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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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Avila Perspective, Chap. 82: Jason Quigley Returns to SoCal and More

David A. Avila

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Southern California prizefighting heats up with Jason Quigley headlining a fight card in Orange County and then, two days later, another fight card takes place in the heart of Los Angeles.

Ireland’s Quigley (17-1, 13 KOs) faces Mexico’s Fernando Marin (16-4-3, 12 KOs) on Thursday Jan. 23, at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, Calif. DAZN will stream the Golden Boy Promotions fight card live.

Quigley, 28, seeks to reclaim territory lost when he suffered a defeat last July against Tureano Johnson. Ironically, Marin would lose 10 days later in Hollywood to super welterweight contender Serhii Bohachuk.

For several years Quigley had trained in Southern California but decided to change trainers and location. He moved to Great Britain and still prepares near his native country but primarily fights in the U.S.

At one time Quigley clamored for a match against Gennady “GGG” Golovkin or Saul “Canelo” Alvarez but now finds himself trying to prove he belongs in the upper tier of the middleweight division. It’s loaded with talent.

Also on the same fight card will be popular North Hollywood super welterweight Ferdinand Kerobyan who was headed to contender status when he ran into Blair “the Flair” Cobbs. At the time Cobbs was an unknown quantity but no longer.

Kerobyan (13-1, 8 KOs) meets Azael Cosio (21-8-2) in an eight-round clash in the semi-main event at OC Hangar. Doors open at 5 p.m.

Red Boxing International

On Saturday Jan. 27, Red Boxing International hosts its first boxing card of the year at Leonardo’s Night Club located at 6617 Wilson Ave. L.A. 90001. Doors open at 5 p.m.

Super welterweight Bryan Flores (13-1, 6 KOs) meets Brandon Baue (15-17) in the main event  in the first event of the year for the ambitious promotion company. For the past two years Flores fought primarily in Tijuana, Mexico where he racked up six wins. Now he’s back on Southern California soil.

Another match features lightweights Angel Israel Rodriguez (5-0) facing off against Braulio Avila (3-6) in a six-round fight.

Rodriguez fights out of Pico Rivera, Calif. but recently fought in Costa Rica where he won by first round knockout in November. He will be fighting Avila who just fought two weeks ago at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, Calif.

It’s a long fight card with 11 bouts on the schedule.

JRock and Rosario

Boxing fans received another lesson on never underestimating a ranked contender regardless of the name recognition.

Jeison Rosario knocked out Julian “J Rock” Williams who was making the first defense of the WBA and IBF super welterweight world titles he won last year in my selection as “Fight of the Year.”

Rosario walked in with little recognition and was thought to be a soggy piece of bread for Williams. The long armed Dominican fighter walloped Williams in front of his hometown fans in Philadelphia. It was yet another warning for fans to understand that anyone who steps in the boxing ring ranked as a contender can do the unthinkable. In this case Rosario knocked out the champion in five rounds.

Many felt Williams was far too skilled, especially on the inside where he showcased those skills last May against former titlist Jarret Hurd. It was a remarkable display of the art of inside fighting. But against Rosario, he never got a chance to exhibit those skills.

The loaded super welterweight division has another dangerous champion in Rosario.

Fights to Watch

Thurs. 6 p.m. DAZN – Jason Quigley (17-1) vs Fernando Marin (16-4-3).

Sat. 6 p.m. Showtime – Danny Garcia (35-2) vs Ivan Redkach (23-4-1).

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Recalling Three Big Fights in Miami, the Site of Super Bowl LIV

Arne K. Lang

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The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs collide on Feb. 2 in Miami in Super Bowl LIV (54) in what will assuredly be the biggest betting event to ever play out on American soil. It’s the 10th Super Bowl for the South Florida metropolis which ties it with New Orleans as the most frequent destination for football’s premier attraction.

With its heavily Latin population, Miami would seem to be natural for big fights. However, this hasn’t been the case. Several great champions fought here, including Roberto Duran who twice defended his world lightweight title in these parts, but these weren’t big fights. In the case of Duran, his opponents were lightly regarded and the Panamanian legend was still three years away from his first encounter with Sugar Ray Leonard, a match that increased his name recognition a hundred-fold.

There were, however, three fights in Miami that summoned the interest of virtually all of America’s A-list sportswriters. Here they are in reverse chronological order.

