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The Fifty Greatest Flyweights of All Time: Part Three 30-21

Matt McGrain




The Fifty Greatest Flyweights of All Time: Part Three 30-21

In Part Three we meet fighters who approach true greatness, but who, for whatever reasons, failed to grasp the nettle. We also take in the full vista of the flyweight division traveling back to the First World War and sweeping right up to the present day with a selection of fighters as different as they were excellent.

Running into Fighting Harada in Part Two means that we have already let the head-to-head monster out of the genie’s lamp but there are one or two named below who could have lived with him.

Despite this, and an array of all-time great scalps and some astonishing facts and figures these men do come up just short of the top twenty, however.

This cannot be explained in its entirety here – in large part it is due more to the wonderful talent we will discuss in Parts Four and Five.

#30 – Terry Allen (1942-1954)

Londoner Terry Allen was difficult to rank. He had one of those careers where he seemed at times capable of anything and at others, limited. Nothing is more demonstrative of this than his bizarre trilogy with the superb Northern Irishman, Rinty Monaghan.

The two first met in 1947, both men already well established as flyweights of class, Monaghan then the #1 contender to the flyweight crown. Their all British affair would see the winner advance to a shot at the champion, Jackie Paterson, in another lucrative domestic contest. Much was at stake.  Focus was paramount.

Allen was blasted out in a single round.

He got his chance at revenge in 1949. Monaghan, by then the champion, gave his storied old foe a chance at redemption in an eight-round non-title fight at the Harringay Arena in London and Allen grabbed at it with both hands, climbing from the canvas to dominate a torrid sixth round and receive a deserved decision over the short distance. A championship fight was his reward.

Allen got everything right early, dropping his nemesis heavily in the second round, but seems perhaps to have been disorganized in following up his advantage. Monaghan survived. The Coventry Evening Telegraph described the fight as “the biggest fright of [Monaghan’s] life” and it is suggested, perhaps, that the Northern Irishman was given the benefit of the doubt on home soil in escaping with a draw; whatever the detail, Monaghan promptly retired and the title passed into vacancy.

Allen would lift that title in 1950, outpointing Honore Pratesi to begin a new lineage; that lineage passed to Dado Marino just four months later as Allen in turn dropped a decision out in Hawaii.

Another crackling series with Dickie O’Sullivan and a victory over contender Norman Tennant enhances his standing and his legacy; stories, perhaps, for another day.

#29 – Muangchai Kittikasem (1988-1999)

Muangchai Kittikasem is a perennially underrated fighter who reigned undisputed as the best flyweight in the world in 1991 and 1992. He then made way for the extraordinary Yuri Arbachakov but he ended the reign of a fighter just as extraordinary, that of Sot Chitalada, the great Thai.

The first time they met was in February 1991, a vicious contest that left Chitalada repeatedly tangled in or draped over the ring ropes. It was his first ever stoppage loss. His second was just around in the corner in the rematch, staged almost exactly one year later.

Chitalada survived two heavy knockdowns in the second round, but only to be savagely dispatched in the ninth. Kittikasem, then, mastered Chitalada but he could never supplant him and achieve his superstar status. In between his two battles with Chitalada, Kittikasem staged a fight of the year contender with the highly ranked Jung Koo Chang, surviving three knockdowns himself to dispatch his Korean opponent in the twelfth and final round with the fight in the balance. He also sneaked past Alberto Jimenez in a narrow majority decision, another excellent fight.

When Arbachakov came in along, Kittikasem was far from “ready to be taken” and it must have hurt to have to step aside for the better man. An underappreciated legacy underpinned by that victory over Chitalada should see him more fondly remembered than he generally is.

#28 – Percy Jones (1911-1916)

Percy Jones was the other top Welsh flyweight from the World War One era who sadly never met the great Jimmy Wilde in the ring. It seems odd that their paths never crossed but Jones had a relatively short career, although he packed in plenty.

