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  • Steve Hunt

The Liston Files: Part 2

While the intention of these articles is to primarily focus on Sonny Liston’s progress to the world title, I will also be looking more generally at the heavyweight scene of the time. Last time out, we revisited Liston’s quick win over Wayne Bethea. If you have not yet read that article, it is still available on the website.

This time around, Liston will be largely absent. While Sonny returned to training as his handlers considered his next move, there was plenty of movement in the weeks that followed in the heavyweight top ten. Most notable was a world title defence by champion, Floyd Patterson. But there were other contenders also jockeying for position and a possible crack at the title.

Just nine days after Liston dispatched Bethea in Chicago, two experienced and top ten ranked heavyweights fought a ten-round rematch in Rochester, NY. The fighter with hometown advantage was Mike DeJohn. Born Michael Di Gianni, the 26-year-old had been born in Rochester, but was now fighting out of Syracuse. He was the youngest brother from a fighting family and had amassed a record of 35-4-1. He had caught the attention of fight fans in October 1957 with an upset first round knockout over contender Alex Miteff. His progress had been derailed somewhat when he dropped a ten round split decision to the Cuban, Nino Valdes, back in Apil. Now he had a chance to set the record straight.

At 33 years old, Valdes was a heavyweight veteran, having fought a who’s who of 1950’s big men. He’d shared the ring with the likes of Archie Moore, Harold Johnson, Ezzard Charles, Tommy Jackson, Don Cockell, Eddie Machen, and Zora Folley among many others. Known as the ‘Cuban Clouter’, Valdes came into the DeJohn rematch with a record of 44-15-3.

The fight was a ten-round headliner at the War Memorial, Rochester, NY on 15 August 1958. Valdes came in at 214lbs compared to 200lbs for DeJohn. Both men knew the importance of the outcome. Floyd Patterson’s world heavyweight title was their target.

Bobby Gleason was the manager of the fifth-ranked Valdes. The Cuban was more comfortable speaking in Spanish, so Gleason spoke on behalf of his fighter.

“We didn’t come here to fool around. We’re looking to knock DeJohn out in four or five heats. This is the most important fight of my boy’s career. We can’t afford to lose. We’re looking for a shot at the heavyweight title. After all, who’s Patterson going to fight after (Roy) Harris? We’re going to be ready for a title fight.”

A crowd of 2,802, as well as those at home watching on television, saw Valdes secure his fifth consecutive win with an entertaining ten round split decision. Their second fight again showed that there was little between the two fighters.

Valdes was forced to rally from an early points deficit to claim the victory. Despite being floored in the third round by a left-right combination, DeJohn established a lead, almost exclusively using his left hand. The partisan home crowd cheered the New Yorker on, but the momentum switched in the closing rounds as Valdes came on strong. There was controversy in the ninth round when DeJohn was on the canvas for a second time. He claimed it was from a low blow but the referee, Ruby Goldstein, counted it as a legitimate knockdown. Given the closeness of the official scoring, the knockdown was crucial to the outcome. Despite his frustration and sense of injustice, DeJohn blamed himself for not throwing enough punches across the ten rounds and credited Valdes for his elusiveness.

Even with the victory, it was not clear if the result had enhanced the Cuban’s claim or simply removed both men from contention. The New York Daily News was not gushing in its praise, reporting that Valdes “did little to enhance his chances for a heavyweight title match” and “was anything but impressive”  in getting the split decision win.

Irrespective of what others might think, post-fight the ecstatic Cuban was demanding a title shot. Gleason was backing his fighter, claiming they had been made to wait long enough and that he would be supporting his fighter’s claim for a crack at Patterson.

Sonny Liston’s handlers might have had an eye on fighting the winner of Valdes-DeJohn, but right now, the Cuban was looking up the rankings list, not down. As it would transpire, both Valdes and DeJohn would figure in Liston’s future not too far down the line.

