Sonny Liston drove up to the Silver Slipper Gambling Hall and Saloon, stepped out of his Cadillac, entered the clinking and clunking jackpot world of Las Vegas and threaded his way through the familiar tableau: the fat man straddling two chairs and shoving nickels into a pair of slots, the grim widows throwing away their insurance money, the businessmen chasing their losses, the cool-eyed pit bosses sizing up the action, the ladies of the evening trying to make a connection. Sonny had seen it all a thousand times over, and it held no particular interest for him. Sonny Liston is no sociologist.
As he headed for the second floor arena he passed some of the boys, the fight boys who spend their time trading memories and expertise and anticipation, guys who are trying to figure out right now, for various purposes and differing dreams that are all their own, if Sonny Liston is still a fighter—a real fighter—and if Sonny Liston might, just might, be a heavyweight champion once again. The eyes that followed him so intently were those of boxing's faithful derelicts, refugees from the days when the sport was really something, wizened little men from the twin beaches of Miami and Jacobs, hustlers and touts, ex-bookies, paunchy wiremen and runners and handicappers, all assembled in their last resort. They spoke in mingled accents: the hard Rs of South State Street mixed with the lost Rs of Eastern Parkway, with here and there a touch of red-eye-gravy talk from somebody who once bulked large on the streets of Hot Springs or New Orleans. Some of them seemed disoriented and lost; they had spent their lives looking over their shoulders and now they missed the comfort of insecurity. Their entire way of life had been upset by this city that smiles on so many acts that are misdemeanors elsewhere, a city where Sonny Liston can feel completely at home, where it is of no importance whether he dumped his fights with Cassius Clay or gave his all, where everything is forgiven: the things he did, the things he may have done and the things he never did at all.
Sonny smiled easy, shook a few hands, endured the slaps on the back. The fight crowd is full of people who want to take a friendly whack at Sonny. "How you doin', Champ?" Whack. "Good to see yeh, baby." Whack. "The wife let chew out, huh, Son?" Whack. A psychiatrist would have had a field day observing these old sports clubbing the former heavyweight champion of the world into symbolic submission.
Sonny accepted the attacks and edged his way into the arena for the Wednesday night fights at the Silver Slipper, where a weekly card marks another step in the struggle to keep the fluttery heart of club fighting pumping away. "See how Sonny's accepted?" said a man in a plaid shirt and striped tie. "Sonny gets along with just about everybody in Las Vegas." As though on cue the P.A. announcer informed the crowd of a few hundred (lots of them in on freebies, like Sonny and me) that there were celebrities in the audience. Liston's name was mentioned first. It drew the loudest cheers, but also the most boos, and one voice called from the back, "Aw, he couldn't beat Princess Margaret!" Sonny said softly, "No, it don't bother me. I boo people, too. It don't mean nothin'. They're booin' just to be booin'." He laughed a big old bass-drum laugh, ho ho ho, like Santa Claus.
"Sonny's relaxed in Las Vegas," his friend Lem Banker had told me. "Nobody expects Sonny to do anything; nobody puts any pressure on him. He's our guest, and we don't even ask him to pay. Don't forget, being heavyweight champion of the world is something. How many heavyweight champs have there been in history? Were you ever one? Was I? This is probably the greatest title anybody can hold in sports, and Sonny did it the hard way. Everybody just recalls the second Clay fight, when he was knocked out in the first round. But think back when he started fighting. He fought everybody, fought some of the toughest fellows in the ring, and all those years he had to wait for a shot at the title."
Think back when he started fighting.... In my own mind I had never been able to separate the Liston of the pre-Clay era, Liston the most feared fighter on earth, from the legend of Polyphemus the Cyclops, a rugged heavyweight of another time. Homer might have been describing either one: A remarkable monster, not at all like a bread-eating mortal,/ Rather more like some lofty mountain whose wooded peak/ Stands out alone, apart from the rest of the range. Back in those days when Sonny was belting everybody out and never changing expression, to look at him was to shudder. "He's a nice man," his wife Geraldine used to explain. "He's just got that look on him." And all of us fight fans would take another look, and we would tell Geraldine to tell it to the Marines. Every now and then Sonny would open his mouth and utter a few monosyllabic words, and it was Polyphemus the Cyclops all over again: So terribly did the gruff voice of this monstrous man/ Crash in the air that our hearts were shattered with fear....
