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Articles of 2009

The Liston Chronicles, Part 2: Setting Sonny



“Though the fury's hot and hard
I still see that cold graveyard
There's a solitary stone that's got your name on.”

~Elvis Costello, “Complicated Shadows”

“LISTON” was spelled out on the back of the heavyweight champion’s robe as he walked into the weigh-in before his second title defense. Behind the lettering was the image of a sun. A setting sun.

Sonny Liston had every reason to be confident on the night of February 25, 1964. He was an eight-to-one favorite to defeat Cassius Clay. “The loud mouth from Louisville,” declared the New York Times, “is likely to have a lot of vainglorious boasts jammed down his throat by a ham-like fist.” That was an echo of the opinion of nearly everyone paying attention. Even the Nation of Islam was reluctant to get too involved on behalf of their recent convert. Elijah Muhammad himself believed that it was “impossible” for Clay to beat Liston. Malcolm X did not, and offered religious-based counsel to the jittery challenger, and then defied Elijah Muhammad by attending the fight in Miami.

He didn’t know it yet, but Liston had already made the mistake common to legions of history’s strong men. The mistake was hubris. His contempt for the skills of Cassius Clay was as pronounced as his training was casual. He drank wine and snacked on potato chips. Liston was prepared only to go the two or three rounds he figured it would take to cash in on Cassius –no more, no less.

The Liston training camp revolved around the whims and moods of Liston. Everyone, including his trainer Willie Reddish, was told what to do and when to do it. Liston listened to no one except James Brown singing “Night Train”. The only exceptions were a Roman Catholic priest who befriended him in prison and the only hero he ever acknowledged –Joe Louis. Apparently, Louis never told Liston the story of his own lackadaisical training that brought about his first loss against Max Schmeling. Nor did the priest open the book of Samuel in Sonny’s presence. Had he done so, the champion may have remembered that it was a mere stone in the sling of a youth that felled Goliath.

No less was the speed of an arrow in the bow of a youth that slew Richard the Lionheart.

Liston looked at Clay and saw a mere stone in his shoe, expecting to parry his arrows as if they were shot by Cupid.

And so it went that a twenty-two year old upstart fought like a mighty archer on wheels; And Liston’s clay feet followed wearily as the rounds sailed past the third. The new old king learned the hard way that hubris blinds a man more than the astringent his corner may or may not have put on his gloves before the fourth round. Liston refused to come out for the seventh round. That was that. Cassius Clay became the new champion, shocking the world and bouncing all over the ring proclaiming exactly that –as Liston sagged on his stool.

Barbarossa, one of history’s great warriors, drowned under the weight of his armor in a shallow river. Liston’s fall was just as anticlimactic. It was downright meek.

Disrobed of his invincibility, he went to St. Francis Hospital for X-rays on his left shoulder. Later a team of doctors confirmed that he had in fact suffered an injury that would be “sufficient to incapacitate him and prevent him from defending himself”. Liston’s corner claimed that the injury occurred during training and that they had to cease sparring earlier than planned. When asked why they didn’t postpone the fight, the answer was “we thought we could get away with it.”

A forgotten nugget of information is that the rematch was originally set for November 16, 1964 at Boston Garden. Sonny trained harder than he had since his peak in 1959 on the grounds of what is now the White Cliffs Country Club in Plymouth, MA –whipping himself into search-and-destroy shape at 208 lbs. Reporters swarmed and Liston’s mood swung between sullen and surly, even worse than usual. Ten sparring partners became casualties and some ended up in the hospital. Liston didn’t even have “Night Train” playing because the beat was too slow for a new pace of training. He was hell-bent on redemption. “When I catch him,” Liston promised, “you’ll know I’m bitter.”

It wasn’t all “meanness” with Sonny. He was known to be gentle with children and impulsively generous with the down-and-out. At times, he seemed to yearn for the peace his life and his choices never allowed. One evening at White Cliffs, Sonny noticed a beautiful scarlet sunset over Cape Cod Bay. “Look at there,” he said to a reporter for Sports Illustrated, extending his giant hand and pointing to the horizon, “Isn't that the most beautifulest sight you've ever seen?”