He first made his mark early in 1914 beating Londoner Bill Ladbury in a desperate scrap that saw him a points winner. A weird hybrid of styles, Jones seems to have fought out of the American crouch but kept the British propensity to stress the jab above all else, a frustrated stylist. Quick, powerful and famous in his own time for the accuracy and sharpness of his left hand, Jones took the British and European titles from Ladbury as well as an uneasily burgeoning version of the world title, leading many to name him the first Welsh world champion.

Whatever the validity of this claim, Jones became the pre-eminent flyweight for a spell while Wilde was emerging. His chief dance partners were Joe Symonds, who we ran across in Part One, Jones winning three of their four matches, and Eugene Criqui, with whom he split a series 1-1. The most meaningful of these contests, with Percy’s titles on the line, took place in March of 1914 and was perhaps the finest performance of the Welshman’s career.

It would also be his last at the flyweight limit. Jones always made war with his body to cut to the requisite poundage and he had taken the flyweight adventure as far as it could go.

The valleys of Wales rarely fail to astonish with the huge assortment of brilliant talent they’ve gifted to boxing over the years, but the Jones/Wilde domination of the blooming flyweight division’s early years is perhaps the most spectacular.

#27 – Santos Laciar (1976-1990)

Santos Laciar was a sawed-off 5’1” Argentine who sported the heart of a much larger man, reflected in the fact that he was never stopped in 100 boxing contests. He was a true centurion, rarer and more beautiful for the fact that he became one in 1990 in the third decade of his career and the year of his final contest.

For all that, he was never the lineal title-holder, but rather a belt-holder (Atonio Avelar, Freddy Castillo and Ele Mercedes the true champions who evaded his grasp) Laciar gathered a splendid resume, besting Peter Mathebula and Juan Herrera, who were both among the most admired flyweights of the early eighties. Defeats of former lineal champion Prudencio Cardona, the past prime Betulio Gonzalez and Hilario Zapata all speak for him.

The best of Laciar can be readily seen online in the form of his 1981 destruction of Mathebula.  Much rangier than Laciar, Mathebula was then the #3 contender to the flyweight crown and favored to beat his smaller opponent on his native South African soil; 5,000 miles from home, Laciar tucked up, narrowed himself, and put on a glory of slippage, nullifying Mathebula’s excellent jab. A delicious and short left-hook ate up the real estate Mathebula deployed between them and the transmuted left uppercut that accompanied it slowly opened up the right hand. This spelled the end for the South African and made Laciar one of the world’s pre-eminent flyweights, a position he did not relinquish until 1985.

#26 – Efren Torres (1959-1972)

Efren Torres, “The Scorpion”, interrupted the championship reign of the great Chartchai Chionoi in the late 1960s to rule briefly as the lineal flyweight champion of the world. As signature wins go, this is very much one for a fighter to hang his hat on.

But Torres has so much more than a gatecrash grab of Chionoi’s title going for him. Not least was the impression he made in his 1968 losing effort versus Chionoi, running the great Thai right to the wire with the judges split down the middle as referee Arthur Mercante stopped the fight after thirteen savage rounds of vicious fighting that saw the ring mired in gore. Chionoi, who called Torres “the second best flyweight in the world” in the wake of this war, opened up a grotesque cut and rendered the Mexican’s face a crimson visage; a rematch of this first fight, which remains one of the most celebrated title-fights in flyweight history, was inevitable.

The second fight did not deliver. Torres, without suffering the urgency that terrible cut forced upon him in 1968, totally outclassed Chionoi in 1969. In the broiling El Toreo de Cuatro Camino, he slid, slipped, and counter-punched his way to total dominance, stopping the champion in eight one-sided rounds, even returning the brutal favor in crisply battering his opponent’s face into an unrecognizable lump with volleys of punches crowned by a deadly straight right hand.

Alas, Efren’s time at the top was not to last. A single successful title defence against Susumu Hagata, then among the five best flyweights in the world, was followed by a third clash with Chionoi.  Perhaps not many fighters could have prospered in sharing an era with the great Thai and Efren came up short, dropping a wide decision in the Orient. He would never return to the title.

His wider resume was impressive, including victories over an ancient Pascual Perez, a young Octavio Gomez and Raton Mojica, who would one day best Chionoi himself.

