One of my favorite parts of the superb book "By George" was the part where George Foreman talks about his experiences of being a sparring partner for Sonny Liston in the 60's.
Sonny Liston was always a mysterious figure for me, as I didn't get into boxing till the 70's and pretty much all the bits and pieces of information I could gather about the former Heavyweight champ were not complimentary. It seemed nobody from boxing really knew or understood this remarkable man who somehow, against all odds, became world champion many years after leaving home as a teenaged runaway.
But Foreman actually did get to know Liston. Foreman spent a lot of time with Liston in camp in Oakland, CA before the Olympics and later as a young pro.
"I trained full time with Sonny. Every thing he did, I did. We often ate dinner together and afterward took a walk," wrote Foreman. "To say that Sonny Liston was a man of few words is to say that the sun is warm. Normally, he just glared. So when he suddenly began talking about himself on one of our walks, I hung on to every syllable."
"He talked about the l964 fight against Cassius Clay in Miami Beach, when he lost the title that he'd taken two years before from Floyd Patterson. Some people still point to that Clay fight as proof that boxing is, or was fixed. But the Sonny Liston that I got to know was too mean and too proud - and had come from too far behind - to throw the championbship away on purpose."
"He explained to me that after he beat Patterson, the fans treated him like dirt. Not Clay himself, but the fans' dislike for him was, he believed, what had robbed his punch of its sting. Furthermore, their love for Clay had less to do with Clay than with their rejection of him. To hear him tell it, he was a beaten man before he even stepped into the ring..."
"When I won the championship from Patterson," he said in his sandpaper voice," Everyone acted like I stole it: What are you doing as heavyweight champion? What's someone like you doing with the belt?"
"He told me, 'When I was champ, I used to hear people say that I didn't deserve the title. Then when I lost to Clay, the same people told me that I should have won. I know I should have. I should have. I could have. But they all acted like they didn't want me to."
"It may be hard to believe that heavyweight champs can feel so hurt by a lack of appreciation; people consider top boxers to be immune to that sort of thing. But I understood immediately - his words struck home...I interpreted Sonny's words as a sort of admission that he'd unconsciously sacrificed his title to satisfy the fans who said he was unworthy or undeserving. Now, older and more bitter (at 37), he was on a quest to regain it - this time to keep it."
"Sonny and I sparred constantly, which was about the best training I could have had. He stood his ground and refused to submit to my superior strength and two-inch height advantage. I empahtized with him, looked up to him, wanted his approval and friendship. When I heard him tell Dick Sadler, 'You tell that big ********** to come in here and get my bag, I felt accepted. But I rarely heard another word from him on any subject until one day in the dressing room. 'Hey George,' he said. 'So you want to be heavyweight champ of the world, huh?' "Yeah Sonny, I do,' I said. I was like a little puppy. 'You think I can do it? What do you think?' I leaned in close, waiting to receive some good advice. 'Well,' he said, 'when you get to be heavyweight champ, you spit on the sidewalk and they write about it in the paper.' He stopped and stared ahead for a moment. 'Me, all I care about is the dough-re-me.' Those were the last words he spoke to me for three months."
Later, Foreman and Liston fought on the same card in Las Vegas, Foreman stopped Bob Hazelton but Liston was suddenly stopped by Leotis Martin after winning the fight.
"Later I went to his house for a little gathering his wife had planned. It turned into a condolence call. The depression wore on Sonny like a straitjacket. He sat in the backyard, staring ahead, a dog on his lap. He'd told me he only cared about the dough-re-me but now I saw that must've been a lie. Here he was, next to his swimming pool in the backyard of his mansion, knowing he'd never have to work again, and hurting badly inside. His wife told me that he'd been like that, quiet and still, since coming home. I brought him a soda and squatted down next to him. He barely acknowledged me. His wife began sobbing. 'What you guys gotta understand is that sometimes you lose,' Nobody wins them all. You hear that, George? Everybody loses. But you can't just die.'"
"I never saw Sonny Liston again. A year later, he died under mysterious circumstances at age 38."