Through my own time of admiring heavyweight champions, men like the slaphappy Maxie Baer and the rags-to-riches Jimmy Braddock and the mumbly, kindly Joe Louis and the Bible-reading Joe Walcott and the earnest Rocky Marciano and the troubled Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston was the only heavyweight champion who absolutely terrified me, the only one from whom I would have run in a dark alley. Most people felt the same way. Now it seems a hundred years ago.
When Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time we all piled into a car and drove 30 miles on a cold night to an armory where the giant figures were being screened in fuzzy splendor, and for six rounds every spectator in the unnatural setting, 1,000 miles from the scene of the action, breathed a spoken prayer that Clay would not be killed. Whatever the outcome, don't let him be killed. When the fight was over, half the audience took a whole new view of the power of prayer.
Sonny had a look on him, all right. Those were the days when he was regarded as the personification of evil, and the journalists, including me, crept about him and were hesitant to ask incisive questions. "Don't be afraid," Geraldine used to counsel. "He don't bite." We poor, petty men were not going to try to find out. Instead, we called him The Big Bear, because maybe he did bite, and we described his look as "baleful," a word which means "foreboding evil." Anybody who did not describe his look as baleful was thrown out of the writers' club.
Sonny the Cyclops used to put on training-camp spectaculars in which he would belt grown men through the ropes, and his handlers would run around complaining that he was using up sparring partners at the rate of one a day. Once I drove up to the Liston camp at South Fallsburg, N.Y. to see if it was all true. There was Sonny, glowering out from under his helmet, going three cruel rounds with a sprinting associate; Sonny jumping rope to the harsh strains of Night Train; Sonny standing in nonchalance while Trainer Willie Reddish slammed a medicine ball into that hard black stomach; Sonny headstanding on the training table and lifting his whole weight into the air on his neck muscles while small boys and old ladies looked on and gasped at a dollar a throw.
Now it takes almost an act of will to recall the time, not very long ago, when Sonny Liston was the most awe-inspiring fighter on earth, when the image of Liston the fighter was inseparable from the image of Liston the ex-con, Liston the stickup man, Liston the union strong-arm guy, Liston the cool assassin with the baleful look and the stomach of iron and the neck muscles that could hold up mountains. Opponents came in and opponents sailed out, like enemies coming over the ropes at Popeye—Zora Folley, Eddie Machen, Cleveland Williams, Marty Marshall, Roy Harris, Bert Whitehurst, Frankie Daniels, Wayne Bethea—and finally the world champion, Floyd Patterson, knocked insensible twice in less time than it takes to shave.
And then the most frightening figure on earth lost two fights to a boy. Suddenly Sonny Liston was a bum, a stiff, a fake.
Many people thought he had quit too soon in the first Clay fight (when he claimed an injured arm and did not come out for the seventh) and that he took a dive in the second (when he was knocked out in one minute of the first round). There was hardly any street-level opposition to either theory, and the Liston balloon was so thoroughly deflated that the very people who had been terrified of him now goaded and teased him from a safe distance. Sonny had played a small part in a movie and when it was released after the Clay fights the marquee on a Texas movie house said: SEE LISTON—ON HIS FEET! Floyd Patterson wrote derisively of the man who had bombed him twice, and the daily columnists tried to outdo one another in telling their clientele what a coward and a cheat Liston was. Indelibly tagged as the bad guy, the heavy, the crime syndicate's favorite bum, Polyphemus the Cyclops sank swiftly out of sight.
A young fighter was getting torn up in the Silver Slipper ring, and a lady called out to Sonny Liston's companion, a smiling, pompadoured Las Vegas businessman: "How can you laugh when that boy's getting beat up so bad?"
"I don't know," Sonny's friend said. "It's just fun."
"Yeah," said Sonny. "It's fun out here in the audience. But not up there it ain't."
