The first time I saw Sonny Liston was on the cover of the December 1961 edition
(35 cents!)of Boxing Illustrated. He was in a fighting pose and was wearing black Everlast speed bag gloves. He was also wearing a scowling, menacing look. He glared at me from that cover, like he was mad at me personally. Liston was the number one heavyweight contender for Floyd Patterson’s heavyweight championship. Since that issue, Liston has remained the most intriguing and compelling athlete I’ve ever seen in some fifty five years of following major sports. That covers hundreds of great athletes, including Sandy Koufax, Joe Montana, George Foreman and the greatest athlete I ever saw in any sport: Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali.
Liston was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in the early 1930’s. No one knows the exact year. At age fourteen he escaped to St. Louis from his share cropping family which included his parents plus twelve brothers and sisters. His often liquored-up father had regularly used him as a punching bag. To say that Sonny gravitated to the wrong crowd in St. Louis is an understatement. Soon the hulking youth developed into a formidable street mugger and armed robber and was eventually sentenced to five years in Missouri State Penitentiary. It was in the University of Detention where he learned how to box, earning a masters degree in jaw-breaking and rib crushing. In 1956, he assaulted a cop and did six months.
Upon his release, he hooked up with mobsters Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, securing part-time employment as part of their shakedown and enforcement teams. He soon started climbing up the professional heavyweight ladder during the mid to late fifties, scoring impressive knock outs, usually early round, over rated fighters. One of his managers during this run of victories was mob appointed Joe Barone. Interestingly, his management team regularly matched him with tough fighters with hard punches. Liston could deliver and take, a tremendous punch.
Floyd was rather small for a heavyweight. At five feet eleven inches, he weighed between a hundred eighty five and a hundred ninety . Cus D’Amato, Patterson’s manager, made certain that Floyd stayed clear of Liston and several other hard hitting heavyweights. Liston weighed around two eighteen, some twenty five pounds heavier than Patterson. Sonny also had a tremendous reach advantage over Floyd But that was not the most remarkable difference between the two. While Patterson had fast hands and a decent left hook, Liston was a murderous hitter with either hand. Rib-cracking body shots. A right cross that would have you seeing five referees counting over you. And an uppercut that could send your mandible where your cranium was. Even when his punches landed on the arms, opponents complained of pain and soreness for weeks afterwards. Liston had fourteen inch fists. Sports Illustrated writer Mort Sharnic described them as ‘two cannon balls made into fists’. He also possessed a left jab that was described by many who fought him as if being hit with the butt end of a telephone pole. No doubt, the best left jab in heavyweight history, aided by an incredible plus eighty inch reach. Many still rate the prime Liston of 1958-1962 as one of the best heavyweights of all time. Certainly the best or second best puncher in the last hundred twenty years.
As if these endowments weren’t enough. During the referee’s pre-fight instructions in the center of the ring, Liston would stand, Reddish beside him, about two inches from the other fighter. I can still see it on television. Nose to nose. Sonny is wearing his customary white hooded terrycloth robe. His dark face is surrounded by white. The guy made Darth Vader look like a pink cupcake. He then would shake-down the other fighter with his jungle-like predators eyes. Sonny would mug him and take away his courage before the bell even rang. As his opponent walked back to his corner to await the bell, his legs were already a little wobbly.
Most impressive of Liston’s wins were his two demolitions of highly rated Houston heavyweight Cleveland Williams, 1959-60. ‘Big Cat’ Williams was a ferocious hitter with fast hands. Many fighters had ducked him. After taking some heavy punishment from William’s early assaults, Liston caught up with him, pole-axing and starching* the Big Cat in rounds two and three, respectively. One could only imagine what Patterson might’ve been thinking had he witnessed these demolitions. Check it out on You Tube. Liston Williams. One and Two.
In the high school where I went there were a few ‘Sonny’s. ’ Nobody, black or white, messed with this incarnation. They were built like grown men while in ninth and tenth grade, though they might’ve been left back a grade or two. Rumours flew that that one drove a milk truck before school or that another had three kids. They would shake you down for change on the stairwell. “Let me hold a quarter” they’d say. Horsing around in gym class, they could fracture your breastbone with a playful punch. They had that look that said ‘share something with me’. ‘Be my friend, you are my friend, and friends lend money to friends’.
Liston would do his speed bag, heavy-bag and rope skipping to James Brown’s Night Train with his head trainer, the beret-topped Willie Reddish, looking on.
