By Jim Amato

Back in the sixties there was a popular song that had the lyrics “you’re a split personality, and in reality, both of them are you”. That song could have been written about Sonny Liston.

One writer wrote of Liston. “He has a fierce scowl; he also has a great smile.” Liston’s image of the stone faced ring killer and sullen silent guy outside of it is belied by the facts. Part of it was that Sonny Liston was a tough guy who, as he put it, “I aint much of a talking man” but he also had a long and happy marriage and enduring friendships with both black and white friends.

He raised his own children and was a guardian to others. Outside the ring Liston was a person of extreme contrasts. He only learned to read and write in his late twenties yet was often described as “brilliant” by those who knew him.

His wit and humor were often a startling surprise to those who came into contact with the “silent and sullen, intimidating” Liston, as one writer described him and as he indeed presented himself to reporters.

Inside the ring he was one of the greatest gifted heavyweights of all-time. However he was also noted for his odious one round KO by Muhammad Ali. He was one of boxing’s best fighters and one of its most interesting personalities as well. Sonny Liston was born Charles Liston in Saint Francis, Arkansas and exactly when, no one now really knows.

His father, a farm hand, had 25 children in two marriages and Sonny was just one of them scrambling in the poverty of his youth. The father was a drunk and brutal and beat the children; the mother was benign but overwhelmed and left the father for St Louis. At age 13, tired of working in the fields, and the daily beatings, Sonny took off for St Louis to find his mother. There was no school for Sonny in those days, he was neglected and he was not taught to read or write. There was no children’s protection agency for black children of poverty in the great depression. Many like Sonny just had to survive as they could if they could. Liston’s contact with authority figures in his formative years was either a brutal drunken father or the police. He grew to be a youth then a man who had a very strong anti-authority streak and presented that sullen, silent, intimidating part of his personality to anyone that tried to force him into being what he did not want to be or anyone who forced themselves on him .Newspaper reporters are by job description people that need to be pushers and “get the story” and for the most part got the cold shoulder from Liston .They in return tended to dislike Sonny. Few fighters ever got such bad press! Liston however brought a lot of it on himself. He had a prison record and multiple arrests. He ran with a bad crowd in St Louis and was clearly anti-social in his actions.

In prison he may have been saved by a caring priest and a huge boxing talent. He became the prison boxing champion acquired the nickname “sonny boy” later shortened to Sonny and was let out looking for a boxing career. He started out well winning armature titles got into the pros then back to prison he went!

Liston had assaulted a policeman who had rousted him for hanging out on a street corner. Liston could have just moved on but that would have meant bowing to authority and the pent up rages of youth would not permit that in him.

Finally out again Charles Sonny Liston began assaulting boxing opponents instead. His career stats are well known but let it just be said that his rise was exciting and successful. His reputation became awesome.

Top fighters lay prone in his path. Wayne Bethe was hit so hard in his first round KO by Sonny he lost several teeth. Big punching Mike Dejohn staggered Sonny with his punches that had a terrific kick. Sonny fought back and soon DeJohn was rolling over on his face.

Getting to the top fighting the world’s best heavyweights was no easy task. Sonny was working, and working hard. Many aspired to be the champion and wanted it as bad as Sonny did. There would be no easy way to the title. Sonny Liston would have to meet the best and make his claim to be worthy of a title chance unquestionably clear. It would be a goal easy to miss and Liston had few other options if he wanted a good life for he and Geraldine.

Oh yes Geraldine! Their life together was not something Liston talked about often. They were married in 1952 at a young age. Geraldine was a beautiful woman and loyal. Liston said of her in a rare interview” She was there when the going was rough. When I was in jail she came every visiting day, never missed.” Later when he was the champion he said of her” If I have to go away I bring her along. I want her with me all the time.” Geraldine seemed equally enthused saying that “I have always enjoyed being married to Charles”(as she called him.)
If you see pictures of Liston outside the gym or boxing ring you often see pictures of Geraldine by his side.

Sports Illustrated once sent a female reporter to interview Liston and he liked her and invited her in. Her article reflected the bantering and affection between the Listons. Geridine was well admired and people got a different slant on Liston when they realized he had the love of such a woman.

Liston was a jazz fan with a large record collection that he and Geridine would dance to. As Sonny put it “where I go she goes. and I tell you with her and the girls at home I really have something to fight for “and ” I want you to know about my wife because she is important to me”.

Boxing was the big chance for Sonny and it required dedication and hard work in abundance, and that Liston was willing to do. While training for a fight Sonny would not spare himelf. The floor around him would become wet with sweat as he skipped rope for nine straight minutes. Then he belabored the light bag and finally put on a a exhibition of tremendous power denting the heavy bag with huge shots. Sparing partners would be bloodied.

