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Original Issue

Big punch, small chance

Sonny Liston may be our best heavyweight, but seems fated never to achieve a title shot

The Harry Wills of the '60s, in all likelihood, is a maroon-eyed 6-footer who wears size 14 gloves, jabs almost as well as Joe Louis did, has scored 20 knockouts in 30 fights, and has lost only once. Just as Harry Wills chased the mirage of a title shot with Jack Dempsey, so Sonny Liston now seems fated to take the same road to nowhere.

The camps of Heavyweight Champion Ingemar Johansson and Challenger Floyd Patterson hold parallel views about the persons reputed to lurk in Liston's managerial background. They don't like them and don't want anything to do with them.

If Johansson retains his title when he defends it June 20 against Patterson, Liston will surely be snubbed. If Patterson regains the championship, Liston will get the same treatment. The Patterson camp, indeed, turned down a $250,000 offer to fight Liston a couple of years ago.

The old familiar names, Blinky Palermo and James D. Norris, are behind the Liston plight. There is firm belief in knowledgeable quarters that Blinky, the Philadelphia hoodlum, bought a large piece of Liston from John Vitale, the St. Louis hoodlum for whom Liston once worked as a labor goon. And Norris, boxing's former monopolist and third leg on the Frankie Carbo-Blinky Palermo stool, has said, "Sonny Liston is my fighter."

Liston's manager of record is an old friend of Blinky's, Pep Barone of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Barone concedes the friendship but denies any present business with Blinky.

After the awesomely powerful Liston knocked out Roy Harris, the Cut 'n Shoot schoolmaster, in a single round at Houston last week—something it took Floyd Patterson 12 rounds to do—Barone acknowledged that present prospects for a title shot are very slender.

But he denied that the reason—the Johansson-Patterson common stand against mobsters and Norris—has any validity.

"I've known Blinky for a good many years," he said. "When I was promoting in Allentown he did me favors and I did him favors. We got along fine. But he does not own this fighter or any piece of him. The only person I have any deal with is Frank Mitchell [owner of a St. Louis weekly newspaper for Negroes], and the deal is that Mitchell will be taken care of if Liston moves up to the top. He is not cutting the fighter now.

"Furthermore, I will testify to that under oath if the Kefauver committee calls me. It's the truth."

Mitchell has already been questioned by investigators for Senator Estes Kefauver's anti-monopoly sub-committee and has said essentially the same as Barone. Among the first to see Liston's possibilities when the big fellow was an amateur, Mitchell taught him to use his now powerful right hand. (The left seems to have been naturally lethal.)

Then, a couple of years ago, Mitchell suddenly surrendered control. At that time Liston had had but one fight in two years. Mitchell says he surrendered Liston so that he would have the benefit of eastern training facilities and sparring partners.

Once Mitchell was out, Liston was in. He began to appear on Norris' TV boxing shows. He began to fight known boxers like Wayne Bethea, Mike DeJohn, Cleveland Williams, Nino Valdes and Willie Besmanoff, all of whom he knocked out. He began to move up in the ratings. The National Boxing Association now has him in the No. 1 contender position, just ahead of Patterson.


Despite Pep Barone's protestations, there are good reasons to see mobsters, the Norris interests and some other skeletons in the Liston closet.

Item: When Blinky Palermo was picked up by the St. Louis hoodlum squad two years ago, about the time Mitchell surrendered control, he conceded that he had paid hotel bills for Liston. In addition, a Western Union money order for $200, payable to Liston and signed by Palermo, was found.

Item: When Liston moved to Philadelphia from St. Louis, John Vitale lent Liston $150 for traveling expenses and $50 for furniture storage.

An amiable-seeming fellow now—outside the ring, that is—Liston has a police record that suggests he was not always amiable. In 1950 he was sentenced to five years in Missouri State Penitentiary (not "reformatory," as television press agents have put it) for first-degree robbery. Four years ago he beat up a St. Louis policeman and stole his revolver, for which he was given nine months in the City Work House.

The police record does not make him too unusual in boxing. Other prizefighters have had their youthful brushes with the law and have in time straightened out, as boxing gave them a sense of purpose and direction. But if Liston hopes to win public support for a chance at the heavyweight championship he must establish, by more emphatic means than his manager's denials, that he has not only abandoned his old ways but also such associations as he has enjoyed with Palermo and Vitale.

From a sporting standpoint it will be a shame if he doesn't. Taken solely as an athlete, he deserves a chance. In power his left hook may be compared to Johansson's right. His huge fists—special boxing gloves have to be made for him—are propelled by massive arms. His magnificent physique, including as fine a pair of legs as ever have been seen on a fighter, conveys an impression of great height, though he is just a trifle over 6 feet.


The force of his punch seems not to depend so much on speed and snap as on sheer power. It may be compared to the impact of a slow-moving .45-caliber bullet as against that of a high-speed bullet of lesser caliber. The foot-pounds of Liston energy applied with almost studied deliberation to Roy Harris' jaw knocked Harris through the ropes and onto the ring apron. Harris was knocked down twice more in that first round, the second time by a right hand, and the third time by another right, forcing Referee Jimmy Webb to stop the fight under the three-knockdown rule.

The only fighter ever to beat Liston was Marty Marshall, but the loss, by decision, occurred in what was only Liston's eighth fight. Two fights later he knocked out Marshall and subsequently won a 10-round decision from him. The only other fighter to go as many as 10 rounds with Liston is Bert Whitehurst, who did it twice by carrying the attack to him. Under such assault Liston seems to fluster.

Liston has now defeated three of the currently ranked fighters. The list is getting short. Of the remaining crop, only Zora Folley and Eddie Machen, aside from Johansson and Patterson, probably would draw well. After that Liston will have serious trouble finding even remotely worthy opposition.