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LOTIERZO'S LOWDOWN Sonny Liston: The Most Underrated Heavyweight Champ In History

Frank Lotierzo

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0212 largeFor a couple years before he fought Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston was thought of by some boxing insiders as being if not greater than Joe Louis, at the worst, the greatest heavyweight since Louis. Sonny destroyed everything across the ring from him on his way to his title shot against Floyd Patterson in September of 1962. And once Liston had Patterson in the ring he only needed two minutes to relieve him of his title. Then in July of 1963 he repeated the feat needing only four more seconds to dispatch a better strategically prepared Patterson. And in reality, Liston was probably three years past his prime by the time he challenged Floyd for the title.

Then Cassius Clay came along and as a 7-1 underdog and upset Sonny and the rest became history. Today, fifty years after Liston took the title from Patterson, his legacy is all but forgotten and Clay, who became Muhammad Ali after beating Liston, is regarded as the greatest heavyweight champion in history. And yes, a lot of that is based on him beating the invincible and unbeatable Liston.

As most fans know, there's a lot of speculation that Liston dumped both fights against Ali. I'm not going to go into that. Personally, despite being told different by those who were around Liston at that time, I believe an ill trained and eroded Liston lost to Clay legitimately the first time, and went into the tank for the rematch against Ali 15 months later. Also, based on their styles and physicality, Liston, who may have demolished Ali foe “Smokin” Joe Frazier and also handled the human wrecking machine George Foreman, didn't match up with Ali. Muhammad had the style, size, speed, strength, chin and mental constitution to beat Liston if both were at their best.

So in essence it's the two fights with Ali that tarnished Liston's perception and reputation. And that's wrong. For the record, Liston is one of the top five greatest heavyweight champs in history, regardless of whether you use his record and resume or you concentrate on what he brought to the ring as a professional fighter.

As a fighter, Liston could box, cut off the ring, slip the jab, parry the right and hit with both hands. He was strong as a bull, punched effortlessly and had a cast iron chin. No doubt Sonny was a born fighter. He never got wild or spaghetti armed, and he kept the pressure on. Fighters who tried to box him either lost every round or didn't survive to hear the final bell. And those who tried to take it to him, like Cleveland Williams, Nino Valdez and Mike DeJohn, were taken apart and knocked out.

Liston was also a tremendous boxer who was fundamentally sound and hard to hit. Sonny had a great left jab that he used both offensively and defensively. Everything he did started with his jab. He pressured his opponents from behind it and forced them to deal with his 84 inch reach. His jab came out straight and even when he missed, which was seldom, his usually retreating opponent was out of position to launch a counter attack. Sonny's high guard and partially extended left hand covered his center beautifully and therefore his opponents were forced to punch around his left hand when they felt the gumption to go on the attack, which made it easy for Sonny to redirect their jab and punch inside of it. And unlike every other big puncher and aggressive heavyweight, Liston had no problem moving backward when he need to.

Another Liston tactic was to hook off the jab, which usually forced his opponents into his right hand. He was also able to get close and work his iron-fisted uppercuts from both sides on the inside. And because he held his guard tight and his elbows close to his body, he was hard to hold and move around, simply because there wasn't any body part to grab. And if you opened your arms and tried to wrap him up, he could take your head off coming up the middle.

Think about all the great heavyweight champs from John L. Sullivan up to the Klitschko brothers. How many can it be said about that they were both a great boxer and puncher? I would say after Joe Louis, is Liston, and a tier below them are Lennox Lewis along with Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. And in all fairness, Lennox Lewis was a good boxer, but he could be forced to fight with his back to the ropes and then be held or he'd look for the referee to break the action. As for the Klitschkos, they're more than adequate boxers, but they rely more on their size and length to stymie their opponents, and offensively, they aren't very imaginative. What they do, they do well, but it's more driven by not making any mistakes and taking what's being given to them.

The only thing unimaginative about Sonny Liston was his pace. Sonny was aggressive, but he was measured in the way he pressed. He applied just enough pressure to where he forced his opponents to react, but not too fast to where he couldn't see every escape route they had.

Liston 50-4 (39), who stood a shade under 6'1″ and weighed between 215-218 in his prime, is one of the top five greatest heavyweight champs in history. He would've mutilated swarmers who brought the fight to him, like Dempsey, Marciano, Frazier and Tyson. He was too polished and refined for punchers/sluggers the likes of Max Baer, James Jeffries and maybe even George Foreman. As for boxer-punchers like Lennox Lewis and Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, I could see him beating them using whatever style they chose to fight him. If they tried to box him, he'd force them to fight – and if they went at him, he'd force them back to trying to box him or they'd get beaten up or stopped in the process. In reality, only Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes present Liston with a match-up problem.

