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A Birthday for Sonny Liston

Springs Toledo

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Helen Liston and Sonny, 1964.

“When I discover who I am, then I’ll be free.”

Ralph Ellison

In the summer of 1962, Charles “Sonny” Liston and his wife Geraldine were living in the rectory of St. Ignatius Loyola in Denver, Colorado. Father Edward P. Murphy, the Jesuit who took them in, oversaw what the press was calling Sonny’s “rehabilitation.” The priest preferred “reorientation”—a change of direction. The heavyweight division’s number-one contender had been suspended indefinitely in forty-seven states after yet another run-in with the law. He had good reason to change. He would rise at dawn to do roadwork at the City Park golf course and trained at a nearby Air Force base. Weekends were spent at a Catholic retreat house in Fraser. Geraldine, who first met Sonny at a prison dance, said novenas for him at the church.

Father Murphy took it upon himself to teach his functionally-illiterate guest how to read, to heal some of the wounds on his personality. The wounds were old.

“We grew up like heathens,” Sonny said. “When I was a kid I had nothing but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother, and a father who didn’t care about a single one of us.” His mother’s name was Helen, called “Big Hela” by kinfolk. She married his father despite an age difference of about thirty years.

Tobe was his name, Tobin Liston. He was the son of a slave who lived in Choctaw County, Mississippi and who can be found in the 1860 U.S. Census listed among the property of one Martin Liston. Liston’s estate, including his slaves, was valued at $6,825, which placed him far below the planter class. He was just a small farmer who feared Abraham Lincoln and tended his cotton fields alongside four bent black people he wrongfully claimed as his own. Five years later, “the freedom war” ended and the 13th Amendment grew from Lincoln’s grave like a blood-spattered rose. By 1870, Alexander Liston was renting a plot of land not far from his former master’s estate, now worth a paltry thousand dollars and owned by his widow.

Mississippi was not among the states that ratified the amendment that freed him. Resentment hovered in the thick, bleating air. Slavery was soon revived —slapdash like some dead thing that should’ve stayed dead— and black Americans were cast back into servitude as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, into a system designed to keep them in poverty. “The bossman got three-fourths of what you raised,” Helen said. “We had to raise what we ate and then buy shoes and clothes.”

There is no record of Alexander’s feelings about this or anything else, but we know that his son was angry; the son of his son angrier still.

Tobin moved his family and elderly father northward to Johnson Township in St. Francis County, Arkansas. He was, by all reports, a man whose hostility could not be contained in the meager five-foot-five frame God had given him. It spilled out in torrents of abuse and the oversized boy who didn’t pick cotton fast enough and whose silence was mistook for a simple mind, bore the brunt of it. Sonny wasn’t sentimental about his childhood: “The only thing I ever got from my old man was a beating,” he said.

Sonny, Father Murphy whispered, was “kicked around since he was born.” Precisely how long that was has been a long-standing mystery because no one could rightly say when he was born. The date of his birth was never recorded. They rarely were in rural areas during the Depression, especially when it came to poor black folk—unless they did it themselves.

There was a tree on the farm in Arkansas where father and son toiled under a sun oblivious to change. The birth dates of a new Liston generation were carved on that tree as if they had a right to hope. It was chopped down.

In 1950, Sonny was booked for robbery and told police he was born in 1928 or thereabouts. In 1953, he told Golden Gloves officials he was born in 1932 or thereabouts. During the Kefauver hearings in 1960, his massive shoulders strained his suit coat as he leaned into a microphone and said “I was born in 1933.” As champion, he chose May 8th 1932 as his default DOB to fend off the swarming press. They scoffed. His publicity man snapped, “He’s over 21.” In the mid-sixties, when he was banned from fighting just about anywhere except Nevada and Sweden, Dan Daniel of The Ring said “he doubtless is more than 45 years of age.” Before long the Swedish press joined the chorus (“You’re 42 aren’t you?”). Sonny got fed up. Anyone, he started threatening, who doubted he was the age he claimed was calling his momma a liar. But momma only added to the confusion: “I think it was January 18th in 1932. I know he was born in January, in 1932. It was cold in January.”

