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The Fearsome Sonny Liston was a Man of Mystery

Rick Assad

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Sonny Liston

If physical presence and demeanor were the only factors that determine which boxer prevails inside the ring, Sonny Liston would have been undefeated.

It was said of Jack Dempsey that his opponents were already beaten before he stepped into the ring. The same could be said of Mike Tyson, tabbed “Kid Dynamite” by Sports Illustrated when he was only 15 fights into his pro career. Until he was knocked out by James “Buster” Douglas in February of 1990, no one really wanted any part of Tyson, knowing an early dispatch was likely.

Liston, hardly tall by heavyweight standards at 6-foot-1, was all that and more at the peak of his prowess.

Liston, who usually tipped the scale at 215 pounds, was a mass of raw musculature, especially across his broad shoulders and neck. Add to the equation Liston’s fists, which measured 14 inches, the biggest ever by a heavyweight, and then toss in an incredible 84-inch reach.

When Liston laid a glove on an opponent, he knew that he had been hit with raw power, or maybe a sledge hammer. “In the ring,” said Johnny Tocco, one of Liston’s early trainers, “Sonny was a killing machine.”  But Liston’s scowl was equally intimidating and went a long way in helping the former Missouri State Penitentiary inmate finish with 50 victories in 54 fights and 39 knockouts over a 17-year professional career.

Sonny Liston was born in Sand Slough, Arkansas to a sharecropper, Tobey Liston, who fathered 25 children, the second youngest of whom was Charles, Sonny’s real name, born from Tobey’s marriage to Helen Baskin, a woman nearly three decades younger than he. But the year of Sonny’s birth, like the circumstances of his death, remain a mystery.

Many boxers come from impoverished backgrounds, but Liston’s was worse than most. “I had nothing when I was a kid but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother and a father who didn’t care about any of us,” he said. “We grew up with few clothes, no shoes, little to eat. My father worked me hard and whupped me hard.”

The many whippings that Tobey administered on him had a lasting effect. “The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating,” said Liston, who claimed to be born in 1932.

Liston’s mother fled to St. Louis when Liston was about 13 years old and in time Sonny would follow her there. Schoolwork was difficult for him and because he couldn’t read or write, he was unable to find decent work.

Seeing a very limited future, Liston gravitated toward a world of crime that included muggings and armed robberies. He went to the well one too many times and in early 1950 was caught and sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. His stretch began in June of that year.

In prison, fate would intervene in the person of the penitentiary’s athletic director Alois Stevens, a Catholic priest, who told the young inmate that he should try boxing.

Liston took Father Stevens advice and showed real promise while sparring with Thurman Wilson, a professional heavyweight. The session lasted two rounds and Wilson was glad to leave the ring in one piece after the pounding Liston gave him.

Liston’s amateur career wasn’t very long, but was memorable. In March of 1953 he won the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions with a win over Ed Sanders, the 1952 Olympic champion. Later that month, he outpointed Julius Griffin, the winner of the New York Golden Gloves Championship and captured the Intercity Golden Gloves title. In that encounter, Liston was knocked down in the opening round, but rallied to take the second and third rounds with Griffin holding on for dear life.

Liston also participated in the 1953 Amateur Athletic Union tourney and lost in the quarterfinals to Jimmy McCarter, who became one of Liston’s sparring partners. Liston then boxed in the International Golden Gloves Tournament at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, knocking out West Germany’s Hermann Schreibauer in the opening round in June. The previous month, Schreibauer had won the bronze medal at the European Championships.

With nothing more to prove, Liston turned pro.  Because of his checkered past, few wanted to invest in him. Liston would get backers, but they would be men known to be mobsters.

Sonny made his pro debut in September 1953 with a first-round technical knockout over Don Smith at the St. Louis Arena. Six wins followed until Liston lost an eight-round split decision to journeyman Marty Marshall at the Motor City Arena in Detroit in September 1954.

This setback would prove to be an aberration as Liston would meet Marshall two more times. Liston earned a TKO win in the sixth round in April 1955 in Kiel Auditorium and a unanimous decision victory over 10 rounds in March 1956 at Pittsburgh Gardens.

In April 1959, Liston snatched a TKO win in the third round over Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in Miami Beach and beat Williams again in March 1960 by TKO in the second round at the Sam Houston Coliseum in Texas. Liston then added five more wins to his ledger, including four early knockouts, to earn a date with Floyd Patterson, the reigning heavyweight champion.

