Happy 50th Anniversary to Sonny Liston

By Paul Gallender on July 22, 2013
Happy 50th Anniversary to Sonny Liston
You'll never find a boxer who was more respected and feared by his peers than was Sonny.

Needless to say, things didn’t work out the way he had planned. In less than two years, he would complete the most precipitous fall in the history of sports…

Fifty years ago today in Las Vegas, Charles “Sonny” Liston defended his heavyweight title by knocking out former champ Floyd Patterson at 2:10 of the first round. The bout lasted four seconds longer than their first fight ten months earlier. Liston, a hugely unpopular, black ex-convict with organized crime associations not of his making, had an unbreakable grip on the most prestigious individual title in sports.

Trainer Angelo Dundee said Liston stood over the heavyweight division like a colossus. Joe Louis called Sonny “the greatest heavyweight champion in history,” while Archie Moore described him as “something extraordinary with a pair of Everlast gloves.” Compliments simply do not come any better than that and you’ll never find a boxer who was more respected and feared by his peers than was Sonny.

Much of the country was less than thrilled by this state of affairs. Calls for the abolition of boxing were heard in all parts of the country, and Sonny thought he knew why: “Because they know that no white man is going to be heavyweight champion for a long time to come. And they don’t go for that.”

Liston had long been a lightning rod for racism. Sportswriters insulted him so viciously that John Q. Public perceived him to be a species unto himself. Among other things, Sonny 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. Sonny was basically too big, too black, and too damn good for most of white America.

On the morning of his mandatory rematch with Patterson, Sonny played with young white children at the Thunderbird Hotel pool. A few hours later, he and his wife Geraldine dined in the casino’s restaurant and could have passed for tourists. The rush of excitement that surrounds a heavyweight title fight was absent because the outcome of this match was never in doubt. As far as Sonny was concerned, it was just something he had to do.

After comedian Shecky Greene finished the first of his two shows at the Riviera Hotel that evening, he took a cab to the fight. “Keep the motor running,” Shecky told the taxi driver. “I’ll be right out.” Sure enough, Shecky was back at the Riviera in plenty of time for his second show.

When Sonny entered the ring, the booing was so intense that journalist A.J. Liebling thought the crowd resented the champ’s competence. The Convention Center crowd booed loudly again when he was introduced. “If the public’s not with me now,” Liston thought to himself, “they’ll just have to swing along till somebody else comes along to beat me.”

Even before the official announcement, young Cassius Clay jumped in the ring, grabbed a microphone, and assumed center stage. To most boxing people, the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali was an audacious, entertaining, extremely good looking, seemingly foolish and hopelessly overmatched 21-year-old kid who for reasons they could not fathom thought he was ready to fight the toughest and most menacing man on the planet.

The first thing Sonny said at his post-fight press conference was that he was anxious to get home to his lovely wife. He wore slacks, a blue denim shirt, and a straw hat with a feather in it and looked like a guy who’d just spent a casual evening with friends. He had learned to expect stupid questions from sportswriters and they didn’t disappoint.

A reporter asked the champ if Patterson had fought better this time. “Didn’t you see the fight?” Sonny shot back. When asked if Patterson should retire, he diplomatically offered, “Who am I to tell a bird he can’t fly?” Asked how long he planned on holding the title, Sonny said, “That’s like asking God how long you want to live—as long as I can.” This was Sonny Liston—direct, philosophical, humorous and honest, qualities which are still unknown to the public at large.

Clay went to Sonny’s victory party hoping to anger the champ, but he’d have far more success over the next seven months than he did that night. “Come on over and sit on my knee and finish your orange juice,” said Sonny. He waved his championship belt over his head and told his soon-to-be-tormentor that it was something he’d never get. “Listen kid. You’d better fight my trainer instead of me. You’d still lose, but at least you won’t get killed.”

The reviews of the fight underscored Liston’s dominance. “It must now be admitted that he is a superb fighter,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Robert H. Boyle. “He is huge yet lithe, a rare blending of strength, balance, and reflexes.” Time compared Liston’s performance to a man killing a rabbit with a stick. Rocky Marciano said Sonny was so big and strong, it was almost like he was walking through Patterson.

More than 1,500 people greeted the champ when he returned home to Denver. Sonny thanked the crowd for coming before cutting a huge chocolate cake decorated with boxing gloves and inscribed, Welcome Home Sonny. “I’ll cut Clay in half like this cake,” Liston joked, brimming with happiness and confidence. For a man who craved acceptance, this may have been the happiest moment of Sonny’s life.

