It's a remarkable body, too, bulky in appearance when observed from a distance of, say, 50 feet, but tightly knit and functionally proportioned for fighting when viewed at close range. For a big man, Liston's coordination is exceptional. Occasionally he would poise himself on the narrow apron of the outdoor training ring and scissors-kick his huge body up and over the top rope without using his hands—a standing high jump of better than four feet.
When I first visited his camp, Sonny was using the track bed of an abandoned railroad for his morning roadwork. His route measured four miles, up and back, and every quarter mile was punctuated by a road crossing, bounded on both sides by wire fencing three feet high. While his running companions would pull up short to straddle-climb these obstacles, Sonny would clear them on the run, like a steeplechase hurdler.
By the time I returned for my longer visit, he had switched to a shorter but even harder route over the hilly nine-hole golf course of The Pines. Here I confirmed an earlier impression that Sonny runs duckfooted, his feet turning out with each forward step, like an exaggeration of the famed Charlie Chaplin walk. He never seemed to vary the pace of this rocking jog, but I found myself lengthening my own stride in a vain attempt to keep up with him.
"Lookit the way that man sucks up them hills," gasped Raymond (Munsey) Munson, a 37-year-old noncombatant member of Liston's entourage who proved his loyalty and devotion by hauling himself out of bed every morning at 4:45 sharp to run with the boss. "He don't look like he's going fast, but he keeps getting farther and farther away."
Munsey, who is in charge of something or other not clearly defined, is a charter member of the tight little group Liston refers to affectionately as Bums, Incorporated. The others are Bill More-field, a likable, youthful-looking 36-year-old cook, who closed up his own small restaurant in West Philadelphia to take charge of the training table at South Fallsburg; Teddy King, a 52-year-old ex-featherweight, who doubles as Sonny's equipment manager and official photographer; Reddish, the 48-year-old former heavyweight who succeeded the late Jimmy Wilson as Liston's trainer back in April of 1958; and Pollino, 51, who is respected by fight people as a cut man but is valued even more by Liston for his flair for comedy and his dependability as a straight man in Sonny's improvised skits.
The joke gets old
In their most publicized production, Liston would feign rage over some make-believe transgression of Pollino's (usually nonpayment of a debt or embezzlement of the camp's petty cash fund). Liston would climax a heated exchange of words by clouting Pollino and knocking out several teeth. (The straight man would catch the blow expertly with his palm alongside his face and spit out several white beans.) Pollino would stagger back, pick up a conveniently placed golf club or baseball bat and make for Liston wildly, whereupon Sonny would produce a pistol and shoot Pollino down in his tracks (with blank cartridges). The act horrified at least a dozen visiting writers before Liston and Pollino finally retired it because they felt it had been too widely reviewed in print to be effective any longer.
Sonny's muscular humor manifested itself often during my stay. His morning walks into the town of South Fallsburg always ended at Vince's Barber Shop, where he would signal his arrival by walking up to the cash register, hitting the no-sale button and removing all the paper money. Once he peered through the doorway of the town's liveliest saloon and yelped, "Why, Floyd, what are you doing in there?" After my first couple of days at The Pines the paying guests began greeting me with "Hiya, Bobo" and "Good luck, Bobo." Munsey explained it. "Whenever they ask Sonny who the white fighter is, he tells 'em you're Bobo Olsen," Munsey disclosed, glancing significantly at my hairline.
Sonny had his profound moments, too. Once, after the morning run. I noticed him staring intently at James McCarter, a former college fullback who won the National AAU heavyweight championship in 1956 and now plans to further a professional career under the management of Jack Nilon. "Tell me something, will you?" Sonny finally asked. "Why does a college-educated guy like you want to be a fighter?"
McCarter hesitated for a moment before answering. "Well, it's one way to make a lot of money in a hurry," he said. Liston rejected that reasoning with a scowl. "What's the good of making a lot of money in a hurry if you don't know what you're doing by the time you get to spend it?" he demanded. Before McCarter could answer. Sonny began a familiar dissertation on brain damage.