Boxing by the Book: “The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights”
Paul Gallender’s new book reveals the real deal on Charles “Sonny” Liston. It also opens one’s eyes to the real Muhammad Ali…
“No athlete was ever vilified more viciously and unfairly than Sonny Liston. Among other things, Liston was called an inferior Negro, less than human, slow-thinking, a primitive in a primitive profession, a latter-day caveman, a savage, glaring eyed gorilla, a rogue elephant, a congenital thug, a cop hater and stronger than a yoke of oxen and just as dumb.”—From “Sonny Liston – The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights”
Paul Gallender, author of “Sonny Liston – The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights,” takes us behind the scenes to show us what really happened in the fight game during the early sixties. Liston and Ali squared off during the start of the Civil Rights Era and the Vietnam War. It is a story that has never been told from a boxing point of view.
I caught up with Paul by phone in Monterey, California recently. Here is a guy who spent thirty years researching and writing a book about a man that even today few want to talk about, Charles “Sonny” Liston. The author only saw Liston once in person, at the Main Street Gym in L.A. in 1968. The book has literally a thousand footnotes to back up his facts and conclusions. Paul told me in a nice way, “I own Sonny Liston. Anyone who wants to know anything about him has to come to me.” Liston was not a beloved character the way Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) was. He served time in prison for armed robbery and had other scrapes with the law. Some of his friends, however, say most of his police record could be described as good old police harassment.
Liston’s troubles started in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, and followed him to Philadelphia where his boxing career really started to take off. So I guess you can count Liston as another of those special Philly fighters.
So extensive and intense was Gallender’s research that he got to know more about Sonny Liston than even the boxer’s own family. The author described Sonny as a gentle giant. Because of his background, he was wary of people he didn’t know but very warm with people he trusted. He was hard to get an autograph from unless you were a little kid. Sonny loved children and he of course loved grown women too. His wife Geraldine used to say, “Ain’t no man married when he ain’t home.” But his wife stuck with the champ until the day he died.
Liston took great pride in being heavyweight champion of the world. He would tell friends, “I have reached my goal as heavyweight champion. When you reach your goal, you represent something and you have a responsibility to live up to it. As champion, I can do something good for somebody else… I will be a decent, respectable champion. If the public allows me the chance to let bygones be bygones, I’ll be a worthy champ. If they’ll accept me, I’ll prove it to them.”
Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammed Ali, was another story. While Liston had a good side, people didn’t know about it. Clay had a bad side but it was over looked by a friendly press. He loved to harass Liston whenever he bumped into him. At a restaurant, bar or on the lawn of Sonny’s house in the middle of the night, Cassius played head games with him and the media. “Where do you think I would be next week if I didn’t know how to holler and make the public sit up and take notice?,” Clay asked. “I would be poor for one thing, and I would probably be down in Louisville, Kentucky, my home town, washing windows or running an elevator.” (Ali used the same insulting tactics preceding his fights with Joe Frazier, who never fully forgave him.) On the Vietnam War Ali said, “Elijah Muhammad told me that I can’t go. I’m afraid, Ray (Robinson), I’m really afraid.” About integration and brotherhood he remarked, “I believe the important thing is knowing where you belong and where you don’t belong. He’s heavyweight champion and he’s catching hell because he wants to integrate. I want to be with my people, and I’m catching more hell than he is.”
Ali had a mean streak hidden behind all the jokes. For example, later in his career, when he fought Floyd Patterson on September 20, 1972 at Madison Square Garden, he carried Floyd and prolonged the action so as to inflict more punishment on the former champion. Ali considered Patterson, who insisted on calling him by his “slave name,” an “Uncle Tom.” The fight was finally stopped “on cuts” to Patterson’s eyes. It was a RTD7 for Ali, but he could have ended it much sooner if he had wanted.
During the first Liston-Ali fight at the Convention Hall in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964, Sonny had a bad left shoulder. He had gone to see Joe Louis’s doctor who treated him for bursitis, but there wasn’t enough time for the treatment to work. Sonny was around forty-five years old at the time, which was a well kept secret, and old men like Sonny just healed more slowly. He asked the Florida Boxing Commission for a postponement of the fight. He was turned down and fought the six rounds with the damaged left shoulder, which he completely tore up during the fight. He had no jab and no left hook that night because of it. He didn’t have a chance against the young healthy Cassius Clay. It was a RTD6 for the new champ. Soon after the fight, which was ranked the 1964 Fight of the Year by The Ring Magazine, Clay changed his name to Cassius X and finally to Muhammad Ali.
In the second fight at St. Dominic’s Hall in Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965 a really bizarre situation developed. According to Gallender, Malcolm X’s people had a hit out on Ali (Ali sided with the rival Elijah Muhammad). Elijah’s Black Muslims kidnapped Geraldine Liston and Liston’s son Bobby. Sonny was told to lose the fight to Ali or he would never see his family again! The fight lasted one round with Liston going down from the famous “Phantom Punch.” Did a “phantom punch” KO Liston? Did the Black Muslims release Geraldine and Bobby? Did Sonny just “go in the tank” to save them?
You’ll have to buy the book to find out the rest. I’ve told you too much already!
“One day you are the king,” Liston told the press. “Your friends, or guys you think are your friends, are all around you. They give you, ‘Yes, champ; no, champ; you got no worries, champ, they said the day before… Then all of a sudden you’re not the champ and you are alone. The guys with the big mouths are talking about you, not to you, and what they say isn’t what they said they day before. It’s a big price to pay.”
Paul Gallender’s new book is a well paced story that has all that you need to know about these two fights. It reveals the real deal on Charles “Sonny” Liston. It also opens one’s eyes to the real Muhammad Ali.