Big Bad Sonny Liston would go down as the unwanted champion of the mob and #1 ogre of the ring. I hated him. But now I wish I had been nice to him. But how could I have ever hated a man I had never met?
In a way I did meet him. That was on June 6, 1958, and I was 11 years old that night Big Bad Sonny Liston glowered over me. That was the night Virgil Atkins knocked out Victor Martinez for the Welterweight boxing title at Kiel Auditorium . My step grandfather had been teaching me how box since I was 10. So I had a year of practice trying to spin a speed bag with my elbows before he took me to St. Louis to watch the title fight. Atkins was a hometown boy from St. Louis. Since Grandpa Timmerman and I were both living just 40 miles from St. Louis and Kiel Auditorium was hosting professional fights in those days, my seventy year old mentor had decided he just had to take me to the Atkins–Martinez fight.
Big Bad Sonny Liston scared me to death
Sitting directly behind me was a big black man. The man did not smile. He had no friends near him. It took just one look from his impassive eyes to scare the hell out of me. Grandpa soon explained that the big monster sitting just three feet behind me was none other than Big Bad Sonny Liston. “He will be the next heavyweight champion of the world,” Grandpa told me.
Eldridge Clever’s Field Niggers and House Niggers
Back in those days to my unschooled eleven year old brain there were two kinds of black men in the U.S. There were the bad guy black men who Eldridge Clever would call field niggers in his masterpiece, “Soul on Ice” and there were the house niggers. To some Eldridge Clever was akin to a terrorist. But so was Malcom X and it was Malcom X who first started the field nigger house nigger comparisons. Later I’d love them both–Eldridge Clever and Malcom X.
However, my new attitude would not come until much later when I got into my twenties and started having a few black friends. But when I was 11 there were only two kinds of blacks. The polite ones who knew their place and the rebellious blacks, who didn’t. In other words–field niggers. And Big Bad Sonny Liston was most definitely the most terrifying field nigger of them all.
That night when Atkins knocked out Victor Martinez, Liston nearly knocked me down as he got up to leave Kiel in a big hurry. Anyway, it seemed to me that he almost knocked me down. But that was my simpleton 11 year old mind telling me that. Much later on I’d learn to truly appreciate men like Eldridge Clever and Malcom X.
Only a few months later Virgil Atkins would lose his welterweight title to Don Jordan as I watched the whole sorry episode on television. Compared to Liston, Atkins was pretty clean cut. I’d start to explore the singularities between the two boxers only one week ago. But I’ll get into such similarities later.
Floyd Patterson was a much more acceptable black man than Big Bad Sonny Liston
But in 1962, it would be Floyd Patterson (who a lot of Eldridge Clever types would call an Uncle Tom black man) and Big Bad Sonny Liston, who later Muhammad Ali would call “the Big Ugly Bear”. To me, Floyd Patterson was an acceptable black man. Floyd Patterson was polite and as heavyweight champions go, small, weighing just 190 pounds. He was essentially a slightly beefed up light heavyweight. Patterson had been good enough to knock out the legendary Archie Moore who is oftentimes called the greatest light heavyweight of all time, and he had beaten several other good fighters. But a true heavyweight he wasn’t.
But Big Bad Sonny Liston was. And whereas Floyd Patterson was often accused of ducking the best heavyweights to preserve his heavyweight crown, Liston took them all on. There was no way Patterson could beat Liston Grandpa Timmerman kept telling me.
Back then Liston had just about the longest reach in boxing. He had the biggest fists on record. At his prime fighting weight he fought at around 215 so right there he had 25 pounds over Patterson.
He got his initial boxing training at the Missouri State Penitentiary, after becoming infamous throughout St Louis as a hoodlum who was much hated by the police.