But it is for his evergreen trilogy with the wonderful Chionoi that he will rightly and always be remembered.

#25- Jackie Paterson (1938-1951)

Jackie Paterson is one of the longest-reigning champions in flyweight history and despite this fact remains perennially underrated. His claim is generally recognized from 1943 when he destroyed former champion Peter Kane, brilliantly, surreally, in a single round.

So why is he ranked no higher?

Well, Paterson was a fighting champion, he was very busy in the years in which he held the title, but he rarely placed it on the line. He fought a meager number of defenses, explained, in part, by his endless battle to make the 112lb weight limit. He fought as high as featherweight, battling (the right word) back down the flyweight limit to re-match old foe Joe Curran in 1946, coming out ahead over fifteen but likely delivering less than his best.

Another, more pertinent question then: how to justify such a high ranking?

Despite his shyness with the title, as a contender, Paterson operated with regularity in the upper echelons of his division. A good, if not a great bunch, he matched as many ranked contenders as anyone ranked below him on this list. He fulfilled the time-honored tradition of breaking out by battering a contender on the wane in the shape of Curran in June of 1939; he stopped Paddy Ryan later that same year and in doing so claimed the British and Commonwealth title. He was barely into his twenties.

Two years later, stretching the definition of what a flyweight could be, Paterson embarked on that lengthy title reign. He is not credited for it fully for the purposes of this list; he simply couldn’t be given the infrequency of his defenses.

A quick word on Paterson’s final paper record, which stands at 65-25-3. Paterson endured a long and depressing wind-down to his career, but this took place up at bantamweight. He never made the flyweight limit again after dropping his title to Rinty Monaghan in 1948 and went 3-9 during his run in. Even as champion he was seen more frequently at bantamweight and above than at flyweight, and these were the weight divisions in which he suffered most of his losses.

#24 – Roman Gonzalez (2005-Active)

Roman Gonzalez was an awesome flyweight who somehow managed to encompass the spirit of a runaway moon and a precision-engineered instrument concurrently. He was a terrible death for boxers and box-punchers and a rending ending, usually by knockout, for those who tried to stand with him. Had he been born in 1930 he likely would have been ranked among the ten greatest flyweights of all time. As it is, he lost precious years dismantling contenders below 112lbs before landing in earnest at flyweight around 2012. Hardly a wasted career but one that sees him ranked lower than feels right on this list.

The Gonzalez resume at flyweight boils down to four fighters: McWilliams Arroyo, Brian Viloria, Edgar Sosa and Akira Yaegashi. The Yaegashi performance, his first meaningful combat at the weight, was a glorious one and one that saw him lift the legitimate flyweight world-title.

Reigning champion Yaegashi, the very personification of bravery in a boxing ring that night, seemed at no time to have any chances of winning. Picking his moments to fight as he was driven round the ring, Yaegashi lost almost every exchange to a fighter who, at the time, was throwing punches with an eerie fluidity that few of history’s top stalkers could match.

With the championship in tow, Gonzalez collapsed top contender Edgar Sosa three times on the way to an early knockout, crucified Viloria, himself named in this Top Fifty and posted a shutout against Arroyo.

He then departed for 115lbs, a step too far even for him; in his flyweight prime he was a match for anyone on this list.

#23 – Yoshio Shirai (1943-1955)

Yoshio Shirai turned professional during World War Two and after being drafted into the Japanese navy suffered injuries grave enough that they threatened his burgeoning boxing career. That career was resurrected by his own innate toughness and by his close association with a member of the American occupied forces, Alvin Cahn, who helped him refine his raw aggressive style into that of a technically minded pressure fighter.

There was money, too; it bought him two non-title shots at the reigning champion Dado Marino. The first, in Japan, saw him drop a split decision but made firm the notion that Shirai was for real. The rematch was staged in Marino’s native Hawaii, and once again was a non-title match-up; this time Shirai had the measure of his man, stepped into the pocket and clinically out-fought him. This forced Marino’s hand and he returned to Japan where the title changed hands in a baseball stadium before 40,000 fans.

