Sonny Liston drove up to the Silver Slipper Gambling Hall and Saloon, stepped out of his Cadillac, entered the clinking and clunking jackpot world of Las Vegas and threaded his way through the familiar tableau: the fat man straddling two chairs and shoving nickels into a pair of slots, the grim widows throwing away their insurance money, the businessmen chasing their losses, the cool-eyed pit bosses sizing up the action, the ladies of the evening trying to make a connection. Sonny had seen it all a thousand times over, and it held no particular interest for him. Sonny Liston is no sociologist.
As he headed for the second floor arena he passed some of the boys, the fight boys who spend their time trading memories and expertise and anticipation, guys who are trying to figure out right now, for various purposes and differing dreams that are all their own, if Sonny Liston is still a fighter—a real fighter—and if Sonny Liston might, just might, be a heavyweight champion once again. The eyes that followed him so intently were those of boxing's faithful derelicts, refugees from the days when the sport was really something, wizened little men from the twin beaches of Miami and Jacobs, hustlers and touts, ex-bookies, paunchy wiremen and runners and handicappers, all assembled in their last resort. They spoke in mingled accents: the hard Rs of South State Street mixed with the lost Rs of Eastern Parkway, with here and there a touch of red-eye-gravy talk from somebody who once bulked large on the streets of Hot Springs or New Orleans. Some of them seemed disoriented and lost; they had spent their lives looking over their shoulders and now they missed the comfort of insecurity. Their entire way of life had been upset by this city that smiles on so many acts that are misdemeanors elsewhere, a city where Sonny Liston can feel completely at home, where it is of no importance whether he dumped his fights with Cassius Clay or gave his all, where everything is forgiven: the things he did, the things he may have done and the things he never did at all.
Sonny smiled easy, shook a few hands, endured the slaps on the back. The fight crowd is full of people who want to take a friendly whack at Sonny. "How you doin', Champ?" Whack. "Good to see yeh, baby." Whack. "The wife let chew out, huh, Son?" Whack. A psychiatrist would have had a field day observing these old sports clubbing the former heavyweight champion of the world into symbolic submission.
Sonny accepted the attacks and edged his way into the arena for the Wednesday night fights at the Silver Slipper, where a weekly card marks another step in the struggle to keep the fluttery heart of club fighting pumping away. "See how Sonny's accepted?" said a man in a plaid shirt and striped tie. "Sonny gets along with just about everybody in Las Vegas." As though on cue the P.A. announcer informed the crowd of a few hundred (lots of them in on freebies, like Sonny and me) that there were celebrities in the audience. Liston's name was mentioned first. It drew the loudest cheers, but also the most boos, and one voice called from the back, "Aw, he couldn't beat Princess Margaret!" Sonny said softly, "No, it don't bother me. I boo people, too. It don't mean nothin'. They're booin' just to be booin'." He laughed a big old bass-drum laugh, ho ho ho, like Santa Claus.
"Sonny's relaxed in Las Vegas," his friend Lem Banker had told me. "Nobody expects Sonny to do anything; nobody puts any pressure on him. He's our guest, and we don't even ask him to pay. Don't forget, being heavyweight champion of the world is something. How many heavyweight champs have there been in history? Were you ever one? Was I? This is probably the greatest title anybody can hold in sports, and Sonny did it the hard way. Everybody just recalls the second Clay fight, when he was knocked out in the first round. But think back when he started fighting. He fought everybody, fought some of the toughest fellows in the ring, and all those years he had to wait for a shot at the title."
Think back when he started fighting.... In my own mind I had never been able to separate the Liston of the pre-Clay era, Liston the most feared fighter on earth, from the legend of Polyphemus the Cyclops, a rugged heavyweight of another time. Homer might have been describing either one: A remarkable monster, not at all like a bread-eating mortal,/ Rather more like some lofty mountain whose wooded peak/ Stands out alone, apart from the rest of the range. Back in those days when Sonny was belting everybody out and never changing expression, to look at him was to shudder. "He's a nice man," his wife Geraldine used to explain. "He's just got that look on him." And all of us fight fans would take another look, and we would tell Geraldine to tell it to the Marines. Every now and then Sonny would open his mouth and utter a few monosyllabic words, and it was Polyphemus the Cyclops all over again: So terribly did the gruff voice of this monstrous man/ Crash in the air that our hearts were shattered with fear....
Through my own time of admiring heavyweight champions, men like the slaphappy Maxie Baer and the rags-to-riches Jimmy Braddock and the mumbly, kindly Joe Louis and the Bible-reading Joe Walcott and the earnest Rocky Marciano and the troubled Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston was the only heavyweight champion who absolutely terrified me, the only one from whom I would have run in a dark alley. Most people felt the same way. Now it seems a hundred years ago.
When Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time we all piled into a car and drove 30 miles on a cold night to an armory where the giant figures were being screened in fuzzy splendor, and for six rounds every spectator in the unnatural setting, 1,000 miles from the scene of the action, breathed a spoken prayer that Clay would not be killed. Whatever the outcome, don't let him be killed. When the fight was over, half the audience took a whole new view of the power of prayer.
Sonny had a look on him, all right. Those were the days when he was regarded as the personification of evil, and the journalists, including me, crept about him and were hesitant to ask incisive questions. "Don't be afraid," Geraldine used to counsel. "He don't bite." We poor, petty men were not going to try to find out. Instead, we called him The Big Bear, because maybe he did bite, and we described his look as "baleful," a word which means "foreboding evil." Anybody who did not describe his look as baleful was thrown out of the writers' club.
Sonny the Cyclops used to put on training-camp spectaculars in which he would belt grown men through the ropes, and his handlers would run around complaining that he was using up sparring partners at the rate of one a day. Once I drove up to the Liston camp at South Fallsburg, N.Y. to see if it was all true. There was Sonny, glowering out from under his helmet, going three cruel rounds with a sprinting associate; Sonny jumping rope to the harsh strains of Night Train; Sonny standing in nonchalance while Trainer Willie Reddish slammed a medicine ball into that hard black stomach; Sonny headstanding on the training table and lifting his whole weight into the air on his neck muscles while small boys and old ladies looked on and gasped at a dollar a throw.