He didn’t know it yet, but the setting sun’s appearance was inauspicious.

Friday the 13th was just a few days later and Ali was rushed by ambulance to Boston City Hospital for an emergency hernia operation. The fight was called off. Liston growled: “If he didn’t carry on in the street the way he did he wouldn’t have hurt himself.” Ali was no less disappointed. “I was really in the best shape of my life as was Sonny. Now all that hard work has gone down the drain,” he said. “Everything was set up. Now I have to sit back for another six months. It was such a letdown for me and for Sonny. All that work for a man his age.”

A man his age. Liston dissipated. He was picked up for drunk driving in December and got into it with ten policemen who had to wrestle him into a cell. Reporters noticed that he was looking “heavier and haggard”.

He spent Christmas in jail.

The infamous rematch ended up in a high school hockey arena in Lewiston, Maine. Ali came in four pounds less but was noticeably bigger than the previous year with inches added to his thighs, biceps, and forearms. Liston was simply older. Whatever fire he had captured at White Cliffs was gone.

Suspiciously, Liston was installed as a nine-to-five favorite.

Ali began round one bouncing and shifting and flicking shots. He landed one hard right hand and Sonny reacted as if it were a caress. Liston was moving in when Ali’s back was near the ropes, he threw a left jab and Ali came over with a right hand that was far more innocent than the previous one… and Liston went down. The fiasco that followed is incidental. Liston’s performance was anything but.

There are those who believe that Liston’s first round knockout was on the level. Others meet it halfway and consider the knockdown legitimate but assert that his refusal to get up suggested something else. Sonny himself spoke of it before the California Boxing Commission and stated that the knockdown was indeed real but that he refused to get up because Ali was standing over him. This doesn’t fit the film. Sonny was too busy trying vainly to make it look like he was hurt. He wasn’t even looking at the big butterfly fluttering about.

The fact is Liston had an exceptional chin. Mike DeJohn proved it. Cleveland Williams proved it. Cops did too –with hickory nightsticks. After Marty Marshall landed the right that broke his jaw, he said, “I never knew he was hurt. You hit him with your Sunday punch but he don't grunt, groan, flinch or blink. He don't do nothing; he just keeps coming on. He’s discouraging that way.”

Ali landed a flicking punch thrown with his legs out of position and no leverage. His first response to Liston’s going down was outrage and it is memorialized in perhaps the most famous boxing photograph ever snapped. “Get up you yellow dog!” –Ali’s shout at the horizontal Liston is frozen in time. It was only later that Ali and company came up with his “anchor punch” spin for posterity’s sake. It’s understandable. Dives taint both fighters, but a first round KO of the impossibly strong Sonny Liston after previously stopping him is a fitting aftershock for the world.

For all Floyd Patterson knew, everything was on the level. He went to Liston’s dressing room after the bout. Liston sat there alone, staring at something far off with that permanent scowl that wasn’t a scowl. Floyd said, “I know how you feel. I’ve been experienced this myself.” Sonny didn’t acknowledge him. Finally, Floyd went to walk out and Sonny ran up, put a hand on Floyd’s shoulder and said “thanks”.

Liston became a persona non grata after the fiasco. He fought on against mostly nondescript opposition in Sweden and then returned to fight a 6’4 truck driver named Bill McMurray. By this point it is not unlikely that Liston was forty years old, although he still had the strength of ten men. With Ali stripped of his title and out of the picture, Sonny was fixing his sites on Joe Frazier by 1968. Emboldened with a fourth round KO of McMurray, a new trainer in Dick Sadler (who would also train George Foreman) and Sammy Davis Jr.’s interest in his career, Liston was feeling upbeat. “I’ll beat [Frazier],” he declared. “I won’t have to chase him. It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Henry Clark was ranked ninth by Ring Magazine when Liston faced him four months after McMurray. Liston won every round behind a jab and became the first man to stop him. Amos Lincoln was his eleventh straight KO since the Ali rematch, and Lincoln ended up draped over the ropes for three minutes while his handlers tried to revive him.