And, finally, there's the issue of intimidation. Foreman and Tyson got a lot of mileage out of it, but Sonny was its undisputed champion. He didn’t try to be intimidating: he was intimidating. Even a genuine tough guy like Chuck Wepner was candid about being undone by Sonny before their fight (and this was the ancient version of the former champion). When he felt the first punch, matters only got worse.

Because I think that Liston dumped the second Ali fight, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the three fights that I believe Sonny lost legitimately. The first was against Marty Marshall, who got him to laugh, then broke his jaw. Sonny lost a split decision, then beat Marshall twice decisively. As an old man, he ran out of gas against the talented Leotis Martin, after beating Martin up for most of the fight. He got knocked out with a great shot. That leaves the first Ali fight. History has distorted some facts about the fight. Lost in the myth about it is the fact that, at the time of the stoppage, the fight was even on the scorecards. So think about it this way: an older than advertised, badly trained, and too confident Liston lost to a prime version of the greatest (and certainly the fastest) champion the division has ever had. It’s hard to speculate on what might have happened if a younger, more motivated Sonny had had a chance against the same Ali. I won’t say Liston would have won. But I won’t say it's a given he would have lost either.

Other than that, Liston went through everyone he ever fought. And he fought everyone willing to fight him. He destroyed all the contenders who Floyd Patterson avoided; his ascension to a title shot came from there being literally no one he hadn’t beaten. But Liston came up at the wrong time. There was simply no place for him. In today’s market of bad guy notoriety, he’d be a superstar—the most emulated fighter on earth. Boxing could desperately use a Sonny Liston today. But there’ll never be another heavyweight anywhere close.

Frank Lotierzo can be reached at GlovedFist@Gmail.com

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Buatsi Flattens Dos Santos in Manchester; Charr KOs Fraudulent Lovejoy in Cologne

Arne K. Lang

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In a Knockout of the Year candidate, rising light heavyweight contender Joshua Buatsi (14-0, 12 KOs) leveled Daniel Blenda Dos Santos, an unheralded Frenchman, in the fourth round, closing the show with a pulverizing right hand – and for good measure, touching him with another right as he fell. A 2016 Olympic bronze medalist for England, the Ghana-born Buatsi trained for two months in the California Bay Area under his new trainer Virgil Hunter and his American sojourn paid dividends.

Dos Santos, who found his way to boxing after serving three-and-a-half years in prison, was undefeated (15-0, 8 KOs) coming in, but hadn’t fought beyond six rounds. He was knocked down earlier in the fight with a chopping right hand. There were less than 20 seconds remaining in the fourth when Buatsi put Dos Santos to sleep, and to his credit he did not celebrate but consoled his distraught victim.

Other Bouts

In a shocker, 31-year-old southpaw Jason Cunningham improved to 29-6 (6) with a unanimous decision over Gamal Yafai (18-2) who was making the first defense of the European bantamweight title that he won in Milan.

Cunningham had Yafai on the canvas three times — knocking him down with left hands in the second, fourth and sixth rounds — but Yafai, the younger brother of former 115-pound world title-holder Kal Yafai — wasn’t deterred and kept coming forward. In the end, however, Cunningham’s lead was too big for Yafai to overcome. The judges had it 115-110 and 114-111 x2 for the southpaw who was a consensus 10/1 underdog.

Super middleweight Lerrone Richards breezed to a lopsided 12-round decision over Italian veteran Giovanni DeCarolis to snatch a vacant European title. Trained by Dave Coldwell, who previously handled Tony Bellew, Richards was content to rack up points and the one-dimensional DeCarolis, who was making his first start in 23 months, had no way to stop him.

The judges had it 120-108 and 119-109 twice. The London-born Richards, whose family roots are in Ghana, improved to 15-0 (3). This may have been the last rodeo for the 36-year-old DeCarolis who fell to 28-10-1.

Belfast’s Tommy McCarthy (18-2, 9 KOs) was fed a softie for his first defense of his European cruiserweight title in the form of 36-year-old Romanian Alexandru Jur who brought a 19-4 record but had defeated only four men with winning records. Except for a few brief moments, Jur showed little inclination to mix it up. McCarthy put Jur down with a body punch in round four and finished him off two rounds later with another body punch. The official time was 2:09.

McCarthy, who is of Irish and Jamaican descent, moves on to a date with fellow Brit Chris Billam-Smith. Jur lost for the fourth time in his last six starts.

Cologne

Credit Christopher Lovejoy for having the gumption to defy Don King who threatened legal action if Lovejoy went ahead with his match today with WBA “champion in recess” Mahmoud (Manuel) Charr. But the 37-year-old Lovejoy, who arrived in Germany all by himself, traveled a long way to destroy whatever credibility he may have had. Fighting off the grid, he had rung up 19 fast knockouts in 19 fights against 19 presumptive Tijuana taxi drivers.

