REMATCH clauses are a pet hate of many modern boxing fans. The feeling is that they are more likely to result in a Haney–Kambosos II (same old story) than a Fury–Wilder III (unexpected barnburner). In an era when elite fighters fight infrequently, contractually obliged rematches clog up the schedule, creating another obstacle for the fights we clamour to see. Recently, discussions of the dreaded rematch clause even allegedly torpedoed the only fight that matters in the heavyweight division: Usyk–Fury. When negotiations for Usyk–Fury II throw a spanner in the works to prevent them even fighting a first time, we know we have a problem.
But rematch clauses are far from a modern phenomenon. The contract signed by Sonny Liston to fight Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship of the world in September 1962 dictated that in the event of a Liston win, Patterson would have the option of a rematch within a year.
If the heavyweight division had recently been in the doldrums, the intrigue around Patterson-Liston brought it greater attention. Sonny had wreaked havoc through the division while Floyd had kept him waiting for a title shot, handpicking much safer opponents as he went. Esquire magazine even sent Norman Mailer to cover the fight. He was among more than 600 writers to attend the event. In his biography of Patterson, W. K. Stratton noted that, “no event in American history, in or out of sports, had focused so much attention on an event in which the leading players were black.”
In hindsight, it is hard to imagine anything other than a Liston win, but when Time magazine ran a poll of sportswriters, 51 out of 80 picked Patterson to retain his title. Shows what writers know. Among the heavily pro-Patterson crowd were a group of priests who had been invited to the fight by Liston. They were all wearing “I love Sonny” badges.
Of course, not only did Liston win the fight in Comiskey Park, Chicago, he destroyed Patterson in one round. Patterson’s team had demanded a 22-foot ring. In this instance, Sonny proved that size didn’t matter. A combination ending with a left hook to the head floored the champion who was unable to beat the count at 2-06 of the first round. Referee Frank Sikora felt Patterson could have been killed had he beaten the count and been allowed to continue. Boxing had a new heavyweight champion, and one that few among the boxing establishment had wanted. Robert H. Boyle echoed the thoughts of many of the anti-Liston press when writing in Sports Illustrated that “the forces of evil had triumphed”.
Patterson had two cars waiting for him post-fight. One to take him to his hotel in the event of victory, another to get him straight back to New York if he lost. He also had a fake beard and moustache to avoid being recognised. It was not the first time he had prepared such a disguise, pre-empting a defeat.
Criticism of Patterson’s performance was fierce. Frank Butler in the News of the World described it as “the most wretched show of any world heavyweight champion in the history of boxing”, while George Whiting in the London Evening Standard likened Patterson’s offering to the “feeble resistance of a mesmerised ferret”. Famed writer Jimmy Cannon branded Patterson the worst heavyweight champion of all time and rallied against the possibility of a sequel, labelling the contest “a disgraceful burlesque of a championship fight”.
So why the rematch? As the saying goes, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. In his brilliant book, “Liston & Ali – The Ugly Bear And The Boy Who Would Be King”, Bob Mee describes the return bout between Liston and Patterson as “one of the most cynical matches in heavyweight boxing history”. Of course, Mee was writing this before the epic cash grab of Fury–Chisora III.
Speaking in his dressing room in the immediate aftermath of winning the title, Liston committed to going ahead with the rematch.
“Patterson gave me a break by fighting me. I’m ready to obey the contract. For his sake, I wonder if he will be wise to go in against me again.”
Sonny had little choice. The contract for the first fight was structured so that it would cost Liston $1 million to get out of the return bout. Even if no one but Patterson wanted it, the fight was going to happen.
A few days after his return to New York, Patterson met with business associate Julius November to discuss his options. He was clear he wanted to exercise the rematch clause.
“I’ve got to prove to myself that I’m a better fighter than I was that night.”
Sonny was devastated on his arrival back in Philadelphia to discover there was no crowd to welcome him home as champion. Shortly afterwards he and wife Geraldine left to live in Chicago, relocating to Denver a few months later.
