Liston: Cuddly 'Bear' under sneer

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The man didn't bother to raise his head during the introduction. Intimidation. The greeting, "Hello, Charles," was answered with a "Don't call me that."

"How about Charlie then?" I inquired, attempting to lighten the moment. Sonny Liston finally looked up and said, "Don't like that either. Whatcha want?"

It will be 30 years tomorrow that Liston and Muhammad Ali met in one of boxing's most infamous and bizarre bouts, which is saying a whole lot, considering. To mark the occasion, Home Box Office is running one of its always-classy specials.

"Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion," the hour-long production airing at 8 p.m. is called, and it's the unvarnished story of one of sports' biggest enigmas. Imagine trying to varnish the tale of a union goon, a thief, a thug, a beast -- just a few of the labels pinned on this guy during his somewhat brief stay on center stage.

At just after 4 a.m. the day following the rousing introduction, the hooded ex-heavyweight champion and I set out into the mist near the shore of Plymouth, Mass. After about a mile, he asked how far I had come to keep this early morning rendezvous. "About 80 miles? You nuts, boy?" he yelped and contact was established.

It was between Liston's two fights with then-Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali and Sonny had been a lost soul since losing his title while sitting on a stool in Miami Beach in February of 1964. You didn't ask Sonny questions, because that reminded him you were a writer, and he hated all members of the Fourth Estate.

"Why you call me Charles?" he asked. Because calling anyone of your stature and experience Sonny seems crazy to me, I said. He made a sound as if he enjoyed the reply and said, "Call me Charles. I kinda like it."

Later that day and after a sparring session, he signaled me aside and asked, earnestly, "you got everything you need?" We were buddies. Subsequent visits to the Liston camp saw acknowledgment from him without fail. The key to unlocking this guy, or so I thought, was not to pry.

One day he said he was upset about a reference to him in the paper. He seemed to need a shoulder to cry on.

Bud Collins of the Boston Globe -- yes, the tennis writer and NBC commentator Bud Collins -- had come up with a clever lead about famed Plymouth having a two-for-one promotion. One, of course, was the noted rock the Pilgrims stepped on upon arrival in this country in 1620, and the second was the one located atop Liston's shoulders.

Fighting fire with fire, we worked on a put-down line to greet Collins with the next time he showed up. Bud seems to feature more teeth in his mouth than anyone else on earth, something like 50 or so at last count. "Are all those yours or are you breaking in some teeth for someone else?" Sonny asked.

It was fun being around "The Bear," the man who had broken a policeman's knee and taken his gun away during a routine traffic stop in St. Louis years before. He had been run out of that city and, while in the limelight, Philadelphia and Denver. Meanwhile, Floyd Patterson had gone against his manager and trainer Cus D'Amato's wishes and given Liston a shot at the title. Sonny deposited Floyd on his britches in the first round of two fights.

After the second fight, they packed Liston off to Europe on an exhibition tour while trying to figure out who he would defend the title against next. Enter Cassius Clay, he of the 19-0 record and voice that never gave out.

Steering the conversation carefully, one day Sonny said, "to this day I don't take that boy [Clay] seriously." We had been talking about families and Liston said, "I don't remember anything about being a little kid." That's how the word "boy" and his upcoming opponent, now Muhammad Ali, came up.

The HBO show relates how, after taking the title from Patterson, the new champ planned to say, "I'll be a good champion if the public will let bygones be bygones," upon arrival to an expected welcome in Philadelphia. Virtually no one showed up at the airport. Devastation.

The return bout with Ali was postponed as Muhammad required a hernia operation, then it was booted out of Boston. It landed in Lewiston, Maine, in a high school hockey arena (St. Dominic's), home of the never-to-be-forgotten "Anchor Punch."

CAli hit Liston with what looked like a quick counter right hand and Sonny went down after just 90 seconds of fighting. The punch didn't appear to be much, according to Ali, who insisted on standing over the fallen man, calling him a coward and daring him to get up. Liston floundered. First, referee Joe Walcott allowed the fight to continue. But, called to the ring apron as the fighters continued trading punches and told Liston had been down for more than 10 seconds, Jersey Joe signaled the bout was over.

After the chaos came charges that the fight was fixed. Not only that, the first one was fixed, too. Liston went on to win 14 bouts over the next 39 months, including a two-round destruction of Amos Lincoln in Baltimore in December, 1968. He lost for only the fourth time in 54 fights the next year, quit shortly thereafter and became a man about town living in Las Vegas.

When found the day before New Year's Eve in 1970, Liston had been dead for a week. Despite a mountain of evidence pointing to foul play, the death of this seemingly indestructible man, a power-punching package some pretty reputable ring folks insist was among the best five heavyweights ever, was attributed to "natural causes."

That meant the investigation was ended, and for 30 years now people have wondered what really happened.

In his fights with Ali, and later. They called Liston a big, brooding bear, insisting no one really knew the guy, but there were times.

He picked up a couple of us at the airport one day, said he didn't have to lock his Cadillac to protect our typewriters, "as I'm the only crook around here and I don't want the damn things," then howled uncontrollably at his joke.

"I think I'll take you gentlemen to my club this afternoon," he said and he was off on a giggling fit again.

In the HBO piece, the mob and racket connections, prison, the sleaze of the fight game, his troubles with the law and the fact it's unclear when Sonny was born, the 24th of 25 children in rural Arkansas, and how old he was are all there.

It's a sad story capped by a funeral procession down "The Strip" in Las Vegas, particularly for a guy Liston actually greeted with, "You can call me Charles."

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