Geraldine said she and her husband talked about the reception late into the night and they were both thrilled beyond words. Sonny told her he wanted to build a $150,000 home there raised high so he could see the mountains. He was counting on the Clay fight to help him pay for it. “Clay’s the nicest thing to come along since Christmas,” he said.

Needless to say, things didn’t work out the way Sonny had planned. In less than two years, he would complete the most precipitous fall in the history of sports. He died under mysterious circumstances almost 43 years ago and is remembered primarily as a footnote to the career of Muhammad Ali. History has not been kind to the man known as the Bear.

The most enduring image of my friend is the one where he’s lying on the canvas in Lewiston, Maine, with Ali standing over him, screaming at him to get up. That is unfortunate and grossly unfair, because Sonny had to lose that fight in order to save the lives of his wife and child. His decision to lie down was an easy one because nothing was more important to Sonny than his family. However, his legacy went down with him that night.

So, Happy Anniversary, Sonny, and here’s to better times. I got your back, and so does Josie Roase.

Paul Gallender is the author of Sonny Liston – The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights

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  1. Randal 10:46am, 04/24/2015

    This page certainly has all the info I needed concerning this subject
    and didn’t know who to ask.

  2. bkermike 04:59am, 01/07/2015

    ...Did anybody really get a bead on Liston’s age ??

    He came from a poor family with a lot of children….in a part of the land, at the time, where birth certificates weren’t issued in the manner today.

  3. Tex Hassler 03:35pm, 07/28/2013

    I met and visited with Sonny Liston in a boxing gym in Houston, Texas in about 1968 or 1969.  He was very kind and I will never forget that day because he was my favorite fighter. I also watched him spar with a young George Foreman. He pulled some punches so keep from hurting Foreman and let George know when he was open for a punch. Sonny could be a terror in a fight but he also had a good side that most people overlook.

  4. Paul Gallender 06:00pm, 07/23/2013

    I agree, Michael. Sonny did a lot of good and charitable things that nobody ever knew about, at least not the public at large. Unfortunately, I do believe most people, especially younger ones, know so little about this hugely talented man that the photo of him on the canvas in Lewiston is basically all they know about him, or choose to remember. That’s why I used the footnote reference.
    Little Larry Merchant. Of course, some people know him better by his Indian name: Sleeps With Light On. What a pompous putz.
    Too bad about the way boxing was controlled by the Mob. Liston suffered financially, to be sure, but a whole lot of other good and great fighters did too, especially if they were black. That was just the way boxing was. Man, I sure wish Sonny were around today so I could manage him. That would be my dream job.

  5. Paul Gallender 05:51pm, 07/23/2013

    Thanks, Ted. I know you’ll enjoy it. By the way, I have the hardcovers if you want one of those. No doubt about it, Sonny had a great sense of humor and when he wasn’t on guard, he was usually the life of the party. I have some stories about his sense of humor in the book.

  6. Michael Hegan 04:13pm, 07/23/2013

    Liston was associated with some pretty ruthless folks.

    Liston didn’t just give up the Title , because someone up the line asked him to.

    ..if you are inclined to one theory…about the ‘dump’...or ‘dumps’
    Liston didn’t live a lavish life after he lost his Title…so he didn’t get bought off.  Maybe his family was ‘held hostage’ in a sense.

    The folks who were the last of the ‘boys with crooked noses’  had far too much influence in Boxing…Horse racing./dog racing..Football , Basketball…Baseball..) for gambling purposes.

    They’re still around….but at a respectful distance..

  7. Michael Hegan 04:03pm, 07/23/2013

    I’m so happy to know that my feelings about larrymerchant may have some support as well.

    Living proof that anal sex is dangerous…..is how I would describe larrymerchant ..and his contributions, or lack thereof,  to the Sport of Boxing

  8. Michael Hegan 03:58pm, 07/23/2013

    I don’t know what more folks could have asked from Liston…in his out of ring life.

    HE did the clubs….true…but he was into the hospital visits..and showing up as the HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD…..to a kids event ..for no fee…was commonplace for Liston.

    Sad the way it ended…for the Champ.

    BUT….to say that Liston was now some footnote in the career of Clay/Ali…..I’d say no to that one.

