Sonny Liston: Ali’s first big foil

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Updated: June 4, 2016

Ali jumped all over Liston after Ali sent Liston down in their second fight, yelling for him to get up. Jersey Joe Walcott, the referee, totally lost control as he tried to get Ali to a neutral corner.  Liston stayed on the canvas as Walcott tried to restrain Ali. Liston eventually got up as Walcott went to the corner to talk with Ring Magazine editor Nat Fleischer. Ali started nailing Liston with more shots.  Meanwhile Fleischer told Walcott that Liston should be counted out, so Walcott called the fight and gave the bout to Ali.  Years later, Liston told Sports Illustrated Mark Kram that he stayed down because, “Ali was a crazy man.”  The great intimidator was intimidated.

Before the rise of Ali, the biggest nightmare for many in White America, as well as well as a few in Black America was Liston becoming heavyweight champion.  Liston was the street thug who did not fit the image many in Black America wanted to represent them.  Liston, a man with connections to the mob and time served in jail, would never be accused of being a boy scout.  In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the heavyweight champion was a major figure in the Sports landscape, and considered a representative of the sport and America.  For many, both in Black and White America, Liston was not the man who should be champion.  Most of America was more comfortable with Floyd Patterson, who was a believer in the American dream and when Patterson lost to Swedish heavyweight Ingemar Johansson, he felt he had let America down.  Cuss D’ Amato ensured that Patterson would never face Liston until demand for the fight became unendurable.

Muhammad-Ali

As Patterson tightened his control on the heavyweight championship and avoided Liston, Liston went on a tour- literally beating all the top heavyweights of his era. Cleveland Williams, Nino Valdes, and Zora Foley fell to the power of Liston as he literally destroyed them.  Many were comparing Liston to Joe Louis, and with an 84-inch reach and power in each hand, Liston looked indestructible.

The Liston jab was piston like, and his fist appeared to go through his opponents heads, or at least felt that way to his victims.   After his one round destruction of Albert Westphal, the clamor for a Patterson-Liston fight began in earnest.  Patterson found himself unable to refuse and many outside the boxing community found themselves hoping for Patterson to dispatch Liston.  Even John F. Kennedy got into the act, telling Patterson he had to win.  Many in the African-American community viewed Patterson as the role model for younger blacks, and Liston was the worst example for Black Americans to have in the forefront of the sporting world as a representative for White America.  In the early 60’s, the Civil Rights movement was beginning in earnest, and for many African-American leaders, Liston’s past precluded him from adoration as a champion.  Liston was, in many respects, a man without an ethnicity since nearly everyone rejected him.

Leading up to the first Liston-Patterson, Liston made his disdain for Patterson quite obvious. For Liston, Patterson was an accommodator who denied other worthy blacks including himself a shot at the title.  For that alone, Liston despised Patterson; telling Howard Cosell that he would “like to run Patterson over with a truck.”  When Patterson talked of how being the champion detailed obligation and that he was a role model, Liston found such talk patronizing.  Liston was determined to destroy Patterson; and in their first fight in Chicago did just that.  Patterson was counted out within the first 2 minutes of the first round.  Liston provided Patterson a second chance, and again Liston kayoed Patterson in just one round.

After three straight one round demolitions of his last two opponents, Liston was at the top of the world.  A man feared and hated, Liston prepared to fight his next opponent- a brash and young heavyweight from Louisville.

Liston viewed this young opponent with disdain, with Cassius Clay adding to the disdain with all of his trash talking.  Liston had no worries about Clay, and most boxing experts agreed.  Clay looked unimpressive in a previous fight against Doug Jones, and Liston was considered to be the meanest man on the planet.  In February of 1964, these two men fought.  When Liston marched to the center of the ring, something was different.  He found himself looking up at Clay.  This young heavyweight was a much bigger specimen than Liston thought.  During the first two rounds Clay danced, moved, and dominated with superior boxing skills.  The third round began with Liston starting to swell around the eyes from accurate jabs.  As Liston pursued, he was nailed with a right hand that buckled his knee.  He nearly went down, and for the next two minutes was scrapped with combinations coming fast and from all angles.  Liston looked powerless till the last 40 seconds when Clay appeared to tire, and Liston countered with a flurry of his own. This was the best round of the fight, and while Liston survived the round and even scored heavily at the end, his fate was sealed.  Clay danced and moved throughout the fourth, easily avoiding the prodding Liston.  However as the fourth round was winding down, Clay started to squint as if something was in his eyes.  Clay was yelling at his trainer, Angelo Dundee that he was blind and could not see. He wanted to quit.  Dundee surmised that some foreign substance got into Clay’s eye and to this day, it has been assumed that Liston put a foreign substance on his gloves with the idea of forcing Clay from the fight.

Dundee pushed Clay out into the ring and told Clay to run.  For the next three minutes Clay, using his left hand as a sight finder to find out where Liston was located, avoided Liston’s desperate haymakers. Using his superior speed, Clay avoided all of Liston’s headshots. His ability to take punishment allowed him to absorb whatever body shot landed.  As the fifth round ended, Clay’s eyesight came back as whatever foreign substance that entered his eye washed out. Throughout this round, Ali used all of his athletic skills to survive the round and sealing Liston’s fate when he went back to this corner.

Clay put on a boxing clinic in the sixth round and Liston knew that his chance to keep his title was gone forever.  His eyes swollen and face cut, Liston no longer could fight effectively.  Claiming a shoulder injury, Liston refused to come out for the seventh round and the great intimidator was vanquished.

A rematch was called for as many in the boxing world were stunned that the brash young fighter fulfilled his predictions of a knockout.  The boxing world, as well as the rest of America would be stunned even further.  Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and joined the separatist Black Muslims.  Ali went from being a curiosity to a serious threat, and a member of the radical faction of the Islamic religion was now the Heavyweight champion.

Liston geared up for the rematch, and now there were many who rooted for the thuggish Liston versus this new young outcast who changed his “slave” name and appeared to roundly denounce his country.  Ali used his championship belt to promote his new religion, and suddenly a previously mob controlled Liston started to look good.  Liston got himself in shape and was determined to win back his championship.  The bout was delayed as Ali had surgery to treat a hernia.  The momentum that Liston was building in his training camp was halted.  With all the rumors of Black Muslim hit squads and mafia retribution against Ali, no one really wanted to promote this fight or have the fight occur in their arena. The fight was moved to Lewiston, Maine; and in the backdrop of intense security, one of the most bizarre heavyweight championship fights was held.

Liston was knocked down by a sneaky right hand that appeared to have little power.  With Jersey Joe Walcott losing control of the match and with Ring Magazine editor Nat Fleischer playing referee, this fight had as bizarre an ending as any in history.  Liston once again walked out as a loser but more importantly, his reputation as a fighter was forever shredded.  No longer would there ever be talk of Liston being the next great fighter.  He was declared a bully and a coward who couldn’t defeat a fighter who would stand up to him.  His era as champ was over and now he would be frozen out of the picture.  His past came back to haunt him as other fighters could legitimately avoid him while going for a title.

While many boxing fans viewed Liston’s career as ending on the spring day in Maine, Liston continued to fight.  He recorded 14 straight knockouts including one over heavyweight prospect Henry Clark. Liston once again appeared to be on his way to a championship belt despite being past the age of 37.  With Ali in exile due to his draft problems, the door was open for Liston to make one last shot at the title.   A possible fight with Joe Frazier was over the horizon, and Liston’s next opponent was little regarded Leotis Martin.  Martin had lost previously to Henry Clark, a Liston knockout victim and apparent soft touch.

The fight started out the way pundits predicted, as Liston pursued and Martin retreated. In the fourth round, Liston finally caught up to Martin and unleashed a barrage of punches that sent Martin through the ropes.  Martin, however, raised himself up and finished the round.  In the next round, he started to fight back and now Liston had two opponents- Martin and age. Martin’s more accurate punches started to tell on Liston’s face as he moved out of the slower Liston’s range and countered.  As the fight progressed, Liston began to slow down and looked tired, just as Martin seemed to become refreshed.  A fight that was Liston’s to win was now in doubt as the eighth round began.  Liston’s fatigue became a factor as Martin’s punches began buckling Liston’s knees. In the middle of the eighth round it was obvious that Liston’s main objective was just survival and hope for a decision.  Liston survived the eighth, and now moved out to face Martin in the ninth.  Martin nailed Liston with the perfect right hand. Just as a right hand ended Liston’s run as champion four years earlier against Ali, the same right delivered by Martin ended Liston’s last run at a championship. As Liston was counted out, the potential title elimination fight with Quarry landed in the ash heap of history.  There would be no Liston-Frazier fight.  Liston’s career was effectively over.

Liston would have one more fight in which he pounded and knocked Chuck Wepner out in the tenth.  Wepner needed 70 stitches to patch up the damage inflicted by Liston but it was a meaningless fight for Liston. He made nothing off this last fight.  Liston delivered the $13,000 purse to pay his corner men, and to pay off debts.  He left the ring as a disgraced figure.  He would die of an apparent drug overdose, though there are many who found his death suspicious.  Even in death, controversy followed Liston.  Death provided no respite for Liston.

Liston, like Jack Johnson before him, was the bad black. Never loved by either blacks or whites, Liston fought under a cloud of massive disapproval.  Fighting in a time of turmoil and change, Liston was the square peg that could never be fitted into a round hole.  He would never capture the imagination of newer and more radical black youths in the mid and late 60’s; that was reserved for Ali.  Nor was Liston loved by the older generation.  The only time Liston received any real cheers was when he fought the younger and politically radical Ali; but those cheers died the minute he hit the canvas in Lewiston, Maine. From that point on in his life, he would travel in ignominy and be trapped in boxing purgatory.

There are two facts to know about Liston.  The first is that he was one of boxing’s greatest heavyweights lost in the shadow of the great Ali.  The second fact was that Liston was a universally hated figure, whose past life and two defeats at Ali’s hands clouded what had been a brilliant career.  Floyd Patterson’s handlers robbed Liston of a shot at a title for several years. If Liston had fought Patterson in 1958, he would have had a long five or six years reign as champion, and his place in boxing history would have been secure.  Instead, our memory of Liston is as a beaten, swollen fighter sitting in his corner as the brash young Ali dances around the ring and brags to the world, “I am the Greatest, I am the Greatest.”

 

 

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