Liston forced himelf to eat nothing but nearly raw steak for 50 straight days in training to get into the right fighting mood for a big fight. Liston said “They take away the women and feed you raw meat and this puts you in a fighting mood. … and when the man in your corner says go in and kill them you do .”Sonny got a shot on National Television. The whole nation would see him. He could become a household word with a victory. The opponent was the problem. Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams was the dudes name and he was a fighter avoided like a virus. The thunder in Willimas fists had scored KO after KO in his fights! He looked like a black version of Max Baer and maybe hit even harder. He, like Liston, was a man on the rise. (note on this. Don’t be fooled by the Williams that fought Clay/Ali later . He was a mear shadow of this one as he had been nearly killed by a bullet, spent weeks in the hospital and had nothing left. This was Williams at his real peak.)

The Houston arena buzzed with excitment. There was a nationwide T.V. Most boxing fans agreeded, there could be only one conclusion a knockout. A dynamic no-holds barred fight was expected and it lived up to expectations. Sonny was in white trunks and at six feet one and 215 pounds not so much a tall heavyweight as one massively broad. Williams was taller almost six foot three and with even longer arms than Sonny.

On the outside with a reach advantage Williams struck first! Williams left hook,his best punch, battered Sonny to the ropes with a bloody nose. Both exchanged power shots that stunned and bewildered the other. It was a nerve shaking contest between two heavy hitting ringmen. Williams had landed more shots and had the edge in the first round.

After the first, Liston was told to stay inside William’s long reach. Liston told reporters later he had to take out Williams before he got taken out himself.

Round two Sonny came at Williams with speed, agility and a fighting fury. Williams met him head on and carried the fight right back to Sonny! Liston on the inside had the advantage and organized a brutal body assault that carried the second.

In round three both fighters began to throw blockbusters. Liston got inside and delivered a torrent of powerful blows and then a final left hook that lifted Cleve Williams off his feet and crumbled him to the canvas. Cleve lurched to his feet on the verge of defeat. Liston chased Cleve to a corner set his feet then landed some of the most terrible blows of any heavyweight ever.

It was frighting and as Williams fell his horrified corner-men tried to stop it. Fortunately the referee called a halt. This brutal exhibition was watched by Patterson’s manager Cus DeAmato and it was later said that is when he decided to never let his man “face that monster”.

The first fight was so good it was rematched. Again Liston applied a destructive technique and after a alarming Liston attack Williams went out in two.

Long green was coming the Listons way after these fights. Sonny bought a fine big car with a phone in it. Gereldine bought furniture. It was a far cry from a tarpaper shack and working in the fields. Sonny sent his mother money. Sonny Liston had wowed the boxing fans and people began to talk about why he did not have a title shot. There is a saying ‘Its better to be lucky than good”. Sonny Liston was good but he was not lucky. He could have received a title shot in 1959 and won the title.

He was at the door to the throne but that door would remain closed to him for three long years. Floyd Patterson was the heavyweight champion. He was considered a weak champ and not very popular. Patterson had ducked the best contenders Eddie Machen and Zora Folley. Liston was the man for him to fight to prove himself. However Ingo Johansson, the European champion, then flattened top contender Machen in one round and Patterson had a excuse to fight him not Liston for the title.

Ingo knocked Patterson down seven times and became champion. Ingo Johansson was the new Heavyweight champion. The dashing Swede was a popular champion and had to give Patterson a rematch.

Patterson won a historic fight, becoming the first ever to re-win the Heavyweight title. Then Ingo got a rematch. Patterson was the last man standing in their third fight and remained the champion. Three years of fights between the two and nobody else got a look in.

As one writer put it, “Sonny Liston the ogre, had to be content to knock over other contenders while awaiting the winner. Sonny was considered the best heavyweight in the world and he proved it by wiping out the heavyweight division in that time.

Lets look at some of his fights. Eddie Machen fled like a man in mortal fear and lasted the limit. He would be the only one that did. Zora Folley was a sleek classy heavyweight with trigger fists and a solid punch. He had a excellent record and had been rated at or near the top of the heavyweight division for years. He outboxed Sonny in round one . Then in round two apparently Zora started feeling frisky and fired some hard combinations and started to trade with Liston. Not a good idea. Folly was hit flush by the famous Liston left hook and suddenly Liston stood alone. Folly layed on the canvas and it was all over.

