The Man Who Fought Liston and Cassius Clay—Four Times!

By Peter Weston Wood on July 28, 2016
The Man Who Fought Liston and Cassius Clay—Four Times!
“Sonny stopped me in the seventh round the first time we fought, but I coulda continued.”

Billy Joiner, a journeyman heavyweight in the 1960s, has a few fascinating tales to tell. Let him tell you in his own words…

This article was supposed to be about boxing’s bad boy Oscar Bonavena, but it took a quick turn after a spellbinding telephone interview with one of his former opponents—Billy Joiner.

Billy Joiner, a journeyman heavyweight in the 1960s, has a few fascinating tales to tell. Let him tell you in his own words…

“Well, my very first pro fight was in Madison Square Garden in 1962. That was a top place to fight back then. If you fought at the Garden, that was pretty good. My dad and I drove all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio—fifteen hours.”

How did a fledgling heavyweight from Ohio earn a fight in prestigious Madison Square Garden, on the undercard of the Joey Archer-Jose Gonzalez main event?

“I don’t know. Maybe it had somethin’ to do with my trainer, George Gainford, Sugar Ray Robinson’s old trainer.”

The truth is that it had more to do with Joiner’s impressive 86-6 amateur record, and his being the 1962 National AAU Light Heavyweight Champion, as well as the National Golden Gloves Titleholder.

Joiner stopped Julius Dickens that night in two rounds, certainly an auspicious beginning for a promising young fighter. 

“The next day,” laughs Joiner, who I notice is quick with a laugh, “I got a ticket driving in midtown Manhattan. That dang ticket dug a deep hole outta my purse!

“Back then I was a confident young man, not cocky,” explains Joiner.

There is no one with deeper boxing roots in Cincinnati than Billy Joiner.

“My dad, John, and Uncle Herschel, were pro fighters. I guess I was born into boxing, just like that Mayweather kid. My Uncle Herschel once knocked out Freddy Miller, the former featherweight champion.”

In April of 1940, Uncle Herschel’s ring record was only 7-3-2, when he stepped into the ring and stopped ex-champ Freddy Miller, whose ring record was 183-27-2. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported: “Herschel Joiner battered Miller, leaving him with a cut left eye, and swollen and bleeding left ear. The referee stopped the contest.” Miller retired after that beating.

Despite Billy Joiner’s boxing pedigree, few people—even boxing fans—are aware of the fantastic footnote in fistic history for which he is credited: He is the only fighter to have fought two boxing greats—Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay—twice.

Joiner lost all four times, but this unique fistic feat should have earned Billy Joiner a bit more celebrity and fame.

But he is a humble man who doesn’t make a big deal of it.

“Yeah, I have the honor of fightin’ both men twice—Sonny twice as a pro, and Clay twice as an amateur. 

“First time Clay and me fought was in Cincinnati, in 1960, right before he won the gold medal in the Rome Olympics. Second time was in Toledo, Ohio, in an outside arena. Funny thing about our second fight, we both shuffled each other, but I shuffled him first!” He laughs, enjoying the memory.

“I lost to Clay twice—but both times were by one point.”

What was a young Cassius Clay like?

“Well, at that time, he wasn’t boastful, or going around talking all the time. For one thing, he was respectful. I think I gained Clay’s respect. After the fight, we just shook hands and that was it.

“I was supposed to box Ali a third time, as a pro, but he was going through all that military stuff. I was really in top condition for that fight, but it didn’t come off.”

Leading up to Joiner’s bout with Sonny Liston, the feared former heavyweight champion was on a blistering comeback, scoring five straight knockouts over highly-ranked opponents—Elmer Rush, Amos Johnson, Dave Bailey and Gerhard Zech. 

“Sonny stopped me in the seventh round the first time we fought. It was at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. The ref stopped it, but I coulda continued,” he says without a trace of bitterness.

Ten months later, in St. Louis, the game and crafty Joiner extended Sonny the full ten rounds in losing a decision.

