Muhammad Ali says Mort Sharnik is one of only two newsmen he will trust. Angelo Dundee, Ali's manager, says Sharnik is one of the few men, in or out of the sport, who really understands what boxing is all about. And in his interview with Joe Frazier that begins on page 28 Mort again reveals his special talent for eliciting both affection and stories from unpromising sources. Before Sharnik got him to talk, Frazier was regarded by most reporters as a man capable of little more than moody silences or monosyllables.
Sharnik has always had a way with even the most difficult subjects, and one of his earliest breakthroughs was with a man many reporters feared even to approach, let alone engage in conversation: Sonny Liston.
"Everyone told me that I couldn't talk to this guy, that he was surly, that he had nothing to say," Sharnik recalls. "But he invited me down to his house in Philadelphia, gave me breakfast and spent the next 12 hours telling me all about his eventful past."
Sharnik's ability to involve himself deeply with his subject is one reason why these conversations have proved so fruitful. To help get his story on The Four Who Baffled Liston (SI, Feb. 10, 1964), Sharnik, who had done some amateur boxing as a schoolboy, climbed into a ring with Marty Marshall to get a closeup demonstration of the punch that broke Liston's jaw. He has also sat through many an all-night session of such exotically named card games as siete y media, a form of blackjack that is a favorite with many of the Spanish-speaking fighters, and cooncan or tunk, two rummytype games enjoyed by numerous black fighters.
Boxing is Sharnik's favorite beat, but his talents have helped us break stories in other areas. Mort's persistent digging gave us the facts on the sometimes brutal methods employed back in 1962 by the University of Kentucky's football coaching staff (SI, Oct. 8, 1962). His investigations produced our exposure of Pitcher Denny McLain's involvement with bookmakers and hoodlums (SI, Feb. 23, 1970) and highlighted the problems of Running Back Ernie Wheelwright in his effort to free his New Orleans nightclub from control by mobsters (SI, June 1, 1970).
Why are some supposedly tonguetied types willing to talk to Sharnik? "Probably because I have the patience to hear them out," says Mort. "They tend to trust me. I'm also a pretty careful observer. I notice things athletes do and don't do, and then mention them. When people find out that you are taking the trouble to watch them that closely, they are flattered and encouraged to talk to you. You've proved you care."
One thing Sharnik noticed that many others missed was a famous KO punch. Announcer Steve Ellis, who worked the closed-circuit telecast of the second Ali-Liston fight, pulled Sharnik up into the ring after it was over and had him explain the lightning blow—dubbed "the phantom" by ignorami—that had knocked out Liston in the first round. Sharnik demonstrated how Ali had drawn Liston in for a jab and then, while he was off-balance, hit down on his jaw with the right-hand chop.