Roy Harris had gone twelve rounds with Patterson for the title. He had put Floyd on the deck and give a stirring account of himself. A win over Liston would lead to another title try for the Texas cowboy. As Liston told reporters after the fight. “That man said some pretty unkind things before the fight.” So Sonny went right after Harris. The first 30 seconds of round one was exciting for Roy Harris as he said he found Liston “easy to hit’. Then Liston lashed out with a single long left and Harris went down and took a count.

He staggered up dazed and glassy eyed and tried to carry on. Three Brutal knockdowns followed and it was all over in less than one full round. Liston’s comment on the man from Cut and shoot Texas was “The man was cut an shot!” Howard King tried. Liston unloaded everything and King went in three.

Albert Westfall the big blond German was an opponent. Albert circled Liston trying to use his long reach. Sonny threw a sledgehammer right that crumbled Westfall in a heap. Another first round KO without even working up a sweat.

Liston had become a riviting preformenr and the only contender that fans wanted to see in the ring with Patterson. Big Sonny outside the ring was having problems. Given his arrest for assaulting a police officer and his prison record he understood he would be a person of interest the Philidelipha cops. Its fair to say he was harassed .

One morning he was running doing his roadwork with sparing partners on the street by public golf course. A police car pulled him over and had him assume the position and frisked him and then gave him a ticket because they said he had trespassed as his foot had touched the golf course grass next to the sidewalk he was running on!

Stuff like that. Sonny Liston refused to remained cloistered . He went where he wanted. He had alot of activity going on.A black man in a fancy car living large . He moved at a jaunty pace answering his car phone with the words “your dime but my time talk up.”

Sonny was a recipient of some low blows in the press but it was the police harassment that drew sparks from him.

Sonny straight-ahead personality was no asset in this. As he put it; “If your going to understand the kind of man I am you got to get one thing straight. I say what I mean because I don’t know no other way. If I got something to say I dont pussyfoot around. I say it . Thats it.” As Listons career inside the ring grew to new levels that attitude and his fame created such a confrontation with Philly police that his management insisted he move to another city.

Sonny Liston never applied to anyone else’s rules but his own. He was feeling-his-oats ,a man released after a lifetime of being down. If the living was good the company he chose was sometimes bad, and some of the choices worse.

One incident almost dead-ended his career. He was arrested and convicted for of all things impersonating a police officer! New York state banned him from boxing for that one and they made the ban stick. Liston reapplied for his license in New York and was turned down. A photo shows him flushed with anger the turn-downpapers in his hand.

Pattersons manager Cus D^Amato wanted no part of Sonny in a title fight. A shrewed judge of talent he knew what was likely to happen. De^Amato used Listons arrest as the excuse to avoid him.

Liston a man of direct action, arrived unannounced one day at De^Amatos office in New York. At the sight of the angry awesome hulk coming through his door unexpectly, De^Amato was heard to gasp “Oh my god” and it was feared that De^Amato who had heart problems would have an attack.

Liston got right to the point “Is you is or is you ain^t giving me a shot at the title.” Of course Liston could have been blessed by the pope and De^Amato would have never let Patterson fight him. It could have been over for Sonny at that point but then his luck turned.

Floyd Patterson changed his mind about boxing Liston when at a visit to the White House to meet President Kennedy JFK made a remark that the two should fight. The proud Patterson was embarrassed by the Presidents comment and so decided that he had to fight Liston no matter the risk.

So over De^Amatos protests the big fight was going to happen! The newspapers predicted a giant crowd would show up at the outdoor stadium in Chicago. The event proved a magnet for boxing traders. Heavyweights of writing and politics and entertainment were in attendance. Hotel lobbies were packed with fans talking it up. Everybody reveled in the big fight atmosphere. It was a extravaganza.Closed circuit venues were declared full or near full.

A scowling Sonny Liston was led to the ring amid a torrent of Boos. Tremdous cheers for Patterson! Crouched in the darkness looking up at the red roped ring, fans discussed Patterson’s stragety. He would stay low, move in with his fast handed punches then dodge away or he would attack with expertly executed punches that would just overwhelm Sonny with their speed.

The odds makers, who have to go with their heads, favored Liston to win. The fans, Patterson.

The atmosphere was indescribable. Patterson fans sensed he was somehow going to win. The bell rang. Liston’s fists crashed into Patterson. Patterson took a 10 count.

Listons huge arm was hoisted aloft by the referee and he was the heavyweight champion of the world in 2:06 of the first.

What the hell just happened Cried one reporter from ringside?. Is it really all over? Yelled another. It was the fastest KO of a heavyweight title holder in history.

Liston was going through the shocked crowd back to his dressing room as people were still asking what happened. A Shell-shocked Floyd Patterson was in the ring being attended to. Charles “Sonny” Liston was now the heavyweight champion of the world.

Ted Luzzi

Filed under: Boxing


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