“Yeah, I knew Liston and I knew, first-hand, what Liston’s jab felt like,” he laughs. “I always knew what I was getting myself into when I stepped into the ring with him. I was one of his steady sparring partners in Denver, Colorado when he was getting ready for Ali. I got paid by the week. Yeah, his jab made me see stars. Liston was the hardest puncher I ever fought.”

“What kind of guy was Sonny Liston?”

“Well, to me, he was always quiet. He didn’t play cards or hang out, or talk to many people. He stayed pretty much to himself.”

“Who was the better fighter, Liston or Ali?”

“Well, comparing the two isn’t hard. Ali was a better fighter. He had that amazing hand speed and his feet were super quick.”

What was Joiner’s opinion of the second fight between Liston and Ali? Did he think Ali legitimately knocked Liston out?

“If you play the video in slow motion,” says Joiner, “you see Liston’s head turns from the force of the blow. You see how well Liston was punched. Yes. Ali knocked him out.”

“Was Ali the best fighter you fought?” I ask.

“Yes.”

From 1962 to 1981, Billy boxed the best. If you look at the list of contenders he crossed gloves with, it’s stiff competition: Piero Tomasoni, Dante Cane, Marion Conner, Sonny Liston, Bob Cleroux, Zora Folley, Alvin “Blue” Lewis, Jürgen Blin, Mac Foster, Oscar Bonavena, Amos Johnson, Larry Holmes and Alfredo Evangelista.

Who was the most overrated fighter on that list?

“Oscar Bonavena was the most overrated,” says Billy. “When we fought in Reno, he hit me low every round and got away with it. The ref shoulda been in control, but he did nothin’. Those punches were intentional. Bonavena thought I was gonna lay down and quit, but I didn’t. I went ten rounds. Everyone says Bonavena was an awkward fighter, but to me, he was just plain dirty. 

“George Gainford was in my corner for that fight. He was crooked, too.”

Until then, I had never heard a bad word spoken about the legendary trainer. I then researched Gainford and read Frank Lotierzo’s article entitled, “Trainers—Even Hall of Fame Trainers, Are Often Overrated.” He writes: “George Gainford only trained one great fighter—Sugar Ray Robinson. Is it a coincidence that Gainford never trained another fighter who could be considered outstanding…In fact Gainford once was asked while holding court at a local tavern, ‘How come none of your other fighters fight as great as Robinson?’, to which he had no response.” Lotierzo then goes on to cite Kevin Rooney as another example of a well-known trainer with questionable merit.

“Once, in the dressing room, before a fight,” recalls Joiner, “Gainford wiped a towel over my face after dripping stuff on it. I inhaled whatever it was, and I don’t even remember entering the ring.  I was drugged—I felt it. Whatever it was, it slowed me down.”

“Did you say anything? Do anything? I mean, he was your manager!”

“I didn’t say anything,” he replies, without a trace of anger. “Sure, I was disappointed, but it was too late and there was nothin’ else to do.”

“Who was your opponent?”

“All I remember is it was in California.”

“With Liston?”

“No, not Liston.”

“Mac Foster?” 

He thinks awhile, then says, “Yeah, Foster.”

Foster stopped Joiner on body shots early in the fight.

“Did you confront Gainsford?” I ask.

“Nah, it was already done.”

I move on with our conversation because I see Joiner is the rare type of man who is not stuck in another decade, caught up in the shadows of the past.

What was Joiner’s diet when boxing?

“I ate at a restaurant called Tad’s Steakhouse. You got a sirloin steak, baked potato and salad. Back then, it wasn’t too expensive, and that was pretty much my meal. For the money, it was real good.

“Tad’s was originally from Cincinnati, then moved to NYC. When I fought in New York City, I ate the same meal there—steak, potato and a salad.

