An Interview With Legendary Dogman Sonny Sykes

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An Interview With Legendary Dogman Sonny Sykes:

“HOW OLD ARE YOU?” was my first question! “I’m 47 years old and I was 9 years old when I saw my first dogfight. “Where were you last night? What’s all that hair in your mouth, you son of a bitch?” I looked at him while he was sitting across the table with a big smile on his face. Sonny Sykes lived in Chicago when he was a young man, just around the corner from the blacksmith shop where Joe Corvino kept all his dogs. Sonny, like Joe, was from Italian background and it was Sonny’s uncle who brought him to Joe for the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I was talking to Sonny, I noticed a T-shirt hanging on the wall in his living room. On the front of the shirt it said, “The King of the Pit.” Later on he said that the only true King in the Pit was Bert Clouse. This and other lively statements made this interview one of the most interesting so far and, with the permission of Sonny, I would like to dedicate this interview to all the great old time Chicago dogmen, but in particular to Joe Corvino.

We at THE TIMES are proud to bring you this exclusive interview with Sonny Sykes and we trust you will appreciate his colorful stories and great old time pictures which would make an entire book themselves.

Read the rest of the story and drift back into an era long ago through the eyes of Sonny Sykes who has been a dogman for 38 years…

Sonny, where did you get your first dog? I got my first puppy from Joe Corvino when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I remember I was in the third grade and that little female lived to be 18 years old. I had her well into my first marriage. I bred her once to a Corvino bred male called JONESY, but it missed and I never bred her again.

What type of man was Joe? Well, he was Italian, very nice and very knowledgeable man. He would talk, but also he would keep a lot of things to himself. He was very hard to please and in my heart I believe that he was ahead of his time. He had a lot of friends in the dog game, everywhere…he always had a lot of guys coming to his blacksmith shop where he worked, but none of them would last very long. He taught me a lot about dogs and even how to shoe a horse. I spent a lot of time in that blacksmith shop and to be honest with you, I believe it kept me out of serious trouble. Other kids would go out and do crazy, stupid things but I spent my time over there.

Was Joe like a father figure to you? Maybe so, but I always looked at him as a friend although he was much older than me. When I met him he was already 50 years old. To me he was like a big brother type. You see, Joe had 9 children, 4 boys and 5 girls, but not one of his kids liked the dogs because he forced them to take care of them, like cleaning the kennels and stuff like that. Now, I was hungry for that, I loved the dogs.

Who were Joe’s best friends? He had many friends. He was very good friends with Bert Clouse, Earl Tudor, Walter Komosinski, Pete Sparks, Leo Kinard, George Saddler, Jack Kelly, Maurice Carver, Mike Ferris, Wiz Hubbard, and so many others… Joe also knew the old Irish men like Con Feely, Pat Conroy, the Farmer brothers, and also John Colby.

Did he tell you how he got started in the dogs? Yes, he told me one time that he stole his very first dog from an Irish saloon keeper and when he got home with the dog he broke it’s front legs because he wanted a dog that was toed in. He was just 8 or 9 years old at the time. Pete Sparks one time put on the cover of his magazine that Corvino stole his first dog and that he stole the show ever since. Pete Sparks had a real good magazine in those days called Your Friend and Mine. Pete only matched one dog in his life. He was not a dogfighter, but he was a breeder and a publicist. He was also basically a Colby breeder and I hear his dogs are doing pretty good these days, even better than in the old days. Joe told me that Con Feely was a good dogman, very hard to beat. A real dogfighter that I believe was born in Ireland. The same goes for the Farmer brothers. They, too, were Irish and very, very tough competition. In those days around that turn of the century, Chicago was the hotbed for fighting dogs because of all the good dogmen that came from Ireland. They were the ones that brought the dogs with them when they came from Europe to this country. Up until those days the dog game was an Irish sport and don’t let anybody tell you different! Joe started with dogs from Feely bloodline and he also got dogs from Jack Williams from Colorado. Not from the Williams from Oklahoma, but from Colorado. These dogs were from Bruce’s LADY LOU and TURK and they too were basically Feely’s blood. Joe also got dogs from a man named Cunningham who was from Southern Illinois. He also got dogs from Menefee and from Tudor. Joe knew a lot of people and he traveled a lot. Like I said before, he knew Colby and I’ve just showed you some letters that proved to you the kind of relationship they had.