Carrying 306 ½-pounds, the six-foot-five Lovejoy lasted less than two full rounds against Charr who was making his first ring appearance in 42 months. Lovejoy was counted out after being dropped with a volley of punches in the second round.

Photo credit: Mark Robinson / Matchroom

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 135: Danny Roman and Super Bantamweights Perform in L.A.

David A. Avila

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 135: Danny Roman and Super Bantamweights Perform in L.A.

The super bantamweight division was virtually unknown by most fans of prizefighting for the last decade.

Then Danny Roman arrived and re-booted the 122-pound division virtually by himself by challenging and defeating world champions from Japan and the United Kingdom.

Roman (28-3-1, 10 KOs) no longer holds the world titles but itches to regain his footing when he fights Ricardo Espinoza (25-3, 21 KOs) at Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday May 15. Showtime will televise the battle on the Premier Boxing Champions card.

“Everything I do in boxing from here on out is to regain my status as a world champion,” said the normally ultra-reserved Roman, 31.

Ironically, both Roman and Espinoza turned their careers around with numerous battles at boxing shows in Ontario, California. They entered as boys and emerged as battle-tested men.

For the last 20 years Thompson Boxing Promotions has been pumping out world champions and contenders at a furious rate despite their small size in Southern California. They do not pamper or cajole their prospects.

Both Roman and Espinoza suffered their first losses as professionals at Thompson Boxing’s bloody battles at the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario. But despite losing, they continued to learn and evolve. Now they meet in Los Angeles on the big stage.

When Roman lost to Japan’s Takashi Okada in 2011 and Juan Reyes in 2013, that could have derailed the Los Angeles-based fighter for good. Instead, he re-grouped and reloaded to become a unified world champion. Roman traveled to Japan and won the WBA super bantamweight world title by stoppage of Shun Kubo in 2017. A couple of years later after several defenses, he clashed with WBO super bantamweight titlist TJ Doheny to win an incredible battle by decision in Los Angeles. It was perhaps the Fight of the Year in 2019 and gained Roman the WBO belt.

Though Roman lost both the WBA and WBO titles to Murodjon Akhmadaliev, it was a disputed split decision. Many felt Roman was the true winner. So now he must battle back toward the top.

Espinoza also fought many bloody affairs at the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario including his first two losses. He lost to Sam Rodriguez in 2016 and Christian Nieto in 2017. Then the power-punching fighter from Tijuana, Mexico knocked out 12 of 13 of his opponents to gain a world title fight that he lost in April 2019. Since then, he has returned to his winning ways and upset undefeated Brandon Valdes last year.

“Danny Roman has fought some really quality opponents that are high in the rankings, but this is my time. This is when I show that I can step up in competition and prove that I belong with the best,” said Espinoza who is very familiar with Roman.

The Tijuana fighter is a punching machine.

“This is not going to be an easy fight because I know my opponent is a tough fighter from Tijuana who is coming with everything he’s got. He’s got a lot of power, so I must be smart on how I throw my combinations,” said Roman who lives within 10 miles of the event. “I believe my experience in big fights is going to be the difference on May 15. I’m expecting a rough fight and I’m ready for an intense battle.”

Now the two veterans of the Ontario, California wars finally meet each other to see who advances toward a world title fight. They won’t have to look far. The main event pits two titleholders against each other.

Unification Battle for Super Bantam Belts

Mexico’s Luis Nery holds the WBC super bantamweight world title and faces Texan Brandon Figueroa who holds a version of the WBA super bantamweight title in the main event on the Dignity Health Sports Park card on Saturday. Showtime will televise.

Nery formerly held the bantamweight title too. But the Tijuana-based fighter had problems making weight and wisely moved up a weight division. So far, the extra pounds hasn’t been a problem.

The problem facing Nery is Figueroa has a solid chin.

Figueroa may look like a pretty boy but he fights like he’s ugly. The Weslaco, Texas native has firepower and a rock chin but does he have the skills to match Nery?

“I come forward. I bring the pressure and I’m definitely going to bring the power, the size and all the advantages I have to make sure that we give the fans a great show. I do respect him as a fighter but we’re just going to have to find out Saturday,” said Figueroa whose brother Omar Figueroa fought in the same venue two weeks ago.

Nery has quickness and agility to supplement his power. He also has experience in world class opposition and that’s something Figueroa lacks.

“Brandon’s style really fits with what I want to do in the ring,” said Nery, a boxer-slugger. “This is going to be an all-out war from the first round on. People are going to be talking about it for a long time after.”

The winner of this clash will hopefully meet the winner of Roman and Espinoza. That would really heat up the super bantamweight division to blue hot levels.