“All aboard for the night train / Miami, Florida/ Atlanta, Georgia / Raleigh, North Carolina /Washington D.C. Oh, and Richmond, Virginia too/Baltimore, Maryland / Philadelphia New York City / Take it home And don’t forget New Orleans / The home of the blues /Oh, yeah, night train Night train, night train”
I’ve been to a few of those cities, and many others. Invariably the train or Greyhound bus I rode on entered the city from the poor side of town. Usually places where the Liston’s of the City hung out or were raised in. Sometimes I think I’m part black, because I can feel the rhythm in that song with a rare intensity. I can hear the crickets. I swat at mosquito’s that aren’t there. See the red lights and hear the sirens of the Man. Especially the hot summer city. Especially the night city. Especially the Southern city. This all is The Essence of Liston. Considering the milieu that Sonny came from, the Arkansas sharecroppers farm, the streets, the prison, the bullet invested world of the mob, facing a fighter who wanted to take his head off was like a vacation. “I’ll have another Daiquiri while I break this guy’s ribs with a body shot” “Ah, feels good to finally relax now, the bell is about to ring”
Patterson was articulate and sensitive. He didn’t talk like a fighter. He often sounded apologetic after beating an opponent. But he was a great fighter and he loved being a fighter. But he was better suited against fighters his own size. And he did very well against light-punching fighters. The anti-climactic results: Liston destroyed Patterson, first in Chicago in 1962, then in Las Vegas the following year. Both were first round knockouts.
In 1964, in one of the greatest upsets in ring history, Liston was stopped by Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, Liston failing to answer the bell for the seventh round. The odds for that fight were seven to one, Liston. Maybe Sonny had too many early round knockouts. Maybe he aged all at once. But could Clay/Ali have beaten the 1959 Liston? Maybe, maybe not. In 1974, in yet another huge upset, Ali knocked out George Foreman in the eighth round. The way I figure it, Ali remains the greatest heavyweight who ever lived. The only heavyweight to have beaten huge odds twice against tremendous punchers to win the title. Foreman was considered to be another Liston by many – a bigger and taller version with as much, if not more, punching power. I rate him the second or third greatest heavyweight in history. But neither had the essence, mystique, history or ability to chill the spine of other fighters quite like Charles Sonny Liston. The Night Train fighter.
It has recently been suggested that there is not enough character dialogue in my writing. This by someone very close and important to me as it gets. Also, the fact that I’ve always thought it would be great to interview Sonny Liston, here goes:
TB Sonny, I thought you were underrated, all-time.
TB It must have been tough being the son of a sharecropper.
SL Yeah. The only thing my father gave me was a beating.
TB Why did you look so mean during the referee’s instructions?
SL Cause the other fighter wanted something from me and I didn’t want to give him nothing. I wasn’t there to tap dance for him.
TB What was it like as a teenager on the streets of St. Louis?
SL Not as bad as the farm in Arkansas. I didn’t have any money then.
TB But you mugged people in St. Louis. You robbed them, using a gun.
SL That’s right. I was hungry. Plus I wanted to get even.
TB Get even? With who?
SL With life, cause the dice I was handed early on in life never won me anything.
TB What was prison like?
SL It was tough at first. But I got used to it. Boxing saved me from going crazy.
TB Did that somehow make things easier in the professional ring?
SL Yeah. That was easy compared to having guards watching me all the time
and cons asking for favours.
TB What happened in the first Clay fight? You said it was a shoulder injury, that you couldn’t go on.
SL I just said that. Clay was too fast. Too smart. He wasn’t afraid of me, like the others.
TB I have to ask this question. How was it working on the Braniff Airlines commercial with Andy Warhole?
SL It was ok. But we had to do it over and over again (laughs)
Warhole made me laugh too much.
TB So what do you think of Foreman and Tyson? Could you have beaten them in your prime?
SL Foreman was like me. Strong and he didn’t mess around. Somebody would go down, probably in a late round. Probably him. (Laughs)
TB And Tyson?
SL Tyson is crazy. He might bite my ear off. (laughs again) But he comes right at a fighter. That’s dangerous with me.
TB How did you die, Sonny? There was a lot of mystery surrounding your death.
SL It was an overdose of heroin.
TB Any regrets Sonny?
SL Yeah. I could’ve made some people happier. Especially kids. I should’ve gave them more time. Street kids like me.
TB Sometimes, I saw that in your eyes. Thanks for talking with me, Sonny.
SL Your welcome.
*Common boxing slang terms.
Stunned, as if hit with a poleaxe. / Starched, like a stiff shirt, not moving.