What were the best combinations that Joe ever made? I would say the Feely-Menefee crosses. That’s what basically produced Trahan’s RASCAL and DIBO. You see, Joe didn’t breed as close as people think he did. He would breed similar breed males to outcross bitches and breed that together. But, he always said; “These dogs are goofy enough already.” Joe was a devoted game freak. He didn’t like anything more than a deep game dog that would fight the head. That was his belief and that is what I’ve been taught. A dog that will stay on the face or the ear and keep himself out of trouble. Joe didn’t like a stifle dog. He always said that a dog that would go to the back-end was running away from the action, and that he would go to the stifles because there is no teeth there. Joe really liked the smart head master and so do I.

Was Joe a gambler? No. He was strictly in the dogs. Usually we would go to a convention or something like that and go early so he could see the other guys come in with their dogs, etc. He liked that. Joe was more interested in how the dogs did and how the bloodlines compared to each other and all that.

Joe was more a breeder than a fighter, right? Right. He was definitely a breeder type. But, he would test his dogs hard, real hard!

How did he do that? Where would he draw the line? Well, you have no idea of what I saw in the blacksmith shop. Like I already said, he had no use for a punishing dog. He was looking for gameness. So he put a hard test on them. He would put two or three dogs on one just to see if he would stay solid. And, if they didn’t pass the test, he got rid of them. He wouldn’t sell or breed them if they weren’t game. He sometimes used a muzzle on a dog so they couldn’t take a hold and frustrated them to see how they did under pressure.

How do you feel about this method now? Do you like to use two or three dogs if you want to test a dog’s gameness? No. I don’t do it. I’ve tried it but I would never do that again. I had dogs that wouldn’t even fight a fresh dog, but you put them in shape, and they would fight their heart out against the same opponent. Now Joe would never test a dog before he was 2 years old. He maybe would see if they would start up, but he never rolled them hard before 2 years old. He would never match a dog before he was 3 years old. I’ll tell you something. If you really want to test a dog, you don’t have to put 2 or 3 dogs on him. It’s very simple. Take them off the chain without any conditioning, and put the against a 5 or 10 pound bigger dog. That will show you something. Let them push that weight for about 15 or 20 minutes and you’ll see! That’s what I would do and did do. I guarantee you that they will quit quicker from the heat than they will from getting hurt!

I heard about some people in the old days putting a muzzle on both dogs and letting them wrestle as a form of exercise. What do you think of that? That’s very possible, but another thing is, put a muzzle on a dog and let him chase a hide for awhile. If you let that go for more than 5 or 6 minutes, you will kill your dog! He gets so mad from chasing that hide that he hurts himself from the inside. When you take that muzzle away, he can hardly stand from all the inside fat that is coming out. It’s good exercise, but no more than 30 seconds. The Cajuns use that a lot for putting a dog in shape. I don’t have to because I know how to cut the inside fat out and bring them down to weight before the working starts. If you do it right, your dog will…listen! The trick is this; have your dog 1 or 1 ½ pounds underweight about 2 weeks before the fight, and the last 2 weeks put the weight back on so he will be just a little underweight at fight time. Everybody does it different, but this is how I do it. I have my own way of conditioning a dog and believe me a dog should never have trouble breathing while he is being worked. Why am I telling you all these secrets, you son of a bitch? Next Subject!

Is that how they did it in the old days? Yes! The ones that knew how to do it. But not everybody knew how to do it.

How important is conditioning to you? Very important. I believe it’s 70% of the fight. Peter, it’s like this; if they can’t breath, they can’t fight. The heart sends a message to the brain and oxygen is the whole thing. If you can’t breath you can’t run, let alone fight. There is a thing now they do these days to build up red blood cells to improve the oxygen level in the bloodstream and this and that, but there is nothing that will take the place of hard work. Nothing can replace hard work!

