Nothing is simple in boxing. Here is the heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay. He now goes by the name of Muhammad Ali. Here is Sonny Liston—when he can be found. Last February in Miami Beach, Clay won the title when Liston refused to answer the bell for the seventh round. Liston said he had hurt his shoulder. A lot of people who had picked him to win screamed fix. A platoon of doctors examined Liston and said he really had hurt his shoulder. Now Clay and Liston want to fight again. But the proposed return match may be the least simple thing of all.
Before Clay fought Liston in Miami Beach, he signed a contract with Inter-Continental Promotions saying that if he won he would fight anyone Inter-Continental picked. Inter-Continental is made up of Sonny Liston's crowd, and it was no surprise when Inter-Continental picked Liston. Inter-Continental's deal with Clay is known as a rematch contract. It is standard practice in boxing, but a number of commissions are opposed to it on the ground that a rematch contract prevents worthy challengers from fighting for the title. In the Liston-Clay case that objection is somewhat academic. There are no other worthwhile heavyweights around. What fighters Clay has not beaten, Liston has demolished. They have no one but each other.
Last week the World Boxing Association, which forbids rematch contracts, held its annual convention in Norfolk, Va. At issue was whether or not the WBA would approve the Liston-Clay fight that Inter-Continental Promotions plans to hold this November. The WBA is the old National Boxing Association dressed up with a fancier name and tricked out with a handful of foreign commissions as members, such as the Philippines, Japan and Mexico. In the U.S. only 37 states belong to the WBA, and many of them are staffed by political appointees who know little about boxing. Ed Lassman, who presided over last week's meeting, qualifies as the owner of delicatessens in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Among the kinder things that have been said about the NBA/WBA is that it is 1) a laughingstock and 2) a collection of windbags. As one delegate in Norfolk said frankly, the members "will submit to anything that fits whim or expediency." Last Wednesday, then, to the rallying cry that vaudeville was coming back, the WBA met in congress assembled in The Camellia Room of the Golden Triangle Motor Hotel.
On hand to talk to the delegates were Bill Faversham and Bill Cutchins, members of the Louisville Sponsoring Group that manages Clay, and Harold Conrad and Bill Cherry of Inter-Continental. Bob Nilon of Inter-Continental was also present, but he stayed in the background while Cherry, a lawyer, and Conrad dickered with the delegates. Jack Nilon was absent. He resigned as Liston's manager last week and will have nothing more to do with boxing. He has been sick for some time. For one thing, Liston had been driving him crazy. Then, just a couple of weeks ago, a New York grand jury indicted a Nilon acquaintance, a politician named Morris Gold, for lying about an attempted bribery. Gold, so the grand jury said, had offered an unnamed state official $100,000 for an O.K. to start a racetrack, and Nilon had given Gold the money for the concession rights at the proposed track.
Whether Jack Nilon's troubles were real or imaginary, the WBA convention quickly took on an unreal air of its own. At one session a number of delegates met—in all seriousness—to decide who is the world heavyweight wrestling champion. Many of the WBA members are enthusiasts of what they call "rassling." They came out of this session with the hot news that Lou Thesz of Phoenix, Ariz. was the new champion. A wrestler identified only as The Bruiser was listed as the No. 3 contender. One delegate assured a reporter that the tussle for the heavyweight rassling championship was always on the level.
Wrestling consumed only an hour of parliamentary debate, but heavyweight boxing took up the better part of four days. There were complications, mainly self-devised by the delegates. After losing to Clay, Liston had been removed from the WBA's list of heavyweight contenders. Removing contenders is supposed to be the business of the championships committee, but the championships committee had not done it. Lassman explained that the executive committee had banished Sonny after taking a vote. There was no record of the vote. Lassman, however, was careful to point out that Liston had not been suspended. After the delegates got all this straight, up stepped Commissioner Eddie Bohn, who owns a motel in Denver (where Liston now lives), to bellow that the Colorado commission had suspended Liston immediately after the Miami Beach fight. Bohn declared that he had sent a notice of the suspension to Lassman and Arch Hindman, the executive secretary, but neither one could recall receiving it. Bohn said that Colorado had acted after Liston's "theatrical affair" in Miami Beach. "If we don't have the jurisdiction, we took the jurisdiction," he said. "I'm not gonna look at any medical examination and let that guide me wrongly on account of his being injured."
