On This Day: The mysterious Sonny Liston died in 1970
This obituary originally appeared in our January 15, 1971 issue.
CHARLES ‘SONNY’ LISTON, former heavyweight champion of the world, is dead. Now the Liston legend begins.
Just how good was the man? Did he fake the two undignified affairs with Clay-Ali? Was he a great fighter, victimised by circumstances or a bully-boy who did not like being hit back?
Questions such as these will be debated by fight buffs and pondered by those who make a living writing about the game.
If it had not been for the lamentable showings against Clay, we might all be placing Liston on a par with the heavyweight immortals.
Yet Liston will be remembered most for the Clay fights. It is on these extraordinary performances that he will be judged.
People will not forget the sight of an allegedly impregnable Liston sprawled at Clay’s feet, after being hit by what looked like a glancing blow, while Clay stood over him snarling taunts.
Then there is the unpalatable recollection of Liston quitting on his stool after six rounds in the previous meeting with Clay, in Miami. He claimed he had hurt his shoulder and was afterwards backed by a panel of doctors. But, to many observers, it seemed that Liston just did not want to fight on when he found that Clay was too fast to be tagged.
Just what happened to Liston in these two extraordinary encounters will probably never be known. He takes the secret to the grave and leaves us to theorise.
There is no charitable explanation. My personal view is that Liston was whipped psychologically more than physically. He was accustomed to intimidating the opposition. But Clay, big and oozing assurance, matched Liston’s unblinking stare and possibly unnerved him.
The psychological effect someone like Clay can have on an opponent should never be under estimated.
Liston, then, may have lost the will to fight when Clay belted him. Remember, in the return Clay fight, he was hit by a stiff shot shortly before a seemingly ineffectual right-hander sent him crumpling to the floor.
That first punch just may have decided Liston that there was no future in chasing Clay for fifteen rounds. Maybe he really was hurt although this is hard to believe. Perhaps he took a dive, through financial reward or, it has been suggested, due to Black Muslim intimidation.
The first Clay fight was bad enough but the second seems inexcusable.
And yet, take these two flops from the man’s record and Liston’s image is almost frightening.
Liston, pre-Clay, looked tough and capable enough to have troubled any heavyweight in history.
He was the universal tough guy, the sort of man no one wanted to meet in a back alley on a dark night. The most dangerous unarmed man in the world.
Liston came up the hard way through street fights in St Louis, brushes with the law, imprisonment for armed robbery.
He learned to box in prison and was encouraged by the Roman Catholic chaplain. Paroled after twenty-five months of a five-year sentence, legalised fighting brought him fame and prosperity. But, it seemed, he could never completely shake off the influences and impulses of his youth.
Even in recent years, Liston was before the courts on charges of carrying concealed weapons and motoring offences. He was barred from boxing in New York due to alleged gangster connections.
Born in Arkansas, officially 38 years ago, he was the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. His mother was his father’s second wife. She left to go to St Louis and, at twelve, Liston ran away from home to join her.
In St Louis, Liston just drifted into trouble.
Illiterate and unable to cope with schooling, he joined a gang and finally wound up in the State Penitentiary at Jefferson City.
Boxing was a socially acceptable outlet and also a way out. Liston learned his bruising trade well. He smashed through the amateurs winning a Golden Gloves title before turning pro in 1953.
Up to the first Clay affair, Liston had compiled the eminently respectable record of 35 wins in 36 outings, with 25 inside-schedule victories. He also avenged his sole setback, against Marty Marshall, who broke his jaw and outpointed him in a 1954 fight at Detroit. Liston stopped Marshall in a return the following year, then outpointed him at Pittsburgh in 1956.
It took time for Liston to get a shot at the heavyweight title.
Floyd Patterson was allowed to defend against overmatched rivals like Roy Harris, Tom McNeely, Brian London and the ex-Olympic champion, Pete Rademacher. Liston, the standout contender, fought the toughest heavyweights around and beat them all.
While Patterson was having his three-bout series with Ingo Johansson, Liston was matching firepower with big hitters like Nino Valdes, Cleve Williams and Mike De John as well as taking on those two great boxing artists, Zora Folley and Eddie Machen. All fell to Liston’s pounding fists, only tricky Machen surviving to a points decision.
From 1958 through 1960, Liston was indestructible. These were his peak years. In these three years he scored fourteen knockouts in seventeen fights, only Machen and brick-jawed Bert Whitehurst (twice) taking him the full distance.
He proved his unquestioned power again and again. His two knockouts over Cleve Williams a third round thrashing of peak-form Folley could not have been bettered by any heavyweight in history.
Experts argued he was far superior to Patterson. They could point to the ease with which Liston destroyed Roy Harris in one round in 1960, after Harris had lasted twelve with Patterson and even have Floyd on the floor.
Liston won two fights by knockout in 1961 and finally got his chance at Patterson on September 25, 1962. Officially he was 28, though unofficial estimates put him ten years older.
We all know how contemptuously he flattened Patterson in 2 min 6 sec of the opening round. And how he again knocked out Floyd the following year, this time in 2 min 10 sec. At this time, Liston was considered invincible.
Liston was just about perfect in the Patterson knockouts but had probably seen his best days. The Liston who quit against Clay in 1964 was unquestionably over the top, although few sensed it at the time.
In his best years, Liston had a lot going for him. He was big (6ft 1in, 15st 3lb), seemingly impervious to punishment and had a pole-like left jab which some said equalled that of Joe Louis. And he hit with brutal power. His left hook was devastating, his right equally effective.
He was more than just a fighter. He was also a hypnotist. His basilisk stare and monolithic physical presence caused game fighters to crack before a punch was thrown. Take the case of Patterson, a good if fragile pro, who faced up to Liston like a man going in front of a firing squad. Yet, Patterson, who twice faded in one round against Liston, later went twelve with Clay and finished on his feet. That must prove something.
After the Clay humiliations, Liston was effectively finished as a serious contender but still managed to compile fourteen successive wins, thirteen rather suddenly. He was still a man not to be tangled with and, despite a general slowing-up, would have been a match for most of the heavyweights around.
Then Leotis Martin knocked him out with a genuine stopping punch thirteen months ago, in Liston’s new home-city of Las Vegas, to finally remove the Liston treat from the heavyweight scene.
The ex-champion had just one more fight, a nine-round stoppage of game Chuck Wepner last June. It was a messy performance by Liston, who cut up Chuck but could not blast him out.
Liston’s overall record reads 50 wins in 54 fights, with 39 inside the distance, many on clean knockouts.
At his best, Liston would probably had been an equal match for any heavyweight in history. But, because of the Clay fiascos, Liston is unlikely to be elected to any hall of fame.
He came to this country in 1963 to go through his training routine in London, Scotland and Newcastle. Liston co-operated for publicity stunts, made friends with little children and generally went over favourably. Then he flew home due to what he called “domestic trouble” and walked out on contracts. The British Board slapped a ban on him appearing here again.
In the States, his image was always that of the sullen, hard man, suspicious, brooding and uncommunicative.
He was the bad guy and a lot of people were very disappointed when Patterson failed to check him, including, it was said, the late President Kennedy.
But Liston was that rarity, the bad guy who didn’t get beat.