Sonny explained that he feels sorry for losing boxers. "I stopped a fight one night," he said. "I was just sittin' at ringside and this boy had lost all the rounds and it was the eighth or ninth and he was still gettin' beat, so I said to his corner, 'Man, stop the fight!'
"He says, 'I can't!'
"I says, 'I can't throw no towel in! Do somethin'!' So he got up there and stopped it." Sonny laughed at the memory of his own audacity.
Next a pair of professionals climbed into the ring, and one of them was totally bald. "Jack Johnson's come back from the daid," Sonny said reverently. The fight began and the bald boxer's opponent went into a left-handed stance. "Jack Johnson lose," Liston predicted before the match was a minute old. "Them punches comin' from the wrong side. Nobody look good against a southpaw." Sonny was right: Jack Johnson lose.
For the rest of the evening Sonny was full of advice to fighters and cornermen alike. When one boy staggered back and the second waved a bottle under his nose, Sonny called, "Give him the good stuff, the capsule you break!"
After a first-round flurry Liston hollered to a young professional, "Don't run outa gas, kid!" To the corner he said, "Slow him down! He's got a long road to go.... Hey, man, lean him back against the ropes when you work on him or that other fighter's gonna lean him back!" Sonny is a great believer in plenty of rest for a boxer, especially during a bout. He handicapped the feature fight solely on the basis of a fighter's need for rest and rehabilitation. One fighter did not sit down between rounds. "He gotta lose," said Liston. "A fighter needs that rest."
"What's he trying to prove by standing up?" I asked.
"He's provin' how to get killed," Sonny said. The fighter lost. "The next fight he'll be settin' down," said Sonny.
While the crowd was hustling out, Sonny vanished into the promoter's room and came hurrying out with two sets of boxing gloves. "Here," he said to a pair of newly married friends he had spotted, "take these! You gonna need 'em!" The cronies laughed. Sonny can read from the Clark County phone book and get a laugh in Las Vegas. He said, "When I won the title I had my gloves set in bronze, like baby shoes. Later on I gave Geraldine a pair of mink boxing gloves. When we fight now she uses her minks and I uses my bronzes. That's why I always win."
Walking to the parking lot, Sonny and his companion nearly were bumped by a well-dressed woman. "Oh, Sonny!" she said apologetically. "You don't have to speak to me tonight, 'cause tonight I'm drunk."
Sonny said, "Oh, hello, how are you?" and the lady wobbled into the night. A friend of Sonny's climbed into a yellow Jaguar and drove off in a cloud of fumes and scorching rubber, but Sonny maneuvered his green and black Fleetwood sedan out of its parking space with slow dignity, signaled a right turn and headed majestically toward home.
For a man who has managed to get into trouble in a multiplicity of cities, Sonny Liston seems to have made an admirable adjustment to Las Vegas. "He's living the life of a country squire here," says Boxing Promoter Mel Greb, who was among the original group that urged Sonny to come to the desert. "He plays a little 21 for a dollar or two, and when he isn't in training he just generally goofs off. He's resolved to be a good boy. He's reserved."
According to Geraldine Liston, Sonny was just as reserved and nonincendiary in Denver, their previous habitat, but the police kept so much heat on him that it was impossible to live a normal life. "Here in Las Vegas it's different," says the pert lady who always tried to make up for her husband's taciturnity and usually succeeded. "Since we've lived here Sonny hasn't had a parking ticket, he hasn't even been stopped and he's never been followed. In Denver they followed him every place he drove."
"At first Sonny was a little reluctant to come here," Greb recalls. "He told me, 'I don't want to be sittin' at one table and have my friends sittin' at another.' I said, 'There's a small amount of segregation in Las Vegas, but it's leaving fast.' He said, 'I don't believe it.' But then it came to pass that Sonny was running out of places to live."
The Listons were welcomed to Las Vegas in March of 1966, and the welcome has not worn off. "It's really nice for us here," says Sonny. "I gotta say that. At all the hotels I never have to pay for nothin', they always pick up the tab. Everybody always wants me to come out and eat and eat, but you know I get tired of it. I like my wife's cookin' and anyway she don't have nothin' else to do all day." He laughed at Geraldine's discomfiture.