On September 25, 1962 Liston took apart and then knocked out Patterson with a left hook to the jaw in the first round to begin his title reign.

Proud of his accomplishment, Liston was told by boxing writer and confidant Jack McKinney on the flight back to Philadelphia, his adopted home, that a warm reception would greet him. But when the plane landed and Liston looked for the adoring throng, there was none, save for some reporters and airline workers.

Larry Merchant, the longtime analyst for HBO Boxing, but then writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, penned this line: “A celebration for Philadelphia’s first heavyweight champ is now in order,” he wrote. “Emily Post would probably recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti we can use shredded warrants of arrest.”

Ten months later, Liston once again battered Patterson, knocking him down three times in the opening round at the Convention Center in Las Vegas, retaining his belt and adding the inaugural World Boxing Council bauble. But the title and its significance never really gained traction with boxing fans as Liston became the anti-hero.

Even President John F. Kennedy made it known that he was rooting for Patterson, in essence because he represented all that was good while Liston represented all that was bad. And the NAACP also shied away from Liston because of his shady past, saying at this time in America’s history Sonny was the last person it wanted to represent its people as king of the heavyweight division.

Columnist Jim Murray, writing in the Los Angeles Times, said of Liston, the ex-convict, “It was like waking up and finding a live bat on a string under your Christmas tree.”

Liston resigned himself to his fate, accepting the notion that he was the villain. “A boxing match is like a cowboy movie,” he said. “There’s got to be good guys and there’s got to be bad guys. And that’s what people pay for – to see the bad guys get beat.”

Liston’s next fight after demolishing Patterson in their rematch was a title defense against a 22-year-old named Cassius Clay, the “Louisville Lip,” who came into the bout in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964 as a 7-1 betting underdog despite a flawless 19-0 record. In what turned out to be a shocker for the ages, Clay, with a 78-inch reach, out-boxed, out-jabbed and out-fought Liston, who failed to answer the bell for the seventh round.

Fifteen months later, at St. Dominic’s Hall  in Lewiston, Maine, in a clash that ended in the first round, Clay, who had changed his name to Muhammad Ali after winning the title, once again prevailed, but this time with a single shot. The knockout punch, a short chopping right to Liston’s head, was described by New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, as “not having enough power to squash a grape.”

Even ringsiders were without a clue as to what actually happened.

Many years later, in an interview with Mark Kram, the boxing writer for Sports Illustrated, Liston admitted to taking a fall. “That guy [Ali] was crazy,” he said. “I didn’t want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn’t hit.”

Were those fights predetermined in Ali’s favor, or where they legitimate?  More than a half century has passed since those two fights and there are as many questions as answers about them and about Liston, the man.

Following his second loss to Muhammad Ali, Liston soldiered on, winning 14 fights until meeting former sparring partner Leotis Martin in what would be his next-to-last fight at the Hilton International Hotel in Las Vegas in December 1969. Sonny was knocked out in the ninth round. Six months later, he stopped Chuck Wepner in the ninth round at the National Guard Armory in Jersey City, New Jersey.

In January of 1971, Liston was found dead by his wife Geraldine at his home in Las Vegas. Was he a victim of foul play? Shaun Assael, in his book “The Murder Of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin And Heavyweights,” argues that Liston was murdered. All that is known for certain is that the coroner recorded his death as a drug overdose.

Novelist James Baldwin was sent to the Windy City by Nugget Magazine to cover the first Liston-Patterson tussle and knew very little about boxing, which probably helped him.

Upon meeting Liston, Baldwin wasn’t taken aback by his physical presence, his menacing stare or his lack of education.

“He is inarticulate in the way we all are when more has happened to us than we know how to express,” Baldwin wrote, “and inarticulate in a particularly Negro way – he has a long tale to tell which no one wants to hear.”

It seems that Baldwin, himself black, hit the proverbial nail on the head.

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Chris Arreola is Back!

Ted Sares

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Chris Arreola

Chris “The Nightmare” Arreola is an emotional and very likable guy. Over the course of his career, there have been ups and downs providing the grist for a compelling story if one were inclined to write it. He’ll kiss a beaten opponent (Joey Abell) or cry if beaten (Vitali Klitschko) and his language during a post-fight interview is, well it’s special.