    Liston lost his Title to Ali….lost the rematch too..and that had a stigma to it…as well.  Nobody ever thought Clay/Ali were in on it…but it just didn’t sit well at all for most fight fans of the day….....still doesn’t

  9. Ted Sares 11:24am, 07/23/2013

    Paul, I’m getting that book.

    One of the things I always liked about Sonny was his great sense of humor. He had more sayings and jokes attributed to him than just about any boxer I can name.

    A thing that I thought was grossly unfair was the way James Ellroy characterized him, albeit fictionally, in his Vegas books. Bad stuff that.

  10. Ted 06:23pm, 07/22/2013

    Happy to see we are on the same page re Larry, Paul! :)

  11. Paul Gallender 06:14pm, 07/22/2013

    Thanks, Mike. Happy trails.

  12. Mike Schmidt 05:29pm, 07/22/2013

    Every page was a golden nugget Paul. Wouldn’t know where to begin but a must read for any Liston fans….page 51 “I think everyone was fooled by his glare.He was just a nice guy, one of the nicest boxers I ever met.”—Bobby Cassidy.  “He was so smart it wasn’t even funny.” Jose Torres. Great stuff Paul—adios—I am on the road….

  13. Paul Gallender 04:38pm, 07/22/2013

    Little Larry is #1 on my payback list, Ted, and I hope I get to humiliate the little eunuch in as public a setting as I possibly can. George, I wasn’t aware of the size of Dempsey’s hands but “heavy hands” is a great way to describe them. As for Sonny’s fists, that’s the thing that everyone who met him remembers first. I interviewed the son of the ringside physician for the first Patterson fight. The son, Joe,  was a young teenager at the time. He said when he saw Liston’s wrapped hands, it occurred to him that if one of those fists were to hit him in the face, it would hit his entire face. And Eric, I’ve heard a version of the Dick the Bruiser story that claims the exact opposite took place. I’m inclined to think that one well-placed jab from Liston would have been enough to convince the Bruiser that he might want to question his assumptions about the fighters of that era. And I’m sure Dick was one rough son of a bitch.

  14. Dr. YouTube 03:25pm, 07/22/2013

    Watch a young Dick the Bruiser battle with Emil Dupree in the Marigold Arena, Chicago, IL.


  15. Eric 03:15pm, 07/22/2013

    Don’t know how valid the story is but it was said Sonny roughed up famed tough guy wrestler “Dick The Bruiser.” According to the story, “The Bruiser” an ex NFL football player and famed “rassler” was commenting that the fighters of that era were nothing special or something to that effect. Well, allegedly Liston caught up to “The Bruiser” somewhere out in Vegas I believe “the story” read and “slapped” Mr. “Bruiser” around. Don’t know how true the story is but “The Bruiser” at least looked like one tough customer, but if anyone could have “punked” someone like “Dick The Bruiser,” it would be a hardcase like Liston.

  16. George Thomas Clark 01:18pm, 07/22/2013

    A couple of weeks ago I commented about the size of Dempsey’s left hand.  Look at the right one of Liston.  Fists like that begot the phrase “heavy hands.”

  17. Ted 12:39pm, 07/22/2013

    None insulted him more viciously than Larry Merchant when he was working as a writer in Philly.

  18. Paul Gallender 11:09am, 07/22/2013

    Nicolas - I agree that Paret’s death, along with the deaths of a lot of fighters around that time, contributed to people wanting to abolish boxing. But I think Liston’s assertion had some merit, too. People simply never warmed to the guy, and the constant negative portrayal of him by the press basically made sure that they never would.

  19. nicolas 10:43am, 07/22/2013

    While I think that the lack of the “great white fighters” has been a contention by some of the abolition of boxing, including Ali many years later, I think the real reason was the third Griffith-Paret fight, which was on national TV.

  20. Paul Gallender 10:02am, 07/22/2013

    Hey Mike - I think the fascination/interest with Liston is 1) because people really don’t know who Sonny was, and 2) because of how highly thought of he was before and during his championship reign. I hope my bio answered a lot of those questions.

  21. Mike Schmidt 07:10am, 07/22/2013

    Hey Paul—The Big Man still holds that special aura, charisma thing all these years later. GOT THE BOOK AND A VERY VERY ENTERTAINING AND INTERESTING READ. SO MANY QUESTIONS, SO MANY QUESTIONS….

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