SI Vault
 
HE'S MAD AND GETTING MADDER
Jack McKinney
September 24, 1962
Heavyweight Challenger Sonny Liston has worked up half a dozen reasons to be angry at Champion Floyd Patterson. Now he is trying to hone his hatred to a fine point for their championship fight in Chicago
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 24, 1962

He's Mad And Getting Madder

Heavyweight Challenger Sonny Liston has worked up half a dozen reasons to be angry at Champion Floyd Patterson. Now he is trying to hone his hatred to a fine point for their championship fight in Chicago

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

I feel it comin' on," said Sonny Liston on a recent after-dinner walk. "I'll get to feelin' pretty evil the last few days or so before the fight. I'll pull inside myself to build up a good hate and I'll be pretty hard to live with."

Thus that strange bundle of complexes known to the fight world as Sonny, to his wife as Charles and to his campmates as T.C. (for Top Cat, the television cartoon character) keeps his record of confusions and contradictions clear. For months now Liston has been telling everyone who would listen how much he hates Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson. "Why shouldn't I resent him?" Liston said. "He runs from Negro opponents. That man's prejudiced. He hasn't fought a Negro since Hurricane Jackson. I hate him." He has repeated and enlarged on the theme. Now he announces that he has to work up to feeling "evil" in the last week of training.

But figuring out "the real Liston" or even getting a slightly accurate line on the 214-pound challenger is a task which consistently has eluded the visitors to his training camp at Aurora Downs, Ill. The reason is that for all his outward appearances of being merely a big, dumb brute with pronounced antisocial tendencies, Liston has many beguiling traits.

The visitor to Aurora Downs can see the evidence all around him. Liston, for no apparent reason, will blow his top at one of his entourage, but within a few minutes will turn suddenly into a picture of contrition, even offering money in apology. He will meet the press and answer questions in surly monosyllables. Then, the press conference hurriedly terminated, Liston will go out and chat for an hour with the policeman at the camp gate. "The poor guy could go nuts standin' out there by hisself all the time," Liston explains. Or he will slip a $10 bill to a sparmate he has beaten at cards. "He didn't have that kind of money to lose," Liston will explain, "but he helped me pass the time."

Taking its cue from the mercurial, moody Top Cat, Liston's camp is alive with action, with change and interchange. The atmosphere is frenetically different from that of the bucolic Patterson camp, 27 miles away in Elgin, Ill. The din of music is everywhere. "The first thing T.C. do, he turn on the phonograph in the morning," says one handler. Aurora Downs, a onetime harness racing and stock car track 44 miles west of Chicago, has never had it so musical.

Long abandoned and grown over with weeds, the track resembles the grim setting for an Italian movie. The gutted and burned bodies of two stock cars lie just outside the back gate. Under the grandstand, one catches the musty, dank odor of long unused space commingled with the sweet smell of rotting wood.

The only modern touches are the outdoor gym, off the track, and the indoor gym, under the grandstand in what used to be a cocktail lounge. Here, for 99� each, the faithful can watch the Top Cat work out. Experts have found these workouts baffling. One day last week, Liston shadowed sparring partner Allen Thomas around the ring for two rounds, working on the technique of cornering an opponent. Through it all, he almost seemed to be unaware that he had a right hand. It was left, left, left, with hooks and jabs and crosses.

Liston paused to breathe deeply, then worked against the heavy bag. His first series of punches dislodged it from its moorings, while the crowd oohed and ahed. After two timed minutes, Liston began throwing combinations against the repaired bag. In 15 seconds he managed to get over three sets of five-punch combinations. Said an onlooker: " Patterson would have rolled 10 punches off that bag in the time it takes to snap your fingers."

Still, no one doubted that Liston was whacking the big bag with more authority than any heavyweight since Rocky Marciano, at least with his left hand. Rope-skipping, situps, headstands and a pummeling with the medicine ball ended the workout. Liston wandered over to the main clubhouse to talk to sports-writers and 38 inmates of a state boys reformatory. The Top Cat looked mean when he walked into the room. Somebody asked him what made him think he could beat Patterson. "What makes you think I can't?" he shot back.

What did winning the fight mean to him? "It means more to me than what Martin Luther King—what he's fighting for down there. Do you think that's important?" Later he added revealingly: "If I win the fight, you'll be able to see there's good and bad in everybody. Like the way things stand now, everybody thinks there's only bad in me."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4