The old ex-champion was coming on, straight for Frazier, and the boxing world was buzzing. It couldn’t last if the word on the street was accurate though, and the word was that Liston was boozing it up regularly and addicted to heroin. It couldn’t last because Liston was Liston. Leotis Martin put an end to Liston’s redemption delusions and brought the sheep in with a right hand, followed by a left hook and another right. Liston fell hard and didn’t move. There wasn’t much doubt that this was his only legitimate knockout loss.

Liston’s last bout was held in Jersey City in June 1970 against Chuck Wepner. A strangely silent guest appeared at the back of the armory where the fight was held: it was Muhammad Ali. Ali remained confused and fascinated by his predecessor for many years after their bouts and admitted that Liston scared him. He once went so far as to privately claim that “Liston was the Devil.” Either way, Liston was applauded as he entered the ring against the 6’5, 228 lb challenger.

It was a brutal fight; and Liston wins those.

Wepner, stopped after nine rounds, was in shock for three days after the bout with a broken nose, a broken left cheekbone, and seventy-two stitches to close his face. Sonny had hopes that this, his 50th victory, would qualify him for a bout against Jerry Quarry. It was not to be.

The Grim Reaper showed up instead, tapping him on one of those massive shoulders. Sonny Liston died alone, probably on December 29, 1970, and apparently from a drug overdose. No one really knows. Black daisies sprang up in the bedroom where his body lay for days before anyone found him.

It was a brutal life; and no one wins those.


Information concerning Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad derived from Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “New Muslims”, a publication by the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). “Liston was the Devil” comment found in Nick Tosches “The Devil and Sonny Liston”, p. 219. Unless otherwise acknowledged, information for this article was also derived from contemporary editions of the New York Times. Gregory Toledo can be contacted at

Articles of 2009

UFC 108 Rashad Evans vs. Thiago Silva



Former champion Rashad Evans meets Brazil’s venerable Thiago Silva in a non-title belt that can lead to a return match with the current champ, but first things first.

Evans (15-1-1) and Silva (14-1) meet in Ultimate Fighting Championship 108 in a light heavyweight bout on Saturday Jan. 2, at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. A win by either fighter could result in a world title bid. The fight card is being shown on pay-per-view television.

Events can change quickly in the Octagon and anybody can beat anybody in the 205-pound weight division. Just ask Silva or Evans.

Silva and Evans are both experienced and can vouch firsthand about the capriciousness of fighting in MMA and especially as a light heavyweight. On one day this man can beat that man and on another day, that man can beat this man. It can make you absolutely daffy.

Evans, 30, is the former UFC light heavyweight world champion who only defended his title on one occasion and lost by vicious knockout to current champion Lyoto Machida of Brazil. It’s the only defeat on his record.

Silva, 27, is a well-rounded MMA fighter from Sao Paolo, Brazil who is versed in jujitsu, Muy Thai and boxing. He can end a fight quickly in a choke hold just as easily as with a kick or a punch. His only loss came to who else: Machida.

Evans and Silva know a win can push open the door to a rematch with current UFC light heavyweight champion Machida.

“A win against Rashad would put me in the track against Lyoto,” said Silva, in a telephone conference call. “That's what – what I want to do.”

When Silva fought Machida the two Brazilians were both undefeated and feared in the MMA world. The fight took place in Las Vegas and with one second remaining in the first round a perfectly timed punch knocked Silva unconscious.

“I was humbled big time, man,” says Silva who fought Machida in January 2009. “I learned a lot from that fight.  I think I can correct the mistakes from that fight, not overlooking anything else right now, but just I want to get the chance to fight him again.”

For Evans it was a different circumstance. The upstate New Yorker held the UFC title and was defending it after stopping then champion Forrest Griffin by knockout. Still, many felt Machida was far too technically versed. Evans was stopped brutally in the second round.

“I've made it a point to not – to not get distracted on what I want to do, because you know Thiago (Silva) is a very hungry fighter,” said Evans who has not fought since losing the title to Machida last May. “My focus is just on Thiago so much.  You know I don't want to overlook him, you know, not even a little bit.”