The word has been circulated in Las Vegas that Liston is now square with the mob. Though little was ever proved, it has always been assumed that certain underworld elements were cutting the fighter from the beginning. "Not long ago he paid his way out of all that," an insider explains. "He's clean."
Today it is almost impossible to talk to any Las Vegan about Liston without first having to endure an impassioned 15-minute defense of Sonny's character.
"Nobody cares about his past anymore," says Banker, who runs the Sahara Health Club. "Since he came here he's been very tactful, very diplomatic. He's been generous and his manners are above reproach. We're lucky to have him. When he first came to town he had contracted to fight in Sweden and he couldn't find a decent place to work out, so he started coming to my health club and I put him into a conditioning program." Sonny has become a regular at Banker's club and, at the very least, strips down for a weight-reducing sauna. "Gets the impurities out," Sonny explains. "If you don't sweat 'em out, they stays in you."
One day Liston was seated on the wood bench in the sauna when a middle-aged man with a pot belly opened the door and started to walk into the stifling little room. There was Liston, 225 pounds of him, baleful look and all, be-muscled body gleaming like the Emperor Jones in the last act. The man looked both ways, saw no ready exit, tiptoed in and took a position on the bench next to the fighter. For five minutes the newcomer shot sideways glances at the dark hulk sitting naked next to him, but he stopped looking when Sonny returned the stare. "Nice day," the man blurted. The thermometer in the sauna registered 200° at the time.
"Ummmmmm," said Sonny, and the conversation was over.
But if he is the same old silent Sonny with others, Liston has at least learned to open up with his new pals in Las Vegas. "He'll talk about anything," Banker says, "and sometimes he gets carried away and he's really funny, really one of the boys. I guess there's only one thing we don't talk about, at least I've never heard him discuss the subject. That's the second fight with Clay. The first fight we talk about once in a while. But never the second."
The Listons live in a $50,000 pastel-green split-level at 2058 Ottawa Drive in Las Vegas, and if you walk too fast through the house and out the back door you will wind up on the 16th fairway of the Stardust Country Club, provided you have not fallen in the 10-by-30-foot swimming pool or tripped over the playground equipment implanted in the yard for the delight of the younger friends of the childless couple. The house is neatly landscaped by trees, shrubbery and a pair of Cadillacs in the driveway—Sonny's big green and black job and Geraldine's shocking-pink convertible. The gay paint goes back to the days when the good times rolled. "I had this pink sweater and I just loved the color of it," Geraldine recalls, "so we had the car painted to match." Once there was a time when the Listons made gestures like that, although they never ranked as the biggest spenders in the heavyweight division. In the dining room of their tastefully decorated house there is a gold tea service that catches the eye. "It used to be silver," Geraldine says, "but all that polishing got kinda old, and I had it gold-plated over the silver." On a tour of the house the Listons passed over many items of taste and delicacy to show off a handsome hand-carved jewelry box made by an inmate of a Colorado prison. "In jail," Sonny explains solemnly, "a guy got time on his hands."
Sonny wandered off briefly and Geraldine talked about Las Vegas. "We never had a bit of trouble when we moved in here," she said, "and you know this isn't integrated over here. The people been so nice."
We reassembled in the den, a long, large room lined with pictures and paintings of Liston as champion, a statue of President Kennedy, Sonny's bronzed boxing gloves and Geraldine's mink ones, and various other memorabilia, all dusted and carefully in place. Sonny lounged on a long window seat and tried his best to stay awake. "Been huntin' rabbits," he said with great effort, "and when we hunts rabbits, we don't get much sleep. We leave at 2 o'clock in the morning."
"Don't know how you can keep up that hunting," Geraldine said. "Walking 20 miles a day through that sand, a man of your age." She laughed and slapped her sides. "Why, you must be 60!" Sonny yawned. This was a family joke and he was not called upon to respond.