“What was my training routine? Well, every morning when the air was fresh, I’d do my roadwork on a cinder track at the high school not far from my house or the Carthage Fairgrounds. I’d do two miles and sprint every half lap.

“Mel Turnbow, was my regular sparring partner. Matter of fact, I think he was Ali’s sparring partner, too. Mel was a nice guy with a good punch, but he wasn’t that fast. He’s gone now, but he was a helluva chess player. His son is now training at our gym, here in Cincinnati. He’s a nice kid, just like his dad. He’s not as strong as his dad, but he’s faster.”

Billy trains young boxers at “The Hub,” Buddy LaRosa’s gym located on Race Street. “It’s packed with fighters, young an’ old.”

Billy Joiner knows, firsthand, that for some young scruffy kids, a few hours of honest work in the boxing gym is better than a bar of soap. More significantly, he knows the boxing gym can be the birthplace of a boy’s confidence, and the launching pad of his identity.

“Cincinnati’s always had good fighters—Ezzard Charles, Wallace ‘Bud’ Smith, Aaron ‘The Hawk’ Pryor, Adrien ‘The Problem’ Broner…”

And Billy’s father, his uncle, his brother, John, who fought in the service, and himself.

Joiner’s best punch was his left hook. “My dad trained Wallace ‘Bud’ Smith, and I watched Bud beat those bags every day in the gym. I wanted a left hook just like his. That’s how I developed mine—watchin’ Bud and then workin’ hard on mine.”

At that point in our telephone interview, talking about left hooks, I segued to my original subject for this article—bad boy Oscar Bonavena—another lethal left hooker. “Tell me more about your fight with Bonavena. It was in Reno, right?”

“Yeah, it was set up where I wasn’t supposed to win. Like I said, the referee didn’t penalize him for any of those low blows Bonavena threw.”

“Billy,” I ask, “what goes through your mind when you travel to a fight in Reno and you know you’re the opponent and not supposed to win?”

“Well, here’s the deal on that,” he says. “The first fight I lost was to Amos Johnson on a split decision. I didn’t really lose that fight, but that loss took everything outta me, as far as boxin’ was concerned. I had beaten Johnson ten months earlier, and the second time we fought I had him down three times in the first round, and I still lost the decision.

“Bad things happen in boxing, and those bad things have happened to me.”

One of those bad things happened two years earlier in 1966 at the Municipal Stadium in Freeport, Long Island.

“I’m fightin’ Hubert Hilton, a ten-rounder, and I’m beating him bad. When I look over at Hilton’s corner, I see them puttin’ a foreign substance on his gloves. Next round, that stuff got in my face and my eyes shot up like balloons. I was beatin’ him, having no problems—that’s why they hit me with whatever it was. I never felt so much pain. Hey, some people gonna use those tactics just to get a win.” Joiner was stopped in the seventh round.

Billy then recalls the nightmare in Italy.

“A year later, I’m ready to fight Piero Tomasoni, when somebody opens the door to our dressing room and hands me a new pair of white boxing shoes. Of course, I decide to wear my own shoes instead. Big mistake! When I stepped into the ring it was like I was standin’ on a skating rink. There was no rosin on the canvas and I was sliding all over. I couldn’t keep my balance or stand up!” He laughs again, seemingly with no residual anger. “Gainford didn’t say anything! I wanted to take off my shoes and fight barefooted, but they wouldn’t let me.”

“Why didn’t Gainford say anything?”

“‘Hey,’ Gainford told me later, ‘Boxin’s a good sport, but you’re always gonna find bad people in it who’re out to get you.’ And he was right.” 

Joiner fought to a ten-round draw that night.

Some people deal with disappointment by ignoring it.

Like many ex-fighters, Joiner has had his share of hard knocks, but I can still hear a smile in his voice. It’s a voice that’s deep, strong and clear.

At 78 years of age, Billy Joiner sounds like he’s still in his fifties. He stays active, training young fighters at LaRosa’s gym. He’s currently working with pro heavyweight Ray Edwards, 10-0-1, the former Atlanta Falcons standout who opted out of a football career to give pro boxing a shot.