Whether or not Liston was suspended was left in midair as the delegates met to hear Cherry and Faversham state the case for the rematch. Just before Cherry started to speak there was a rhubarb at the door. The WBA sergeant at arms, Joseph F. Maloney of the Perth Amboy, N.J. Elks Lodge, tried to throw out the invited guests, Conrad and Cutchins. When Conrad protested, Lassman, looking as befuddled as Hugh Herbert, the old movie comedian, told the sergeant at arms to let the guests in. "Let's not have a carnival," Lassman said.
Cherry told the delegates that Inter-Continental wanted WBA approval of the fight, but he warned that if Liston were deprived of his livelihood by the WBA there might be grounds for a lawsuit. He tempered this by offering to let the WBA send relays of physicians to examine Sonny and make sure that his shoulder was all right. Cherry ended by saying that if the delegates approved the fight, Inter-Continental would give the WBA a percentage of the gate to help revive boxing. This was in response to a stirring plea made earlier in the convention by Abe Greene of New Jersey, who goes by the title of national commissioner, that it was time promoters contributed to boxing's future.
Faversham also asked the delegates to recognize the return fight. He said that although the Louisville Sponsoring Group had opposed the rematch contract, Clay would not have gotten the Miami Beach fight unless he had signed it. Furthermore, Faversham said, "Counsel advises that failure of Clay to perform this legal and valid contract would result in Clay and LSG becoming liable in a breach of contract action for very substantial damages.... The WBA can best serve boxing and the public by reinstating the recognition of Liston as a top contender after appropriate investigation to assure itself that Liston is 1) no longer a stockholder in Inter-Continental Promotions, 2) has no pending personal problems which could affect his image as a challenger and 3) that his physical condition is sufficient to enable him to challenge for the title."
The delegates applauded both Faversham and Cherry, and had a vote been taken then the rematch might well have been approved. But Lassman put the matter over until the next day, and by then the atmosphere had changed completely. ("Who knows what goes with these guys?" said Conrad, who had been courting delegates.)
The following day emotion ruled, and it took off in all directions. Al Sherman of the Miami Beach commission said that the Colorado commission should be severely admonished, because its suspension of Liston was "unwarranted, illegal and in the poorest of bad taste." Eddie Bohn bounced up to the mike and thundered, "Who the hell are you to tell us we are to be censured, Mr. Sherman!...Anybody who says that was a real good fight, I say you must be on the payroll!" Sherman bounced back and yelled, "I don't have to stand here and defend my commission for a goddam thing!" Several delegates gasped, and one said, "No bad language, please." That ended the battle between Bohn and Sherman, and the delegates started to knock Clay and Liston around. "I haven't seen Liston on any Wheaties boxes, or Mr. Clay either," said Art Lurie of Las Vegas. "I know when I was a kid I could look at a cereal box and see my heroes." Bohn came to the fore again when he spotted a TV reporter with a tape recorder. "I'll take that tape or I'll punch you right in the nose!" he shouted, marching up to the front of the room. The reporter gave him the tape, and Bohn went back to his seat. J.Y. Jordan of Asheville, N.C. denounced Cherry. "He winds up offering us a bribe," Jordan drawled, referring to the percentage Cherry had mentioned. Jordan said that before coming to the convention he had had a long talk with Brooks Denby, the fine colored gentleman in charge of the locker room at his country club, and Brooks Denby had told him that "Liston was a disgrace to his race." Jordan was so struck by this statement he had gone back to Brooks Denby to get permission to quote him, and Brooks Denby had given that permission.
Two ex-fighters, Bobby Dykes of the Miami commission and Chuck Davey of the Michigan commission, argued for recognition of the fight. "It's a natural," Davey said. Other delegates disagreed. Dr. A.J. Wagner, a dentist who is on the Ohio Athletic Commission, said angrily that too many speakers had wandered off the point. "Let's discuss boxing," he said, and with that he began, "I'm a member of the Boy Scouts of America," which prompted another delegate to jump up and say that Dr. Wagner was supposed to discuss boxing. Dr. Wagner did. He said the Liston-Clay fight "stinks"—he did not make clear whether he meant the last one or the next one—and added, "Let's put Liston back where he belongs, in the gutter." He said that Clay should be condemned for joining the Muslims, and he concluded with, "Let's teach our kids how to be as crooked as these guys are," whatever that meant.