What was the deal between Howard Heinzl and Joe Corvino? Well, first I want to say that Heinzl has always been good to me. He sent me plenty of dogs that I always liked and did good with. I have nothing bad to say about Heinzl; he and I got along good. I beat Mike Ferris with a dog he sent me, and he sent me all his dogs for free! But, what is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong. Joe and Heinzl didn’t get along good and the fight between them started in the time when Heinzl still lived in Chicago. Heinzl was born in Chicago and later on he moved with his partner Bruce Johnson to Arizona to start a lettuce farm, but they went down. Anyway, Heinzl had his dogs from Colby and didn’t have a place to keep them. So Joe boarded his dogs, and the deal was that Heinzl paid him 25 cents per day(per dog) for the feed. Later on, Joe raised it to something like 30 cents because it was the depression and in that time it was hard to find meat for dogs. Heinzl thought Joe wanted to keep the dogs for himself and that’s how the feud started, for no other reason. Heinzl keep that hate with him for all those years. That was between Joe and Heinzl, but there was something else too! Heinzl and a man named Bud Morelli stole one of Joe’s dogs when his son, Joe jr., was walking the dog down the street. The dog was named BLACKIE and after Heinzl stole the dog he sent him to Earl Tudor. Joe found out about this and Earl also knew what happened, but he never returned the dog to Joe. Joe and Earl were good friends and they remained friends, but the friendship was a little cool after this incident.

Did Joe keep a lot of dogs at his place? He lived in the city and he had limited space. He had kennels for about 12 to 15 dogs and he cooked for them every day. He always had a man living above the shop and this man would take care of the dogs as Joe was always working, shoeing horses and stuff. But he had numerous people in the city that had only 1 or 2 dogs and he always kept track of them.

Joe built his own treadmills. Did he prefer to work a dog on a treadmill more than anything else? No, his first choice was handwalking, but then he preferred the treadmill. He had a turn table but didn’t like it. So he sold the table to Bert Clouse and it is still working. Bert Clouse is dead, but the table is still at his place and it still works. Joe built the best treadmills. He had slatmills and todays mills are copies of his. Colbly had a carpet mill, but Joe liked the slats more.

How do you work a dog on a treadmill? A dog should work a mill like he is going to town looking for a female, and that’s a slow tread. I don’t like a dog to go all out because it will burn him out and not put him in shape. That steady trot with his tongue hanging out his mouth, that’s it! Remember this, many a fighter lost his fight in the gym. I believe that a lot of guys are working are overworking the dog. Today there is a better understanding of how to put the dog in shape. In the old days… well, they brought them in skin and bones. If you feed a dog nothing but meat for 20 or 30 days, the protein will take all the fat out of the body and there is nothing left. Now a few guys did it different, like Ham Morris and Walter Komosinski. They did pretty good, but the rest… it was like this, if you had 20 guys in those days to match a dog, 15 of them couldn’t get Lassie to shake hands. Understand?

Who do you believe was the best conditioners in those days? I would say Don Mayfield and Roland Fontenot.

Why? You just said that some people would take too much weight off them, and Mayfield had a reputation of bringing in dogs that were real thin! That’s true, but for those days he was a good conditioner. Now today he wouldn’t stand a chance because he still sticks to the old way. I saw him in his last fight with a dog named SNOW against CHARLIE (which was Jeep’s litter brother) and he didn’t have a chance! Mayfield would bring his dogs in peaked out. Fontenot brought them in like that too, but he slowly progressed with the new way of doing things, and he fought right up until his death.

Who do you believe were the best handlers? Fontenot and Jerome Hernandez were very good handlers. To me they were probably the best all around dogmen.

How important is a good handler to you? Real important. But there is no need to jump up and down and holler and scream when they go at it hard and fast like most do the first 20 minutes or so. Nobody should be acting crazy or wild in the pit because the other dog can hear you as good as your own dog. I think the handling is important when it comes down to the nitty gritty, when they are tired and hurt, or when the turning starts. When it comes down to that moment of truth and a dogfight becomes a real dogfight the handling, like the conditioning and gameness are extremely important, no doubt in my mind!