Aaron Pryor vs. Alexis Arguello (Nov. 12, 1982)

Alexis Arguello (72-5) was bidding to become boxing’s first four-division champion. In his way stood WBA junior welterweight title-holder Aaron Pryor (31-0, 29 KOs), a man now widely regarded as the best 140-pound boxer of all time.

Arguello, a Miami resident, having been exiled from his Nicaraguan homeland by the Sandanista rebel occupation, was a textbook boxer who defeated his opponents with surgical efficiency. Pryor was a typhoon. He mowed down his opponents with relentless pressure. It was a great style match-up and it didn’t disappoint. Contested before nearly 30,000 at Miami’s iconic Orange Bowl, Pryor vs. Arguello was a fight for the ages.

“There was power, finesse, poise, courage and a tremendous ebb and flow,” said Associated Press writer Ed Schuyler who dubbed it Manila in Miniature. In the ninth, 11th, and particularly the 13th rounds, Arguello hit Pryor with straight right hands that would have felled an ordinary fighter, but Pryor had an iron chin.

In the 14th, Pryor buckled Arguello’s knees with a straight right hand and then unloaded a furious combination as Arguello fell back against the ropes. He was out on feet when referee Stanley Cristodoulou intervened and he would lay prone on the canvas for several minutes before he could be removed to his dressing room.

Sonny Liston vs. Muhammad Ali (Feb. 25, 1964)

If you happen to find a poster for this fight with the name Muhammad Ali on it, don’t buy it. It’s bogus. Liston met up with Muhammad Ali in their second fight. In their first encounter, Liston opposed Cassius Clay.

Clay’s Louisville sponsors, after a brief flirtation with Archie Moore, settled on Angelo Dundee as his trainer. Angelo operated out of his brother Chris Dundee’s gym located at the corner of 5th Street and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The fighter who took the name Muhammad Ali trained here and kept a home in Miami for most of his first six years as a pro.

Clay/Ali was 22 years old and had only 19 fights under his belt when he was thrust against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Liston was riding a 28-fight winning streak after back-to-back first-round blowouts of Floyd Patterson.

In a UPI survey, 43 of 46 boxing writers picked Liston. “Clay has no more chance of stopping Liston than the old red barn had of impeding a tornado,” wrote Nat Fleischer, the publisher of The Ring magazine.

This would be the first of many famous fights for Muhammad Ali who emerged victorious when Liston quit after the sixth frame citing an injured shoulder. What is not widely known, however, is that the fight, which was shown on closed-circuit in the U.S. and Canada, was a bust at the gate. The 16,448-seat Convention Center was only half full.

The expectation that Liston would take the lippy kid out in a hurry depressed sales, as did sky-high ticket prices ($250 tops when $100 was the norm). And there may have been more subtle factors. “This may not be the best place for a fight between two Negroes,” wrote Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times, cognizant that people of color were not welcome as guests at the ritzy beachfront hotels along Collins Avenue.

Jack Sharkey vs. W. L. (Young) Stribling (Feb. 27, 1929)

A big fight, as I define it, doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. An important fight that produces an upset automatically becomes a bigger fight in hindsight. The Sharkey-Stribling fight of 1929 didn’t draw an immense crowd by Jack Dempsey standards, but the turnout, reportedly 35,000, far exceeded expectations and the fight – which preceded Miami’s first Orange Bowl football game by six years — really established Miami as a potentially good place for a big sporting event.

Promoted by the Madison Square Garden Corporation, the bout was originally headed to a dog racing track but it quickly became obvious that a larger venue was needed. A stadium was erected on a Miami Beach polo field, taking the name Flamingo Park (not to be confused with the thoroughbred track of the same name).

Slated for 10 rounds, the bout was conceived as one of two “eliminators” to find a successor to Gene Tunney who had retired. What gave the fight it’s primary allure, however, was the North-South angle. Sharkey, born Joseph Zukauskas, hailed from Boston. Stribling, born into a family that traveled the fair circuit with a variety act, was from Macon, Georgia.

The fight, which aired on the NBC radio network, was a dud, a drab affair won by Sharkey who had the best of it in virtually every round. Both went on to fight Max Schmeling for the world heavyweight title. Stribling, dubbed the “King of the Canebrakes” by Damon Runyon, lost by TKO in fight that was stopped late in the 15th round. Sharkey took the title from Schmeling on a split decision after losing their first meeting on a foul.

