Charles Liston, the man, was an enigma. Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion from 1962-1964, was a 215 lb tank, with a booming cannon for a left arm. Liston (50-4, 39 KO) was a knockout artist who violently stopped most of his opponents, but not in the free-swinging mauler vein of Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey. His very deliberate, stalking style featured a jab that could break noses. He was an immovable object in the ring, when he stepped forward, either you stepped back or stepped aside. He moved nimbly and assuredly, and often finished the job with a thunderous left hook. There was precision and economy in every move.
Outside of the ring, Liston wasn't exactly warmly embraced by the public. A surly demeanor, a past that included a two-year stint in prison for armed robbery, and rumored mafia associations gave Sonny a dark stigma, a contrast to the all-around good guy image of previous champ Floyd Patterson. In another era, Liston might have attained the ‘beloved' status most American heavyweight champions are afforded. In his time, he was resigned to the villain role. His famed shortness of speech didn't help matters. Whatever complexities lurked beneath that brooding façade, he was unable to fully convey them within the limits of verbal expression, and the public/media wasn't interested or aggressive enough to uncover them, at least not in his time. The stock story of Liston as shady gangster-type remained the perception throughout his career.
James Baldwin, literary titan, was commissioned to write a piece on the Liston-Patterson heavyweight championship fight in 1962 for Nugget magazine. It's one of the most interesting and compelling short-form boxing essays I've ever read. If only Baldwin had done ‘The Rumble in the Jungle', we wouldn't have had to sludge through all that Norman Mailer crap. Baldwin nails the dynamics of the fighters in a way the mainstream boxing media just isn't capable of. He tears down the myth of Liston in approximately three paragraphs. He makes clear: "Liston is not a stupid man." He also notes, rather sadly in retrospect, that Sonny had greater aspirations of community service and social leadership. He believed he could be an inspiration, a model of a troubled kid who worked hard and made something of his life. Liston has no more sordid a back-story than Bernard Hopkins or James Kirkland.
Today, the story of Hopkins is seen as inspiring. In the tense backdrop of the 1960s culture wars, Liston was toxic.
Well the public need not have feared because Liston's reign at champion was to be a brutally short one. He amassed one successful defense before succumbing to Ali, then Cassius Clay, by seventh round TKO in one of the wackiest, most entertaining fights in heavyweight history. The meeting in Miami Beach is legendary on so many levels. Classic styles clash, crazy controversies, Ali's wizardry in prime form, bizarre ending, and an absolute circus in the ring afterwards, led by Ali with a boisterous post-fight rant of almost delusional bravado that would make old "Money" Mayweather blush.
There was, of course, an ill-fated rematch in Lewiston, Maine. The second Ali-Liston fight, all 90 seconds of it, is notable for the famed "phantom punch". It's hard to imagine the Sonny Liston who demolished Patterson and so many others being felled by the grazing shot that did him in, but it happened. Was it a dive? How would I know?
I prefer to think of Liston as the beast who terrorized the division for years during the vapid reigns of Patterson and Ingemar Johannson. The man who absolutely obliterated the skilled, but fragile, Patterson when he finally got his chance. Okay, the Patterson-Johannson trilogy was epic in its' own right. But the most compelling heavyweight of that era was Liston, no contest. Here are four vintage performances from the prime of Sonny Liston:
March 21, 1960
Sonny Liston vs. Cleveland Williams, Round 2
Cleveland Williams was a big heavyweight for the era, 6'3 and a solid 220. Liston was big too. He wasn't tall but he was thick, a chiseled 6'0, 215. Williams starts aggressively, seeking to avenge a third-round knockout loss the year before. He's throwing big shots and Liston absorbs the punishment admirably, blocking most of the flurry. Liston eventually does what he does best: backs him off with the jab, sets him up with a right, and cracks him with a left hook. Williams crashes the canvas, which probably wakes him up as he literally shakes the cobwebs from his head. He somehow stumbles to his feet and these were the days when you pretty much had to be unconscious or dead for the ref to stop it. Williams is barely standing, half leaning on the ropes with a dazed, distant look, but the ref picks up his hands and signals to carry on. Liston is all over him, battering the hell out of him with huge shots to the body and head. Williams hits the deck, this time for good. The early moments of the round display Liston's underrated defense, the final moments his explosive tendency of ending fights early.
April 25, 1960
Sonny Liston vs. Roy Harris, Round 1
Just a month later, Liston was back at it, facing Roy Harris, a solid contender whose only loss was at the hands of the champion, Patterson. One has to note, this was the vacuum between Marciano and Ali, not known as the heavyweight division's finest moment. For one thing, just look at Harris in there against Liston. The official weights showed a seventeen pound difference, the eyes wouldn't have been shocked if it was fifty. This was an age when the best heavyweights, including the champion Patterson, would probably have been light-heavyweights in the modern era. Patterson weighed below 190 for the majority of his reign. Harris was not much bigger, and for whatever reason actually looked smaller than the more muscled Patterson. Compared to Liston, Harris looked like mincemeat, which he shortly became. Too game for his own good, Harris was victimized by Liston's monster left hook for a rough knockdown early on. He arose (they just don't make em like they used to, very few guys get up from punches like that these days) but he never recovered and two knockdowns later "he gone!"
December 4, 1961
Sonny Liston vs. Albert Westphal, Round 1
Four fights after bludgeoning Harris, Liston found himself matched up against one-time German heavyweight champion, Albert Westphal. With a touch of Rutger Hauer from Bladerunner, the Aryan strongman turned in a comical performance reminiscent of some of Mike Tyson's freaked out opponents, mentally defeated before entering the ring. Operating from an extreme crouch that made him about three feet tall, Westphal skipped around lunging punches for about a minute before just outright fleeing from Liston. Unfortunately, this was a boxing ring not a track, and Liston found him with a brutal left-right combination to the head that put the blonde bomber to sleep.
September 25, 1962
Sonny Liston vs. Floyd Patterson, Round 1
Patterson was the first man to lose the heavyweight championship and regain it. He did so with one of the most memorable knockouts of all time, a chilling devastation of Ingemar Johannson, featuring the infamous leg twitch from the victim. Patterson was also known as a true gentleman, one of the classiest guys in and out of the ring. That was never more publicly apparent than when he refused to celebrate regaining his title until he was sure Johansson hadn't been seriously hurt. Patterson was also an extremely small heavyweight as mentioned above, and he was known for a particularly tender chin.
Many insiders expected, and feared, a demolition. Patterson was a great boxer, very slick, and a good puncher. But Liston was a genuine monster in the ring. Those fears were confirmed rather quickly when after about ninety seconds of tension, Sonny sucked the air out of the room when he framed Patterson with a wicked left. Patterson, hurt, tangled himself in the ropes and Liston pounced, unleashing and catching the champion with a signature left hook to the jaw. Patterson went down, kind of got in position to beat the count, but never quite did. He was obviously dazed. He had also just tasted the significant power of much stronger man and probably realized that resistance would be futile.
Liston would defend his crown once, in a rematch with Patterson that predictably played out much like the first edition, only faster. Then came Miami. Liston will always be remembered for his two losses to Ali. The dubious events of Miami and Lewiston will always be attached to the legacy of Sonny Liston. If you take a cynical view, he basically pulled a Roberto Duran quit-job and followed it up with a Paul Briggs special. But he should also be remembered, at his peak, as one of the biggest punchers, toughest guys, and most unstoppable forces the division has ever seen.