After his corner stopped the fight following the 10th round with Klitschko, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, he thanked the fans (as is his wont) and later, while being interviewed in the ring, said  “F–k that, I’m coming back.”

It was his first loss after 26 straight wins out of the professional gate. For that “terrible” indiscretion, he was punished by the selectively politically correct World Boxing Council. WBC president José Sulaimán proposed a six months ban for vulgar language and the ban was approved by the WBC Board of Governors.

Arreola, who rarely uses filters, was brutally candid again after his first round KO over Erik Molina in 2012. The Nightmare cut loose on Don King, Molina’s promoter, calling him a “f—ing a–hole and a racist,” causing Showtime’s Jim Gray to  terminate the post-fight interview forthwith. “Honestly Don King called me a wetback, and other Mexicans,” Arreola told Fightnews.com. “That’s a strong word. It’s like me dropping N bombs. You don’t say things like that.”

No ban this time.

Arreola’s weight varies but when he is fit and ready (and under 250), he is a very dangerous heavyweight, especially in the early rounds. Once he has his opponent hurt, there are few boxers who can close as well as this Southern California Mexican American tough guy who was an accomplished amateur fighter and knows his way around the ring.

His level of opposition has been stiff. In fact, his five losses have been to fighters who have held world titles at one time or another. Bermane Stiverne had Chris’s number and beat him twice—the second time by way of a nasty knockout. However, he has a number of solid wins over the likes of Malcom Tann, Chazz Witherspoon, Travis Walker, Jameel McCline, Brian Minto, Curtis Harper –yes, that Curtis Harper who gave Chris all he could handle — and many others who came in with fine records. His first round blowout of once promising Seth Mitchell was quintessential Arreola. Mitchell retired after the fight.

In July 2016, The Nightmare was stopped by Deontay Wilder in yet another title bid but he did not disgrace himself. He then took off for over two years to assess whether he wanted to continue. Boxing fans pretty much forgot about him. Few took notice when he came back to stop the very stoppable Maurenzo Smith on the Wilder-Fury undercard on Dec. 1 of last year.

Fast Forward

Last weekend, on the undercard of the huge Errol Spence Jr. vs. Mikey Garcia PPV fight in Dallas, “The Nightmare” was matched against unbeaten but unheralded Jean Pierre Augustin (17-0-1).

Chris, now 38, came in at a svelte 237 pounds and looked fit and ready to go. The weary look on Augustin’s face during the announcement said it all. True to form, Arreola was in blowout mode and stopped the Haitian who simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Arreola wobbled Augustin with a brutally hard jab that connected flush to his face in the third round. After more heavy shots, a bloodied Augustin went down and upon getting up, was battered until the referee halted matters. Chris closed things like he had done on so many other occasions and in front of millions of fans tuning in around the world.

With a female interviewer, the elated “Nightmare” was polite during the post-fight ceremonies and, holding his daughter, signaled that he is BACK! That’s good news for boxing fans because when Chris Arreola is fit and focused, he is entertaining and very competitive.

With a current record of 38-5-1 with 2 ND (the “no-contests” resulting from Chris‘s apparent affinity for non-medicinal marijuana), a fight with someone like Adam Kownacki would be a boxing fan’s dream.

Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and Strongman competitors and plans to compete in at least three events in 2019. He is a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA).

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Nobody Wants to Fight Dillian Whyte

Kelsey McCarson

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Dillian Whyte

Dillian Whyte is one of the most dangerous fighters in the world. The 30-year-old is a former British heavyweight titleholder, a former kickboxing prodigy and an undefeated mixed martial artist. Overall, Whyte’s professional fighting record is a sterling 46-2. He’s 25-1 as a boxer, 20-1 as a K1 kickboxer and 1-0 as an MMA fighter.

So while the battle rages on between various television networks and streaming platforms over securing the top talent in the heavyweight division, one that includes Tyson Fury signing a multi-fight deal with ESPN and Deontay Wilder reportedly mulling over his future with PBC, perhaps something just as important right now is that the single most dangerous and deserved heavyweight contender in the world remains without a dance partner for his next fight.

Never mind Whyte being the No. 1 ranked contender by the World Boxing Council. That sanctioning body instead deemed Dominic Breazeale the mandatory challenger to Wilder’s WBC title after the potential rematch between Wilder and Fury fell by the wayside.

