The recent death of Muhammed Ali reminds me of the time I met Sonny Liston. In 1962, when I was in the tenth grade at Aurora, CO, High School, and my brother Tom was in the ninth grade at nearby North Junior High, Sonny Liston, the ferocious prizefighter who had won the heavyweight championship against Floyd Patterson some time earlier, moved to east Denver, not far from our apartment at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora. His recent fight against Patterson was over so quickly there’d been many allegations of a fix. But there were also many claims that his right hand was so strong, it could kill a man and Patterson was lucky to have escaped with his life.
Dad was stationed at Fitzsimons (now closed) and we lived in base housing. I don’t know why Tom and I were talking about Liston other than that he was in the news. Dad was the boxing fan, not Tom or me. A story in one of the papers (those were the days of a morning newspaper and a competing afternoon paper) had his address—-he was in a fancy part of east Denver, not that far from us. I’d recently received my driver’s license and, if Dad was in the right mood, was sometimes allowed to drive our black and Colonial Creme (not yellow! Colonial Creme) Chevy station wagon.
The summer before, one day when Tom and I were looking for something to do, we said to each other, “Hey, let’s go say ‘hi’ to the Governor” and we rode eight miles each way on our bikes to do so. We didn’t meet the Governor but we did meet the Lieutenant Governor, who showed us the new license plates that would come out in a year. Now in that same spirit, one evening one of us said, “Hey, let’s go say ‘hi’ to Sonny Liston.” And so we did. It was one of my first times driving at night but at least there were streetlights in east Denver. Somehow I found the address. We could see well enough to see Liston’s house was plush, near Monaco Parkway where the rich people lived. I parked the car and we walked up to the door. Two young white teenagers walking right to the front door of the African American heavyweight champion of the world. We weren’t even smart enough to be nervous. I rang the bell. We could hear voices and the door opened.
“Yes?” barked a large black man. Was this him, was this the fearsome fighter? I couldn’t be sure.
“Uh, good evening sir. We wondered if Sonny Liston was home.”
“Whaddya want with him?”
Good question. What did we want with him? What the hell were we doing there? It was clear now we were interrupting either dinner or a party.
“Um, we’d like to shake his hand and say ‘hi.’ And we’d like his autograph.” That was the best I could come up with.
“Wait a minute.”
Uh oh, was he going to get a gun to shoot us? Suddenly the doorway was full, one man was blocking out all the light.
Now there was no question. This was him. “Hi. Are you Sonny Liston?”
“How do you do sir?” I stammered. We were being the super respectful Army kids we’d been taught to be. “We live on Fitzsimons, a few miles from here. Our dad is in the Army. We just wanted to say ‘hi’ and ‘congratulations’ and could we have your autograph please?”
“OK. Hi. Did you bring a paper and pen?”
Oops. We hadn’t thought of that. “Uh, no sir. I’m sorry.” Now what? Maybe we had something back in the car but I wasn’t sure and that would only prolong what was now a clearly bad idea. We started to turn around.
“Wait a minute.” The great man took pity on us. He went back to his dinner group and returned in a few minutes with a pad of paper and a pencil.
Here we were, two scrawny white teenagers standing in fear of the great man we’d come to see. Sonny’s giant hand swallowed up the pencil. He put his face close to the paper and began writing his name very slowly. He doesn’t know how to write! I thought. Suddenly everything changed. This burly giant labored over signing his name like a child just learning to write. Instead of being afraid, I felt protective and angry-—this poor guy, look how everyone had taken advantage of him because he was big and tough and a great fighter. No one had ever cared enough about him to make sure he got a good education, I thought. Finally, he finished and handed the torn-off slip of paper to us. He graciously offered his huge hand, that instrument of death, to each of us to shake and was careful not to shake our hands too hard.
Since then, I’ve had to endure many super-strong handshakes, some even painful, and it seems they always came from guys desperately trying to prove something, not guys who’d already shown their abilities.