He eventually went and got himself a birth certificate, telling the clerk, the press, and his momma that he was born on May 8th 1932. He thought it would settle the matter. It didn’t. A reporter who had befriended him named Jack McKinney revealed the sad truth. Sonny, he said “was so sensitive on the issue of his age because he did not really know how old he was. When guys would write that he was 32 going on 50, it had more of an impact on him that anybody realized. Sonny didn’t know who he was.”

He never would. What began with the crash of a felled tree in Arkansas ended on a night unknown, when a bench in his bedroom crashed under two-hundred twenty pounds of dead weight. No one heard the tree fall. No one heard the bench crash. Both ends of his life, as loose and odd as expected, are all tied up in a big black bow.

Why then does his story seem unfinished?

Somewhere in the back of beyond, an enormous fist is still shaking, not with rage but with regret—the regret of not knowing.

…..

The 1940 U.S. Census reports have been released. Tobin Liston and his family come into view on a rented farm in backwater Smith Township on April 23rd of that year. They moved there from backwater Johnson Township sometime between 1930 and 1934. Tobin was sixty-seven and working on the farm sixty hours a week despite his advanced age. Helen was minding the chores in and around the rented shack and it’s easy to conjure up a picture of her wiping her hands on an apron as she greets the census taker. It would have been her who gave the names and ages of the children: Leo (“17”), Annie (“15”) and Alcora (“13,” called “Cabbie”), and there, between eleven-year-old Curtis and two-year-old Wesley, “Charles L” appears on record for the first time.

His age is given as “10” which means that 1930 is the likeliest year of his birth. However, Helen seemed prone to count the years from birth inclusively. A pointer is found in the 1930 census. On April 28th 1930, Curtis was listed at “6/12” months old (which strongly suggests that he was born in October 1929) and no child named Charles was listed in the Liston household. Ten years later, Curtis was indeed in his eleventh year as his mother claimed, though actually ten years old. Charles was probably in his tenth year, though nine years old.

If Curtis was born in October 1929, then Sonny’s default birthday of May 8th can be put to the wind, barring the unlikely event that he survived a premature delivery in a shotgun shack in a backward county with no doctor in sight. It is almost certain that he was born no earlier than July 1930.

As time stretched away from that census taker’s visit to the farm, Helen began to lose track. She was in her sixties when she said he was born in January (either the “18th”or the “8th”). Nick Tosches found that another sibling’s birth was registered as January 8th and supposed that she mixed them up. Late in life, Helen rummaged through her memory again and claimed he was born in 1927. She seems to have confused the year of Sonny’s birth with Alcora’s, which was 1927. But there’s another scrap of information, easily overlooked, that may end the mystery. Helen said that Sonny was born on July 22nd. Looking past her confusion about the year, we come face-to-face with a summer day that isn’t easily explained away and that happens to fall within the allowable time frame for a viable pregnancy.

—It fits. Perhaps a mother’s memory can be counted on after all.

A birth date emerges out of the thick, bleating air of the Mississippi Delta. Its jagged script, barely legible anymore, is carved on a resurrected tree: 7-22-1930, Charles L.

__________________

Photograph by John Vachon from Look Magazine, 2/25/1964.

“Should Patterson Give Title Shot to Liston: Sonny’s ‘Rebirth’ to Help,” Larry Still (Jet, 8/10/61); Jack McKinney’s “He’s Mad and Getting Madder” (Sports Illustrated, 9/24/62), Jack Olsen’s “What’s Become of the Big Bear?” (SI, 5/13/68) and William Nack’s “O Unlucky Man” (SI, 2/4/91), Evans Kirkby’s article in the Milwaukee Journal (5/24/1965), A.S. Young’s Sonny Liston: The Champ Nobody Wanted, (1963), The Ring, September 1967, Nick Tosches’ The Devil and Sonny Liston (2000), UPI-AP “Sought Floyd Rematch” 1/6/71, Rob Sneed’s Sonny Liston: His Life, Strife, and the Phantom Punch (2008) and U.S. Census reports (1860, 1870, 1930, 1940) were resources for this essay.

