Once upon a time—say a week ago—all was order and serenity in the heavyweight picture. Sonny Liston was the champ. Floyd Patterson would get a return shot at him on April 10 in Miami Beach. And coming up hard behind was a logical contender, Cassius Clay (" Liston must fall in four"). But suddenly the whole heavyweight picture turned once more into the scene of chaos that has often characterized it since Rocky Marciano retired. Liston announced that he was having the miseries in his left knee. His manager, Concessionaire Jack Nilon, thereupon said the Patterson fight was off indefinitely. Meanwhile, the broody Patterson was having troubles of his own. He was still concerned about the "shame" of being destroyed last September and, on top of that, he was on the outs with his manager, Cus D'Amato. And to complete the confusion, Cassius Clay, the "logical" contender, proved to be made of papier-m�ch� in a fight that he barely managed to win from Doug Jones (see page 16).
The beginnings of this tangled tale came a month ago, when Liston pitched camp by the pool of the Casablanca Hotel in Miami Beach. Shortly after he arrived, he hurt his knee swinging a golf club for a freelance photographer. Nilon promptly called in two local doctors, Duke B. Baird and Patrick J. Barry, who said Sonny probably had strained a ligament, though there was a chance he had torn a cartilage. They told him to stop training until the knee felt better. Sonny laid off for 17 days, and the fight, originally scheduled for April 4, was put back to April 10. Two weeks ago, Drs. Baird and Barry examined Sonny in his cabana by the pool. They said it looked as though the strain had healed. They told Sonny he could resume training but to take it easy at first. Sonny beamed with delight. Even with his bum knee, Liston said Patterson didn't have a chance. "With my leg cut off, they might say it's a close fight," Sonny laughingly boasted. Nilon went along with the gag, but warned, "Sonny will not fight unless he's in perfect condition."
None of this reassured the promoter of the fight, Championship Sports, Inc., Roy Cohn's outfit. April 10 represented their last chance to get a money crowd in Miami Beach; after Passover the town is dead. They were well aware of the fact that Nilon had never wanted the fight there, but in Baltimore, where he has the concessions for the new arena. (Unlike orthodox fight managers, who think about the gate money alone, Nilon also thinks of Liston in terms of hot dogs, hamburgers and parked cars.)
Moreover, Nilon had made no secret of his dislike for Cohn and company. He refused to be seen with any of them in Miami Beach, and he went around knocking them loudly as "a bunch of rank amateurs." He and Liston also publicly predicted that the fight would draw poorly. "They could put this fight in a phone booth and it wouldn't sell out," said Sonny. "If you had to pay, would you go?" But there apparently was little either Nilon or Liston could do. CSI held the rematch contract in which Patterson had the right to name the site.
Then last weekend Nilon announced that Sonny's knee was hurting again and that the fight was postponed indefinitely. He said that Sonny would fly to Chicago for a week of rest and then be examined by a specialist. The specialist would tell Liston to light or to have surgery. In any event, said Nilon, "the fight is positively off for at least a month. The earliest Sonny can light is the second week in May. We want the fight. We want to get rid of it, and the sooner the better. I don't have to say why." The "why" he didn't say is that Cohn and company have Sonny legally boxed in for the rematch. What Nilon also didn't say is that the Preakness falls on May 18 in Baltimore, and a fight that weekend would probably draw a fine crowd. With Clay now a clown instead of a contender, at least pro tern, Nilon and Liston need big money fast, and Nilon has always said Baltimore was best.
On Sunday morning Cohn and company reluctantly conceded defeat. Their feeling was that, while Liston had undoubtedly strained the ligament originally, Nilon was now using it as a gimmick to dictate terms. "Nilon's a Machiavellian wise guy," said Harold Conrad, the publicity man. " Liston's supposed to be resting his leg, and he's going nightclubbing. He's all over town!" Fortunately for Fred Brooks, Cohn's friend who is in charge of Sports Vision, the outfit handling the closed-circuit TV, there is a nonappearance insurance policy that will offset most losses. But CSI is not so lucky, and Cohn probably will blow $50.000 invested in the Miami Beach fiasco. "CSI had insurance on every fight but this one," Brooks said. "Wouldn't you know it?"
Even before this whole uproar started, there were unusual developments in both the Liston and Patterson camps. Contrary to rumors that Sonny was fat and sloppy, he looked fit a week ago Sunday when he resumed training by the Casablanca pool. He was perhaps 10 or 15 pounds above his usual fighting weight of 215, but his hips were slim, and he took his customary pounding in the stomach with a 14-pound medicine ball thrown by his trainer, Willie Reddish. In fact, Liston's first performance was excitingly impressive. His punching was sharp, and his timing was on. The crowd got a big kick watching his fancy footwork as he skipped rope to a thundering recording of Night Train. He has remarkable coordination and rhythm. Because of his size, people often assume he is slow and awkward. Actually, he is as graceful and gifted an athlete as one could want to see, and a number of knowing boxing men consider him the finest heavyweight since Joe Louis.
The day before Liston resumed training he showed the film of the September light in a private dining room of the Casablanca. He sat in the dark, grinning as the crowd on the screen booed him. When he and Patterson met for the referee's instructions, he glared at Floyd. "See Sonny stare him down!" Nilon exulted. Liston disagreed. "Why should I want to stare him down?" he asked. "Watch, this is what makes him nervous—when the bell sounds."
Liston watched the rest of the film in silence. When it was over he said, "I should have had him the first two punches. He was faster duckin' down than I thought he was. I should have been aimin' at his chest instead of his head, and then I would have caught him. I'll train for speed. I got the reach. He can't fight out, he gotta come in. What can he do? What's the style where they fight with their feet? Siam? Yeah, well they ain't brought that over yet."
He dismissed the idea of Patterson's using his speed to get in and out quickly. "Get in and get out?" he asked in amazement. "Get in and get out—that's what I made sure he did!" He laughed. "The only thing I say is to have the people in the theaters holler, 'It's a rerun, but they cut it!" "