SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
July 29, 1963
On a climactic night in Las Vegas the heavyweight champion retains his title, beating Floyd Patterson and amply showing that he is a great bear of a fighter, if a surly bear of a man
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July 29, 1963

Sonny Slams Ahead

On a climactic night in Las Vegas the heavyweight champion retains his title, beating Floyd Patterson and amply showing that he is a great bear of a fighter, if a surly bear of a man

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Sonny Liston is still the heavyweight king. God save the king. God save boxing.

With chilling ease in the first round of their rematch in Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, Liston (see cover) hammered down ex-Champion Floyd Patterson. Actually, there was no fight. Liston simply bullied and bashed Patterson into the canvas like a street-corner tough smacking down a dreamy schoolboy. To Liston, Floyd was not an opponent, he was an annoyance—and, with crushing finality, the annoyance was brushed aside. It was done sullenly, without zest or cheer, and consequently it was an apt measure of the man Liston is.

This coldness does not, however, reflect on the champion's skills. It must be admitted now that he is a superb fighter. He is huge yet lithe, a rare blending of strength, balance and reflexes. His punches seemed harder than in the first Patterson fight 10 months ago. He probably is the hardest hitter since Joe Louis. " Liston is so big and strong it was almost like he was walking through the man," said onetime Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano after the debacle.

The end came at 2:10 of the first round, four seconds and two knockdowns more than Sonny had needed to beat Patterson in Chicago. The first knockdown occurred when Liston followed a flurry of body punches with a left hook to the head. The second came after a bludgeoning right-hand chop. Once more Floyd rose, only to sink before a cannonade of blows that hardly seemed aimed as they poured in on the hapless Patterson. Floyd got to one knee, but no farther. It was over. He had landed only one punch.

As the crowd of 8,000 dinned some surprisingly intense boos at Liston, he moved off to the dressing room—cool, dry, calm as a man completing an evening stroll. He was asked if he would fight boisterous Cassius Clay next. "Who is Clay?" Sonny deadpanned. Asked if Patterson should quit, he replied in Khrushchevian fashion: "Who am I to tell a bird he can't fly?" And he had heard the boos. "The public is not with me now," he said, "but they'll have to swing along until somebody beats me."

Meanwhile the shattered bird was a long time opening his dressing room door. When he did, he said: "Tonight I was not afraid. Perhaps I should have been." Patterson said he would not quit boxing, but Las Vegas had a message for him. At The Dunes Hotel workmen busily removed a sign that said "Go, Go, Go, Floyd Patterson. Next Heavyweight Champion" and replaced it with one that read "Welcome Elks."

Now it was Liston for whom the word was "Go, go, go." His victory had been a necessity, the gift of life itself. When he first challenged for the title last September, he had nothing to lose. On Monday night, he had, despite the 4�-to-1 odds, everything to lose. But if the victory is sweet to Sonny, it is murder for those around him. Sonny Liston probably is the most overbearing heavyweight champion ever.

It is part of the American dream that a man can rise above his past and be hailed as all the greater for it. In the old days, when Liston was lusting for the title, and the tough guys were obviously around, he was a personable man of rough graces. True, he had been a strong-arm guy in constant trouble but, so went the line, his background had to be considered. He was an illiterate Negro kid from Arkansas who had run away from home at 13 to buffet life in the squalid slums of St. Louis. He knocked around and was knocked around. He did time. All he needed was a chance. He was uneducated, but he was smart, had a good sense of humor and was observant. Full redemption would come with the championship. Then he would show the world the kind of man he really is.

Well, Liston has had the championship for almost a year now, and in that time he has become insufferable. He is giving back all the abuse he ever had to take. He looks upon good manners as a sign of weakness, if not cowardice, and he accepts gifts and favors with all the ill humor of a sultan demanding tribute. Most of the time he is sullen. A contemptuous grunt passes for speech.

He acts this way toward almost everyone. Of course, he can cop a plea with the press by claiming that he has been unfairly treated because of his past. What counts, however, is the way he deports himself with bootblacks, porters, maids, waitresses. As a onetime nonentity himself, he might be expected to know how they feel. Yet he has carried into his public life the bullying and cockiness that he uses to intimidate opponents in the ring. This was amply evident in Las Vegas last week, and the public did not like it. Listen to a Negro busboy at the Thunderbird, where Liston trained in Las Vegas: " Sonny Liston is just too mean to be allowed around decent people. They ought to ship him back to Africa. No, make that Mississippi." An actress from Los Angeles, who knows him: " Liston has no feelings. He doesn't care about anyone or anything, just himself. I hope Patterson kills him." A blackjack dealer: " Liston is just no good. The other day he was going to the Thunderbird to work out, and there was a line of people waiting by the barricade to get in. The man selling tickets moved aside to let Sonny by. Instead Sonny kicked the barricade down. Now, that was completely unnecessary. It was a mean and stupid trick. But that's just how Sonny acts—mean and stupid." A Negro porter: "He's mean. Why? Because he's just mean."

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