The rematch was originally scheduled for April 4 1963 at the Miami Convention Hall before Liston twisted his right knee swinging a golf club. Doctors recommended surgery, but Liston wanted to avoid that and hoped rest would suffice. Who could blame him for thinking that even with a bad knee he would have enough to deal with Patterson a second time?
After a couple of other delays, a new date of July 22 was arranged, and the venue switched to Las Vegas. It would be the first heavyweight title fight held in the city. The hotel casinos on the strip bought $100,000 worth of tickets to give to their big gamblers, establishing the model for boxing in Vegas for the next 60 years.
Liston stayed in a cottage at the Thunderbird Hotel, arranged by his new friend, Ash Resnick. Resnick had the job title of Athletic Director for the hotel but had underworld connections and was the focus of FBI attention. But in the early 1960s, Resnick helped to establish Sin City as the fight capital of the world.
The fight would be staged in the new Las Vegas Convention Centre. Despite the seemingly predictable outcome, a crowd of 7,816 paid a then-Nevada record of £286,190 at the gate. To put this into historical context, this broke the previous state record set by the Johnson-Jeffries heavyweight title fight back in 1910 in Reno.
Liston was supremely confident that he could repeat the outcome of the first fight.
“Nothing has changed. He has nothing to beat me with.”
Confidence was so high among his team that negotiations were well advanced for his next defence. His manager, Jack Nilon, had pencilled in two possible dates in September for a fight against the then Cassius Clay in Philadelphia. Having had financial terms dictated to him by Patterson for their two fights, Liston hoped that a Clay fight would be a financial bonanza for him. Maybe complacency on Liston’s part was Patterson’s best hope of a victory.
Sonny’s cottage had a specially customised slot machine fitted for the duration of his stay. To win the jackpot, it was not a row of three gold bars that needed to align, but three pictures of the smiling face of a young Cassius Clay. Liston could pass the time around training sessions dropping coins into the machine trying to hit the jackpot. Would chasing his Cassius Clay jackpot distract him from his task in hand?
Clay was a constant presence during fight week. Most observers felt he was an untested prospect, not ready for a title shot and just an amusing sideshow. He turned up at Liston’s training to goad the champion. At times Liston tolerated him, at others he had less patience for the young Louisville Lip, on one occasion telling him, “You better be praying to God that I don’t kill you”. Another time, Liston approached Clay in the Thunderbird casino and slapped him across the face.
Those in Patterson’s team publicly backed their man. Trainer Dan Florio said that Floyd got his tactics wrong the first time around and claimed he saw improvements.
“He can get this job done just as he got it done the second time around against Ingemar Johansson. He has boxed better, eaten better, and rested better here than last time. But the real improvement is in his mental attitude.”
Cus D’Amato, whose influence on Patterson was waning, told Norman Mailer he expected a Patterson win.
“Everything points to an upset. The other man is casual. Patterson has been working hard, all the signs are there.”
Despite the proclamations of those around him, Patterson did not emanate confidence. He admitted to the press that he had again brought his fake beard and moustache with him to use should he lose and feel the need to get away incognito. The introspective former champion presented the press with a character type they had never before come across, leading Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror to christen him ‘Freud’ Patterson. Fight writers were not used to boxers admitting to fear. Patterson was different.
“I won’t run. I have no fear of Liston. I’ll fight like I always have. If I was to fear any man, it would be Ingemar Johansson. I never even knew where I was when Ingemar hit me. That’s something that can frighten you. I don’t feel like I’ll lose. I sincerely feel my chances are just as good as his. But I have no control over my brain absorbing punches.”
By fight time the bookmakers’ odds heavily favoured Liston, but not many were placing bets as it seemed such a foregone conclusion. In a poll for United Press International, most writers picked an early knockout win for the champion. Joe Louis felt that the fight would last as long as it took Sonny to land his first punch. Larry Merchant, at that time writing in the Philadelphia Daily News, felt there was only one winner.
“He (Liston) can punch, and Patterson can’t take a punch, or avoid one”.
Searching for reasons to give Patterson any advantage, one reporter noted that a mandatory eight count would be in effect following a knockdown, giving Floyd more chance to recover when he inevitably hit the canvas. Hardly a vote of confidence.
