Early Train to Broken Jaw
The omens were not good when a young Sonny Liston caught the train from St Louis to Detroit in the fall of 1954. What was to follow was a bittersweet saga of hilarity and poignancy, one of those teasing stories that people love to relate in the years that follow when they are pulling the Devil’s tail from a safe distance.
Big and tough, a good boxer with a great jab and genuine punching power, Liston was making steady progress as an unbeaten professional as he headed for his eighth fight against the erratic but dangerous local boy, Marty Marshall on September 7th. It wasn’t a big fight and it didn’t have the smell of future significance.
Liston was coming along nicely, but he had yet to blossom into the almost mythical mankiller who would scare the life out of opponents and worry even President Kennedy. Sonny had won five of his first seven fights by decision and wasn’t setting off any alarm bells. All that most people wanted to know was whether the second match between Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles in ten days time would be as thrilling as the first.
Up to then, Liston had felt safe and assured in the ring because he had felt safe and assured outside it. Now the people he trusted weren’t with him. Manager Frank Mitchell told Sonny to catch an early train to Detroit on his own. Mitchell and Liston’s other handlers would follow on the next day.
By the time of the weigh-in, Mitchell and his colleagues were still absent. Alone in his dressing room, Liston taped his own hands. Nothing felt right and nor did Sonny. There was no hustle-bustle, no comforting voices, no slaps on the back and words of encouragement.
Liston later explained: “If you’re cold inside, you can’t get started. A fighter’s got to think one thing before a fight – getting as evil as he can. I had too many things on my mind. I was mad at my manager instead of Marty Marshall, the guy I was gonna fight. Besides, you need somebody to tell you what to do and what to look for. Monroe Harrison, my trainer, always used to yell, ‘Watch out, he might be carrying a gun!’ But Monroe wasn’t there either.”
When you are feeling disoriented and out of time, the last thing you need to meet is a madman. Marty Marshall had a funky ring act and he was dangerous with it. He liked to jump up in the air occasionally. He liked to whoop and holler. Then he like to hit you hard.
Sonny had never met the like of him and just couldn’t get into “killer” mode. “He was hollerin’ and going on and I knocked him down,” Liston recalled. “He got up and I was laughing. He caught me with my mouth open and broke my jaw – least I thought it was broke. If you can’t close your mouth, you know something’s wrong.
“That was in the fourth round. In the sixth he pops me again and the jaw busts again in a different place. It felt funny fighting with my mouth open, but it didn’t bother me none until later on after the fight.”
Liston lost a split decision, but the real pain was still to come. “I walked the streets all night, it hurt so bad. I finally went to the hotel doctor and he gave me some pills and charged me $20. Back in St Louis, I got my mouth wired up. I know I’m going to be out of action for six months. I had to eat with a straw for five weeks. But when I ask the manager for the $20 for the pills, he says, ‘Oh no, that comes off your end.’ Then I got mad.”
It was a lesson learned and Liston the man emerged from it. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more managers and handlers who couldn’t do their jobs properly. No more tolerance of clowns who came into the ring for a laugh. Seven months later, Sonny knocked down Marshall four times and stopped him in six rounds.
Ever economical with his words, Liston summed up the new deal with quiet menace: “I was like a baby learning to walk. You got to have somebody hold you up at first. Now I don’t need anybody but the referee – to pull me off somebody.”
Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).