Let us examine Sonny Liston, boxing's erstwhile Ivan the Terrible, who now is reigning as the unofficial heavyweight champion of California, except for whatever bit of turf Jerry Quarry is standing on—and most likely that will be under siege soon. Last Saturday, in the Cow Palace of San Francisco, Liston ponderously thrashed young Henry Clark, an excellent golfer but a fighter with no more moves than a telephone pole. While this may advance Liston in the ratings of telephone-pole thrashers, it did little to quicken the hearts of promoters panting after legitimate heavyweight contenders.
The end of Clark came two minutes and 47 seconds into the seventh round, with the WBA's No. 5 contender swaying but still on his feet and with Liston remembering fondly the days when he was able to knock out an opponent, the referee and the fans in the first 10 rows just by scowling. For Liston, that would make it any time before Feb. 25, 1964.
"Four, five years ago," said Angelo Dundee, who has two of the world's three heavyweight champions in Jimmy Ellis and Muhammad Ali, " Liston would have knocked out a kid like Clark in one minute. Hell, in one punch. Here's a kid made to order for Liston, a kid who eats jabs, and Sonny has to hit him with everything but an ax for seven rounds before stopping him. And he don't even get him off his feet. Tsk, tsk."
The only thing unusual about the ending was that Clark was defenseless, with his hands at his sides. For the first part, he was defenseless with his hands up. Detecting the difference, Referee Frank Carter wisely moved in, wrapped Clark in a bear hug and muttered something like: "Hey, kid, what role are you playing, Marie Antoinette?" During these peace negotiations, Liston nodded, probably in relief, for surely it must be embarrassing to spend the better part of 21 minutes sledgehammering a wall without even loosening the first brick. For all the blows he absorbed, and they were many—including something like 30 straight before the end—Clark came out unpuffed and unbloodied, if nearly unconscious.
"Oh, God," Clark sobbed later. "I tried to beat him with brute force and that was impossible. I became angry at him and I went after him, and that was stupid, stupid, stupid. Every time I'd hit him he'd grunt and say, 'That's O.K. kid, 'cause now I'm gonna bust you one," and that made me mad."
In another room Liston was laughing and saying, "If I missed any punches it wasn't anybody's fault but mine. He sure as hell didn't duck any."
On the Thursday morning before the fight Henry Clark had lounged in the quiet of the Newman & Herman gym on Leavenworth Street and said that he knew how to beat Liston. Just two months earlier he had surprised everyone by upsetting Leotis Martin, and for this the benevolent WBA had bestowed the reward of a high rating. In an hour the gym would fill with spectators, and Liston would arrive for a prefight physical. But now there was only this big, good-looking kid dreaming of a million-dollar bank account and a life with nothing more violent than striking a golf ball.
" Liston thinks he's a big bad man." said Clark, and he snorted. "And he wants everybody to think he's a big bad man. He wants everybody to be afraid of him. He sees me and right away he starts to scowl." Clark tried on a scowl. He glared at his listeners. He growled. And then he broke up laughing. "That's how he does it. Now does that make me tougher? Shoot, when he does that, all I see is a fool."
"Hey, Henry," said Richard, Clark's younger brother and trainer, a 6'5" beanpole with a bedeviling sense of humor, "tell the man how you's so mean and vicious that you got named Man of the Year twice at San Quentin."
Henry Clark nodded. "That's right. The last two years, 1966 and 1967. I go up there and fight exhibitions. You talk about tough fights. Those guys got to try and kill you or they'll catch all kinds of hell from the rest of the guys. Exhibitions? Man, I just try and stay alive without hurting anybody. That's just how I'm going to box Liston."