Springs Toledo can be contacted at scalinatella@hotmail.com.

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Wilder – Fury 2: Points to Ponder (Plus Official Weights)

Arne K. Lang

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This afternoon’s weigh-in, scheduled for 6 PM ET, will be closely monitored by gamblers who want to inspect the merchandise before making a wager. Tyson Fury has indicated that he will likely tip the scales at about 270 pounds, which would be 13 ½-pounds more than he carried in their first meeting and 15 ½-pounds more than what he carried in his last engagement vs Otto Wallin this past September. Deontay Wilder has also indicated that he plans to carry more weight for the rematch.

Andre Ward, for one, thinks that the added weight will be a detriment to Fury. “250 pounds is plenty big enough to push Wilder around,” said Ward at a media confab yesterday where the former two-division world champion shared the dais with the other talking heads from the networks that will be showing the fight. The implication is that any gains that Fury achieves in strength would be offset by less mobility.

For the record, back in 2009, in his first scheduled 10-rounder, Tyson Fury carried 247 pounds for his match with British countryman John McDermott. That was a difficult fight for the Gypsy King with many in attendance believing he earned no better than a draw. Nine months later he met McDermott again, this time carrying 270 pounds, and Fury dominated en route to a ninth-round stoppage. So, putting on more weight for a rematch worked to his advantage.

Interestingly, Andre Ward doesn’t believe that Deontay Wilder has reached his peak in terms of his ring IQ. Wilder, 34, is a former Olympic bronze medalist but had a very brief amateur career, a “small sample size,” as Ward put it. The Bronze Bomber, he said, “is still learning on the job.”

But he’s still one-dimensional, noted former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. Asked which fighter he would prefer to fight if he were still in his prime, Lewis opted for Deontay Wilder, saying that Wilder would cause him fewer problems than Fury because Fury “gives you more looks.”

Not once during yesterday’s media confab did anyone address the cut that Fury suffered against Wallin. It was a wicked gash that required 47 stitches. The view from here, and it’s a widely shared opinion, is that the fight would have been stopped if the stakes hadn’t been so high.

cut

Wilder has 36 minutes to land the punch that would turn the tide in his favor and thus far only two of his 43 opponents has lasted until the final bell. But the possibly of the cut re-opening, say several reporters with whom I brain-stormed, is just as likely as the fight ending via one of Wilder’s patented one-punch knockouts.

A shade over five months has elapsed since Fury suffered that bad cut. Was that a sufficient length of time for the cut to heal properly? And with this fight packaged as Chapter Two of a trilogy, a loss on cuts by Fury wouldn’t necessarily damage his pocketbook which may factor into the ring doctor’s decision of whether or not to stop it if this issue rears its head again.

If there is a third fight – and it’s supposedly a done deal – there’s virtually no chance that it will be staged in England. So says co-promoter Bob Arum. That’s because the PPV receipts for a mega-fight are far and away the biggest piece of the revenue pie.

If Wilder-Fury III were to be held in the UK, the fight would start in the late afternoon throughout most of North America. “The pay-per-view disappears when you hold a fight in England,” says Arum. “It’s true that you would pick up more subscribers in Europe, but that’s a little number compared to the big number you would lose.”

“What the heavyweight division has lacked in recent years,” said Mark Kriegel at yesterday’s confab, “has been a great rivalry.” Kriegel alluded to the three-fight series between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield.

Will the Wilder-Fury rivalry become as celebrated as that intense rivalry or, more ambitiously, become as celebrated as the hallowed rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier? That’s asking an awful lot but stay tuned.