"Charles is 35 now, but the newspapers keep saying he's older," Geraldine explained. "When he boxed a couple times over Sweden, they started that same old stuff. They interviewed him, and they said, 'You're 42, aren't you?' And another reporter said, 'He's 40 years old, I know for a fact that Joe Walcott boxed with him.' And one said, 'He has a daughter 25.' I said to Charles, 'Where's that 25-year-old daughter hidin'?' But we can prove his age." And in a moment she had found a birth certificate attesting to the fact that Charles Liston was born May 8, 1932, in Forrest City, Ark., the child of Helen and Tobe Liston of Rural Rt. 2, St. Francis County.
"When he lost that second fight to Clay," Geraldine said, "they wrote that he looked like an old man. Well, I guess they got to write something."
One slowly got the impression that the first weeks after the Clay fights must have been trying ones for the Listons, living in Denver under the eager eye of the police department, reading the attacks on Sonny in the press, hearing the broad hints that he had thrown the fight. If none of this bothered the loser, it certainly bothered the wife. "We got those crank letters right after the fight," she said. "They wrote, 'You lost my money.' I wrote 'em back and I said, 'What about the money you won?' I wrote many a letter back. Answered every one."
I asked if anyone had accused Sonny pointblank of throwing the fight. Sonny raised himself up on an elbow. "Yeah," he said slowly.
What did he do about it?
"Well, you don't want me to tell you what I told them, do you?" For a second Polyphemus the Cyclops had returned, but then he subsided to the cushions. "No, you don't want to hear nothin' like that," he said in a voice that was barely audible.
Had he lost any friends after the fight?
"No," Sonny said matter-of-factly. "I had my friends in my pocket."
Well, would he care to explain exactly what happened that night in Maine?
Sonny cleared his throat, sat up and began talking like a man who is discussing a painful subject for the absolute last time. "Clay caught me cold and the count was messed up, and that's all they was to it," he said. "Clay knocked me down with a good punch. Anybody can get caught cold in the first round, before you even work up a sweat. And when I was down, Clay stood right over me. No, I never blacked out, not for a second. But I wasn't gonna get up, either, not with him standin' over me. See, you can't get up without puttin' one hand on the floor, and so I couldn't protect myself, and he can hit me on the way up.
"So there was Walcott [Referee Jersey Joe Walcott] and Clay wrasslin' over me and Walcott finally got him to a corner or somethin', and then I got up and Clay come back and we started back to fightin' again.
"And Nat Fletcher [Nat Fleischer, editor of The Ring Magazine] began wavin' his arms at ringside and Walcott stopped the fight. Nowadays Nat Fletcher says he was just callin' Walcott over to tell him that the timekeeper wanted to see him or somethin', but other people says it was Nat Fletcher stopped the fight.
"I was never counted out. I coulda got up even right after I was hit. And I still felt pretty good when I did get up. I mean I could still go on. What Walcott shoulda done, he shoulda sent Cassius to a neutral corner. When the referees call you out in the center of the ring before a fight, they tells you that: go to a neutral corner. And that's when they count you out, not with no fighter standin' right over you.
"They shouldn't have fighters refereein' no fights no way," Sonny added, now back in his horizontal position. "They should have people that don't get excited."
Does he still consider himself a better fighter than Clay?
"Yeah," Sonny said, with the air of someone confirming that gold is heavier than helium.
Could Sonny Liston beat Cassius Clay? Or, for that matter, beat Joe Frazier, or beat Jimmy Ellis? Could he be the champion again?
Not counting an exhibition or two, Liston has fought five times since losing to Clay at Lewiston, four times in Sweden. His first match was in June 1966, against the lumbering Gerhard Zech at Stockholm, and although he knocked the German out in the seventh round, Sonny was not impressive. "Nobody look good against a southpaw," he reminded his friends.
Sonny's next fight was at Goteborg against Amos Johnson, who enjoyed the distinction of having defeated Clay in the amateurs. Liston knocked Johnson down three times and won in the third round.
