“I picked Patterson to win in one punch in the sixth round …” Mailer shouted.
“He’s still drunk,” Liston said with a laugh.
The future Pulitzer and National Book Award winner then spent the next few minutes ranting about why his prediction was right and why Patterson had actually beaten Liston.
For Mailer, Patterson represented the dreams of millions of blacks and white liberals that the heavyweight champion, then the most iconic sports figure in the world, would be a heroic figure in the mold of Joe Louis, who held the heavyweight title for more than 12 years and was, everyone agreed, a “credit to his race.” Liston, with his criminal past and ties to organized crime, didn’t come close to this ideal. As he wrote later in his first great boxing piece, in Esquire, “The Thousand Words a Minute,” “If Liston was the agent of the Devil, what a raid had been made on God, what a royal black had arisen, Sonny, the King of Hip, was Ace of Spades, and Patterson, ah Patterson, was now an archetype, all which was underdog.” (Liston had outweighed Patterson by more than 25 pounds.)
Patterson, Mailer seemed to be saying, had won a great victory simply by overcoming the psychic burden of being the hope of so many—a burden Liston would never know.
The new heavyweight champion, smiling as radiantly as anyone had ever seen him, advised the heavyweight champion of American writers, “Don’t be a sorehead.”
Am I right, I asked Mailer, in assuming that “the writer” in Liebling’s piece was you?
Yes, he told me, he was. And what he objected to was that Liebling did not mention him by name. “I was irked that he did not use my name because the story of my dialogue with Liston had appeared in many a New York newspaper. … It’s the most effective form of reportorial bum-rapping.”
(Since Liebling was regarded by many as the greatest boxing writer ever, I asked Mailer for his opinion. “He was wonderful on politicians and many other matters,” he wrote back.)
No fighter, no American athlete, would ever be so connected with a writer as Ali would be with Mailer. But the champ no one wanted, Sonny Liston, had a special place in Mailer’s esteem, too. Mailer recalled to me that on the night he disrupted Liston’s press conference, “Sonny himself wasn’t as offended as the newspapermen. I told him I didn’t like it that he called me a bum. He laughed and said, ‘Hey, you can call me a bum. Hell, I’m a bigger bum than you because I’m bigger than you,’” he told me.
Mailer said Liston offered him his hand to shake; he asked, “Okay, bum?” and asked Mailer to get him a drink. “I’m not your flunkie,” Mailer told Liston. Liston looked around the room and said in a voice everyone could hear, “I like this guy.”
I wrote Mailer one last time. I’ve got to know, I said, what did you reply to Liston when he said that?
He told me that he stuck his finger boldly in Liston’s massive chest, looked him in the eye, and said, “And you are better than I thought you were.”