“Today, when I train a boxer, I make sure none of those bad things happen to him.

“Yeah, after my second fight with Amos Johnson in 1964, a lotta my ambition, motivation and the thrill left me and I was never the same boxer.”

Born the son of a prizefighter, boxing has crawled deep inside Joiner and has stayed there. “But I still enjoy coachin’,” he says. “I’ll always be close to the game.”

How about Billy’s father, a former boxer—where did he fit into Billy’s career?

“My daddy was pretty cool. If I won, I won, if I didn’t, I didn’t. He was jubilant when I won, but he wasn’t with me when the bad stuff happened. I was proud of my daddy. When I was a young kid, I saw him box an exhibition in Cincinnati with the heavyweight champion, Jersey Joe Walcott.”

In 1975, toward the end of Joiner’s career, he found himself in the ring with the future heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes. Holmes was 18-0 at the time.

“When I fought Holmes in San Juan, I was retired two years and wasn’t really ready, but I put up a good fight until he stopped me in the early rounds, don’t recall which one. Holmes was a very good boxer, but at that particular time, he didn’t impress me much.”

In his fourteen-year career, Billy Joiner fought three great heavyweight champions. Of the three, he ranks Ali at the top. Liston next, and then Holmes.

Throughout our hour-long conversation, I keep wondering—How has Joiner been able to maintain such a positive attitude and exude such a healthy sense of humor, especially after weathering such a scandalous career full of cheating, dishonesty and skullduggery?

Billy Joiner seems to be a peaceful man who has developed a genuine friendship with himself. I wonder about his emotional journey through nineteen years of fighting, a career where talent and madness go hand-in-hand. Am I speaking to a man hiding behind a façade of happiness?

“Billy,” I ask, “where does your positive attitude come from?” 

“I’m a survivor,” he says, “and I was fortunate to have a good family, a good dad, and a caring stepmother.” Joiner’s biological mom passed away when he was four years old.

But I suspect there’s more to his answer.

After his disappointing loss to Amos Johnson, Billy did a very smart thing—he secured a job working for the Ohio State Highway Maintenance Department where he eventually worked his way up to superintendent.

“I’m retired from the department twenty years, after thirty years of service,” he says proudly. Once again, I hear the smile in his voice, and I begin to understand Billy Joiner, the boxer, much better—and that smile in his voice.

His optimism stems not from boxing, or weathering the storms of Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay, and Larry Holmes. Billy Joiner’s buoyancy stems from thirty years of service at the Ohio State Highway Department—an honest job which offers a loyal worker a full pension and extensive health benefits…unlike what an honest career in boxing offers.

A career in boxing specializes in crushing a man’s hopes and dreams.

At the end of our conversation, I realize the affable Billy Joiner is not without a bit of skullduggery himself. Before ending our conversation, I ask him about his last fight, a ten-round victory over Young Louis in Detroit.

“Well, to be honest,” he chuckles, “that wasn’t my last fight. My last fight isn’t on record. After I retired, there was this boxing show I went to, across the river in Covington, Kentucky.  When one of the heavyweights didn’t show up for a four-rounder, I did the promoter a favor and stepped in. My name that night wasn’t Billy Joiner, it was ‘Walter Jones.’”

“Did Walter Jones win?”

“It was like takin’ candy from a baby,” he laughs.

Peter Wood is a 1971 NYC Golden Gloves Middleweight Finalist in Madison Square Garden; a Middleweight Alternate for The Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, and author of two books: Confessions of a Fighter, and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion, published by Ringside Books.

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  1. Jan Swart 10:30pm, 05/06/2017

    Billy Joiner was not the only man to have fought Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston twice each. Floyd Patterson did so as well (and three of those were title fights)

  2. Michael Chiariello 01:04pm, 08/05/2016

    I apologize.  I meant to write that I enjoyed learning about Billy Joiner.  Thank you for sharing his interesting career.

