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By Ted Spoon on June 29, 2012
Subtitles ‘Off’
Next to the great Joe Louis, Sonny Liston was the most PUNISHING heavyweight boxer ever

Wolfing down crimson steak, abusing sparring partners and reshaping medicine balls with his gut, Liston’s red-blooded lifestyle stormed into 1959…

The last thing we need is another enquiry into the death of Charles “Sonny” Liston. The second to last thing we need is another debate about what happened when he bumped into Mr. Clay. Notorious moments are a base ingredient in boxing, but as subjects go these two have been hung, drawn n’ quartered and burnt at the stake. 

Controversy is the rule, where boxing trumps other forms of competition is in the clear portraits it provides, of human nature, its sacrifice and struggle. And by struggle we do not mean being sent off a pitch or having a crucial point disallowed, but of attempting to transform your life whilst risking it.

In the case of Liston our affinity with solving riddles has defiled the image of one of the flagship division’s genuine wrecking-machines. Interjections about his real D.O.B., a corrosive substance or a fear of needles are never far away.

With all these sundry topics inflaming his legacy it’s difficult to get perspective on the man who could stare down a riot squad. 

Most know better but there exist circles that cite Liston as something of a flash in the pan given his brief reign. His reign of terror started long before he obliterated Floyd Patterson of course, but even still, it’s difficult to smother him with credit in this department. From ’58-’61, next to Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, Sonny’s laced anvils thumped out one of the greatest pre-title runs. 

Now more than ever the build of Liston doesn’t look natural. The classic silhouette is typified by sloping shoulders, slender legs, and wiry musculature (routinely championed over the hefty, oxygen-sapping type). With today’s protein-chugging laymen and frequent accusations of steroid abuse, Liston’s XXL torso would come under fire in 2012’s climate.   

The key difference was, when Liston instructed those shirt-bursting dimensions to perform, a Mariusz Pudzianowski he wasn’t.

Assaulting police officers never goes down well and for Liston it meant hitting the pause button on his professional career. Whilst peeking through the iron bars that contained him there was plenty of time to reflect on that armed robbery which had landed him in a familiar position. Released at an age closer to 30 than 20, Liston churned his disappointment into terrible success.   

At around six feet he was no taller than Jack Dempsey, and sometimes he weighed-in less than the older Joe Louis, but with a 44” chest, an 84” reach and 15” fists Liston had assets synonymous with Marvel Comics. 

Great tales require great villains and our child-adoring destroyer had no say in the script. And though the repercussions of a sketchy life would haunt Sonny he knew all-too-well the beauty in gaining a physiological edge.

“Old Stoneface” as he was christened, wrapped in towels to make a big man bigger, entering the ring with unmoved authority; shades of the psychopath were visible in Liston’s routine. The casual fan takes a pew because they’re sold on the image, but herein we discover the truth behind every slayer…

…They are perfectly sane and cool-headed.       

Next to Joe Louis, Liston was the most punishing heavyweight boxer. By ‘boxer’ we mean somebody who competed much like you would be taught; high, straight arms, upright with poised shoulders. And then you jab.     

Sonny’s left didn’t look any different. The dents it created left the word ‘jab’ to contemplate its meek implication. 

It was a punch that urged opponents to retreat; slips weren’t worth the risk. Using his arm like a joust, Liston’s jab was a solitary weapon. Its primary use wasn’t in preparing combinations but creating doubt. When your most basic punch can cause a black-Samson in Cleveland Williams to bend like hot iron then you’ll see the injustice in understating.

On the offensive there was a refined choice of leather. Two-handed punchers are a gifted species but most get caught up in their ego and swing themselves to sleep. It takes a certain type of character to become the boss of his powers, not an extension of them, and under the acute supervision of Willie Reddish this focal conversion took place. 

