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.
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."