Here’s all that needs to be said about that grift. Breazeale only had to defeat Eric Molina to get his mandatory title shot while the WBC wanted Whyte to face Cuban southpaw Luis Ortiz, one of the top heavyweights in the sport.

And nobody seems to care that Whyte gave unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua the toughest test of his career (this side of Wladimir Klitschko anyway), when the two squared off in 2015 for the British and Commonwealth titles. Despite the obvious talent gap between the two fighters, Whyte gave the young Joshua just about all the former Olympic champion could handle in a seven-round war.

To hear Whyte tell the story, promoter Eddie Hearn must have intentionally lowballed Whyte for the proposed 2019 rematch in order to ensure Joshua could invade America on June 1 against the likely less dangerous Jarrell Miller. That makes sense for Joshua from a monetary perspective, but it doesn’t do the same in terms of true competitiveness.

According to various reports, Whyte is currently considering a multi-fight deal to appear on ESPN, a move that would give the British battler a path to facing Fury who some consider the lineal heavyweight champion. Fury recently signed a multi-fight deal to be co-promoted by Bob Arum for appearances on the U.S.-based television network ESPN. It’s the move that shelved a potential Wilder rematch and also opened up a huge can of worms in regards to what kinds of fights Fury might actually be able to secure. Currently, the Top Rank-promoted stable of heavyweights is best characterized by fighters who don’t really move the needle in regards to title challenges, fighters like Oscar Rivas, Bryant Jennings and Kubrat Pulev.

Overall, though, the main problem about the heavyweight landscape is that there are three heavyweights who all have a claim to being heavyweight champion. IBF, WBA and WBO champion Joshua is promoted by Hearn and exclusive to DAZN. WBC champ Wilder is attached to the PBC whose television partnerships include Showtime and Fox. Fury is set to embark on his own ESPN crusade. Long story short, these guys probably aren’t fighting each other anytime soon.

Worse is that while all three men are in desperate need of viable opponents, none have seemed all that interested in tussling with Whyte.

It’s no wonder. As good as Whyte has been over the course of his 7-year professional boxing career, the scariest thing about the fighter is that he always seems to be getting better. In his last two fights, Whyte outfought talented former titleholder Joseph Parker and knocked out gritty UK heavyweight Dereck Chisora. In defeating Parker, Whyte was facing someone absolutely in need of a win to maintain his status among heavyweight contenders. In beating Chisora, Whyte was in tough against an opponent he had only defeated by split-decision two years prior. Both wins illustrate just how far Whyte has come as a professional prizefighter.

As it stands, Whyte is the clear top contender among all heavyweights, especially among those who have not yet been granted a shot at a world title. He’s ranked No. 4 behind Joshua, Fury and Wilder by The Ring magazine and the same by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.

The only question that remains is which title claimant will prove the toughest holdout. Whyte’s ultimate choice, in whether to stick with promoter Hearn on DAZN, link up with Arum and ESPN or continue playing the WBC shell game, will probably end up being tied to which path gets him the title shot that he so desperately craves first.

And it absolutely should happen. It’s one thing to crave title opportunities and another to have earned them. Whyte’s done both now, and it’s time for boxing fans and the media to take notice. Better yet, it’s time for Joshua, Fury and Wilder to pit themselves against their most dangerous competition. Since they’re not facing each other, Whyte become the next logical choice for any or all of them.

Because Dillian Whyte is one of the best heavyweight boxers in the world, and he’s done enough by now to warrant the chance to prove it.

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The Hauser Report: St. Patrick’s Day at Madison Square Garden

Thomas Hauser

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Conlan

Boxing’s three “major leagues” showed their respective wares this past weekend. On Friday night, DAZN presented a nine-bout card in conjunction with Matchroom USA. On Saturday, Fox and Premier Boxing champions teamed up for the Errol Spence vs. Mikey Garcia pay-per-view event. Then, on Sunday, ESPN and Top Rank had their turn in the form of a St. Patrick’s Day card at Madison Square Garden headed by Belfast native and former Olympian Michael Conlan.

The star of the show was St. Patrick, the fifth-century saint widely credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. In his honor, there were three Irishmen on the card: Conlan, flyweight Paddy Barnes, and welterweight Lee Reeves. That said; there was a Hispanic flavor to the proceedings. The sixteen combatants included Eduardo Torres, Victor Rosas, Juan Tapia, Ricardo Maldonado, Adriano Ramirez, Oscar Mojica, Joseph Adorno, John Bauza, Luis Collazo, Ruben Garcia Hernandez, and two Vargases (Josue and Samuel).