You told me before that when you were in the pit handling a dog you didn’t like to use a wet sponge. Why not? If you bring that dog fit to fight he don’t need a shower in his corner. I’m not against wiping his mouth out a little bit, but I’ve seen guys wetting them down and that, to me, is just teaching the dog that there is a cool spot in the corner. I don’t think you will make a game dog quit by doing this but if you have a borderline case, a dog is going to think about it. You can’t stop a game dog by throwing a whole bucket of ice water over him but I just don’t like it.

What was the longest match you ever had? Three hours and 10 minutes, and ended in a draw. I was going into Red Howell from Chicago. This was a long time ago before dogfighting became a felony. I’m not active anymore, but I remember that the weight was 48lbs and that I used a dog out of Clouse’s BUTCH. Howell’s dog died but I matched mine 6 months later against Mike Ferris and won in 1 hour and 10 minutes. Mike used a dog that Floyd Boudreaux had shipped to him with a special intention to beat me.

What was the shortest match you ever had? Against Clyde Mason in 6 minutes. I won that one with my AUDREY bitch. She was a STU FOWLER/Mayfield cross.

Did you work these dogs the same way? Yes, they worked the same way, but had nothing to do with the outcome of the fight. They had different opponents.

What can you tell me about Bert Clouse? Bert was a very good person and a good dogman. He was truly the King of the Pit, and a great conditioner in those days. By today’s standard, he would probably be average. But in those days, he was one of the best! Bert was very knowledgeable and well read. Bert, like Joe, liked the head dog and he would usually come with an athletic type of dog. He once had a dog called BUTCH that he got from Joe. He won 6 fights with the dog. BUTCH was a Mason bred dog. Joe bought him from Jimmie Sheer in Louisiana where they used BUTCH in a gate fight. Joe knew the dog was pretty good so he paid $50 for the dog and took him back to Chicago. When Bert came over he liked the dog so much that he asked Joe to sell it to him. Bert kept around 35 to 40 dogs at his place and he had some good ones. He had NUBBIE, WAGGIE, BIG BOY…and others. This was back in the forties and fifties. Bert, like many others, got his first dog from Joe.

What is the best dog you ever matched yourself? A dog called BOB. He came from a man named Eichen in New York. He was a black dog, 46lbs and sired by Clouse’s STABBER. I bet Teal and Cotton’s 5 times winner PLAYBOY with him and prior to that he won over Komosinski in 1 hour and 40 minutes. He was, by far, the greatest dog I ever handled. Several people owned him before I got him, and I found out that he was matched in 5 different states all under different names. He and my SNUBBY bitch were poisoned and he died in my hands. He and SNUBBY were two of my best.

What was your relation to Don Mayfield? Real good friends. Don had all those LIGHTNING I and LIGHTNING II dogs. They were Corvino bred dogs, but later when I got out of the game he switched to the NIG stuff.

They say Don Mayfield now is crazy, do you believe that’s true? Well, I believe he was crazier before with all that speed and stuff, but to me he is an open book. Anyway, I feel sorry for the ones that are not crazy in this crazy world.

What about Mayfield as a breeder? Ever tried any NIG bred dogs from his breedings? I had no luck with them. I got dogs straight from a friend who bought them from Mayfield. His name is Paul Siofakis. He lived down there in Texas for a while, but now he is back in Chicago. I’m not saying that these dogs are not good, but I just had no luck with them, they all quit! The same with Patrick and Hammonds bred dogs. I’ve tried dogs that Bob Lowery bought from Patrick and I kept them for months and years, gave them every chance possible, but they didn’t turn out.

Back to the conditioners. Why do you believe that Mayfield was so successful in his days? I don’t know. He just was capable of getting more out of a dog than most other people, but again there were only a few guys active in those days.

Maybe he already had some knowledge about the use of steroids? Maybe that’s the reason why, I don’t know. Some people are just blessed with a gift, but there is only one person that knows and that is Don Mayfield.

What is your general impression on today’s breeders? There are two different categories. I have no great love for Sorrells from Florida, but in my heart I would rank him as a good breeder and a good dogman and believe me, there are not many that I would say this about. Patrick and Hammonds are breeding for a different purpose, but Sorrells is active and he uses what he breeds. You see, I have no use for a breeder that is not active at all.