Just three days later, the attention of heavyweight fans switched from the east coast to the west, specifically Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, the venue for Floyd Patterson’s third defence of the world heavyweight title.

Patterson was still just 23 years old. He had not been an active champion, having won the title in November 1956 and having subsequently made just two defences. He’d been out of the ring for a year. Patterson’s manager, Cus D’Amato was waging a war against the International Boxing Club and refusing to do business with anyone associated with them. His determination to maintain independence may have been admirable, but it was also keeping the champion out of the ring for longer periods than would have been ideal.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Gene Ward was critical of the champion for having been in “virtual seclusion” since beating Archie Moore for the title 21 months previously. He was also not impressed with the quality of opposition that Patterson had faced so far as champion. In his view, Patterson’s two defences had come “against a washed-up freak, Hurricane Jackson, and the other against a rank amateur, Pete Rademacher”.

Floyd accepted the fact that he was not yet recognised as a great champion. He told reporters that he wished for a chance to prove himself against an outstanding opponent. He regretted the fact that Rocky Marciano had retired before he could face him.

Patterson and his team were staying in a motel in Oceanside, California in the lead up to the fight. The champion was always a thoughtful man. When he sat down with Newsday’s Jimmy Cannon, he revealed concern about his lay off from fighting.

“I’m anxious to find out if I can fight like I can. A whole year I’ve been out. I have to work harder this time as I was out for a year.”

The conversation also included his plans to ultimately retire and live on a farm and D’Amato’s campaign against the IBC. Patterson claimed that it was D’Amato's political fight, not his, but he was willing to go along with whatever his manager advised. He acknowledged reports that some people had encouraged him to leave Cus.

“They give me all kinds of talk about Cus, but I take it as a big joke. I read things they say about him and listen to what they have to say. Here’s a man I’ve eaten, lived, and slept with. How can they tell me things about a man I know so well? How can they know him as well as I do?”

Population figures for the town of Cut and Shoot in Texas were not collected until the mid-70s when the number of residents was recorded as 50. It has been reported that the town’s unusual name originated from a violent confrontation back in 1912. Whatever its origins, Cut and Shoot has spawned two notable residents. One was the 1983 Miss America, Debra Maffett. The other was the third man to challenge Floyd Patterson for the world heavyweight title, Roy Harris. I use the term “notable residents” very loosely.

Going into his challenge for the world title, Harris was 25 years old with an unbeaten record of 23-0 and ranked third in the world. His fight with Patterson would be the first time he had fought outside Texas. His best three wins were his most recent three, which had been ten-round decisions over Bob Baker, Willie Pastrano and Willi Besmanoff. Despite Roy’s lofty ranking, the majority of the press didn’t give Harris a chance of winning.

Paul Zimmerman, writing in the Los Angeles Times, argued that Harris’ best attributes are “his fine left jab and a rugged ability to absorb stiff punishment.”  I think that is what they call damning with faint praise.

Harris’ underdog status did not discourage his local supporters. For $197.50, a local hotel was selling package deals including transportation and a ticket to the fight. Around 3,200 fans parted with their cash and would be boarding 40 planes to make the trip. Come fight night, one section of the crowd would be a sea of ten-gallon hats.

The challenger’s trainer, Bill Gore, had only been part of the team since Roy’s most recent fight. Up to that point, Harris had had no professional guidance regarding his training practices. Gore was making improvements, but would it be enough? The Texan was sparring with middleweights at the close of his training camp. Gore explained why.

“One of Patterson’s assets is his speed of hand, or so we’ve been led to believe. So, to prepare Roy in this respect, we’re sticking strictly to the lighter, quicker variety of spar mate during this closing phase of his training”.

One man who had observed both fighters in training was former world lightweight champion, Lew Jenkins. He offered hope to the challenger’s fans.

“This Patterson ain’t all as great as I thought he was. When those bums he was sparring with hit him, they didn’t hurt him, but he was confused, didn’t know what to do. I think if Harris does what I asked him, never step back, and keep circling to his own right, away from Patterson’s straight right, well, I think Patterson will say, ‘Hey, he ain’t supposed to do that.’ It could be a real good fight.”

