Leotis Martin: Glory Short Lived

By Mike Casey on September 28, 2015
Leotis Martin: Glory Short Lived
“C’mon, they took on Dave Zyglewicz instead of me. That’s all you need to know.”

Against Ali, Sonny had looked like a man having a snooze. Against Martin, he looked like a luckless pedestrian who hadn’t seen the truck coming…

He only had 36 professional fights and it was only in the 36th that he blossomed gloriously and took a sadly short bow in the spotlight. Then the gods rained on Leotis Martin and washed him away. He had just knocked out Sonny Liston and was bang in line for a championship crack at Joe Frazier. But a detached retina, possibly sustained in the Liston fight, forced Martin into a sudden and early retirement.

Some guys get all the luck and they are very often the guys who take forever to reach their goal and grab their moment in the sun. A strong, hard puncher with a big right hand and great durability, Leotis Martin spent most of his career treading water as one of those fascinating ‘nearly but not quite’ fighters. It intrigued me to watch his stuttering progress, because there was always that indefinable gut feeling that he would suddenly explode and do something sensational. But to knock Sonny Liston clean out – even an old and creaking Sonny Liston – well, that was an explosion that was heard around the world.

Quiet, likeable and not in the slightest way ostentatious, Leotis Martin was one of the good guys and a true Philadelphian. But even laid-back ‘Lee’, as he was commonly known, must have chafed at being also known as Philadelphia’s ‘other heavyweight’. For Philly was Joe Frazier’s town and Smokin’ Joe was the champ, full of fire and brimstone and box office appeal. Martin was the steady plodder who won some and lost some and rarely made the pulse race. You’d look at the Top 50 rankings that Boxing Illustrated used to publish and Lee always seemed to be stuck in the same place, in the no man’s land of the solid journeyman.

There was the occasion when Lee, manager Pinny Schaefer and a group of friends picketed the Cloverlay group that controlled Frazier’s career. Like to take a real shot at a live fighter? read one of their banners. Martin’s own banner, perhaps typically, was more understated and stuck to the simple facts: Leotis Martin, 9th ranked WBA heavyweight, challenges Joe Frazier.

October

In the October 1969 issue of Boxing Illustrated, sportswriter and future promoter J Russell Peltz wrote a fine account of Leotis Martin’s struggles. “I like Philadelphia and I think the people like me,” Martin told Peltz. But Lee couldn’t pull the big crowds and played to a house of just 1,918 in late 1967 when he lost a disputed decision to Roger Russell. Lee had to bounce around to earn his crust, frequently leaving Philadelphia to trek abroad and face some tough opponents on their own turf.

With mixed success, he journeyed to Germany, England, Argentina, Sweden and even Trinidad & Tobago. But he enjoyed the experience because he had never got the chance to travel in his early years. Born in Helena, Arkansas, Martin lived on a farm as the sixth of 11 children. “My parents worked day and night. We never had much of anything,” he reflected.

Striking out on his own, Lee moved to Toledo and became fascinated by boxing after watching the fights on TV. “When I left my family in Arkansas and went to Toledo, things were rough,” he told J Russell Peltz. “I played some basketball in high school but I guess I wasn’t very good. I had always watched the fights on television and I got to see how famous a person like Sugar Ray Robinson could become. I decided I wanted to become famous like him.”

Lee took to the fight game well and won the National AAU 165lb championship in 1961. Things were looking up and Martin got an important break during a goodwill tour with the US boxing team. Pat Duffy, who was in charge of the tour, would tell Lee all about the great Philadelphia fighters of the past. Martin listened intently and his confidence was given a boost when Duffy told him that he too could make a name for himself in Philly. Duffy reached out to the Pinny Schaefer, who agreed to manage Martin.

A beefy, loud extrovert, Schaefer’s nature was in every way the opposite of the quiet Martin’s. But Pinny knew his beer (he headed up the Philadelphia bartenders’ union) and he knew his boxing. As well as Martin, Schaefer and Pat Duffy would handle Jimmy Soo, Bennie Briscoe, Sammy Goss, Bobby ‘Boogaloo’ Watts and Bob Cofer.

Schaefer employed the great Yank Durham as Martin’s trainer and Lee was on his way. The wise and worldly Durham was also training middleweight slugger Bennie Briscoe at the time and would go on to steer Joe Frazier to the heavyweight championship. The increasing amount of time that Yank spent with Frazier would ultimately cause friction and frustration in the Martin camp.

Tutelage

Under Durham’s tutelage,  Martin won his first nine fights before running into a wall and getting bombed out in two rounds by Floyd McCoy in a scheduled eight-rounder in 1963. The McCoy shocker was an education for Lee, the only time in his career when he was knocked clean out. He rallied back impressively and began a steady climb up the rankings with a string of victories against solid opposition.

Martin won his next 15 fights and had to overcome personal grief and torment in order to do so. In May 1965 he knocked out Sonny Banks in nine rounds at the Philadelphia Arena and Banks later died from his injuries. Three years before his tragic end, Sonny had famously decked the young Cassius Clay in the opening round at Madison Square Garden before going down to a fourth round defeat.

A big right from Martin put Banks down for the full count and he died two days later from injuries to his brain. The incident haunted Lee for quite a time, especially during his quiet moments alone.

Martin became gun shy for a brief period, particularly in his first post-Banks outing against Curtis Bruce. Martin won the fight in five rounds but admitted that he found it hard to pull the trigger. A highly displeased Yank Durham grilled Martin for his hesitancy, but the two men wouldn’t be together for much longer. After Lee scored a points win over Von Clay, Durham departed the scene when he fell out with Pinny Schaefer. Pinny felt that Durham was spending too much time with Joe Frazier.

Schaefer was further irritated by Yank’s cautious instructions to Bennie Briscoe during his fight with Stanley (Kitten) Hayward. Bennie, a natural slugger, didn’t start slugging until late in the fight and lost the decision. But it was the Frazier business that hurt the most. Schaefer was annoyed by what he perceived as Durham’s hypocrisy, claiming that Yank, for all his outward bonhomie, would never give Martin a crack at Joe Frazier.

Well, Yank never did, but perhaps that was a good thing for Martin. The Lee of 1967 and 1968, and perhaps any other time, would not have beaten Frazier. But Martin was a quietly dangerous operator with a big punch who certainly had the potential to beat most others. Ignoring all the distractions around him, Lee continued his winning run by scoring wins over Amos Johnson, Roberto Davila and Billy Daniels on the way to the first big break of his career.

With Muhammad Ali in limbo after refusing to be drafted into the Army, the WBA organized its now famous eight-man elimination tournament to find Ali’s successor as world champion. Martin was matched with Jimmy Ellis at the Houston Astrodome in August 1967 as part of a doubleheader that also featured the pairing of Ernie Terrell and Thad Spencer. Ellis had risen through the divisions and blossomed dramatically after moderate success among the middleweights, where he dropped decisions to Henry Hank, Rubin Carter, Don Fullmer and George Benton. Jimmy’s ticket to the WBA’s elimination party was secured with a smashing first round knockout victory over Top 10 contender Johnny Persol at Madison Square Garden.

Ellis was too hot for Martin too, stopping Lee in the ninth round. Martin sustained a badly cut lip, a worse injury than he imagined it to be at the time. But Lee was a tough so-and-so. Shrugging off the loss, he plowed on and never stopped trying. He was further frustrated in his next bout, the aforementioned controversial points loss to Roger Russell, which closed out Martin’s 1967 campaign. In 1968, his form was up and down like a yo-yo, yet it toughened an already tough man and seemed to be the making of him. His five fights that year took him to Detroit, Oakland, Germany, England and Argentina.

Knockout

Lee started with a seventh round knockout win over southpaw Karl Mildenberger at the Festhalle in Frankfurt in which he knocked Karl down three times in the concluding round. Mildenberger, who had given Ali a difficult time in a 1966 title challenge, had since been bounced out of the WBA tournament by Oscar Bonavena, suffering knockdowns in the first, fourth, seventh and tenth rounds on the way to an emphatic points defeat.

Martin needed to get a winning run going, but he was thwarted again in his next bout when he dropped a majority decision to Henry Clark in Oakland. What followed next, however, was a thrilling showcase of Lee’s courage and persistence. In one of the greatest give-and-take wars even seen at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Martin finally hunted down Thad Spencer and stopped him in the ninth round. Referee George Smith, who rescued Spencer after two minutes and twenty-nine seconds of the round, would later describe the war as “the greatest heavyweight fight I ever handled.”

Four months later, Martin was traveling to Buenos Aires to lock horns with the powerful Oscar Bonavena, who outpointed Lee unanimously at the Estadio in Luna Park. That bout marked the last time that Leotis Martin would be defeated as a professional fighter. There was no flash of lightning after the Bonavena fight, no thunderbolt that changed Lee into Superman. He carried on in his purposeful way and suddenly found the form and consistency that took him straight to Sonny Liston’s door.

Martin rounded off his 1968 campaign with a ninth round TKO victory over fringe contender Alvin Blue Lewis in Detroit and then beat Lewis again on a split decision in early 1969. Martin didn’t fight for another eight months, but then knocked out Wendell Newton in seven rounds in October and decisioned former conqueror Roger Russell a month later.

Christmas

Christmas was coming and so was Sonny Liston. Sonny and Lee were matched for the vacant NABF heavyweight crown at the International Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas on December 6th. What happened would be something that we had never seen before: Sonny Liston face down on the canvas, spread-eagled, out to the world. Genuinely flattened. Genuinely knocked out. No funny stuff, no theatricals, no odious stories about Liston taking a dive. It was real this time and most of us who saw it were absolutely stunned.

Sonny had been heading for a big fall and had been carefully matched since his two defeats to Muhammad Ali. Liston was slowing all the time and was no longer the killer of his prime who got the job done quickly. Now his fights were more protracted as the old bear paced himself and used his pole-like jab to break down opponents at a more leisurely rate. Liston’s conditioning was also poor. He hadn’t trained properly since the first Patterson fight.

Yet still there was a grand and almost imperious mystique about Liston. Still he scared other men, often with nothing more than that famous sullen stare.

As time moved on, the two bizarre fights with Ali seemed to be forgotten in the minds of many Liston supporters as misty-eyed romance washed away reality. Burned into my memory is the letter of one shocked fan after witnessing Sonny’s incredible collapse against Ali in the great Lewiston fiasco.

“I may be a voice in the wilderness,” the fan wrote, “but I still think Sonny Liston can beat Muhammad Ali!”

In truth, Sonny had been getting away with it for a lot longer than most people ever knew. In the parlance of the trade, he was always a bad trainer. In the run-up to his second fight with Patterson, Liston was seen more often around the Las Vegas crap tables than he was in the gym. He trained poorly for the first Ali fight at Miami Beach, eschewing heavy boots to do his running in sneakers. For the second fight, according to one observer, Liston could barely skip rope.

What we will probably never know is the extent to which Liston abused his body in other ways. He certainly enjoyed lacing his soft drinks with the hard stuff and might well have eased his constantly troubled mind with more adventurous potions. But one only has to look at the vastly conflicting reports on the circumstances of his mysterious death in 1970 to appreciate the danger of surmise. Many stories about Sonny Liston were true. Many others were plainly absurd.

What is undeniable is that Liston was a fighter in decline from as early as the Patterson fights. By the late sixties, as he awaited a slim second chance at glory, Sonny was plainly being protected by some prudent matchmaking. Back stage, the alarm bells were becoming too audible to be denied. During one sparring session, he was reportedly knocked cold by Fresno puncher Mac Foster, whose own limitations would later be exposed by Jerry Quarry.

