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Mon Dec 30, 2013, 09:07 PM

Charles "Sonny" Liston

Former heavyweight champion Charles "Sonny" Liston is believed to have died on this day in 1970. The exact date of his death is, like that of his birth, unknown. He was an enigma, even in the curious sport of boxing. In my opinion, he ranks high among boxing's all-time great heavyweight champions, with Ali at #1, Joe Louis at #2, followed closely by Liston. When Liston won the title, the majority of boxing writers compared him to Louis; it was his two loses to Ali -- and Ali's domination of the sport -- that overshadowed Sonny's career.

Liston's father was a sharecropper who had fathered 13 children with his first wife in the early 1900s. He re-married when he was in his mid-50s (to a 16-year old), and had another dozen children. Charles was reportedly the last-born, and although different records (mainly from jail and prison) indicate he was born by 1930.

By the age of approximately 12, Liston was "man-sized" -- standing close to 6 feet tall, and weighing close to 200 pounds. Around that age, he ran away from his father's home, to avoid the violent beatings his father routinely administered. Coming north, the man-child found he could best survive by serving as an enforcer for street gangs, and the lower rungs of organized crime. He accumulated quite a police record as a minor, and was in and out of jail frequently.

Liston graduated to state prison when, cornered by a police officer in a dark alley, he disarmed the cop, broke both of his arms, and stuffed him into a garbage can. While in prison, he learned to box. A Catholic priest who counseled inmates found that Liston, while illiterate, was actually very intelligent. That priest would help guide Liston's amateur and professional boxing career. (In response to charges that Liston was "owned" by the mob, the priest noted that these were the only people who would invest in a young man like Sonny.)

His amateur career lasted about one year. Liston quickly became recognized as one of the top three amateur heavyweights in the world. Indeed, with proper backing, he would certainly have become an Olympic champion. But boxing, reflecting society's values, was not ready to welcome Sonny Liston with open arms.

When Liston turned pro in 1953, Rocky Marciano held the title. A promoter offered "the Rock" big money to face Liston in his pro debut; Marciano declined the offer. (After Liston won the title, Rocky was offered $1 million to come out of retirement to fight him. Rocky's response was, "Are you crazy? You fight him!" Sonny would rise in the ranks in the next few years, defeating most of the top contenders of the era. Ali's future trainer, Angelo Dundee, told of watching Liston break opponents' teeth off with his left jab.

Floyd Patterson won the vacant title after Rocky retired. His trainer/manager, Cus D'Amato, was famous for not doing business with what he considered the mob. That was, of course, not the only reason he had Floyd avoid facing Liston. Eventually, Floyd and Cus parted ways, and Floyd opted to defend the title against the #1 challenger. President John Kennedy invited Patterson to the White House, and told him it was essential that he defeat Liston. But that didn't happen: Sonny destroyed Floyd in the first round, and did it again in their rematch.

In his second defense, he fought the undefeated contender Cassius Clay, and was TKOed in seven rounds. The scheduled rematch would be delayed, because the now Muhammad Ali had a hernia. Reporter Howard Cosell had, after visiting Liston's training camp before the originally scheduled date, felt that Liston was in great shape, and favored him to beat Ali. The delay harmed Liston, which is evidence of an aging fighter. He would be TKOed in the return bout in the first round, due to the referee's confusion.

Liston had a successful comeback after that, but promoters refused to include him in their title searches after Ali's forced retirement. But his career is remembered best for the losses to Ali.

In truth, his prime came before he even won the title. He had nine bouts in 1959-60, and the films of those bouts suggest that he likely would have beaten anyone, except Ali and possibly the great Joe Louis. Styles make fights, and I can't see many of the greats who could have competed with Liston in his prime. Yet he remains the sport's forgotten champion.

RIP, Champ.

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Reply Charles "Sonny" Liston (Original post)
H2O Man Dec 2013 OP
nomorenomore08 Dec 2013 #1

Response to H2O Man (Original post)

Tue Dec 31, 2013, 05:05 AM

1. I'm not the biggest boxing fan, but Liston had one hell of a life story.

Sad, I agree, that he seems relatively forgotten in an era of arguably inferior boxers.

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