Henry Cooper, the British champion, said he would be interested in a title fight if Clay won, but he was not going to get in the ring with Liston. Cooper’s manager, Jim Wicks, said, “We don’t even want to meet Liston walking down the same street.” (Wikipedia Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston)
Big Bad Sonny Liston could just look at a man and make him feel 2 feet tall
Boxing promoter Harold Conrad said, “People talked about [Mike] Tyson before he got beat, but Liston was more ferocious, more indestructible….When Sonny gave you the evil eye—I don’t care who you were—you shrunk to two feet tall. (Wikipedia Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston)
Which is exactly how I felt that night I was 11 years old and met Liston. Liston was Count Dracula, the man eating Anaconda, and the Terminator all rolled into one. Nothing could stop him, Grandfather Timmerman kept telling me. By the time Sonny knocked Floyd Patterson out in the first round and knocked out Patterson a second time in the first round of the rematch I knew that my grandfather was right.
And then along came Clay
But a new heavyweight rapidly came onto the boxing scene. The new man taking the limelight was Cassius Clay, a gifted, tremendously fast loudmouth known as the Louisville Lip. Patterson had proven to be hopelessly outclassed by the unstoppable Big Bad Sonny Liston human wrecking machine. But at a mere 190 pounds he just wasn’t big enough to have a fighting chance against one of the heaviest punchers the ring had ever known. And Liston wasn’t too slow either, having one of the best jabs in the fight game. But Clay was three inches taller than Patterson, who at six foot three was even taller than Liston. At his prime Clay fought at 210 which was within 5 pounds of Liston’s best fighting weight.
Hardly anyone thought Clay had a chance. The odds makers pitted him as a 7 to 1 underdog. What the world didn’t know back then was that Clay had an iron jaw, unequaled courage, an unquenchable desire to win, and the fastest hand speed the heavyweight division had ever seen.
Big Bad Sonny Liston was owned by the mob
But Liston had been a hoodlum. He had been owned by the mob. This is something he had in common with the other homegrown St. Louis boxer, Virgil Atkins. Was he still owned by the mob? He had reputedly been owned by the worse names in organized crime. Men such as Frank Carbo of Murder Incorporated for example.
Clay won the fight with Liston mysteriously quitting after the sixth round. Liston claimed he had injured his shoulder in the first round and that by the end of the sixth round he could no longer fight. Also…a couple of rounds earlier something got into Clay’s eyes. It is said that Liston’s ring handlers had put ointment on either his gloves or shoulders. Whatever happened, Clay fought more than an entire round almost blind, and Liston was unable to capitalize on his nearly helpless opponent.
Perhaps this is why Liston never came out after the sixth round. He couldn’t even put away a blind man. But the blind man was Cassius Clay who would soon announce his membership in the Islam nation and become Muhammad Ali. I will always contend that Ali was the greatest.
Liston knocked out by mysterious Phantom Punch
The rematch ended in the first round with Ali scoring a knockout against the indestructible Liston. The punch that took Liston out was so fast that many didn’t see it. Rocky Marciano, who observed the fight from ringside later said that the punch that many felt would hardly hurt a bantamweight, was delivered so fast that even the camera could not pick up how Ali had accelerated the blow in its last 6 inches of travel. The punch whether really hard enough to take a tough guy like Liston out or not became infamously known as the Phantom Punch.
So let’s take all the horseshit out about organized crime paying Liston to make a dive or Liston betting against himself to make an easy million or two. I’ll tell you what I really think. Muhammad Ali really was the greatest. I don’t think he ever was credited with having all the punching power that he possessed. There’s many fights I’ve seen on you tube where I can’t see the knockout blow actually being delivered, even in slow motion. I can also say that I’ve been in a few fights myself when I’ve knocked down my opponent but I felt he had slipped. I’d have people around me tell me I had knocked the man down with my fists but I had never felt a thing and had believed I had never punched my opponent at all.
Death of Big Bad Sonny Liston
Things would not end well for Liston. A few years later he was found dead in a hotel room with syringes and heroin scattered throughout the room. Obviously he had been a heroin addict. The problem was, Liston had always been deathly afraid of needles.
Recently my opinion of Sonny Liston has changed. For one thing, I have learned that he loved children. So I’m sure that had I been friendly that night I saw him at the Atkins fight, he would have made a very positive impression on me. He was given a lot of bad press as Big Bad Sonny Liston. Among other things he was constantly in trouble with the St. Louis Police department. But I had gotten it all turned around. It was the police who were constantly the instigators. They persecuted him mercilessly.
