Sonny Liston’s Manager – a Character Out of Damon Runyon
Al Braverman and Damon Runyon knew the fight business. Braverman was Sonny’s manager for a while, Runyon was a journalist and short story writer who took his vocabulary from the New York underworld and turned it into a unique style. He would have recognised Braverman immediately, an ex-fighter with sharp instincts and Mafia connections.
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Damon Runyon’s stories are filled with characters with names like Bookie Bob, Harry the Horse, Dancing Dan and Good Time Charlie Bernstein. Al Braverman mixed with fighters and gangsters, promoters and trainers. Men like Mafia boss Frank Carbo, the infamous Don King, Muhammad Ali, Angelo Dundee, Joe Louis – and at an important moment he managed Sonny Liston.
Throughout his career Sonny was controlled by the Mafia but this wasn’t as shocking or shaming as it might be thought today. Given his poverty stricken start and non-existent education, Sonny wasn’t exactly holding the best hand. Damon Runyon understood the situation. Writing about gambling and horse racing, as he often did, he said his time at the track had convinced him - all of life is six to five against.
Enter Frankie Carbo the Mobster
In Sonny’s case the odds against were brutal. But life had also taught him, in Runyon’s words again, if you rub up against the money some of it may stick to you. Enter Frankie Carbo, the New York based Mob boss who controlled boxing from the forties until well into the sixties. Sonny was mostly content to be managed by the Mob. They provided him with fights and enough money to buy good cars and a good life. A lot more than was on offer from the straight world. Plus, he enjoyed their company.
Al Braverman was introduced to Sonny before he started training for the second Ali fight. Sonny was playing up a bit and the Mob needed him to concentrate. Before they started Al sat down with Sonny and laid it on the line. He said, you know who sent me? Right, we don’t want any trouble but if you give me any problems, start cussing me, calling me mother this and mother that, I’ll get a bottle of whisky and break it over your head.
Sonny knew this was for real. Al’s boxing days were behind him – but Sonny knew where the message was coming from and Braverman would deliver. There were no problems.
Ali won the fight although the way Al Braverman described it, no way did Sonny take a dive. Braverman said he was caught by a good punch he didn’t see – and referee Joe Walcott couldn’t handle the fight or Ali. Walcott stopped the fight on a knockout – even though he didn’t count Liston out.
Braverman the brave
In one of Liston’s last fights, against the Bayonne Bleeder, Chuck Wepner, Braverman was in the other corner. He was managing Wepner and knew that prospects would open up for his man if he won. Sonny was coming to the end but he was still an entirely different class of fighter to Wepner. Liston punished the brave Wepner so badly the referee wanted to stop the fight. He went to Wepner’s corner and holding up three fingers asked the fighter how many. Wepner’s eyes were cut so badly he couldn’t see – but Braverman standing behind him tapped him on the shoulder three times. Wepner gave the right answer – and went out for yet more punishment.
After the fight a journalist asked Sonny if Wepner was the bravest man he had ever met. Sonny replied, no, his manager is. Damon Runyon would have loved writing that story.
The miracle product
He would also have enjoyed Braverman’s performance when Wepner got a shot he didn’t really deserve at Ali’s title. Knowing the way that Wepner’s face cut so badly, journalists were keen to know how he could possibly stand up to Ali.
Al Braverman had the answer. He said he had found a new salve he would smear on Wepner’s face. It was a miracle product, no chemist had ever been able to break the formula – and it would stop Wepner’s face cutting up. He had needed 65 stitches after fighting Liston.
But wouldn’t the referee stop the fight because this salve introduced a foreign body to the ring? No way, said Al, it’s made right here in America.