UPDATE: Tyson Fury tipped the scales at 273 (he weighed in with his shirt and shoes on)

Deontay Wilder came in at 231.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 86: Heavyweight Impact, Thompson Boxing and More

David A. Avila

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 86: Heavyweight Impact, Thompson Boxing and More

Any time Yanks fight Brits, expect a battle of epic proportions, but when you add rival networks, well now it’s getting downright nasty.

When undefeated WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder (42-0-1, 41 KOs) steps in to face lineal champion face Tyson Fury (29-0-1, 20 KOs) on Saturday Feb. 22, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, it pits not only PBC versus Top Rank, but FOX versus ESPN pay-per-views.

These are all good things.

Aside from bragging rights for the winner’s side, the absolute winners could be boxing fans especially those waiting for other potential fights between PBC and Top Rank. This heavyweight clash could be the foot-in-the-door needed for boxing.

Think: welterweight showdowns between Top Rank’s Terence Crawford and PBC’s Errol Spence Jr. as a follow up. There are many other potential matchups.

All this could be the next step after this repeat heavyweight showdown.

Wilder brings his explosiveness against Fury’s tactical and incredible agility for this return match. Can they match their first encounter?

Back in December 2018, in Los Angeles, the two heavyweights boxed and slugged their way to history with the best heavyweight world championship fight of the 21st century, even topping 2003’s Lennox Lewis versus Vitali Klitschko that also took place in Los Angeles.

Great heavyweight battles are not as common as one would think. They don’t throw as many blows as welterweights and usually they are as slow as glaciers. They can lull you to sleep with their slowness.

“I’m the hardest hitting heavyweight of all time,” said Wilder when in Los Angeles.

Wilder and Fury mesmerized the public with their clash of styles especially after the tall Brit with the clever lines was dropped in the ninth and 12th rounds. How he got up to fight remains a mystery to me and many others.

“He put me down twice and here I am,” said Fury who twice beat the count after knockdowns in their first encounter at the Staples Center.

Very few heavyweight title fights can equal Fury-Wilder’s first meeting.

Memorable Heavyweight Battles of the Past

Here are a few heavyweight world title fights I saw that I actually think measure up:

Riddick Bowe versus Evander Holyfield 2 in Las Vegas on November 6, 1993.

Larry Holmes versus Ken Norton in Las Vegas on June 9, 1978.

Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier 3 in Quezon City, Philippines Oct. 1, 1975.

Wilder and Fury 2 should be similar to their first encounter but expect the fight to end in less than 12 rounds. They know each other’s tendencies, strengths, and definitely know each other’s weaknesses. Expect a knockout but it remains to be seen who gets the knockout.

Yes, we know Wilder has the power but does he have the chin?

This time Fury will be willing to test Wilder’s chin with a full-out attack and that should come early in the fight. This fight should not go past five rounds. Either Wilder goes down and out or Fury goes to sleep. Someone’s not beating the count.

I truly don’t know who wins this rematch.

20th Anniversary for Thompson

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I attended Thompson Boxing Promotion’s first boxing event at the very same Doubletree Hotel in Ontario, California back on March 5, 2001. Carlos “El Elegante” Bojorquez was the headliner on that card and the super welterweight fight ended in a technical draw due to a clash of heads opening a cut on Bojorquez.

That was the first Thompson Boxing card and here we are on Friday February 21, 2020 with the Orange County-based company showcasing another gem in Ruben Torres.

One thing about Thompson Boxing they know how to discover talent and have a string of world champions and contenders in its 20 years of existence. Torres could be the next. They still have Danny Roman who recently lost the WBA and IBF super bantamweight titles by a narrow decision. But regaining a world title remains a reality.

Torres (11-0, 9 KOs) faces Gabino Cota (19-10-2, 17 KOs) in an eight-round lightweight clash that will probably not go the distance.