Dana White, president of UFC, says the winner of this fight could conceivably fight Machida in the near future. Evans and especially Silva are motivated by the open window.

“I learned a lot from that fight. I think I can correct the mistakes from that fight,” says Silva. “Not overlooking anything else right now, but I just want to get the chance to fight him again.”

What a prize. The winner gets to face the man who beat him: Machida.

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Articles of 2009

Ten Boxing Wishes For 2010



As 2009 comes to a close, one reflects on what went well and what went wrong during the year in boxing. There were many highlights. Pacquiao vs. Cotto and Showtime’s Super Six tournament were part of the best that boxing had to offer. But there were some low points too therefore the industry has some work to do in order to keep generating fans. Here are some suggestions for 2010:

10. Better pay per view cards

Paying 40 to 50 bucks to watch the main event gets old real quick. Why do we have to sit through a horrible under-card to get to the main course? It’s like being fed spam appetizers before the Thanksgiving turkey. It seems that the pay per view promoters just don’t get it. Are they watching what they put on or do they only watch the “big fight” as everyone else is slowly being conditioned to do so?

9. Time to make Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. fight

Okay, I understand he’s the son of one of the greatest fighters that ever lived. But he’s had 42 fights against low to mid level competition and has never managed to look spectacular. It’s time to throw the 23 year old out of the nest to see if he can fly. My suggestion is a fight against Sergio Mora or maybe even Yuri Foreman. Neither of these guys can punch. They may outbox Junior but they won’t totally humiliate him.

8. No more ridiculous Pay Per View mismatches

Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Juan Manuel Marquez should’ve never been made. It was a ridiculous fight when it was announced and it was more ridiculous when it took place. Unable to bring Manny Pacquiao to the bargaining table for a third match against Juan Manuel Marquez, someone figured that pairing up the 135 pound champion against a natural 147 pounder like Mayweather would be a great idea. The pay per view generated over a million buys but the fact that millions of people were treated to an incredibly boring mismatch is what’s truly worrisome. I can guarantee you one thing about this card. The sport of boxing lost fans once the show was over and done with. Talk about short term thinking.

7. Chris “The Nightmare” Arreola shows up for a fight in amazing shape

It was painful to see Chris Arreola take a beating from the Ukrainian giant, Vitali Klitscho. The champion certainly earned his “Dr. Ironfist” moniker as he plowed his powerful shots into the former #1 WBC heavyweight contender’s face. He reddened and bloodied the young Mexican American with an assortment of weapons and foot movement seldom seen on a six foot seven inch heavyweight. Arreola was brave and unrelenting in battle. He never stopped coming forward and took chances when he could. His work in the ring at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles wasn’t the problem. Where Arreola let himself down was outside the ring. His unwillingness to condition himself into a finely tuned athlete cost him certain immortality as the first ever heavyweight champion of Mexican descent. Arreola has the heart and skills but it was his mental fortitude that broke down. Anyone who’s followed the Riverside fighter knows that his best weight is somewhere in the 230 pound range. It certainly isn’t at the 252 pounds he registered on the scale at the Staples Center.  Those fifteen to twenty extra pounds might have made all the difference in the world. Maybe he would’ve been a little quicker, maybe he could’ve sustained a faster pace in order to tire out the champion. In his most recent fight against Brian Minto, Arreola weighed in at a career high 263. It looks like “The Nightmare” isn’t willing to change for anyone. At this pace, the only nightmares he’ll be providing will be to the management of Hometown Buffets all across Riverside.  Just kidding “Nightmare”!

6. More respect for the lighter weights

Real boxing fans know that the most exciting fighters in the sport are usually found toiling in weight divisions south of 154 pounds. Pacquiao, Cotto, Juan Manuel Marquez, Edwin Valero, Israel Vazquez, Juan Ma Lopez, Vic Darchinyan, Rafael Marquez and countless others have been the real driving force behind this sport. It’s those great fighters that have made boxing fanatics out of casual fans. The heavyweights may get all the money and glory but it’s the little guys who make the sport shine and it’s time they received greater compensation. It’s dismaying to think that a mediocre heavyweight can make three or four times as much as the great Rafael Marquez.