  3. Michael Chiariello 12:47pm, 08/05/2016

    Once again, a great article Peter.  I commend you on your passion towards boxing and writing.  I always look forward to reading anything that you write.  Once again this article develops gracefully, and has a great flow - like a great boxing match.  Thank you for painting a vivid picture of Sonny Liston.  I really enjoyed learning more about him.  I cannot wait to read your next piece.  Thanks for sharing your art!

  4. Bill Angresano 08:27am, 08/02/2016

    the above comment written by Bill Angresano !

  5. Your Name 08:24am, 08/02/2016

    Great article Peter !! You write what you know and love. That’s YOUR era. Engaging the reader and always leaving room for the reader to philosophize and wonder ... Looking forward to the Bonavena article!

  6. Jacqueline Goldstein 03:56pm, 07/31/2016

    Fascinating account of the challenges this stalwart boxer faced. Shocked at the dirty tricks he was subjected to, but impressed by his positive attitude. I enjoyed this piece thank you, Peter Wood

  7. Caryn A. Tate 05:19am, 07/31/2016

    Excellent story, Peter! Thanks!

  8. Peter DePasquale 01:10pm, 07/30/2016

    Peter, thanks for his fine story. Many boxers have interesting stories but it often takes a talented and experienced writer to pull those stories out and bring them to life - and that’s what you’ve done here. Great job.

  9. C S Pierce 09:36am, 07/30/2016

    Great write up, Mr. Wood!  Always enjoy your work ... these athlete’s personal stories from their lives in a tough quixotic game that was sometimes rigged and always exacted a huge price.  Thanks for letting us get to know these incredible men.

  10. Alan W. 06:08pm, 07/29/2016

    Great article, Peter.  I don’t remember Billy Joyner, but certainly will now.  It’s tough to believe he doesn’t display much bitterness—he’s certainly entitled.  That probably has something to do with the fact that he’s got a pension, and it’s clear the guy’s got all his senses.  If you’ve ever been to Cincinnati, you’ve got to figure that a job in highway maintenance wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.  Cincy’s pretty unbearable in the summer.  I got a kick out of learning that he ate at Tad’s when training.  I think a steak dinner was $3.95 when I used to take my dates there in the late 60’s— I was a classy guy.  All I know is Billy must have had a pretty good set of choppers to go along with his left hook.

  11. Gordon Analla 03:43pm, 07/29/2016

    Great story.  I remember Mr. Joiner.  God bless him.  It was great that he worked for the Dept of Trans, and became a Superintendent.  What a great story.  Also, Mr. Otto, love the names you threw out there.  How about Ted Gullick, and Mac Harrison to name a few more.  Keep on punchin!

  12. George L Otto 12:26pm, 07/29/2016

    Outstanding article.  More like this need to be written because it describes directly and honestly the plight of the fighter who does not become a champion or is not well-protected.  It also discussed the important issue of honesty, or lack thereof, in the fight game, where, in many instances, the needs of the fighters, are ignored or disregarded——to their detriment, as well as that of the fans.  Also, Mr. Joiner was a very smart man in that he applied for, got, kept, and retired from a solid, secure job which provided him with financial security as well as a chance to learn and utilize skills other than boxing.  Other main event fighters from Ohio who also did this included Doyle Baird, Billy Kelly Wagner, Skeeter McClure, Greg Richardson, Harry Arroyo,  Jeff Lampkin, and Bobby Haymon (Mr. Al Haymon’s brother). 

    Thanks again for an outstanding article.

  13. Eric 11:46am, 07/29/2016

    Bob…Respectfully disagree with you on that. The world of boxing looks like a utopia when you compare it to the “outside” world. Ask yourself how many people out there are totally trustworthy? Hate to sound cynical, but the red pill is hard to swallow. Worse of it all, is that a lot of these sociopaths are in high positions of authority. Some of these pillars of society make so-called “bad boys” like Sonny Liston look like altar boys. I’m sure sports like horse racing were or are just as crooked as boxing.