Wayne Bethea marked opponent #4 since Liston’s absence. He also represented the first notable one in some time, bringing with him a reputation for staying vertical. With the bout barely underway Sonny landed a right and got a funny reaction. Jack Dempsey’s observation of him having “slow feet” actually helped his work breathe and in 69 seconds Bethea was halted for the only time in his career. 

Just two mortals, Burt Whitehurst and Eddie Machen lasted the distance during this concussive spree. The final bell is what saved Burt who was smashed outside the ropes into incoherent jelly while Eddie (blaming an injury) fought very negatively.

When asked about his performance Liston grunted, “He didn’t want to fight.”   

We can’t be sure if “want” is the right word as Liston’s reputation for pummelling rocketed. Others were at least easier to engage which was good news for the highlights reel.

Wolfing down crimson steak, abusing sparring partners and reshaping medicine balls with his gut, Liston’s red-blooded lifestyle stormed into 1959.     

Mike DeJohn and an older Nino Valdez weren’t bad names to trample on but it was the collision with a “Big Cat” that raised brows. The 2-1 favourite won but in daunting fashion. In a “whoever lands first” bout Williams landed first. He even shoved Sonny off, making room for a hook which got his nose leaking.   

In the second he got right back in his face, letting go with heavy swings, but Liston’s deportment was like that of a concrete pillar. Moments later he was punching back, shooting his long arms between the gaps. Going to the body and leading with hooks, there was a deft element to reap in Liston’s work when you weren’t ogling over his sheer power.

Accurate but no less crushing salvoes finished Cleveland in the third.   

Something both fighters deserve credit for, Williams demanded a rematch, proving he was not in the least intimidated, and Liston shaved a round off his previous effort. This was no Tyson victim, stricken with butterflies, and yet the results were alike.     

Philadelphia’s Roy Harris was up against “it” a month later. He’d gone twelve rounds with champion Floyd Patterson; he didn’t manage one with Liston. The smooth-operating Zora Folley faired a better chance of causing trouble. Again Liston was made only the slight favorite, emphasizing the quality of opponent. Six minutes and twenty eight seconds it lasted.

It’s possible that Zora, as he said, “fought the wrong fight.” It’s probable that he fought the wrong fighter.

Liston had willingly taken the smaller end of the purse ($25,000 to $40,000), certifying his bout with the #2 contender. Such is the “here today, gone tomorrow” flux of boxing it is in the interest of each fighter to get the best deal for every single fight. Hanging with “Deadpan” Joe Louis outside gym hours, Liston’s mindset grew into one of demoralizing simplicity.

Simply, he would not lose. 

After the Machen disappointment Howard King had the painful privilege of facing Sonny twice. By now you could say that Liston’s #1 contender status had gone triple-platinum. The former racketeer figured Patterson had been scared of him for around a year and a half. Manager Cus D’Amato smelt ice long ago.

In July of ’61 the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission lifted Liston’s licence to box for various incidents. When asked why he never boxed his quarantined foe Patterson pulled the criminal card; it looked like clear daylight had been put between predator and prey.   

Things were looking up come the fall. Sonny had his licence reinstated and, as if the prospect of a Patterson bout was not already unavoidable, they were scheduled to perform on the same card.

Germany’s Albert Westphal didn’t even deserve the wild notions of a drunk. For little other reason than to keep his joints from collecting rust Liston registered his 34th contest. No doubt a “filler” track on the album, Westphal was done in the first, though in cruel fashion. A single right hand, thrown downwards rather than straight, literally crushed Albert like he was a middleweight.

It took longer to make it back to the dressing room.

Liston didn’t bother showering and found the nearest television to catch Patterson’s set-to with Tom McNeeley. For three rounds he locked his cold gaze on the champ as surrounding members of the press failed to squeeze a word out of him. Totally engrossed, in a moment Sonny came across as the illiterate beast everyone had figured him. Once again the truth behind every slayer was lost. Shortly before Patterson won Sonny coolly imparted, “He’s missing a lot of punches.”   

