Best Heavyweight Jab?
Great fighters have great jabs. The most basic of all punches, a jab stings but it rarely wounds. It’s as much a defensive weapon as it is an offensive one because it’s hard for an opponent to mount an attack when a jab is always in his face. Mike Tyson learned that the hard way against Buster Douglas whose jab, for one memorable night at least, made him look like a great fighter.
I’m amused when I read that Sonny Liston had one of the best jabs in history. Say what you will about the jabs of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Larry Holmes, but their jabs didn’t come close to being the weapon that Liston’s was.
Trainer Johnny Tocco saw Sonny knock guys out with a single jab. Angelo Dundee saw Liston knock people’s teeth out with his jab and likened it to a battering ram. Rocky Marciano speculated that being hit with it was like running into a boxcar or a trailer truck.
“I developed that jab myself,” Sonny said. “I jab wherever his head is. I jab to hurt. That’s all.” His sparring partners called it the Cannon and its impact was fueled by his massive 15½-inch fists and incredible 84-inch reach. “His jab always lands around the temple,” said sparring partner Ben Skelton, who worked with 11 heavyweight and light heavyweight champions. “I’ve never felt a punch to equal it, and that includes Joe Louis.”
Sonny had learned on the streets and in jail that you couldn’t survive without a good jab. “Man, you don’t hit first there, you don’t hit,” he would say. “Keep poppin’ that jab right to the middle of the forehead and the other guy can’t punch right because he’s never got the balance to punch right.”
In his book, My Life Story, Joe Louis counseled young boxers to jab through their target rather than at it. Liston went Louis one better by bludgeoning his opponents with it. When asked how he would have fought Sonny, Joe said: “Well, I wouldn’t have jabbed with him.”
“He knocked me out with a right but it was that left jab that did the original damage,” said Cleveland Williams. “The left jab numbed me.” Chuck Wepner was Liston’s final opponent and claimed he heard his bone shattering when Sonny’s jab landed. Ray Schoeninger sparred with Liston in Denver in the mid-1960s and said the stitching in his headgear came apart when Sonny hit him. “He shattered my teeth. He knocked my shoulder out of place. Hey, I lost three teeth when he hit me with a jab wearing 20-ounce gloves. He knocked me on my ass from a foot away,” said Schoeninger.
A jab stings but it rarely wounds. Liston’s jab was the exception to that rule. More to the point, Sonny’s jab was the rule.
Paul Gallender is the author of Sonny Liston – The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights.