Sonny Liston is best remembered by newer boxing fans as “the guy Ali beat to win his first heavyweight title.”
What a lot of fight fans don’t know is that Sonny Liston waited two years in the number one contender spot before he was given the chance to fight for the heavyweight championship. Liston won the title by facing Floyd Patterson when Patterson was making his 9th title defense. That fight took place on September 25th, 1962. Patterson had inherited the title when it was vacated by Archie Moore in 1956. And don’t think for a minute that Floyd Patterson didn’t defend the title tooth and nail for the six years he held it, facing opponents like undefeated Ingemar Johansson three times.
When they met in the ring for the first time in 1959, Johansson defeated the heavyweight champ by KO, taking the crown from Patterson. A year later Patterson won it back by way of 5th round KO in a rematch. Patterson again defended the title against Johansson the following year, this time stopping him in the 6th round. Later in 1961, Patterson floored the undefeated Tom McNeeley eleven times before stopping him in the 4th round.
Floyd Patterson had grown accustomed to battling tough guys to defend the heavyweight title, but never had he run into anyone like The Great Sonny Liston. In their first fight, which took place in September of 1962, at 212 lbs. Liston outweighed Patterson by 25 pounds and he had a 13 inch reach advantage. Liston was in control of the fight from the opening bell, pounding Patterson to the body with both hands and using his devastating jab to stop Patterson at 2:06 of the first round. The next day the Chicago papers described the 18,894 fans in attendance as stunned, having witnessed the 3rd fastest knockout in boxing history. Patterson was given a re-match a year later on July, 22 1963 in Las Vegas, where he again was outweighed by 21 lbs. This time Patterson was counted out at 2:10 of the first round.
Charles “Sonny” Liston was born on May 8th 1932 in St. Francis County, Arkansas, one of 25 brothers and sisters. At the age of 13 Liston ran away from home in rural Arkansas to St. Louis where the street life soon turned him to a life of crime. He joined a crowd that in his words was, “just always lookin’ for trouble.” After a conviction for armed robbery, Liston was sentenced to two concurrent five-year terms in the Missouri State Penitentiary. While in prison Liston participated in a formal boxing program under the direction of the prison chaplain. Liston was paroled in 1952 and started boxing as an amateur, winning the National Golden Gloves title in 1953. Liston later turned pro in September of 1953. In his nine year pursuit of the heavyweight championship, Liston fought 34 fights, winning 23 by knockout and losing only once -- to Marty Marshall in an eight round split-decision in his eighth pro fight.
By this time Sonny Liston was a household name. He was also the most disliked heavyweight in the United States since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title in 1919. Liston was just shy of 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighed 220 pounds, had a 17 and a half inch neck, a 14-inch fist, and he usually wore a surly look on his face. Coupled with his crime-ridden past, it led to him being cast as “the bad guy.”
Liston’s brutal style of fighting also contributed to his reputation as one of the most feared boxers to step in the ring. Liston has been called, “One of the most formidable heavyweights in history, a powerfully muscled former convict who oozed menace.” It was also noted that, “Liston’s fighting was so impressive that it was difficult to find a weakness. Sonny had a “pole-like” left jab, hit heavily with both hands, and seemed impossible to knockout due to his tremendous neck muscles.” He’s been compared to Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, with Louis predicting, “Liston would be champion as long as he wanted to be.” Marciano once said, “I would not relish being in the same ring with Liston.”
Liston was known as, “A big, mean, intimidating brute.” Among other things journalists at the time wrote, “No man in his right mind wants to fight Sonny Liston.” When Liston fought his title fight against Floyd Patterson, “He took Patterson’s best punches without blinking.” Before his title fight with Patterson Liston twice stopped the veteran Cleveland Williams in less than three rounds. Between 1958 and 1960, it took Liston fifteen rounds to stop the following top eight contenders: Billy Hunter, Julio Mederos, Wayne Bethea, Frankie Daniels, Nino Valdes, Roy Harris, Zora Folley, and Albert Westphal. Then on February 25, 1964 along came the impetuous talking Cassius Clay. Many things have been said and written about the two legendary fights between Liston and Ali.
Muhammad Ali himself said, “He was everything they said he was, a mass of muscle, power and force.”
Liston’s tie to the mob was no secret. It was obvious the timing of Liston winning the heavyweight title was not good. It was the beginning of the civil rights era in this country, and the start of the FBI’s crusade to remove the mobs strangle-hold on labor unions, entertainment, Las Vegas gambling and sports. Liston was immediately labeled an undesirable “Black man” by the NAACP and it was a very important time during the civil rights movement to have a good role model as heavyweight champion. Cassius Clay was young, handsome, light skinned and Olympic golden.
Everyone knows the outcome of the two fights between Liston vs. Ali. It was written that in Miami Clay was too fast for Liston, who was unable to avoid Clay’s “lightening fast” punches. Liston did not answer the bell after the 7th round. Then there were the allegations of ointment Liston’s handlers had applied to his gloves that ended up in Clay’s eyes, impairing his vision. There were also unanswered questions about Liston’s poor performance in both fights -- stories about the “Phantom punch” in the second fight, and the long count by the referee.
Those are the facts about Sonny Liston, the man some call the greatest heavyweight of all time. A man whose life remained shrouded in controversy even after his retirement. Three months after his last fight his wife found him in his apartment in Las Vegas, dead from an apparent drug overdose at the age of 38.