Odds uniformly close nearer fight time and for Liston that meant being installed as the 8-5 favorite. The challenger was bigger than his rival in every measurement. More significantly he had spanked every boxer Floyd should have defended against. Ingemar Johansson was eyed during his golden tenure but Liston was forced to get in line; now there were no speed bumps.

Two minutes and six seconds into the first and Patterson was an ex-champion, though a word of sympathy is in order.         

By the ‘60s many of the greats were frequent contributors to the press. Dempsey, Tunney, Louis and Marciano aired their weighty opinions on a regular basis and the word “disgrace” was thrown about. Nowadays boxers will bite back, but when things were still prim and proper, having a figure like Dempsey shake his head was like having your parents tell you they’re disappointed. 

Floyd vowed to do better in a rematch most thought was entirely unnecessary. When he managed just four seconds better you had one of the strangest situations in boxing with Liston woefully deprived of recognition and Patterson ashamed; two lost souls, condemned for opposing reasons. 

All of a sudden story had distorted fact, and Sonny’s legacy was the victim.

It’s a popcorn fact that although Paterson got knocked down more than any heavyweight champion he also got up more than any other heavyweight champion. For Liston to keep him down in the first wasn’t elementary. To repeat the performance was quite something. Shout “mismatch!” and it’s easy to discard it as logic, but if we’re to discredit “tailor-made” opponents then George Foreman’s legacy inherits a virus. 

Re-watching those fragile moments it’s easy to forget Patterson had conquered Johansson and went on to give new blood all they could handle.

This took the thirty-something Liston’s record to 35-1 with 24 knockouts. It had been a run of concentrated quality, blasting good fighters with various styles. The bully label will do well to dither but enduring with a broken jaw and digesting TNT from somebody like Williams renders it a more of a half-truth. The decision loss to Marty Marshall was righted, and every acid test was sterilized. 

One of boxing great pitfalls loomed, and as Sonny left the Las Vegas convention center the big man’s chest was puffed with compliments. When Mr. Clay re-entered conversation Liston uncharacteristically blasted his reputation, declaring he wasn’t “half the fighter” Patterson was. Two rounds he gave the boastful youngster, but for once we can’t be sure he trained for fifteen. 

The discipline which had lent Sonny his macabre aura was beginning to wane, but there we go again investigating instead of appreciating. 

Between the quaking blows and strange passing little attention was given to Liston the man, albeit his humility came in flickers.

Shortly after Floyd was revived Sonny was asked about future plans. Clay would get his shot, but a nice break was to come first. While the next question was being loaded a cheeky grin created a pause, briefly erasing that morbid leer.

The reporter anticipated murderous thoughts.

“I always take time off after a tough fight,” chuckled the heavyweight champion.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Sonny Liston vs. Cleveland Williams I

Sonny Liston vs. Wayne Bethea

Sonny Liston vs. Bert Whitehurst - Part 1 of 4

Sonny Liston vs. Bert Whitehurst - Part 2 of 4

Sonny Liston vs. Bert Whitehurst - Part 3 of 4

Sonny Liston vs. Bert Whitehurst - Part 4 of 4

Sonny Liston vs Eddie Machen 1960

Sonny Liston vs. Roy Harris

Sonny Liston vs Albert Westphal

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  1. Paul Gallender 08:20pm, 02/17/2014

    Ted - Just came across your article for the first time and I enjoyed it. I always like when people give Sonny the respect he deserved. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen all that often.

  2. John 04:41am, 07/06/2012

    I disagree with his very first sentence. I think the first thing we need is another investigation into the death of Liston. We should investigate until we know the truth and get to the bottom of it. Was he or was he not murdered?  Why don’t we seek the truth? For all his flaws, Sonny deserved a full, honest investigation. Not a cover up or one ending in question marks.

  3. mikecasey 03:11am, 07/01/2012

    Ted Spoon writes some excellent articles and this is one of them.