I’ve seen all of Torres’ fights and through this three-year journey the 5’11” tall lightweight has been honed into a precision fighting machine by trainer Danny Zamora in Santa Fe Springs, California.

Zamora rarely gets credit for his ability to develop boxers into world class prizefighters but he has an extensive history of success. From Yonnhy Perez to Torres the Santa Fe Springs trainer has quietly produced multiple elite pugilists for just as long as Thompson Boxing has existed. Catch his act.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. For tickets or information call (714) 935-0900.

Ryan’s World

It’s been nearly one week since Ryan “The Flash” Garcia knocked out Francisco Fonseca in the first round of their regional title fight at the Honda Center in Anaheim. If you haven’t seen the highlight, go ahead and take a look. The entire fight lasted only 1:20 and it seemed shorter.

Garcia was not fighting a low caliber fighter. Let’s get that straight. Fonseca gave both Tevin Farmer and Gervonta Davis a difficult time. He couldn’t do the same against Garcia.

Fonseca has a lot of talent and a good chin. In fact, the day after losing to Tank Davis by illegal blows behind the head, the fighter who lived in Costa Rica visited my home in Southern California and seemed more than healthy despite the fouls committed against him and allowed by the referee and Nevada State Athletic Commission. Though Fonseca’s team took their complaint to the Commission – with extensive footage showing the hits behind the head – the loss was not overturned.

Over the years I’ve seen Garcia fight both as an amateur and professional and it was obvious to me and almost every major promoter in America that he has talent. All were interested in signing Garcia once he turned 18.

Well, Golden Boy signed him and here he is on the precipice of a world title challenge. It’s not a surprise to those in the boxing game. It’s only a surprise to those that truly don’t know prizefighting. This kid is for real.

Oxnard

On open workout for the public will be held by Diego Magdaleno at La Colonia Gym in Oxnard, California on Friday, Feb. 21. The workout begins at 5 p.m. and equipment will be donated to the boxing club by Shannon Torres Gilman.

Magdaleno, a lightweight contender who scored a big win on national television last weekend on the Plant-Feigenbutz card, is the older brother of former world champion Jessie Magdaleno. He is also training and managing former female world champion, Crystal Morales, who is scheduled to fight on March 27 in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Fights to Watch

Fri. 8 p.m. Thompsonboxing.com – Ruben Torres (11-0) vs Gabino Cota (19-10-2).

Fri. 11:30 p.m. Telemundo – Saul Juarez (25-10-2) vs Jonathan Gonzalez (22-3-1).

Sat. 6 p.m. FOX or ESPN pay-per-view – Deontay Wilder (42-0-1) vs Tyson Fury (29-0-1); Emanuel Navarrete (30-1) vs Jeo Santisima (19-2); Charles Martin (27-2-1) vs Gerald Washington (20-3-1); Javier Molina (21-2) vs. Amir Imam (22-2).

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Wilder, Fury Both Believe Providence is on Their Side

Bernard Fernandez

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Wilder, Fury Both Believe Providence is on Their Side

You hear it more and more frequently at the conclusion of significant sporting events, including boxing matches. The winner or key-play maker for the victors thanks God for His supposed intervention, thus giving the impression that the Almighty, like many humans who pray that their wagers pay off, plays favorites on the field or in the ring, perhaps even to the point of running a celestial bookie operation.

Remember how it was when Joe Louis knocked out Adolf Hitler’s favorite heavyweight, Max Schmeling, in the first round of their June 22, 1938, rematch at Yankee Stadium? Millions of Americans considered it an affirmation of Divine Intervention, of Star-Spangled good conquering the pure evil of all that the Nazis represented, and never mind that Schmeling found Der Fuhrer as repugnant as did Louis and his vast legion of admirers.

Nowadays, choosing whom to support in a major fight, emotionally and financially, is not always so cut-and-dried. Some will plunk their money down on someone representing their country or home region, more pragmatic types are apt to follow their heads instead of their hearts. But the bedrock principle of gambling still most often applies: when in doubt, root for whichever individual or team will yield a profit rather than a loss.

