By James Blears
So few really knew heavyweight boxing legend Charles "Sonny" Liston inside out of the ring, and the pattern of his life, which ressembled a knocked down book of horoscopes. One person who did spend time with him was George Foreman, who was a teenage sparring partner prior to his own Olympic Triumph in Mexico, and afterwards. George who's attending the WBC's Convention in Las Vegas has been sharing his memories with BoxingScene's James Blears, who started by asking him, how it had all come about?
GF: At the end of 1967, I was invited into Sonny Liston's training camp. His manager Dick Saddler needed a big guy for him to have atmosphere, so they asked me to come in and spar with him. And my trainer at the time asked me whether I would mind. I took him up on it. So I had that relationship before the Olympics. I sparred a couple of rounds with him, and boy what it did for my confidence. So after the Olympics, I met Dick Saddler who was the manager for Sonny Liston. I told him I'd like to go into boxing, but start slow with exhibitons, and would he be able to help me? That brought me to Saddler, and he brought me to Liston and we became stablemates.
BoxingScene.com: What was Sonny like, and what was it like sparring against him? His left jab and left hook were monstrous.
GF: His right hand was also a killer! There wasn't anything missing from Sonny Liston. He had the whole package. Of course, Muhammad Ali was more nimble, but there was no better accurate right hand punching, after that left jab. Saddler wanted me to learn, so he'd admonish Liston not to be too tough on me. But I didn't know any other way. No one had given me any information on how to spar, so every time the bell would ring, I'd try to fight. And a few times he knocked me off him, so I felt his power, and I knew he was a great boxer. But more than everything, he had coordination which meant that if he got you going with his left jab, he would keep you going until the bell rang. Liston had it going for him.
BoxingScene.com: He wasn't as tall as you, but he had one of the longest reaches.
GF: If you got into the ring with him, and try and catch him with jabs, you'd lose, because although he wasn't my height, when you looked across the ring he seemed to be ten feet tall. And he had extra long arms, which reached all the way down to his knees. He could do some wonderful things with them. And he had the widest fingers you've ever seen in your life. He was truely a big gifted heavyweight.
BoxingScene.com: Do you think he was left handed. It's difficult to know, because he couldn't read or write.
GF: I saw him sign autographs. Evidently he'd met a priest somewhere down the line, who'd shown him how to draw his autograph. Sometimes we'd both sign them, and I'd be done and he was still signing two or three, and it would always be done with his right hand.
BoxingScene.com: What was Sonny like up in the ring, and outside the ring?
GF: He was a good boxer because he'd learned to box early on. He'd been taught well, so he knew how to follow instructions in the ring. He wasn't wild. he followed the instructions of his trainer to a tee. And outside the ring, he was gentle and really kind to me. One time, I guess he didn't know that I didn't know that he was illiterate. I tried to show him a horrorscope book. I said read this, and I handed the book to him and he knocked the book out of my hand....get that 'Blankety blank....out of my face!" And it made me feel bad, but later on, Saddler made me understand that the Big Man didn't mean any harm. He was a nice guy, but he had this defensive mechanism that would make people stand so far away, and not to cross the line and find out too many of his secrets.
BoxingScene.com: How old do you think he was when you met him? When he fought Muhammad Ali, he looked old already.
GF: I had no idea of his age. As a matter of fact, it never crossed my mind because Liston was doing all the things the young heavyweight couldn't do. So physically there wasn't anything wrong as far as I could see, that was a challenge for him at his age. I saw him fight Henry Clark and Scrap Iron Johnson, and he was the one who had the stamina in the last rounds. The only time I saw a chink was when he fought Leontes Martin. But then Liston was sick prior to that. He got a cold he just couldn't recover from. And he would go out after a boxing match and start drinking and it would sometimes last a month. Then he'd come back and get into training. I think he finally went to the well, and there just wasn't any water.
I spent a lot of time with Sonny Liston, and the last time I truely met with him, he asked me to read a contract. I read it to him, and he responded: 'That's what it says? That's what I thought." I wish I'd known earlier that he had a problem reading. I'd have stayed a little closer to him.