Some of my favorite fighters of the past occupied the super bantamweight division like Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez, Marco Antonio Barrera and Israel “Magnifico” Vazquez who twice fought in this same venue. His third fight with Rafael Marquez on March 1, 2008 was voted Fight of the Year for its brutal but spectacular display of super bantamweight power.

The winners of this quasi-super bantamweight tournament can equally achieve the same kind of greatness those former stars achieved. This is a good start.

Fights to Watch (All times are Pacific Coast)

Friday UFC Fight Pass 5:30 p.m. Heather Hardy (22-1) vs Jessica Camara (7-2); Melissa St. Vil (13-4-4) vs Olivia Gerula (18-18-4).

Friday Telemundo 11:30 p.m. Denilson Valtierra (14-0) vs Emanuel Lopez (30-12-1).

Sat. DAZN 10 a.m. Lerrone Richards (14-0) vs Giovanni De Carolis (28-9-1).

Sat. Showtime 7 p.m. Luis Nery (31-0) vs Brandon Figueroa (21-0-1); Danny Roman (28-3-1) vs Ricardo Espinoza (25-3).

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Charr vs Lovejoy: Better Late Than Never, or Not

Phil Woolever

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COLOGNE – There are many questions to be answered regarding Mahmoud Charr’s scheduled fight against Christopher Lovejoy this Saturday night at a training facility along the Rhine. The most primary point to be determined is whether the contest actually occurs.

Charr has been idle since capturing a WBA title belt against Aleksandr Ustinov way back in November 2017. Since then numerous delays and cancellations, many of them out of Charr’s control, have kept the erstwhile ranked heavyweight out of the championship picture and far from the international public eye.

The most recent of such situations found Charr unable to obtain a travel visa for a defense against Trevor Bryan in Florida last January. Machinations by Don King and the WBA in relegating Charr to “in recess” status further tarnished both the promoter and the organization’s already disgraceful reputations.

King has also had a hand in keeping Lovejoy off the rumbling radar, after the boxer previously claimed retirement as a way out of King’s contractual clutches. When Lovejoy attempted to face Dave Allen in London on the undercard of Usyk-Chisora, King contacted Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn with enough of a claim that Lovejoy’s appearance was cancelled.

According to Lovejoy, King has also attempted to block Saturday’s fight, so uncertainty remains until the first bell rings this weekend. That said, everything else about the relatively low key card seems to be well in place, and there is plenty to look forward to, questions and all. A subscriber-based live stream on German news outlet Bild.de will broadcast the bout.

How the long layoff, which began way before the coronavirus pandemic, has affected Charr is probably the most crucial factor, but what the rarely seen Lovejoy brings to the table is as compelling as it is curiously noteworthy. His record of 19-0 with 19 quick knockouts, compiled completely off-grid in frequent madhouse Tijuana could mean damn near anything.

Charr, 31-4 (17), has been stopped three times and in two of those KOs (by Maris Briedis and Alexander Povetkin) he was blasted into one-shot oblivion. Under Saturday’s scenario one of the few possible surprises might be if Lovejoy doesn’t try to get Charr out of there immediately.

Lovejoy, listed at 6’4”, looks substantially larger than 6’3” Charr, but not any taller. An uneducated guess indicates a strong possibility that the more proven Charr is capable of wearing Lovejoy down, especially considering how he did it against a respectable version of Ustinov.

When Lovejoy refused to shake Charr’s hand and insulted his courage during their press conference photo op, there was a slight but very significant twitch in Charr’s almost constantly upbeat countenance. If Lovejoy doesn’t indeed carry huge power in his punches, he may have inspired a painful night.

To put Charr’s simmering anger in perspective, it must be remembered that he still looked like he was calmly waiting for his food while being carried out on a stretcher after getting shot four times in the lower abdomen during a 2015 ambush in nearby Essen. When his assailant, a former boxing protégé, confessed by saying he only meant to shoot him in the leg, Charr told an emotion packed courtroom bygones were bygones, saying “I am a man who forgives.”

A refugee at five years old whose father was killed in the Lebanese civil war, Charr seems to clearly envision a bigger picture than just his boxing career, and he consistently posts positive motivational copy on social media, including an end of Ramadan message stressing nonpartisan hope for the current Gaza conflict.

The 10-round fight carries no title designation but whatever they may or may not step into the ring with, one thing Charr and Lovejoy share is the potential for a make-or-break performance.

If Charr wins, people will dismiss Lovejoy’s merit in the first place but it still keeps a bit of shine on his championship claims, increasing his leverage regarding Bryan or even bigger game. If Lovejoy wins, especially by dramatic KO, he has definitely upped his recognition factor marketability.

The only safe bet is that the winner will probably hear from somebody representing Don King.

And maybe even Fres Oquendo.

Questions, questions.

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