Nothing is simple in boxing. Here is the heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay. He now goes by the name of Muhammad Ali. Here is Sonny Liston—when he can be found. Last February in Miami Beach, Clay won the title when Liston refused to answer the bell for the seventh round. Liston said he had hurt his shoulder. A lot of people who had picked him to win screamed fix. A platoon of doctors examined Liston and said he really had hurt his shoulder. Now Clay and Liston want to fight again. But the proposed return match may be the least simple thing of all.
Before Clay fought Liston in Miami Beach, he signed a contract with Inter-Continental Promotions saying that if he won he would fight anyone Inter-Continental picked. Inter-Continental is made up of Sonny Liston's crowd, and it was no surprise when Inter-Continental picked Liston. Inter-Continental's deal with Clay is known as a rematch contract. It is standard practice in boxing, but a number of commissions are opposed to it on the ground that a rematch contract prevents worthy challengers from fighting for the title. In the Liston-Clay case that objection is somewhat academic. There are no other worthwhile heavyweights around. What fighters Clay has not beaten, Liston has demolished. They have no one but each other.
Last week the World Boxing Association, which forbids rematch contracts, held its annual convention in Norfolk, Va. At issue was whether or not the WBA would approve the Liston-Clay fight that Inter-Continental Promotions plans to hold this November. The WBA is the old National Boxing Association dressed up with a fancier name and tricked out with a handful of foreign commissions as members, such as the Philippines, Japan and Mexico. In the U.S. only 37 states belong to the WBA, and many of them are staffed by political appointees who know little about boxing. Ed Lassman, who presided over last week's meeting, qualifies as the owner of delicatessens in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Among the kinder things that have been said about the NBA/WBA is that it is 1) a laughingstock and 2) a collection of windbags. As one delegate in Norfolk said frankly, the members "will submit to anything that fits whim or expediency." Last Wednesday, then, to the rallying cry that vaudeville was coming back, the WBA met in congress assembled in The Camellia Room of the Golden Triangle Motor Hotel.
On hand to talk to the delegates were Bill Faversham and Bill Cutchins, members of the Louisville Sponsoring Group that manages Clay, and Harold Conrad and Bill Cherry of Inter-Continental. Bob Nilon of Inter-Continental was also present, but he stayed in the background while Cherry, a lawyer, and Conrad dickered with the delegates. Jack Nilon was absent. He resigned as Liston's manager last week and will have nothing more to do with boxing. He has been sick for some time. For one thing, Liston had been driving him crazy. Then, just a couple of weeks ago, a New York grand jury indicted a Nilon acquaintance, a politician named Morris Gold, for lying about an attempted bribery. Gold, so the grand jury said, had offered an unnamed state official $100,000 for an O.K. to start a racetrack, and Nilon had given Gold the money for the concession rights at the proposed track.
Whether Jack Nilon's troubles were real or imaginary, the WBA convention quickly took on an unreal air of its own. At one session a number of delegates met—in all seriousness—to decide who is the world heavyweight wrestling champion. Many of the WBA members are enthusiasts of what they call "rassling." They came out of this session with the hot news that Lou Thesz of Phoenix, Ariz. was the new champion. A wrestler identified only as The Bruiser was listed as the No. 3 contender. One delegate assured a reporter that the tussle for the heavyweight rassling championship was always on the level.
Wrestling consumed only an hour of parliamentary debate, but heavyweight boxing took up the better part of four days. There were complications, mainly self-devised by the delegates. After losing to Clay, Liston had been removed from the WBA's list of heavyweight contenders. Removing contenders is supposed to be the business of the championships committee, but the championships committee had not done it. Lassman explained that the executive committee had banished Sonny after taking a vote. There was no record of the vote. Lassman, however, was careful to point out that Liston had not been suspended. After the delegates got all this straight, up stepped Commissioner Eddie Bohn, who owns a motel in Denver (where Liston now lives), to bellow that the Colorado commission had suspended Liston immediately after the Miami Beach fight. Bohn declared that he had sent a notice of the suspension to Lassman and Arch Hindman, the executive secretary, but neither one could recall receiving it. Bohn said that Colorado had acted after Liston's "theatrical affair" in Miami Beach. "If we don't have the jurisdiction, we took the jurisdiction," he said. "I'm not gonna look at any medical examination and let that guide me wrongly on account of his being injured."
Whether or not Liston was suspended was left in midair as the delegates met to hear Cherry and Faversham state the case for the rematch. Just before Cherry started to speak there was a rhubarb at the door. The WBA sergeant at arms, Joseph F. Maloney of the Perth Amboy, N.J. Elks Lodge, tried to throw out the invited guests, Conrad and Cutchins. When Conrad protested, Lassman, looking as befuddled as Hugh Herbert, the old movie comedian, told the sergeant at arms to let the guests in. "Let's not have a carnival," Lassman said.
Cherry told the delegates that Inter-Continental wanted WBA approval of the fight, but he warned that if Liston were deprived of his livelihood by the WBA there might be grounds for a lawsuit. He tempered this by offering to let the WBA send relays of physicians to examine Sonny and make sure that his shoulder was all right. Cherry ended by saying that if the delegates approved the fight, Inter-Continental would give the WBA a percentage of the gate to help revive boxing. This was in response to a stirring plea made earlier in the convention by Abe Greene of New Jersey, who goes by the title of national commissioner, that it was time promoters contributed to boxing's future.
Faversham also asked the delegates to recognize the return fight. He said that although the Louisville Sponsoring Group had opposed the rematch contract, Clay would not have gotten the Miami Beach fight unless he had signed it. Furthermore, Faversham said, "Counsel advises that failure of Clay to perform this legal and valid contract would result in Clay and LSG becoming liable in a breach of contract action for very substantial damages.... The WBA can best serve boxing and the public by reinstating the recognition of Liston as a top contender after appropriate investigation to assure itself that Liston is 1) no longer a stockholder in Inter-Continental Promotions, 2) has no pending personal problems which could affect his image as a challenger and 3) that his physical condition is sufficient to enable him to challenge for the title."
The delegates applauded both Faversham and Cherry, and had a vote been taken then the rematch might well have been approved. But Lassman put the matter over until the next day, and by then the atmosphere had changed completely. ("Who knows what goes with these guys?" said Conrad, who had been courting delegates.)