SI Vault
Mark Kram
November 02, 1964
Before he left for his bout with Clay, Sonny's training in Denver took him to some strange places
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November 02, 1964

The Prefight Moods Of Sonny Liston

Before he left for his bout with Clay, Sonny's training in Denver took him to some strange places

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One mile up on a mountain 13 miles west of Denver is the Shrine of Mother Cabrini. Half a mile above and beyond the shrine, looking down from the summit of the mountain, is a statue of the Sacred Heart. More than three hundred and fifty steps, flanked by big patches of flowers and the Stations of the Cross, lead past the shrine and up to the statue. Nearly everyone who has ever climbed to the summit speaks first of its beauty and then of the humility and aloneness that he feels there.

One day last week, as it has twice a week for the last three months, a car pulled up to the base of the mountain at 6 a.m. Three men stepped out: one bulky with mournful eyes hidden by a faded red baseball cap, one pale and wiry, and the third a man of massive features, his face immobile and framed by a tightly drawn hood. The three paused, looked up and then began to walk. Soon the hooded man ran. He ran nearly a mile along a sharply twisting path, stopped and then walked a short distance before running past the shrine and up the spiraling steps to the statue. He ran all the way and when he reached the statue, alone, he jogged in place, then paced about, his immense torso weaving, his hands in synchronized motion. Then he jogged back down the steps.

No one knew why Sonny Liston, once depicted as Santa Claus but more often seen as a sullen misanthrope, insisted on making those weekly visitations to the top of the mountain. No one, not even Willie Reddish, his trainer, or Stanley Zimmering, his physical fitness man, or a local priest who is his own private Father Flanagan, knew what Liston thought about while bathing in this serenity or, for that matter, what he has thought about during the long, lonely months of preparation for his return, title fight with Cassius Clay in Boston. By now it is a universal question whether Sonny Liston thinks at all.

Indeed, there was an aura of thought suspended or even revoked in the Liston camp at the Amid Karate & Judo Club in south Denver where the champion trained for three months before going to Boston last week. The long room, of soft d�cor and ornamented with pictures of bullfighting, was always somber; after one made a number of visits, Liston and his small band of flacks seemed to take the form of monks filing into a dining hall as each workout began. There were no newspapermen jabbing Liston with questions. "As far as the Denver papers are concerned," said one local reporter, "he doesn't even exist." Despite rumors (none confirmed) that Liston was drinking or roaring about at night in his black Cadillac, Denver seemed bored with Sonny. Only a few spectators were present for the workouts, usually old men with big bellies gazing awestruck at the glistening ingot of muscle grunting before them, or little girls staring blankly at Liston's feet skipping rope to the babbled lyrics of Night Train.

Archie Pirolli, Reddish, Zimmering and Teddy King make up the inner circle of Liston's camp. Pirolli's title is training camp manager. A boxing camp without a Pirolli is like a hunting lodge without a moose head. He belongs. Pirolli is fond of cigars, pointless monologue and wordy exaggeration. He employs both of the latter in resurrecting the dear, dead days of boxing. In Denver he enjoyed keeping people away from Sonny Liston. "No, no, you can't see 'im today," Archie liked to say, regally waving his cigar. "He's hungry. Ya ever been hungry?" Another day he might deny an audience simply because "Archie said so." Pacing up and down like the "brains" awaiting the outcome of a bank robbery in some old movie, Archie kept muttering: "I know his moods. I know his moods." Reddish, a porpoise of a man who looks sad even when he smiles, is not as articulate as Pirolli. King, Liston's valet, is positively mute. Zimmering, Sonny's close friend and confidant, is a soft-spoken young man, a combination of social worker and physical culturist. Unpaid, Zimmering is genuinely devoted to Liston as a human being (this at least makes him original). "A victim of his environment," Stanley likes to say before presenting a verbal graph of Sonny's life. At the Denver camp, also, were a stray named Crawford ( Liston picked him up one time and decided to stake him to three squares a day) and a few sparring partners named Foneda Cox (he also was in charge of turning on the record player), Amos (Big Train) Lincoln and Leroy Green.

Liston showed up each afternoon at 1:15. By 1:35 everybody was in his proper place: Reddish in a corner, wearing his red cap like a baseball catcher; King hanging on the ropes, rubbing a stopwatch; Pirolli pacing up and down near the front door. Soon Liston entered and peered out over the room like a great sphinx. Satisfied with the view, he began his exercises. Then he worked two rounds with Cox, a shifty fellow with a nose like a lump of putty. Liston just chased him, using only a left jab. Cox never threw a punch; he was just there to sharpen Sonny's left. After two rounds Cox's nose always looked a trifle larger. "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, that's what you look like," Liston said once after finishing with him. Cox did not laugh. Liston then worked with Lincoln for two or three rounds. Lincoln is a tall, angular young man with a goatee, who secretly believes he will be the next heavyweight champion of the world. He was still optimistic, even after Liston came close to mashing his rib cage with a left. "I wouldn't wanna be Clay," Amos mumbled later.

After Lincoln, Liston worked on Green, a cross between Chubby Checker and Archie Moore; he looks like Moore and moves about as if he is forever hearing the lewd sound of a saxophone. Green likes to boast about his ring savvy, and his moves bear him out. "Sonny hasn't hit me yet," he said. "But that don't mean nothin'. I'm kinda special. Ain't nobody hits me. But Sonny'll kill Clay after workin' with me." A couple of other sparring partners were not as fortunate as Green; Liston sent two of them home in one week. Both were disturbed about the treatment they received. "Ain't no playin' this time," Sonny grunted.

Liston has a difficult time getting sparring partners. A manager, if he cares just a little about his boy, is not going to feed him to Liston, and this, so Liston says, was mainly responsible for his loss to Clay. His fodder for the last fight was too light and fragile; he just could not hit one of them. "That's what happened against Clay," he says. "That's what happened to my shoulder. I had to use muscles I never used in training."

Through with his "shock absorbers" (as Pirolli calls them), Liston worked three rounds on the heavy bag and three rounds on the light one. He skipped rope for three rounds, took about a dozen whacks in the stomach from a medicine ball thrown by Reddish (who was usually puffing at the end) and finished his workout with two rounds of sit-ups. Then he rolled on the floor briefly, and stood on his head. Finally King helped him on with his white robe, wrapped his head in a towel, and Liston trudged off to the sanctity of his back room. The choreography never changed. In three months Liston was trimmed down from 235 to 214. "We gonna take 'im in at 210 or 212," said Reddish.

"What's with Liston now?" I asked Zimmering, the architect of Sonny's magnificent physical condition.

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