Given that Saturday night’s megafight between WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder (42-0-1, 41 KOs) and lineal titlist Tyson Fury (29-0-1, 20 KOs) is about as close as it ever gets to being a 50/50 proposition (Wilder is favored by the narrowest of margins), many of those backing their play with big bucks might have to confess that they’re doing so with fingers crossed and fervent prayers offered to a deity that may or may not have determined the outcome beforehand.

But there are two individuals who profess to be absolutely certain of a favorable outcome at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, and not just for reasons that are presumably based in fact or logic. Wilder, the pulverizing puncher from Tuscaloosa, Ala., has offered his opinion that God indeed has blessed his cause, much as it was widely believed nearly 82 years ago that the king of heaven wanted Louis (also a native Alabaman, for those who take note of such things) to whack out Schmeling. But a different certainty is being offered by Fury, the gigantic “Gypsy King” from the United Kingdom who also claims he has it on good authority that it is his destiny to emerge triumphant.

Wilder, who had an audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican in December, at which time he was named the papal Ambassador for Sport, said he has been aware since childhood of the plan God supposedly has for him.

“I’ve always had power,” he said. “I always tell the story of how my grandmother said I was anointed by God, that God is trying to use me for things. It’s just all about living, coming into this world and finding your purpose in life. I think I found one of my purposes in life, and of course that’s whupping ass and taking names. And I do that very well.

“I’ve just been blessed tremendously. It’s one of the things I can’t describe how it transpired. When you have a calling in life, it’s just that. I just have a calling all my life. I’m showing the world who I am and what I am.”

Fury doesn’t exactly identify God as the reason he will win. His explanation vaguely hints at Tarot cards and tea leaves, but he’s just as convinced that a mighty wave of predetermination will carry him to his inevitable success on fight night. He claims that it is his seemingly miraculous recovery from an emphatic 12th-round knockdown by Wilder in their first meeting, on Dec. 1, 2018, in Los Angeles, that has cloaked him in virtual invincibility.

“I didn’t know I was knocked down,” he said of the second of the two times he was dropped by Wilder. “It wasn’t a flash knockdown, like in round nine. It was like a knockout. I watched it on tape. He hit me with a right hand and when I was on my way down he hit me with a left hook. It should have been bye-bye. I remember opening my eyes after around four seconds. I thought, `Get up!’ I just jumped up. And then Wilder rushes in and hits me with another massive left hook right on the temple. But it was like I was bullet-proof. It was a more damaging shot than the one that buried me. But it wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t Wilder’s time (to win). It wasn’t my time to lose.

“I come from a long line of gypsies going back thousands of years. I’m the latest king of our tribe, our people, whatever you want to call them. I believe it’s written in the stars. I don’t believe all the hard work, all the dedication, have that much to do with it. You have to do that as well, but some things that have happened to me in my life now make me 100% believe it’s written in the stars.”

(One has to wonder how Fury’s public pronouncement that frequent cunnilingus has helped strengthen his jaw was received by his wife and mother of the couple’s five children, the most outrageous such comment since Livingstone Bramble bragged that, counter to standard boxing protocol, he engaged in sexual activity with his wife multiple times a night right up to the day of his bouts.)

For fight fans hesitant to buy into the notion, proffered by either principal, that a higher power has a vested interest in what takes place inside the ropes in this much-anticipated do-over, standard factors are likely to ultimately prove the difference. Can Wilder’s superior power get him home should he find the mark with that devastating right hand? Will Fury’s more polished boxing skills flummox his bigger-hitting foe all the way to the final bell and a nod on points? Or will Fury keep his word that he will take the fight straight to Wilder in the center of the ring, a radical shift in strategy possibly orchestrated by his new trainer, Javan “Sugar” Hill?

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