Young Stribling died in a motorcycle crash at age 28, by which time he had engaged in 251 documented bouts, the great majority of which were set-ups. Jack Sharkey lived to be 91.

—-

The strong earnings of the Sharkey-Stribling bout inevitably drew the Madison Square Garden Corporation back to Miami for an encore. On Feb. 27, 1930, Jack Sharkey opposed England’s “Fainting” Phil Scott. Four years later, on March 1, 1834, Primo Carnera defended his world heavyweight title here against former light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran, the Philadelphia Phantom.

Both bouts were big money losers, as were the great majority of major fights during this period. Eight months after the Sharkey-Stribling cash cow, the stock market crashed, plunging the United States into the Great Depression. Few Americans could afford to vacation in Florida, let alone travel anywhere for a big fight.

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Star Power: Ryan Garcia and Oscar De La Hoya at West L.A. Gym

David A. Avila

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Under gray skies and very cool temperatures Ryan Garcia arrived with his father and a couple of others at the Westside Boxing Gym on Monday.

Waiting anxiously were about 100 people comprised of mostly videographers and photographers who had already surrounded Oscar De La Hoya who arrived earlier.

Golden Boy greets the Flash.

Garcia (19-0, 16 KOs) has a fight coming soon against Nicaragua’s Francisco Fonseca (25-2-2, 19 KOs) on Friday Feb. 14, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. The Golden Boy Promotions show will be streamed by DAZN.

“I’m ready for this fight,” Garcia said quickly.

Some say it has been a rather quick road for the fighter from Victorville known as the Flash. But if you ask Garcia, it has been too slow.

“I think he (Garcia) will be world champion this year,” said De La Hoya, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions.

Years ago, De La Hoya arrived with the same hoopla but his travel to the top seemed even faster. By his fifth pro fight he was matched with Jeff Mayweather. Yes, those Mayweathers. At the time Mayweather had fought 27 professional fights and had only two losses. De La Hoya stopped him in four.

In his eighth pro fight De La Hoya met Troy Dorsey, a tough Texan who had formerly held the IBF featherweight world title and who would later win a super featherweight world title. De La Hoya stopped him in one round.

Two years after winning the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, the Golden Boy met WBO world titlist Jimmi Bredahl at the Olympic Auditorium and after dropping him several times finally stopped him in the 10th round. It was De La Hoya’s first world title and he was 21 years old.

Garcia is now 21 and ready to test the loaded lightweight division waters. For a while he was fighting at super featherweight, a division loaded with talent. But lightweights are the Maginot Line when it comes to boxing’s big hitters. Everybody can punch in the 135-pound limit lightweight division.

When Garcia met Romero Duno last November in Las Vegas many expected the speedy Victorville fighter to get his come-uppance. Instead the lanky slugger lit up the strong Filipino fighter and dropped him into the ether world.

It was mesmerizing stuff.

Now he’s back with a load of credibility after shutting down detractors with his devastating knockout win over Duno. It wasn’t supposed to be that easy. Just like it wasn’t supposed to be that easy when De La Hoya raced by world champions like Secretariat did in the Kentucky Derby decades ago. It’s not supposed to be that easy, but for some it truly is.

Garcia seems to be headed for a journey so remarkable that he has other world champions like WBC titlist Devin Haney eyeing him for their next challenges. It barely results in a yawn for the fighter who will be facing a very credible foe in Fonseca next month.

“I’m not even the champion and he’s calling me out,” said Garcia with a whatever kind of look.

Other fighters and promoters can see what Garcia represents and want to get a slice of it too. Its intangible yet most of the boxing world can sense something is coming and Garcia might be part of it.

That’s called star power and it’s difficult to explain. Some have it, many want it and others have no chance of ever attaining it.

Time will tell how far Garcia’s star power will venture.

One man lived that life and, in a sense, still lives that life and that is De La Hoya. Even he senses a déjà vu moment with Garcia.

“It’s why we made him one of the richest young prospects in boxing today,” De La Hoya said.

Expect several thousand ardent fans of Garcia to fill the seats on Valentine’s Day. How else can you explain it but, star power.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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