Robert Summitt, chairman of the Tennessee commission and a Democratic candidate for Congress, said, "I move that the World Boxing Association disapprove of the rematch of the fight, Liston vs. Clay." "I second that motion," said Jordan. Other delegates denounced the rematch. Bohn spoke for the last time. He said, "Liston was Santy Claus on the front page of Esquire."
Finally, Lassman announced the time had come for a vote. He got everyone thoroughly confused by saying that if a delegate voted yes he meant no on the fight, and if he voted no he meant yes. Lassman tried to straighten this out, but some in the room still appeared bewildered when he was through. The vote was taken, and 27 of the 29 city, state and foreign commissions present voted disapproval of the rematch. The two holdouts were Michigan and Kentucky, but they agreed to make the decision unanimous.
On the final day of the convention the delegates voted to strip Clay of the title the moment the site and date of the rematch are announced. Delegates talked about Clay's fighting Doug Jones, the WBA's No. 1 contender (or at least Jones was until he lost to an unranked last-minute substitute a few weeks back, a fact that some delegates were not aware of) or Eddie Machen (again, one commissioner did not know that Machen had lost to Patterson in Sweden). A decision was made to hold an elimination tournament to find a new heavyweight champion without discussion of who besides the WBA would accept Jones or Machen or Floyd Patterson as the real champ as long as Clay and Liston are around.
The WBA had an opportunity to do boxing a service. For one thing, it could—and should—have fined Inter-Continental for violating the rematch rule and, even though the WBA's rules have never been upheld in court, Inter-Continental probably would have been glad to pay. For another, the WBA could—and should—have looked into the stock ownership of Inter-Continental and the possibility of continued gangster control of the ex-champion. Sam Margolis, Blinky Palermo's old friend, certainly still owns shares. Finally, Liston is said to have transferred his stock to one C.J. Murphy of Denver, but no one in Norfolk knew who C.J. Murphy was. But instead of acting on these legitimate issues the WBA chose to solve the rematch question by eliminating the match and the fighters as well.
There are 13 states that do not belong to the WBA, and Cherry and Conrad now promise that the fight will take place in one of them in mid-November. "We'll have the fight," Conrad says. "Any organization naive enough to sit down and seriously pick the heavyweight wrestling champion of the world is certainly not qualified to decide the issue of the world's heavyweight boxing title. The situation is ridiculous."
The chances are the situation will become more ridiculous. Before adjourning, the WBA elected a new president, Merv McKenzie of the Ontario Athletics Commission. McKenzie is best known in boxing circles as the commissioner who forgot to license anyone—fighters, seconds, managers, promoter—for the Patterson-McNeely title fight in Toronto. Meanwhile, ex-President Lassman is off on a new junket to spread the word of the WBA's moral stand. "There is a World Boxing Council meeting in Venice, Italy September 14 through 17," he said. "I am attending. They are offering hospitality for four days, including hotel, food, sightseeing and transportation."
Smiling Abe Greene welcomes response to his proposal that promoters contribute to WBA.
Talking up fight, Harold Conrad tries to influence Art Lurie (left) and then a skeptical Ed Lassman. Topping Conrad's frustrations, the sergeant at arms attempts to throw him out.
AYE say the backers of Liston and Clay (left), huddling at the WBA convention. Bill Cherry (far left), lawyer for Inter-Continental Promotions, talked of suing if Liston was "deprived of his livelihood." With Cherry are Bill Cutchins (center) and Bill Faversham, both of the group sponsoring Clay. They presented their case for the fight, but what they had to say did not impress the delegates.
NAY say the members of the WBA (opposite) in an exultant show of hands against the Clay-Liston rematch. After "barring" the fight, undoubtedly an exercise in futility, the delegates voted to strip Clay of his title the moment a date and site for the bout are announced by Inter-Continental. The WBA includes representatives from 37 states—which leaves 13 for promoters to choose from.