Rhames Took It To The Limit With The Sonny Liston Story

To get in shape to play the lead in the Sonny Liston story, actor Ving Rhames followed this program designed by Sugar Ray Leonard. You can, too.

The fist is six inches wide and powering smack into your face again and again and again, like a giant piston, fast, and you’re staring straight into the fighter’s unblinking eyes because they command you to do so, and you have no doubt that he hates you–hates you–and you damn sure dare not flinch.

You are in the fighter’s house. In his house.

On the other end of the fist is a man, Irving “Ving” Rhames, who weighed 208.5 pounds when he got up this morning, though he used to tip the scales at 221. Sweat streams from the crown of his shiny, shaved head, and he snorts hard with every punch, Hnhh! Hnhh! Hnhh!, because this is not a performance–he has already hyperextended his elbow once doing this–it is a serious training session. A puff of air kisses your eyeballs with each jab, because, instead of crushing your septum into your brains and bringing about the end of your pathetic self for defiling a twenty-by-twenty-foot patch of canvas to which you hold no title, the fist is stopping precisely half an inch from your nose. It is stopping there because thirty-six-year-old Rhames is using it, his left, to take a measurement for its compadre, his right.

He has come far in the brutal calculus of mano a mano under the tutelage of Sugar Ray Leonard, which, in terms of this combination of fisticuffs, means he employs one fist to gauge where to throw the other, how far, and how hard. Were this a lesser actor, someone looking to pick up a paycheck for playing a fighter, you would feel that puff of air off to the side of your right ear, and a camera angle would make it look more or less real. “You know,” Sugar Ray says, “you play basketball, you play tennis, you play golf. You don’t play boxing.”

Ving Rhames–who has played in Striptease, Dave, Con Air, Rosewood, Mission: Impossible I and II, and Out of Sight–is, here, not playing anything.

And it is very, very fortunate for you, little man, that the right fist never gets thrown.

Sonny Liston liked his house nice and cozy, and he liked to fill it up with himself. He was a puncher, a big man, not one to dance around. He became heavyweight champion of the world in 1962 by shrinking the size of the ring to his taste, trapping Floyd Patterson within those unfriendly confines and battering him to the carpet in one round. This is why, when Ving Rhames shadowboxes in a private Santa Monica gym with Sugar Ray Leonard and Darrell Foster, Sugar’s coach from Hearns to Hagler, he does so on a ten-by-ten-foot wooden platform. He is learning to box in a Liston-sized ring. He is training as Liston did–with a few concessions to modern nutrition and strength conditioning–ninety minutes a day, three days a week, for more than three months.

Rhames is doing this–dropping the weight, learning the chops–because he has taken on a responsibility: to become the man, to see through his angry eyes, to punch through his frustration for Paramount Pictures’ Sonny Liston story. The goal, Rhames says, is to have “the most authentic, the most realistic, the best fight scenes in the history of film.” Leonard and Foster are getting him there.

There will be contact.

This is why Rhames is permitting Foster to hurl a ten-pound medicine ball into his gut–to teach the abs to tighten up, take a punch. Why he’s running five miles each A.M. at six. Wrapping the tools of his trade and plunging them into sixteen-ounce gloves and slugging Sugar Ray’s padded hands in a rapid-fire combination as the coach yells, “One-two!” Cultivating power in those punches on the heavy bag, hand-eye on the double-end bag (he’s got it down) and the speed bag (he’s better with his left hand than his right). Why he’s learning to possess the ring. Why he’s looking at you that way.

Most of Rhames’s life as an actor has been about that ability to intimidate physically, to menace onscreen: a bouncer, a muscley convict. “I was cast as Sonny Liston, if you think about it,” Rhames says. “Strong black guy, deep voice.” Casting directors have a tendency to notice the tree-trunk arms before the mischievous eyes, the clipped Shakespearean elocution. His most widely known character, the earringed Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, was a strongman of few words, although seven of them were especially memorable and involved getting “medieval.” But he broke out big with the HBO movie Don King: Only in America, delivering a rich, nuanced interpretation of the promoter, most notably with hilarious soliloquies a la lago in Othello. The King part landed Rhames a Golden Globe award (which he handed off to a perplexed Jack Lemmon during the awards ceremony, even though he’d never considered Lemmon a particular source of inspiration; later, the Golden Globe people sent Rhames another statue).

Liston cultivated his image as one of the meanest sons of bitches ever to walk the earth, and he scared the hell out of a racially charged America. “Black people didn’t like him,” Rhames says. “The NAACP didn’t want him to be champ, because they wanted positive civil-rights images.” He was a sullen, glowering street tough with a record: He had done time for armed robbery before he shucked the striped suit for silk trunks. He was muscle for the mob, which owned him his whole career. The press called him a jungle beast and a latter-day caveman. When he appeared on the cover of Esquire in a Santa Claus hat a year after he took his title, advertisers howled; subscribers demanded refunds.

Liston lost his title to a rambunctious Cassius Clay in 1964–some said his soul, too, and that the fix was in. He took the ultimate dive in 1970, a violent and mysterious death–could’ve been a needle, could’ve been whacked.

That much we know. Rhames has tracked down Liston’s aging friends, trainers, sparring partners; they remember a funny man who told X-rated Redd Foxx jokes as he jogged along the beach. Who stuffed rock candy in his manager’s mouth when he knew reporters were coming and then smacked the guy and had him spit the rocks out like teeth. Who did a movie produced by Jack Nicholson (Head, in 1968), an episode of Love, American Style, and an airline commercial with Andy Warhol. “I think there’s a part of Sonny that’s a part of every black man,” Rhames says. “I know before I became known, I walked into a store and security guards would look at me like, ‘Who’s that bald-headed, big black guy?'” The cops in Beverly Hills pull him over because he’s a bald-headed, big black guy in a Lexus. “A lot of times, external forces can try to dictate who you are. I think there’s a whole ‘nother side of him that the world hasn’t seen.

“This is my thing,” Rhames says. “Since I’m representing a man’s life, I owe it to him and his name to give it my blood, sweat, tears–everything that he gave.”

Ving Rhames is in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard, which, even today, is not a place you want to be. “I want him to really feel what it’s like to be hit,” Leonard says, explaining the necessity of bruising Rhames’s ribs. “To really experience that–not really pain–that touch. He’s becoming a fighter. He’s become a fighter.”

Rhames plans to continue Leonard’s boxing workout even after the Liston job. “It’s really the ultimate sport,” Rhames says. “Mind, body, soul, man versus man.”

Before long, Foster says, Rhames will actually be skilled enough and strong enough to box professionally. “His movement around the ring, the presence of his body, his hands–all the things begin to come together,” the coach says. “It becomes instinctive.”

But has he yet developed the necessary hatred, that visceral sense of violation at the incursion of Darrell Foster into Ving Rhames’s ring, his house?

“No,” Rhames says. “At this point, it would be his house.” He turns to Foster. “This is your house, man.”

Foster nods.” That was a good answer.”

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