SI Vault
Gilbert Rogin
October 08, 1962
Sonny Liston's easy knockout of Floyd Patterson raised many questions. Was it a fix? Was Patterson terrified? Is Liston a danger to boxing? Here are the answers
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 08, 1962

The Facts About The Big Fight

Sonny Liston's easy knockout of Floyd Patterson raised many questions. Was it a fix? Was Patterson terrified? Is Liston a danger to boxing? Here are the answers

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

When the return is held (it will be held, and relatively soon), Patterson will enter the ring to boos and epithets. In this one miniature fight he lost practically all his public support. He went in as the sentimental choice of the sports-writers (60% of whom picked him to win): they had reasoned that his speed and versatility would prove him too much for a man who was not even able to knock out Eddie Machen, and they also figured that the Paul Bunyan tales coming from the Liston training camp were just the usual prefight hoopla. Many were influenced unduly by reports of a planned coup by the big "betting interests, the so-called smart money. This report had it that a gambling cartel had placed a quick $25,000 bet on Liston as soon as the fight was signed, making Liston an instant 8-5 favorite. Then the smart money would lie low until just before the fight, at which time it would make huge bets all over the country—on Patterson. Thus they would get the benefit of the odds that they themselves had set with a relatively small initial bet the other way.

But the truth turned out to be the precise opposite of this fiction. After a brief flurry of Patterson betting on the afternoon of the fight, the smart money came flying down on Liston. Although the final odds were reported as 7½ to 5 Liston, the fact was that in Chicago, where much of the last-minute action took place, there was so much bet on Liston that the odds soared to 2 to 1. In Las Vegas, Jimmie (The Greek) Snyder's final line was 9 to 5.

The hapless Patterson bettors thought they had the fight strategy all figured in advance. Floyd would go inside on Liston, fire away and then run like a thief in the night. He would not close in until the accumulated inside damage and Liston's own frustration had sapped the challenger's strength and will. Alas, this pattern never developed, and, as it turned out, existed only in the minds of the hopeful Patterson fans. "I had no plan," Floyd admitted glumly in the dressing room. "I should have started faster than I did. Liston's a fast starter. But it's usually the procedure to feel out an opponent in the first round. He surprised me."

In the fight's first exchange, Patterson slipped under Liston's jab and threw a strong left hook past Sonny's ear. The force of the blow impressed Liston, as he admitted later, and he danced lightly back with far more grace than had been expected of him. This was to be Patterson's only attempt to dominate the fight. Aside from one leaping right, he never used his speed again. Occasionally h; took a step back but he never tried to fly beyond Liston's reach. Instead, he stayed inside and in that hard ground lost the fight. It was a passive, abstracted acceptance—like a steer dreamily awaiting the sledge. It was "the lingering mind" which has bedeviled and hindered him as a fighter. Besides this dazed surrender, Patterson did not punch enough and frequently tried to clinch with Liston, which is as implausible a way to fight a strong 215-pounder as one could imagine. In these feckless clinches he only managed to tie up one of Liston's arms. A grateful Liston found there was no need to give chase. The victim sought out the executioner. In the clinches Sonny mauled Floyd at will, beating him about the kidneys with his free hand. Body weight was a factor here, too. Liston draped himself over Patterson, leaning on him with his forearms while Floyd meekly struggled. Liston often moved him around into more comfortable range and position like a painter arranging a still life. Once he grabbed Floyd by the neck and yanked him into a clubbing right; frequently he held the champion by the shoulder or arm to set him up for a hook.

At first Liston's punches were long and seemingly without direction. Floyd evaded many of these by radical crouching and bobbing and weaving, but some collided with his back and arms. "I could see practically every punch coming," Floyd said, "but he threw so many slow punches." When about one minute had elapsed, Liston whacked him to the kidneys and Patterson's legs seemed to lose their bounce. All told, Sonny banged Floyd with perhaps a dozen kidney shots, some of them random punches. But at least four were telling, landing on or below the white elastic of his trunks. After the first of these, Liston, shortening up, connected with two double hooks high on the head. He stepped back, as he frequently did, as though examining his shot group. In the next encounter, Liston drove a right uppercut to the body that lifted Floyd off the floor. He fell into a clinch. Two left hooks made him stumble back. He grabbed the top strand of the ropes and slid along them and off while Sonny held fire. There followed a left hook, a grazing, downward right and then the ultimate left at a static target.

"Floyd was frightened all right," said Ben Skelton, one of Patterson's sparring partners, "but it wasn't of getting hurt. He had stage fright. He never did the things he trained all those months to do. It wasn't that he couldn't do them. He did them beautifully just a few days before the fight."

What a strange champion Patterson was. What a suffering, bewildered and confused man. He fought superbly only twice in recent years against Archie Moore and against Ingemar Johansson the second time The rest of his fights ranged from bad to mediocre. Often it was only his condition and reflexive responses that sustained him until he was charged up enough in body and devoted enough in mind to concentrate on his tough trade. He appears to live in continuing dread of critical examination and appraisal when he stands alone, practically naked, before millions. Is it rejection he fears? Listen to him: "Losing is nothing to be ashamed of. It is something to hide from. Because if a person is defeated he feels shame. This is me. I try to change but I can't." After the fight he hid behind an absurd disguise of false mustache and beard as he drove home to New York. He had a mustache and a beard ready for the second Johansson fight, too, and he even brought them to his fight last December with the outclassed Tom McNeeley. "I don't take no chances," Floyd says, "but if I had lost to McNeeley I would have put them on in the ring."

It was said after the Liston fight that Patterson had been one of the major hoaxes of the ring, sort of a Cardiff Midget, and that it was only due to D'Amato's matching him with inferior opponents that he had remained champion as long as he did. They said, too, that D'Amato was right in his unsuccessful campaign to keep Floyd from meeting Liston. ("Cus was wrong," Patterson says, heatedly. "If there's ever a man out there who can beat me and I don't fight him I want to give him the title. How could I feel like a champion otherwise? If I should beat Liston the second time—and there's a small possibility that I will—I'll give him another chance at me.") Patterson is a good fighter with a weak chin and—even more costly—serious mental problems that prevent him from fully applying his considerable skills. The only heavyweights of consequence he hasn't met are Eddie Machen and Zora Folley. Both are average hitters and there is little doubt that he could beat them. Patterson is, at the moment, the second-best heavyweight in the world. But he is second best by a remarkably wide margin.

Sonny Liston would appear to rank with the better heavyweight champions. He has deficiencies in boxing skill, and a Jack Johnson or a Joe Louis—also big, strong men, but with greater skill—might have beaten him in their prime. But this is futile speculation. Liston is far and away the class now and there appears to be no one around to challenge his supremacy. Young Cassius Clay might give him a fair tussle in a few years, for here is a swift and dazzling boxer and a strong hitter, too. He might be able to fight Sonny the way everyone thought Floyd would. But at the moment, Cassius is far from ready.

"Possibly this victory will give Liston a chance to see himself," Patterson reflected the other day at his home in Yonkers, N.Y. "I think he's a great fighter but people won't accept him because he's not a great man. But he can be a good man if he gets the chance to show what's within him. I think it will surprise a lot of people. People said when I talked this way before the fight that I was just using psychology on Liston, or enhancing the sale of tickets or that I thought I was somewhat of a saint. Well, the fight's over and I still say it, so the first two are out and I'm obviously not a saint. I'm speaking now as a man—not as an exchampion. If they'd only believe Liston was any kind of a human being."

Continue Story
1 2 3