  14. Bob 11:34am, 07/29/2016

    It’s not just human nature. It’s boxing. Anything goes (or went) especially in those days..

  15. Eric 07:00am, 07/29/2016

    Pretty amazing at how many great black boxers who were actually born in the South but are identified as being from Northern cities. Sure, nearly all of them left the South very young and gained all their knowledge of boxing after leaving, but still it is interesting that Henry Armstrong, Sonny Liston, Ray Leonard, Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Larry Holmes,  Joe Frazier, etc., were all born in the Deep South. It seems that Mr. Joiner isn’t exactly an angel himself. Stepping into the ring with a novice 4 round fighter for some easy cash isn’t exactly honorable either. “It was like takin’ candy from a baby.” Human nature, you gotta love it.

  16. Bob 05:41am, 07/29/2016

    What a great story about a man that, despite his boxing disappointments, has led and continues to lead a wonderful life. There was so much going on here; the memories of Tad’s steakhouses which were a staple of New York until the early 1980s, the boxing ring being the launching pad of a boy’s identity, Joiner’s relationship with a wonderful father and family, the pride he took as a public worker, his fights against some memorable or otherwise colorful heavyweights, and the joy he still gets from a job well done with the youth of Cincinnati. Also, Covington, Kentucky, has always had a reputation as a town where everything and anything goes, so even Joiner’s little bit of skullduggery there is forgiven. Just a fantastic story about a delightful man who beat the odds by not allowing boxing to crush and demolish his hopes and dreams.

  17. Eric 08:38pm, 07/28/2016

    How does a guy manage to survive 10 rounds with an animal like Bonavena and only two years later get stopped in 1 round by the fleshy, lumpy, Evangelista? How Evangelista ever secured two world title shots is anybody’s guess. Granted by ‘76, Oscar was boinking senior citizens and indulging in drugs and alcohol, but he still was a great deal more of a threat than Alfredo on his best day. Boxing trainers, baseball managers, football and basketball coaches, etc., are entirely overrated regardless of who you are talking about. How hard would it be to guide the New York Yankess of the Torre years to a world title? How about Pat Riley’s Lakers? How hard would it be to make a talent as great as SRR a world champion? Now maybe Charlie Goldman had his hands full with a short, stubby armed, clumsy, 24 year old neophyte like Marciano, but someone taking over a young Joe Louis or Ray Robinson? Boxing or fighting isn’t exactly rocket science. Look at that beast, Sonny Liston. Talk about a man designed to render people unconscious. Mr. Rogers could have trained Sonny to be a world champion. Oscar Bonavena seemed like a real ahole in real life, would have loved to see him meet even an older version of Sonny in the mid to late 60’s. Frank Robinson was a dud as a baseball manager despite all his knowledge and talent and yet a little 5’4” hothead named, Earl Weaver, who never got beyond cow towns in minor league ball, managed those fine Oriole teams of the ‘68-83” period where the O’s had the highest winning % of any sports team at that time. Managers, coaches, trainers, etc., are way overpaid. What little they bring to the table doesn’t justify their salaries.

  18. Sean Matheny 07:53pm, 07/28/2016

    Good story Pete!  Billy was tough…I saw him fight twice. He was a good technician.  He must have been in tremendous shape for his pro debut in MSG though…..he must have ridden his bicycle there from Cincinnati if it took him 15 hours!

  19. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:19pm, 07/28/2016

    Great write up! His record screams criminally negligent mismanagement….7 and 0 out of the gate and then 5 wins 13 losses along with three draws (all in a row for Christ’s sake) to round out his career.  His high water mark was Bob Cleroux in Canada but everything else about his career was sketchy to say the least. I venture to say that at the very least, half of those losses and draws could have been wins.

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