For all that, Liston remained a daunting proposition for the majority of would-be contenders and he got off to an impressive start against Leotis Martin. Sonny still possessed the intimidating air of a big grizzly and Martin was shrewd enough not to bait the old man in the early rounds. Leotis was making Sonny chase him, countering when possible, but looking for the most part like a capable journeyman heading towards an honorable defeat.

That impression gathered momentum when Sonny decked Leotis for a mandatory eight-count in the fourth round. By the end of the fifth, Liston had accumulated a substantial points advantage and was apparently cruising. But age and laziness had come to collect their dues and were now eating into Sonny’s old body by the second. The sixth stanza was one of those strange, tell-tale rounds. Nothing overly dramatic happened, but suddenly Liston looked to be tiring as Martin upped the pace and enjoyed some success with left and right counters. Leotis had matured into a good old pro who could read the signs, and the signs told him that Liston could be taken. The underdog was no longer back-pedaling and making do with slim pickings. He was taking the fight to Sonny and mixing it.

The tempo of the bout increased in the seventh as Martin’s accurate shots brought blood from Liston’s nose. One wondered what Sonny was thinking as he headed for the guillotine. Did he sense the end was nigh? Did he still believe he could make it to the finish line? In the old days, he didn’t have to concern himself with such trivia. Few men had dared to cuff him about and mess him around like this guy Martin.

In the eighth round, Sonny was given a further reminder of his shrinking status as a man of terror. Trying to turn back the clock, he drove Leotis into a corner with a barrage of lefts and right to the head and body. The bully boy was back on the block, putting the young upstart in his place. But Martin would have none of it. The greatest victory of his life was now within his reach and he fired back confidently to force Liston back into mid-ring. Blood trickled from Sonny’s mouth as the welcome bell gave his some much needed respite. He still had the points in the bag, but now it seemed that the gods were dragging the end zone beyond his reach.

Shocking

The ninth round was shocking. Even though the writing was the wall, one couldn’t quite picture Sonny Liston being legitimately knocked out. Against Ali, Sonny had looked like a man having a snooze. Against Martin, he looked like a luckless pedestrian who hadn’t seen the truck coming.

The two men exchanged hard punches before Leotis hit the jackpot with a perfectly drilled right to the chin. Liston stopped and wavered slightly as the blow registered. Like one of his beloved casinos being dynamited, sections of his great body seemed to linger stubbornly in mid-flight as a following left hook made him lurch sideways and a final right to the jaw sent him tumbling. Sonny was out, dead to the world. Leotis Martin, the quiet man who took an age to climb the mountain, had suddenly shot to number one in the world ratings.

Then came the heart-breaking news of the detached retina, which may have occurred in the Liston fight or possibly against Wendell Newton. Martin too was out for the count, in a less violent but far more painful way than Sonny. Lee retired from the ring, his dream of a match with Joe Frazier unfulfilled.

“Aw, Joe Frazier could have fought me,” Martin said. “But his manager Yank Durham smartly kept him away from me and my right hand. If I was such an easy mark, they would have fought me. C’mon, they took on Dave Zyglewicz instead of me. That’s all you need to know.”

Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and 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).

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Sonny Liston vs Leotis Martin



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Jimmy Ellis vs Leotis Martin 1967 08 05



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  1. Mike Silver 09:36pm, 10/01/2015

    Irish, wouldn’t you love to see Jackie Mason thrown into the middle of those political debates? We could certainly use the laughs. Mason, by the way, is a huge boxing fan.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 02:56pm, 10/01/2015

    Mike Silver-OK! You win the day….moreover, I promise less bombast and hyperbole and more measured comments in the future, especially when posting on a site where Paul Gallender, who was a friend of Sonny Liston is a contributor….how about this…..“People say Hillary should be President because she was close to the President. Close to the President?! She’s the only woman that wasn’t close to the President!” (Jackie Mason)

