On The Road With Sonny Liston; a Flashback With Lem Banker - Part 2


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Two of those sayings effectively became Lem Banker trademarks. “They Play the National Anthem Every Day” was Lem’s way of saying that a bettor should never over-extend himself or put all of his eggs in one basket. “What You Save is What You Earn” emphasized the importance of shopping for the best odds.

A vigorous workout was part of Lem’s daily routine. He had a steam room in his house and a treadmill and he swam laps in his backyard pool where the water was never heated. But he also included boxing drills in his regimen, hitting a heavy bag and a speed bag and working his shoulders and abs with a medicine ball. In this regard, he was ahead of his time. Nowadays, boxing-styled workouts are in vogue at many of the leading health club chains.


Chuck Wepner lost three of his next five fights. He was stopped on cuts by Joe Bugner and Jerry Judge and was out-pointed by Randy Neumann in a bout billed for the New Jersey State Heavyweight Title. But then his career got a second wind, as it were. In the process of manufacturing an eight-fight winning streak, he twice avenged the loss to Neumann and outpointed former heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell, an outrageous decision but a victory nevertheless. That led to a bout with Muhammad Ali.

Wepner was accorded no prayer of beating Ali, but the fight got a good amount of ink because Ali was Ali and the “Bayonne Bleeder,” who had developed a cult following, could hold his own with The Greatest as a magnet for whimsical news stories. After he collects his purse, said the wags, Wepner will laugh all the way to the blood bank.

Against an uninspired Ali, Wepner came within 19 seconds of lasting the full 15-round distance. When it was over, said ringside scribe John Hall, he was carried to his stool like a slaughtered steer. But the writers were generally kind to him, applauding his gallant effort. He plodded on for three more years, winning five of his last 10 fights.

Fight posters for the Ali-Wepner fight were tagged “The Chance of a Lifetime.” Chuck Wepner was Rocky before there was Rocky. Indeed, aspiring screenwriter Sylvester Stallone watched the Ali-Wepner fight on a closed-circuit feed and would make no bones about the fact that Wepner was his inspiration for Rocky Balboa, America’s most iconic celluloid underdog.

Stallone’s candor eventually cost him. In 2005, Wepner won a judgment against him for using his name “to promote the Rocky movies and related products for commercial purposes without consent and without compensation.” The suit was settled out of court. Wepner won an undisclosed settlement.

Earlier this year, Chuck Wepner had another 15 minutes of fame when the movie “Chuck” hit the big screen. Titled “The Bleeder” when it made the rounds of the film festivals, the movie faded quickly despite a critically acclaimed performance by Liev Schreiber in the title role.

Chuck Wepner, who still has all his faculties, turned 78 in February. Sonny Liston has been dead going on 47 years.

On Jan. 5, 1971, Sonny’s wife Geraldine discovered his body after returning from St. Louis where she and their adopted son were visiting her sick father. Lem Banker was among the first to get the shocking news. “The woman who cleaned his house once a week, Vernita Cox, called me and said ‘Lem, Sonny is dead and rigor mortis has already set in.’” The Bankers were also clients of Ms. Cox.

The coroner estimated that Liston may have been dead for as long as eight days. His death, said the coroner in his report, resulted from lung congestion, which in turn was caused by a defective pulmonary artery. But he found needle tracks on Sonny’s arm and the police had found a balloon containing a small amount of heroin in his home. Hence, it was widely assumed that his death resulted from a drug overdose.

No one close to Liston, including Banker, bought into this assumption. They knew that Sonny was deathly afraid of needles. In death, as in life, Charles “Sonny” Liston was an enigma.


Lem’s sunset years haven’t been very sunny. He lost Debbie, his wife of 50 years, in 2009. A quadruple bypass, a back injury that required surgery, and the ravages of time have left him unable to perform many of the little chores that healthy people take for granted. He rarely leaves the house now, save for an occasional dinner with old friends. He employs two attendants, Orlando Flores and Sammy Lorenzo, who provide companionship and care for his needs.

This is a pale imitation of the real Lem Banker. In his palmy days, getting out and pressing the flesh was part of his DNA. On his afternoon runs, he would invariably pop in at the Stardust and more than likely the Castaways and before his sojourn was over he would hit the two little bookie joints that sat in a little strip mall across from Dunes.

In those days, Lem was as much a part of the cultural fabric as the town’s long-serving two-fisted Mormon sheriff Ralph Lamb whose escapades inspired a short-lived TV series. Lem worked on Lamb’s re-election campaigns, in a fashion, harvesting donations from casino owners. “I was the sheriff’s bagman,” he says matter-of-factly.

Of course, even if Banker were able to amble about as he once did, his routine wouldn’t be the same. Most of his old haunts disappeared as the city matured and the Strip became more vertical. At certain times of the day, traffic along the boulevard is more gridlocked than Times Square. When Lem pulled up to a hotel/casino in his sporty Mercedes, it was his habit to park right in front, shoot the valet parking guy a few bucks, and when he emerged he would likely find his car right where he had left it. Nowadays, it costs $15-$20 to valet park at any of the big six MGM Grand properties and the parking attendant gets none of it. When the MGM did away with free parking at all their various garages last year, it had an inevitable domino effect and for many long-time residents, who were feeling less and less welcome at the major Strip properties, this was the final indignity.

When it comes to betting, Lem has been reduced to betting modest sums but his routine hasn’t changed. After each set of games he adjusts his numbers, filling a notebook with hieroglyphics that only he can understand. But here too, things are not as they were.

When Lem was going strong, he was exploiting regional variations in betting lines. In the Internet Age, where there are no secrets, there’s less variation. That makes it tougher to grind out a profit. Baseball commands Lem’s attention at the moment and it hasn’t been going well.

Then why keep at it? That’s a rhetorical question. “If you’re swimming in the ocean,” says Banker, “you had better keep your arms moving.”

When he isn’t analyzing the match-ups or checking the lines or watching the scores roll in, Banker is comforted by the memories of a life well lived. He reiterates a well-known fact about Sonny Liston, that he was good around young children. In their presence, the man that Clay/Ali called the “Big Ugly Bear” was about as intimidating as a teddy bear.

In Liston’s day, sparring partners were treated like crap, especially if they happened to be black. “That’s another thing,” says Banker. “Sonny was rough on his sparring partners inside the ropes, but he treated them with respect. If there was a boxing related function like a press luncheon, he made certain that his sparring partners were invited and could eat the same food as everyone else.”

Sonny Liston sheared the heavyweight title from Floyd Patterson, blowing him away in the opening round. Their first encounter (the sequel was a carbon) was one of the great morality plays in the history of boxing.

A man with a long rap sheet, stained with a sullen disposition, Liston was portrayed as a brute, the opposite of Patterson who came across like a choir boy. Even a few civil rights leaders opined that it would be bad for America if an illiterate ex-con like Liston seized what was then regarded as the most prestigious diadem in sports.

The promoters had a natural hook in this dichotomy, but the classy Patterson wouldn’t play along with it. “I hope you fellows give Sonny a chance,” he said to a group of reporters. “There’s good in all men, and I think if you look closely, you will find that there’s lots of good in Sonny Liston.” To which Lem Banker would have appended a hearty amen.

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