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This is plotting time in boxing. Just as auto manufacturers draw up designs in March for next year's models, so do members of the top heavyweight camps hatch schemes in February for the year ahead. The tax bite on a title bout is such that there can only be one or two a year, and the intrigue behind lining one up is enough to drive Machiavelli mad. Last week, plotting was at peak pitch in the lairs of Champion Floyd Patterson and Challenger Sonny Liston.
The Patterson camp is a triumvirate: the champion, Lawyer Julius November and Manager Cus D'Amato. Up until Patterson's defeat in the first Johansson fight, D'Amato was the kingpin, but since then the three have been wrangling among themselves in semisecrecy, much like Russia, Red China and Albania.
The difficulty between D'Amato on one hand and November and Patterson on the other now centers over competition with Liston. D'Amato wants nothing to do with Sonny. November would like to see Patterson fight Liston next—at least that is what Liston says November told him—and Patterson, at present anyway, agrees with November. For one, Patterson's pride is hurt: Liston has been saying Patterson "fears" to fight him. "I'm a man," Patterson says. "Any man can say he'll beat me, but no man can say I'm afraid of him." In Washington a few weeks ago Patterson said that Liston, who has had his troubles with the law (SI, July 17, 1961), "has paid for his shortcomings. They tell me he carries himself like a tough guy. But maybe that's because he had no education. He's had a pretty tough life. I think Liston will realize the responsibility he has to the boys of America if he wins the championship." Later Patterson told a friend, "Right now, plans call for me to fight Liston in New York in June."
All this drives D'Amato to desperation. An intense man, he has become even more wound up. The eyeballs roll more furiously, the black Homburg is clamped more tightly on his head and the mouth stretches even more to the side in conspiratorial grimace. He is a voice whispering in the wilderness.
D'Amato's objection to Liston is his management: he believes that the rough Italian hand of Blinky Palermo, the Philadelphia racketeer, still controls Sonny as it did when Palermo's puppet, Pep Barone, was managing Liston. When Liston supposedly bought back his contract from Barone last May and hired George Katz instead, D'Amato remained unmoved. A couple of weeks ago Liston announced he was dumping Katz and taking on a new manager, Jack Nilon, a food concessionaire. In reporting this, United Press International said that D'Amato had okayed Nilon as manager, a misstatement that prompted D'Amato to explode: "There's no change—whether it's Nilon, rayon, cotton or silk!" Told that Nilon is a churchgoing Catholic and has a brother who is a Jesuit, D'Amato exclaimed, "I don't give a damn if he was the Pope!"
What excites D'Amato's suspicion—and he is a most suspicious man—is that Nilon, like Katz, is a Philadelphian, and Philadelphia is Blinky Palermo's home turf. " Philadelphia people are always considered," D'Amato says. "This is a peculiar thing. Are there no other people? It could be Chicago, Los Angeles, New York. Why only Philadelphia people? As far as I am concerned, I see no change in the situation and see no reason to change my opposition to the fight."
At this writing, D'Amato is traveling around the country on mysterious errands doing what he can to prevent a Liston-Patterson fight. "When I want to go from A to B, I go to Z first," he says cryptically. He cares not a whit for Liston's drawing power at the gate; Patterson, he says, can make as much money fighting two or three lesser opponents.
In the Liston camp there is just as much maneuvering going on. Although Patterson's apparent decision to fight Liston makes the question of Liston's alleged mob ownership somewhat academic, it is worth noting that Blinky Palermo is back in Philadelphia. Blinky, or Blink as he is known to intimates, is about to become a pressed rose in the album of social history unless he can beat a 15-year sentence in a federal pen for conspiring to muscle in on California welterweight Don Jordan. He is out on bail appealing the case and, according to one knowing fight manager, "Blink wants nothing to do with boxing or Liston. He's completely out of the picture. All he can see is those 15 years in the can." The knowing fight manager admits that Barone was a mere front for Blink but insists that Blink's interest in Liston ended when Barone sold Liston his contract for $75,000. The manager insists the sale really took place, although the sum of $75,000 seems a suspiciously small price for a 50-50 share in a $1 million-plus property like Liston. He explains that Blink was hard up for cash because of his court case. "Blink has mortgaged his house," the knowing manager says. "The poor slob is broke—he's in tap city. He couldn't care whether Liston lives or dies." D'Amato remains skeptical. "He hasn't gone away yet," he says of Palermo.
With Blink supposedly out of the way, three other men are left around Liston: George Katz, Jack Nilon and Morton Witkin, a Philadelphia lawyer. Witkin is Liston's attorney. (He has also represented Palermo.) Witkin is a longtime Republican politician who served in the state legislature from 1925 to 1936, and for the last five years there was his party's floor leader in the House. He is the author of the Witkin Act, a law making it a criminal offense to carry a gun without a permit, which he modeled on the New York Sullivan Law.
Witkin's main concern is getting Liston the fight with Patterson. "He's ready, willing and anxious to fight Patterson anyplace anywhere in the world," Witkin says, "and he's ready to assure Patterson that if he wins and becomes the heavyweight champion of the world he's willing to post a substantial portion of his purse, under proper conditions, that he will fight Patterson a return match within a specified time. And for this first fight he will fight under the promotion of any promoter selected by Patterson and/ or his manager or his counsel." And then Witkin adds, " Patterson can't get a quarter unless he fights Sonny Liston. Who's he going to fight? If he's going to make money in '62, he's got to fight Sonny Liston. If he doesn't, the public won't go."