5. An American Heavyweight champion

Speaking of heavyweights, two Americans tried and failed at dethroning Vitali Klitschko this year. Both Kevin Johnson and Chris Arreola did their best to wrestle the belt away from “Dr. Klitschko” but came up short since they were easily outclassed. What happened to the great American Heavyweight? Where’s our new Joe Frazier or Ali? Even a new Gerry Cooney or a Ken Norton would do at this point. I’ve got a feeling that the only way we’re going to see an American champion is if Klitschko retires. My money is on Arreola. Although undisciplined and rough outside the ring, he’s got tons (no pun intended) of natural talent. He’s without a doubt the most talented American heavyweight on the scene.

4. More ShoBox

The Showtime Cable network gave us the best boxing on TV for the price of a cable television subscription. Their ShoBox series has been a proven hit for Senior VP of Sports Programming Ken Hershman. The concept is simple yet brilliant. Match up two up and comers with great records and let’s see what happens. Sometimes the results are surprising. Many have passed the ShoBox test and went on to bigger and better things. Others have been exposed as having padded records and eventually their careers stall and take a dive.

3. More safety in Mexico so I can attend a show without a gun battle breaking out

Having lived near the Tijuana border all my life I’m dismayed at the war zone that the city has evolved into. Every day there are reports of shootings fueled by the drug war trade. Believe it or not, there was a time when Tijuana was safe and most wouldn’t have thought twice about crossing the border for some seafood and nightlife. No more. Having covered several boxing cards on Revolucion Avenue many years ago, I got a taste of just how important the sport is to Mexican fans. It’s also important to me but not that important. For now I’ll stick to covering shows at the Pechanga Casino and in the less dangerous city of L.A. I never thought I’d say that.

2. Pac Man vs. Mayweather

This is the fight everyone wants to see. Seeing how Mayweather dominated Pac Man’s arch enemy, Juan Manuel Marquez, you have to wonder if the Filipino can handle Lil’ Floyd’s speed and size. One thing is for sure, betting against Pacquiao doesn’t usually work out for me. It never has. There’s no future in it. So if the fight gets done it’s Pacquiao by TKO in ten.

1. And finally

One final wish is reserved for all the readers of I wish you all a healthy and happy 2010. Thank you for your continued loyalty to the site. It’s very much appreciated.

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Articles of 2009

A Very Special New Year's Day Column



It has been just over four months since Nick Charles, the play-by-play announcer for Shobox: The New Generation, was diagnosed with stage IV bladder cancer and forced to take a medical hiatus from the monthly show that has aired since 2001.

Since then he has undergone grueling chemotherapy treatments that have resulted in him losing all of his hair as he forces himself to live as normal of a life as possible. Through sheer force of will, as well as the strength and support that he receives from his wonderfully loving family and his strong Christian faith, the 63-year-old Charles has managed to keep his weight up while not falling prey to the always lingering threats of depression, cynicism and negativity.

If one was unaware that he was battling such an insidious disease, you’d never know from talking on the phone to him that he has been to hell and back. He has lost none of the inspiring energy that has endeared him to members of the boxing community and legions of worldwide viewers.

“I’m doing great,” Charles said during a telephone conversation on December 30th. “I’ve been off the chemo for a month, and the doctors have told me that I’m 80 percent in remission. I’m going to see them again in three months. It may come back, but if it takes one year, or two years, or however long, I’m going to make the most of the good time.”

As physically and emotionally wrenching as the grim diagnosis and subsequent treatment has been, even for someone as perpetually positive as Charles, the longtime announcer said a lot of good things have come from it.

Having been married three times, Charles is the father of four children: Jason, 38, Melissa, 34, Charlotte, 22, and Giovanna, 3 ½.

While Charles is not big on regrets, he is the first to admit that he wasn’t always there for his older children. For many years he traveled the world as a CNN correspondent, often putting the demands of his career above all else, including those closest to him. Nowhere was the strain more evident than in his relationship with Melissa.

Having been divorced from Melissa’s mother since 1977, Charles said his relationship with that daughter has been especially “hot and cold, all of our lives.”

