Friday, July 25, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Sonny Day

Liston-Westphal was a big deal

(AP File Photo)
(AP File Photo)

Charles "Sonny" Liston vs. two-time German heavyweight champion Albert Westphal in Convention Hall on Dec. 4, 1961, was a big boxing deal in this town.

After being ordered out of St. Louis, Sonny was all ours. Lucky us.

His new owners, classic hoods Frank "Blinky" Palermo and Frankie Carbo, got him a safe conduct pass to Philly. Liston got himself into an immediate jam and was suspended by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission.

Two months before the Westphal fight, Sonny was mysteriously reinstated. Go figure.

Everybody knew Liston was under the thumbs of two proud alums of New York's Lucchesi "Murder Incorporated" family.

Early in the greatest boxing film ever, "Raging Bull," Jake LaMotta is being pounded mercilessly by Billy Fox. The fix was in, but Jake refused to go down - or throw a punch. The fight was stopped and LaMotta is shown weeping uncontrollably in his locker room. Years later, Jake testified in Congress that what Hollywood would depict decades later was a fact.

Westphal was Liston's first and only fight here. There is a great YouTube clip of his two-punch annihilation of a stocky man who had never gone down. Les Keiter was the TV announcer. And a very young Stan Hochman was seated to Keiter's left at ringside. All the big print media guns of the day were there, including Daily News sports editor Larry Merchant and beat man Jack McKinney; superb Evening Bulletin columnist Sandy Grady and veteran beat man Jack Fried.

The first clean punch Liston landed was a crisp left hook that caught the aggressive Westphal - think room service - coming in. He didn't stagger long. Sonny caught him with a huge right to the chin. Albert spun like a pole-axed bull into a full face-plant, layout position. Referee Zack Clayton could have counted 100. At 10, Westphal rolled over slowly and lay staring at the ceiling through unseeing eyes. Liston emerged from a neutral corner to admire his glove work. He gazed impassively at the timbered Teuton.

I was there for the Evening Bulletin to mine a few post-fight quotes for Grady and Fried.

Grady was a restrained interviewer. His questions were brief. He chose observing and listening over prolific note-scribbling. His one brief question extracted a memorable answer from the illiterate Liston:

"Sonny, how did Westphal look laying there?"

"He look gooooooooooood . . . "

Liston said "good" through the puckered lips of a wine taster who had come across an exceptional vintage.

Ten months later, Liston won the heavyweight title from Floyd Patterson, who was counted out at 2:06 of the first round, the earliest a defending champion had ever been stopped.

Liston expected a hero's welcome when he brought the belt back to his adopted home. Instead, he was either ignored or disdained. Larry Merchant dipped his typewriter in caustic lye and wrote this:

"Emily Post would probably recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti, we can use shredded warrants of arrest."

Liston left another succinct classic when he moved his base to Denver: "I'd rather be a lamppost in Denver than mayor of Philadelphia."

At that point, I was covering Penn State football and sharing the Big 5 beat with Bob Vetrone Sr. - the real, 25 Palestra doubleheader-playing Big 5. I would rather have been a lamppost in State College than the boxing writer.

But there I was on May 10, 1965, at ringside in the wrecking ball-ready Arena on Market Street, there to cover my first event for this newspaper. I had been hired to replace McKinney when he took a talk show gig at WCAU-AM.

The press seats in the Arena were so close to the ring you had to hold a hand over your soda to keep resin chips from flying in. There was so much blood spatter, it was like working a shift with Dexter - Dexter Morgan, not Pete Dexter.

So, in my first Daily News assignment, heavyweight Leotis Martin killed Sonny Banks, who died 3 days after a ninth-round KO. I was covering a sport where the bizarre was commonplace.

Years later, as a columnist, I covered the Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield ear-bite fight in Vegas - "Breakfast of Chompions."

Tyson's physical and psychological annihilation in Atlantic City of Michael Spinks answered the question: "Are boxers ever scared before a fight?" Michael looked so terrified, I figured he had to be wearing

Depends to avoid an involuntary "startage" in a bout where he got involuntary "stoppage" instead.

I'm a sucker for the boxing bizarre. Like the night welterweight Stanley "Kitten" Hayward hallucinated in the dressing room after a brutal split-decision victory over a wrecking ball named Benny Briscoe. Obviously concussed, Kitten saw, among other fleeting visions, the Angel of Death sitting on his shoulder.

Last Saturday night, referee Pat Russell and the California State Athletic Commission stole $60 from me.

That's what it cost to watch HBO present 46-year-old Philly homeboy Bernard Hopkins and light-heavyweight challenger Chad Dawson go two rounds with one more tackle than scoring blows.

Toward the end of a listless Round 2, B-Hop threw a right Dawson ducked under. Everybody but Russell saw Chad wrap both gloves around the X-Man's legs, lift him and throw him through the ropes and onto the ring apron.

If the Eagles had tackled like that this season, they'd be 6-0.

Look, it was a foul. The result should have been either an immediate disqualification of Dawson or, what the WBC decided it was Thursday, a Technical No Decision. California won't rule until December. But who cares?

How big a ripoff was it? Larry Merchant didn't even threaten to kick anybody's ass. Merch wisely turned that one over to Max Kellerman.

 


Send email to bill1chair@aol.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/BillConlin.

Bill Conlin Daily News Sports Columnist
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