  4. tuxtucis 11:34pm, 06/30/2012

    Someone can really believe that a man who did take terrific rights of a prime Cleveland Williams can be flattened by the Alì powderpuff?

  5. NYIrish 04:52pm, 06/30/2012

    Dunno. Haven’t seen Spinks in a long time. Maybe Lara / Hernandez might be a good fight.  Showtime has been better lately. They’ve put on some stinkers. Thanks.

  6. The Thresher 04:36pm, 06/30/2012

    I think Spinks is all done, but KP is not much better. I see the dog winning by stoppage.

  7. NYIrish 04:31pm, 06/30/2012

    Not to change the subject but any thoughts on Spinks/ Bundridge tonight?
    Never saw Bundridge. Anybody care? Should I ?

  8. The Thresher 01:42pm, 06/30/2012

    Both Irishes have the beat

  9. NYIrish 01:36pm, 06/30/2012

    Liston had Martin down in the fourth. Martin flattened Sonny in the ninth. That fight finished Martin due to a detached retina. Liston was so old he creaked. Liston had one more fight, stopping Chuck Wepner. These fights were in ‘69 and ‘70. Liston started boxing as a pro in 1953 and he was no kid then. I’m not making a case for greatness. His Ali performances flush that. But his record certifies he was a very dangerous fighter. Thresh, you are right. Liston was the dark side from his beginning to end. But he had some great fights and was always dangerous. If you line him up against some of the recognized greats he has a shot. He was the champ nobody wanted. He’s easy to discount. But nobody that was ever in with him will forget him.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 10:05am, 06/30/2012

    In my view, in addition to everything else, he must have had the most fragile of all porcelain chins since the creation of man on the face of this earth. As evidenced by the fact that he was hurtled at light speed into the next dimension by a keep away punch thrown while Ali was “floating like a butterfly”....he sure as f**k wasn’t set to “sting like a bee” when he threw that punch. The question is whether the phantom punch actually landed or was the thought of the punch landing enough to do the job. It won’t do to rebut by saying he laid down for one reason or another…either way it’s no good and there’s no revising that.

  11. The Thresher 09:45am, 06/30/2012

    Liston is all about boxing noir. The dark side if you will—and that appeals to a lot of people including me. He f—ked up his legacy with the dive in Maine, however. That was sickening.

  12. The Thresher 09:22am, 06/30/2012

    Both Leotis and Liston fought in the Chicago Golden Gloves at one time or another. Most of the real good fighters passed through Chicago during their amateur careers.

  13. The Thresher 09:21am, 06/30/2012

    But Leotis Martin whipped his butt big time.

  14. NYIrish 06:14am, 06/30/2012

    Thanks for the story. Great clips of Sonny in action. He was referred to as “slow footed” but that was in contrast of many of his opponents retreating at such an urgent speed. He moved forward behind that piledriving jab qiuckly. He kept his head and shoulders moving, changed his height and fired to the head and body in a fluid motion.
    Watch the clips. Would any of you bet on a Klitchko against the old man in the clips? We’ll never know of course but it’s fun to argue outcomes on bouts that can’t happen. The “slow footed” Liston moved with the grace of a ballerina compared to the clumsy tentative amblings of the mammoth Ukrainians. They could not run at Liston and survive. Nor do they possess the speed to run from him. Liston could also go ten at a fast pace. Had a better jab and reach. It’s just easier to forget about Liston. He upsets the historical applecart. No one can deny he brought excitement into the ring.
    Not to be picky but Roy Harris is from Cut N Shoot Texas. He is alive and well and sharp as a tack.

  15. Don from Prov 04:26am, 06/30/2012

    I know that he was flawed, but Sonny was my earliest favorite fighter.
    He was a tough man who’d had a tough life.
    And I don’t buy the “villain” rap that was so popular to lay on Liston.

    Plus, he could be pretty funny.
    Thanks for the good article.

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