His illness has enabled them to forge a relationship that has been “based on a massive amount of forgiveness and understanding.”

“This has had a tremendous healing effect on both of us,” said Charles. “My illness has had a fortifying effect on a lot of things, the most important of which is my relationships with my family.”

That also includes his first wife, with whom he has had an often acrimonious relationship over the past three decades.

“It took a long time for the scab to become a scar, but we had lunch one day and it was so great to once again see the gentle, soft sides of each other,” he explained. “The whole divorce process creates a hardness that doesn’t always go away.”

Charles is also the grandfather to three children, some of whom are about the same age as his youngest daughter. He jokes that he has a “nuclear 21st century family” because of the similar ages of two generations of children. One of the hardest things for him has been the realization that he can’t always play with them in manner in which he would like.

“The hemoglobin is the fuel in your tank, so when it’s low you can’t will yourself to do things no matter how much you want to,” said Charles. “You can’t just sleep it off or work through it. I don’t want the kids to wonder why I can’t play in the backyard with them, or kick a soccer ball, or throw them in the air.”

Particularly difficult is when Giovanna reminds her father of how handsome he is, but then innocently asks him what happened to his hair, eyebrows and lashes.

“You try to keep things on a need to know basis, which is not easy when dealing with curious kids,” said Charles.

While Charles might look like the kind of guy that things have often come easy to, the reality is that his beginnings were far from auspicious. But, he says, his often challenging Chicago childhood blessed him with the steely resolve that has helped him so much during the arduous journey he is now on.

“I had it pretty rough growing up,” he explained. “I remember the lights and the heat being shut off and eating mustard sandwiches. I went to work at 13 and always had insecurities about the future. But I always expected and saw the best in people, so when I got sick, never once did I say 'Why me?”

Since taking a leave of absence from Shobox, the outpouring of support from the boxing community has warmed Charles’s heart. For a guy that is battling for his life, he actually considers himself fortunate to be surrounded by so much goodness in both his personal and professional lives.

“I always hear that boxing people are ruthless, but I couldn’t disagree more,” said Charles. “I’ve probably received about 1,000 e-mails, and people are always following in sending their best wishes. From the relatively unknown people in boxing to many of the more famous people, there has been an outpouring of true affection.”

Charles said that the Top Rank organization has been exceedingly kind and gracious. He was touched beyond description when he learned that officials in Oklahoma got special permission to have a seamstress sew “Keep Fighting Nick” onto their sleeves. He chokes up when talking about cut man Stitch Duran giving up an endorsement opportunity so he could put Charles’s name on his outfit. He never tires of hearing shout-outs from fighters on television.

Charles has always been a people person with an inordinate faith in the goodness of his fellow man. Battling this illness has only made his already strong faith in humanity even stronger.

“Adversity is a great teacher, and it really teaches you who your genuine friends are,” said Charles. “I have a lot of friends.”

He also has a remarkable wife, Cory, a CNN producer to whom he has been married for 11 years. She is the daughter of an electrician, a self-made woman who exudes all of the warmth of her native Brooklyn. She has reinforced her husband’s spiritual base by her love, optimism and strength of character.

“If I get down, she reminds me to not get too caught up,” said Charles. “I believe in eternity, and that has put me pretty much at peace.”

More than anything else, Charles wants to get himself back behind a microphone sooner rather than later, and hopefully on Shobox. He is the first to admit that viewers “don’t watch the series to see Nick Charles,” but he is proud of the fact that he was “part of the identity” of such a popular show.

“And people love comeback stories,” added Charles. “That’s the message I’m getting from the people out there.”

In boxing the word “champion” is often overused because it pertains only to winning belts and receiving worldwide recognition for being the best at your craft. The reality is that life’s real champions have other qualities, such as the innate ability to treat people well and always make them feel better about themselves, especially when the recipients of the goodwill are in no position to give them anything back.

By that standard of measure, Charles is as much, if not more of a champion than all of the boxers he has covered during the nine years that Shobox has been on the air.

I know I speak for scores of others when I say, “Happy New Year, Champ. We hope that you are the comeback story of the year in 2010.”

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