And he had a wonderful sense of humor
Once he said, “If I ever get the electric chair, I want my manager to get half the juice.”
He couldn’t read, but he was a common sense kind of guy, with a direct way of putting things. After he knocked out Patterson the second time in the first round, a reporter asked Liston: “Did Patterson fight better the second time?”
Liston replied, “Didn’t you see the fight?”
When he was asked whether nor not Patterson should retire, Liston replied:
“Who am I to tell a bird he can’t fly.”
Another time he was asked how long he hoped to retain the title. Liston replied,
“That’s like asking God how long you want to live–as long as I can.”
In an event leading up to his first fight with Cassius Clay, Liston urinated on a copy of “Time Magazine” that had Clay’s picture on the front cover. In the middle of Las Vegas in broad daylight no less.
Now I don’t know about the rest of you reading this, but the more I read about Liston, the more I like his particular brand of humor.
Anticipating his upcoming first fight with Clay, Liston remarked,
“I’m liable to be locked up for murder if I fight him.”
He was an inveterate practical joker. Once he used an electrical buzzer on a cop as he started to shake the officer’s hand. He had to pay hundreds of dollars of fines and court costs afterwards but for Sonny, the prank had been well worth it. He used to carry a double headed quarter with him at all times.
But Big Bad Sonny Liston was still an ex con who kept getting in scrapes with the police,
and that’s what I kept hearing in the media.
The more I keep reading about him the more I like him. Then of course there’s all those links to organized crime. But back in his time, professional boxing was nearly totally controlled by organized crime. In those times about the only way you could get to the top was to go through the mob. Very few top fighters were able to escape being connected on one level or another with the underworld.
Then there’s that last enduring image of him dying from a heroin overdose. Except practically everyone who knew him said he was afraid of needles. Some say he had a heart attack. Others claim he was murdered by either his mob connections or other unsavory types he might have crossed.
Joe Louis called Big Bad Sonny Liston the greatest heavyweight of them all. But he lost twice to Muhammad Ali who fought Liston under his slave name Cassius Clay. There’s a lot of controversy about both fights. And even if he hadn’t thrown either one, he was still forty at the time of his rematch although his given age was more like 32. And forty year old fighters very rarely win heavyweight titles nor do they successfully defend them. So how good was Liston really?
Just watch the you tube videos I’ve listed below and judge for yourself.
Sonny Liston vs Cleveland Williams II–March 21, 1960
Liston vs Eddie Machen–September 7, 1960 Eddie Machen was one of the few fighters to go the distance with Liston. Machen felt that he had Liston’s number and knew how to beat him. Well–almost. But almost only counts in horse shoes.
Liston vs Albert Westphal–December 4, 1961
An easy victory for Liston?
Liston vs Patterson 1–September 25, 1962 He would have been a great fighter had he been a light heavyweight. But after allegedly ducking the cream of the heavyweight division, Floyd finally had to face reality in the form of Sonny Liston–a reality that had most likely been Floyd’s worse nightmare.
Liston vs Patterson 2-– the rematch Once again Liston demolishes Patterson in just one round. This time it takes one minute and fifty seconds
But now look at this one. It’s August 6, 1958 when Liston knocks Wayne Bethea out in the first round.
In 1958 when he defeats Burt Winehurst by knocking him out of the ring in the 10th round as the bell sounds on the count of nine.
Sonny Liston vs Cleveland Williams I–April 15, 1959 Cleveland Williams was one of the heaviest punchers in the ring when Liston was in his prime.
It’s December 9, 1959 when he TKO’s Willi Besmanoff in 6 rounds
In 1960 when Liston knocks out Roy Harris in the first round.
I see another Liston here.
Is this the man Joe Louis called, “The Best Heavyweight of all time?”
When for many Joe Louis was the best of all? This is before Big Bad Sonny Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson in their two title fights, twice in the first round. In my opinion Sonny Liston hit his prime during these years before the Patterson bouts that brought him the heavyweight crown. By the time he fought Patterson he was already starting to show his age, which was reputedly around 40 when he first faced Clay.
I wish I had spoken out to him back at Kiel Auditorium. There is too much that has been said about the other side of Sonny Liston. And he loved kids, both white and black.