had already decided he wasn't going back into the corner.
"I'd had it with that Richard," said Herman, trying hard to swallow a lighted cigar. "I must have been nuts to let him in there in the first place."
"You can't let no relatives in the ring." said Enock Yip, the third man in Clark's corner. "Especially brothers. They are almost as bad as those damn fathers."
Momentarily drained of violence, Liston came away from the ring smiling and shaking the many hands thrust at him from the crowd. Later he sat in his dressing room, still smiling and pretending that the people who were there weren't the same ones who were calling him a bum and a fixer not too long before. "I guess I'm just glad they are all back," he said. "Or that I'm back, I mean."
Not even the idiot newsman who popped in to ask Liston his age could shake the feeling of benevolence. "I'm 36," said Liston in a hard voice. Then he laughed. "Or is it 39? Or 32?"
"Aged wine always tastes the best, huh, Sonny?" said another, brightly.
"Ah, yeah." said Liston. "How about this one: you're only as old as you feel. How do you like that one?"
One reporter nodded and wrote it in his notebook.
"Well, I guess now I'd like to go out and straighten out this heavyweight championship," Liston said. "One at a time—Joe Frazier and Jimmy Ellis. Clark, he was the California champ, so I guess that makes me the champ here now. Maybe I got to do it state by state. I only got 49 to go. It might take awhile, but then it might take Frazier and Ellis awhile to let me in with them."
The smile went away from his face. "I sure hope," he said softly, "that those people put me in the ratings. Nine or 10, maybe. I hope they do."
Certainly he has earned that.