But now a problem arose. Sonny had agreed to three fights in Sweden for Promoter Ingemar Johansson, but after the second fight nobody was enthusiastic about facing Liston. "We couldn't find any opponents," says Geraldine. "First they tried to get Milton Berle. [Both Listons continually refer to Germany's Karl Mildenberger as Milton Berle.] But he wouldn't take the fight. Nobody wanted to fight Charles. The managers holler like a pig on a fence. The public say he's through, and they base it all on the Clay fights. But nobody wants to fight him, so he can't be too through."
Finally a match—of sorts—was made against Dave Bailey in March 1967 in Goteborg. Sonny knocked Bailey out in the first round. A month later in Stockholm he knocked out Elmer ("Have gloves, will travel") Rush in the sixth.
By now Liston was hankering for the big time again. The World Boxing Association said there was no suspension against him. He was licensed to fight in Nevada and Massachusetts, and just this winter California granted him a license to fight there. A month ago, in his most significant showing, Sonny TKO'ed a fairly well-considered West Coast heavyweight, Bill McMurray, in the fourth round at Reno, and the consensus of the men with the hard eyes was that he had looked convincing doing it. Liston was heavy, at 223, and the fat bulged over his trunks, but the two men who cared most about his performance did not mind the weight at all. "Sonny's in condition," said his trainer, Dick Saddler, "and I don't care what he weighs, if he's in shape, he's gonna make 'em fall." Sonny, something of a new-look Sonny with a laugh ready for questioners, agreed with Saddler: "It's like Minnesota Fats. He says if he lost his weight he'd lose his image. I don't care what I weigh as long as I feel good."
Now Sonny trains every day at the Silver Slipper and gets up at 6 a.m. each morning to run five miles, and when he gets hit with the big question he counters with the big answer:
"What are your plans?"
"To get back on top."
But Sonny is not doing a lot of worrying about that goal. A fight is planned for later this month against Billy Joiner in Los Angeles, and after that the future is as ill-defined as a crap player's fortunes.
"I take things as they come," Sonny says. "I don't sit around thinkin' a whole lot. When you sit around and think about things, you get gray-headed. When you worry...I just don't. What's gonna be is gonna be."
"What I'd really like to see Charles do is become a businessman and work with kids on the side, like he wants to," Geraldine says. "This fighting is for the birds. Too many headaches. You have to fight too many people, not just in the ring. I don't know whether you call this a comeback or not, what Charles is doing, but he ain't gonna box no four, five more years, I can promise you that. If he don't make it back up by the end of this year, they can have it. Charles only has to lose one fight and he'll quit. If he'd lost that first fight in Sweden he'd have gone straight into business."
But metamorphosizing Sonny Liston into a businessman is not as simple a process as it is with some other athletes. "You get all these business offers," Geraldine says, "but they always want you to put up money. See, a name like Stan Musial means something all by itself, because he's a white athlete. And Arnold Palmer, he have it easy. But Sonny's name isn't worth anything unless he sweetens it with some money of his own."
"Well, the trouble is Sonny's got no money to put up," says a Las Vegas gambling figure and Liston confidant. "He talks about buying into one of the hotels in Vegas, but what with? He has some money coming from his fights, money that was tied up, but he may never see any of that. When he went to Sweden to fight the first time, he had to borrow $3,000 from the bank on his car. He doesn't spend much. He doesn't throw it around. But remember: he was cut up pretty good. He never knew what was going on.
"What I think will happen if Sonny's comeback fails is he'll go to work. Just plain take a job. Sonny's not proud. If he has to work in construction or something like that, why, that's exactly what he'll do."
Outside the showroom at the gaudy Caesars Palace, where Sonny likes to wander around early in the evenings these days, there are two entrances, one where 500 people wait in line for their "reservations," another where ushers whisk honored guests to their seats. Sonny and Geraldine and their companions started to take a place in the line, at Liston's behest, but a guard saw them and directed the two couples to a Roman-style booth with scalloped leather backs, the best seats in the house. "Why did you want us to get in line?" I asked Sonny.
As usual Geraldine answered. "That's just the way he is. Once when we had reservations at the Flamingo, Charles went up to the man at the door and the man said, 'Get in line!' Charles didn't tell the man who he was, we just went back and stood in line."