  3. Mike Silver 02:11pm, 10/01/2015

    Irish, compare those fighters to the bums Foreman and Tyson fought on their way to the title—with one or two exceptions they look like 3rd raters compared to the real pros Liston flattened. When he beat them Folley and Machen were the top rated heavys and damn good fighters. The only fighter to knock out iron jawed Wayne Bethea in 50 fights was Liston. Bethea, who faced everyone, said it was like being hit by a freight train. Face it, Liston at his best was a monster and to dismiss his chances against the fighters you mentioned is flat out wrong.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:24am, 10/01/2015

    Cleveland Williams “suffered” 8 KOs in his career, Besmanoff 11, Howard King 14, Patterson 5 and down about a dozen or more times….these guys were all Cruiserweights by even Eighties standards and chinny as hell to boot. Machen was a 190 pounder and Liston had to go low trying to get him out of there.

  5. Mike Casey 11:16pm, 09/30/2015

    Very true. Foreman himself never denied that!

  6. Mike Silver 08:33pm, 09/30/2015

    The Liston who KO’d Wayne Bethea, Mike DeJohn, Cleveland Williams (twice), Howard King, Willie Besmanoff, Zora Folley, Floyd Patterson (1st), and outpointed Eddie Machen was the real heavyweight champion from 1958 to 1964. Not since Joe Louis had a heavyweight contender been so dominant and feared. That Liston would have flattened Frazier, dominated Holyfield and Foreman with his jab and scared the overrated Tyson into defeat. Foreman and Tyson beat a bunch of second raters before they got their shot.

  7. Paul Gallender 09:01am, 09/29/2015

    I guess that settles that. Thanks for setting me straight, Irish.

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:33pm, 09/28/2015

    The list of Heavyweight Champs that came after Liston that would have whipped his ass to a frazzle is a mile long…..Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis, both Klitschkos and yes even Mercer and Douglas. In a stare down with a young Foreman all his baleful stare would have gotten him was an ass thumping heard round the world. He made his bones on a weak chinned and weak minded Patterson and he couldn’t beat Ali young or old if his life depended on it.

  9. Gordon Analla 02:49pm, 09/28/2015

    I saw the Leotis Martin - Henry Clark fight at the Oakland Coliseum with my two buddies from high school.  It was the “walk out” fight for the Heavyweight Championship Fight of Jimmy Ellis and Jerry Quarry.  It was a very close fight.  Both were favorites of mine.

  10. peter 11:22am, 09/28/2015

    Mike—get cracking on the lyrics.

  11. Mike Casey 11:02am, 09/28/2015

    I’m strumming my geetar as we speak, Peter.

  12. peter 10:56am, 09/28/2015

    Excellent article. This fight was one of those memorable events where you remember exactly where you were when you saw it. I was at my neighbor’s house, across the street. My buddy, Brian Beddoe, and I were sitting in his parent’s first-floor bedroom watching it. When Liston hit the canvas, we both exploded…Years later, Mark Knopler of Dire Straits wrote “A Song for Sonny Liston”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyOW8lQOG8Q) Great song. Now all we need is someone write a tune for Leotis Martin. Maybe, you, Mike Casey?

  13. Bob 10:21am, 09/28/2015

    I have always been intrigued by Leotis Martin. Very underrated and underappreciated. Thank you for such an educational and interesting story about him.

  14. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:49am, 09/28/2015

    Well deserved recognition for Leotis….maybe not as earth shaking as Buster pulverizing Tyson but very satisfying for a very basic reason…in both cases the very emphatic winners refused to be bullied and literally destroyed their tormentors…..and yes both Sonny and Mike were prototypical bullies and no misty eyed revision of boxing history can change that.

  15. Mike Casey 07:45am, 09/28/2015

    Great assessment, Kid!

  16. KB 07:38am, 09/28/2015

    Leotis Martin and Wilbur McClure were great buddies and would come to Chicago to fight in the Golden Gloves. Those in the know appreciated Leotis as a fighter with tremendous potential. I saw him fight in 1959-the year I graduated college and he was outstanding. I always felt he could have gone on to become World champion but bad luck dogged him.

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