Patterson, with a record of 33-1, knew very little about Harris as a fighter, although his trainer, Dan Florio was confident that his fighter could quickly make adjustments as the fight progressed. Harris weighed in at 194lbs, close to ten pounds heavier than the champion. For the Monday night fight, the top priced tickets were $30, with the Wrigley Field capacity set at 25,000. There would be no home television coverage with closed circuit screenings in 151 theatres in 133 US cities acting as the largest source of revenue.

There were four, six round bouts supporting the main event. The first was scheduled for 7.30pm, the main event was due at 8pm with the other bouts to follow. Yes, you read that right. A main event scheduled for 8pm. When did promoters stop scheduling main events at sensible hours?

In the town of Conroe, just ten miles from Cut and Shoot, a drive-in theatre was screening the fight for 400 of Harris’ supporters. More than a few ten-gallon hats must have flown into the air as Patterson briefly fell to the canvas in the second round. It was counted as an official knockdown, following a left jab and a right uppercut from the challenger. However, many at ringside felt it had been more of a push and a slip. The champion was soon back to his feet and any hopes of an upset soon passed. Patterson went on to dominate the contest, flooring the challenger four times and inflicting much facial damage, before the fight was stopped at the end of the twelfth round. Harris had wanted to fight on, but Bill Gore had seen enough.

“He was all cut up and had slowed up too much to do any damage. There just wasn’t any use (in continuing).”

Harris, who had been down in the seventh, twice in the eighth, and again in the twelfth, was not deterred by the defeat.

“Sure, I want to fight him again. I believe I could beat him next time. He’s a great champion. I learnt a great deal about fighting. I believe I could catch him next time. If I fight him again, I’ll move in on him more. I stayed away from him too much.”

While Harris may have been downhearted but still encouraged by his showing, the champion was not happy with his own performance. He gave credit to Harris for his durability, but Patterson blamed his inactivity for his own rustiness in the ring. He felt he had been at his sharpest against Archie Moore and in the rematch with Tommy Jackson.

“I got hit only once or twice in those fights. Last night I got hit with a lot of punches… For one thing, I saw the punches coming and didn’t get out of the way. Then there were openings that I didn’t take advantage of.”

Patterson was clear that he wanted to be fighting again before the end of the year, but when asked about specific plans, he simply told reporters to direct that question to D’Amato, who appeared less certain.

While some members of the press had praise for the bravery shown by the challenger, others were scathing about the contest, with Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News leading the criticism. He described the fight as a “no contest slaughter”, while labelling Harris as “easy pickings”. D’Amato seemed to be the focus of his attack.

“Under Cus D’Amato’s direction, Patterson apparently intends to specialise in one-sided slaughters. Who can be next? Where can D’Amato go to excavate a punchless, defenceless, guaranteed loser?”

The contest may have attracted criticism, but it was a financial success. The fight set a new California gate record of $234,183, with a 21,680 live attendance. In the region of 200,000 watched on closed circuit television across the country. Patterson took home close to $300,000 when all the revenue was calculated.  D’Amato’s carefully chosen path for his fighter, avoiding the clutches of the IBC, was proving to be lucrative. Harris went home to Texas with a check for $100,000 and 14 stitches to the cuts on his face.

Back in Conroe at the end of the evening, the cars departed the drive-in in silence. They might have been feeling deflated, but they were still supportive of their man. One Conroe resident, a Mr. Rose, spoke to the Los Angeles Times and summed up evening as well as any reporter could have done.

“Roy put up a good fight, and I think he did really well for himself, but you’ll have to admit that Patterson is a better fighter. Roy just didn’t have a punch, and Floyd did. That’s the whole story.”

The ratings from The Ring magazine in the wake of Liston-Bethea, Valdez-DeJohn, and Patterson-Harris, show the movement in the top ten.

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