Irish-Americans have a record of supporting Irish fighters, particularly on St. Patrick’s Day. This was no exception. The announced crowd of 3,712 arrived early. During the final pre-fight press conference, Top Rank president Todd duBoef had paid homage to the fans, although he did voice the view that, on St. Patrick’s Day, “Their cognitive behavior is manipulated by the beer.”

On fight night, the in-arena music was chosen accordingly. What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor? was played twice over the Hulu Theater sound system.

There was also green lighting.

Lee Reeves (2-0, 2 KOs) of Limerick, Ireland, opened the show with a four-round decision over Edward Torres.

In the third bout of the evening, Vladimir Nikitin (2-0, 0 KOs) won a majority decision over Juan Tapia. Nikitin defeated Conlan in the quarter-finals at the 2016 Olympics. Presumably, they’ll fight again at a time of maximum opportunity for Conlan.

Flyweight Paddy Barnes (5-1, 1 KO) of Belfast was a teammate of Conlan’s at the 2016 Olympics but lost in the first round to Spain’s Samuel Carmona. On St. Patrick’s Day, Barnes was matched against Oscar Mojica (11-5-1), who had one career knockout and had gone 3-5-1 in his previous nine outings.

Mojica broke Barnes’s nose in round one and knocked him down with a body shot in the second stanza (although to the mystification of those in the press section, referee Danny Schiavone waved off the knockdown). It was a spirited outing in which both men were too easy to hit for their own good. Barnes rallied nicely in the second half of the bout and arguably did enough to win the decision. But two of the three judges thought otherwise, leading to a 58-56, 58-56, 56-58 verdict in Mojica’s favor.

In the next-to-last fight of the evening, Luis Collazo (38-7, 20 KOs) took on Samuel Vargas (30-4-2, 14 KOs).

Collazo now 37 years old, reigned briefly as WBA welterweight champion twelve years ago. Since then, he had cobbled together twelve victories (an average of one per year) against six losses in eighteen fights. Vargas had one win in his previous three outings and has never been able to get the “W” against a name opponent.

It was a phone booth fight, which worked to Collazo’s advantage because Luis’s legs aren’t what they once were. The decision could have gone either way. Two judges scored the bout 96-94; one for Collazo and the other for Vargas. Frank Lombardi turned in a wide-of-the-mark 98-92 scorecard in Collazo’s favor.

Then it was time for the main event.

Conlan (10-0, 6 KOs) is best known to boxing fans for having given the finger (two middle fingers, actually) to the judges after coming out on the short end of a decision in the second round of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. His skill set is better suited to the amateur than professional ranks. But his Irish heritage is a significant marketing plus. And Top Rank specializes in both savvy matchmaking and building narratives.

This was the third consecutive year that Conlan, now a featherweight, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day weekend by fighting at Madison Square Garden. His ringwalk was marked by Irish-themed pageantry. And Ruben Garcia Hernandez, his opponent, was tailor-made for him.

Conlon controlled the fight with his jab. Nothing much else happened. “Mick” emerged victorious 100-90 on all three judges’ scorecards. And the fans went home happy because their man won.

*     *     *

The sad news that New York Mets pitching great Tom Seaver is suffering from dementia and will retire from public life is a reminder that all people from all walks of life are susceptible to the condition, not just fighters.

Seaver was on the list of A+ athletes who rose to prominence in the 1960s when advances in television were redefining the sports experience. Muhammad Ali was at the top of that list. Years ago, sportswriter Dick Schaap told me about an evening he spent with Ali and Seaver.

“In 1969, the year the Mets won their first World Series,”Schaap reminisced, “I spent the last few days of the regular season with the team in Chicago. Ali was living there at the time. I was writing a book with Tom Seaver, and the three of us went out to dinner together. We met at a restaurant called The Red Carpet. I made the introductions. And of course, this was the year that Tom Seaver was Mr. Baseball, maybe even Mr. America. Ali and Tom got along fine. They really hit it off together. And after about half an hour, Ali in all seriousness turned to Seaver and said, ‘You know, you’re a nice fellow. Which paper do you write for?’”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Protect Yourself at All Times – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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