Liston weighed in at 215lbs, while Patterson came in at 194lbs, five pounds heavier than for the first fight. The extra weight would be as effective as an extra coat of paint on the Titanic against the iceberg.
Liston was booed to the ring as Patterson remained the sentimental favourite. On being introduced to the crowd, Clay went to Patterson’s corner for a few friendly words. He then turned towards the opposite corner to face Liston, only to raise his hands in mock terror and flee from the ring, briefly lightening the mood at ringside.
The fight went the way that most expected, with Gene Ward writing in the New York Daily News that Patterson looked “more than ever like a boy being sent on a man’s errand”. The fight was stopped at 2-10 of the first round with referee Harry Krause counting Patterson out following the third knockdown. Floyd didn’t land a single noteworthy punch. The only thing that the mandatory eight counts achieved was to delay the inevitable and prevent Liston from finishing Patterson quicker second time around. Sonny became the first fighter to achieve first round knockouts in successive heavyweight title fights. Liston was again booed by the crowd as he left the ring.
In his post-fight interview, Sonny gave typically shorts answers. He told reporters that he felt that he could have beaten Floyd with one arm if he’d had to. He had a reputation for being rude to the press, but it is understandable given some of the questioning. One reporter asked if Patterson had fought better than last time, to which Sonny replied, “Didn’t you see the fight?”
Did he think that Patterson should now retire?
“Who am I to tell a bird not to fly?”
Liston had now defeated five of the world’s top ten heavyweights enroute to his current dominance. Another contender, former champion Ingemar Johansson, categorically ruled himself out as a possible challenger.
“I would have no chance at all in the same ring as Sonny Liston. It would be suicide”.
Joe Louis felt that “nobody is going to beat Liston except old age”.
The press was scathing in their criticism of Patterson. Twice now, it had seemed he had walked straight in against a stronger foe, with no clear game plan and quickly come unstuck. In the Los Angeles Times, Sid Ziff wrote that, “Anyone in the house could have done better than Floyd Patterson in his rematch with Sonny Liston. He got paid for nothing here on Monday night”.
Instead of making a quick getaway from the venue without speaking to the press, eventually Floyd came out of his dressing room to speak with reporters. It may have been the same outcome, but things were different this time and he would fight on.
“I personally feel I’m still a better fighter than I showed tonight or last September. I have no immediate plans, but I do know that I will not retire. I also know that I wasn’t afraid tonight. He was a better fighter. I originally planned not to give an interview tonight if I lost. But there are no beards or moustaches. Those things are gone for me now”.
Much later, Patterson told writer Gay Telese, “Oh, I would give up anything to just be able to work with Liston, to box him where nobody would see us, and to see if I could get past three minutes with him. I’m not talking about a rematch. Who would pay a nickel for another Patterson-Liston fight? I know I wouldn’t, but all I want to do is get past the first round.”
While his handlers were all for Liston getting quickly back into training for his next defence against Clay, Sonny wanted to take time out to relax. When his plane landed in Denver, he was welcomed by a crowd of 1,500, in stark contrast to the lack of support previously in Philadelphia. Maybe things could be better now.
“I was thrilled. It’s one of the nicest things that ever happened to me.”
If he hoped that he was starting to win some public acceptance, Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times reminded him what he was up against.
“The central fact of the second Liston-Patterson “fight” is that the world of sport now realises it has gotten Charles “Sonny” Liston to keep. It is like finding a live bat on a string under your Christmas tree”.
The cottage at the Thunderbird that Sonny stayed in during the lead up to the Patterson rematch was on another occasion used by Bobby Kennedy. Like his brother, Bobby was a symbol of hope for countless Americans in the 1960s before he was assassinated at the age of forty-two. For the majority of his countrymen, Liston remained a symbol of something much more sinister. When he was found dead in the bedroom of his home in Las Vegas in January 1971 he may have been around the same age as Kennedy. With his exact date of birth remaining a source of speculation, his age was as mysterious as his death.