When the friend dropped in, Sonny Liston, the eye of the hurricane, was getting ready to leave Philadelphia for his training camp. He did not seem to want to talk about the refusal of the New York Athletic Commission to license him for a heavyweight championship fight with Floyd Patterson. But while his pal Raymond (Munsie) Munson helped pack the gear, Sonny slowly came out of his shell, as he almost always does. He disappeared into the basement, returned quietly and dropped an oversize, specially weighted work shoe into his visitor's lap, catching him unawares and nearly knocking the wind out of him.
"They weighs eight pounds each," Sonny announced, laughing at his practical joke. "I had 'em made special for running shoes. But there's too much strain on this muscle here [he patted the biceps femoris on the back of the thigh] to run in 'em. But walking in these shoes I get just as much good as running in regular work shoes."
Would this improve his wind? "Here's the wind down here," Liston said, patting his thigh and running his huge hand down alongside the calf. "If your legs is good, your wind is good."
Amenities over, he turned to the New York action. "I still think it's an unjustice," he said, "but fretting over it can't change it. When I started boxing, I never thought things like this could happen. To me, boxing was a sport—like baseball. When a man steps up to the plate, he either hits that ball or he don't. That's what he's judged on, not who he is or where he came from. Seems there's more politics than sport in boxing now."
His wife, Geraldine, interjected her own view on the New York ruling. "First it made me mad," she said, "but now I'm settled to it. Do they think Charles is so bad he can come in for just one night and turn the whole town rotten?" (Neither of the Listons—Mr. or Mrs.—discussed the heart of the New York reasoning: that Sonny is probably still connected in one financial way or another with the mobsters who used to control him, and that such elements "do not disengage easily." Some Philadelphians believe that if such under-the-table arrangements have been made Liston is not personally "in" on them. He is a fighter; others handle his business.)
Although Sonny professed indifference the day of the New York edict, Geraldine admitted that he was upset. He had received a telegram notifying him of the decision, without further explanation, but he had already heard the news on the car radio when he reached home.
Asked if things like this hurt his pride, Sonny said, "Some. But I gotta strong enough pride to take it. A man without strong pride has no business bein' a fighter. That's one thing I respects about Patterson. He got strong pride. Otherwise he wouldn't be fighting me.
"But things like this just give me more...more...."
"That's right, incentitive. When I gets to be champion I know I can change a lot of minds about me. I'm gonna be a good champ, a fighting champ and a friendly champ. They say Patterson's always kept to himself, that he's been hard to get to. I won't be like that. I'll speak to kids and go to banquets and all that stuff. I like to go to banquets. You can pick up new jokes that way.
"There's two ways to go in this life—the right way and the wrong way. I took the wrong way first and I paid for my mistake. Now I'm taking the right way and nothing's gonna change me."
The visitor quoted a newspaper story which had pointed out that Patterson usually has something going for him when he fights outside of New York—the eight-ounce gloves and mandatory eight-count in Miami Beach, his own imported referees in the bouts with Rademacher, London and McNeeley. Did Sonny fear a stacked deck?
"It wouldn't surprise me, and it wouldn't worry me," he said. "Patterson's champ now, so I guess he's entitled to bring in his own ref if he wants. Onliest thing I care about is that the ref knows how to count to 10."
"Now, Charles," Geraldine chided.
"You shouldn't talk like that, seein' as how nice Patterson has been, disagreeing with that commission and all that."
"What I say?" Sonny parried. "Just let the ref know how to count to 10, that's all. I didn't say nothin' about Patterson. Heck, the ref could be countin' over me, too, couldn't he?" Sonny turned his face aside, rolled his eyes up and grinned broadly at the impossibility of that suggestion. The visitor asked him how long he thought the fight would last.
"Three, four rounds," he said. "Unless he fools me and tries to box like some people think he might. I don't think he'll try to box. I expect him to start fightin' right off because of that strong pride of his. Who'd he ever try to box? Anyway, he don't have that much of a jab to box."
Then he talked about his own jab, known among fighters as "the cannon." "I developed that jab myself," he said. "From the first it seemed the most natural thing to do was develop a good jab. Keep poppin' that jab right to the middle of the forehead and the other guy can't punch right because he's never got the balance to punch right. The middle of a fighter's forehead is just like a dog's tail. Cut off the tail and the dog goes all whichway cause he ain't got no more balance. It's the same with a fighter's forehead."
Would Sonny ever fight in New York if the commission declared him rehabilitated and fit, or would he spite New York?
"Sure, I'd fight there," he declared emphatically. "The commission ain't the peoples. I don't think I should hold it against the peoples there. I been to fights in New York and they never once asked me to take a bow in the ring, but when I walk to my seat the peoples stand up and clap and say encouragements to me. One night it musta took me 20 minutes to get outa the lobby in the Garden because they was so many peoples wantin' to shake my hand and give me encouragements.
"Somethin's happened to please me a lot the other day when I was over to the shopping center to pick up a picture for Gerry. I was sittin' in the car, ready to drive off from the store when a kid saw me and said, 'Hey, you're Sonny Liston.' 'Fore I knew it they was a whole gang of kids around the car, reachin' in the window and pattin' my shoulder and all that, and they was sayin' they knew I was gonna knock out Patterson and be a fighting champ. They was all white kids, too. When I was drivin' home, I felt all warm inside."
SONNY AND GERALDINE LISTON AT HOME