Shirai made four successful defenses of his championship, no mean feat and more than most of the champions to have preceded him. He re-matched Dado Marino (winning a unanimous decision in the fourth in their epic series) then defeated Filipino Tarry Campo, who was among the finest flyweights in the world. A minor setback unfolded when he was stopped on a cut by top contender Leo Espinosa in seven in a non-title fight, but the rematch went Shirai’s way, for all that Espinosa ran him desperately close. In between those matches, Shirai found time to outfight former champion and fellow Top Fifty flyweight Terry Allen. It was a hot, hot streak.

The man who ended it was the all-time great Pascual Perez. The deadly Argentine genius was made to work for it though and in fact in the first of their three contests he had to make do with a draw.  When Perez took his title in a rematch and turned him away by stoppage in a third contest, the first of the Japanese champions hung up his gloves, 46-8-4 and the former flyweight champion of the world.

#22 – Tancy Lee (1906-1926)

Having composed similar lists on all seven of the other classic weight-classes I’m familiar with the stage we have reached in this flyweight Odyssey: the stage where good resumes are elevated to something greater by an exceptional win. Torres has Chionoi. Allen has Monaghan. And Tancy Lee has Jimmy Wilde.

As far as apex victories come there are few, if any, that impress more. Sure, Lee was considerably heavier than the sub-100lbs Wilde, but it is also a fact that the Welshman was on an astonishing unbeaten streak approaching one-hundred fights and that at the end of the previous year of 1914, he had defeated the excellent Sid Smith and Joe Symonds back to back. Tancy Lee ended all of that, and on a stoppage.

A familiar claim emanates from the ashes of their January 1915 meeting, one that is stumbled upon frequently when a great fighter is vanquished: claims that Jimmy Wilde had the flu. It was a brave man who voiced these opinions around ageing Scotsman Tancy Lee in later years. This is understandable – proof that Wilde had the flu is basically non-existent. It should be remembered, after all, that an epidemic of flu killed as many as 100 million people between 1918 and 1920.  Boxing was not something you did when you had flu in 1915, it was something you saw your priest about.

More likely, Wilde suffered a cold and suffered even more from the vicious attentions of a flyweight who carried a huge upper body for the era. A miniature Bob Fitzsimmons in aspects of his physical appearance, Lee harassed, harried, and battered Jimmy Wilde until his corner tossed the towel in the seventeenth. Lee had his marquee win.

He defeated another superb Welsh flyweight in Percy Jones and numerous other excellent British flyweights at a time when the UK dominated the smallest division. Accountancy purely of the lower weights in his own era would see him rank very respectably indeed, but his October 1915 loss to Joe Symonds costs him a couple of spots here. Lee did avenge this loss, but above the flyweight limit where he enjoyed a second career of no small matter.

#21 – Pongsaklek Wonjongkam (1994-2018)

What do you do with a problem like Pongsaklek Wonjongkam?

On the one hand the Thai staged more than twenty successful title defences in two spells as champion between 2001 and 2012. This measure of success denies almost all possible criticism.

That said, many of these defenses were little more than stay-busy fights staged for walking-around money, both for the fighter and for his sponsor, the WBC. A list of the worst ever lineal title challengers would draw heavily from Wonjongkam’s opposition.

Malcolm Tunacao, who was in possession of the flyweight championship of the world when Wonjongkam got his shot, was absolutely legitimate, however. Wonjongkam stopped him in a round with a direct, fast-handed attack of glorious naivety that began at bell and ended with Tunacao dropped for a third time, unbroken but a victim of the three-knockdown rule.

Thus began a series of bum-of-the-month defenses interrupted in April 2002 by the Japanese Daisuke Naito. Naito, it must be noted would emerge as one of the best flyweights of his generation and as a fitting foil for Wonjongkam over a four-fight series contested over much of the coming decade. Their first fight, however, was a wash. Naito was the first serious opponent for the champion since he’d destroyed Tunacao, and as it was so it would be as the Thai king knocked Naito unconscious with a blistering reverse-one-two in just seconds.

Naito, however, came again. He put together an eight-fight winning streak and indeed he would never lose a fight to any man other than Wonjongkam. Their rematch staged in in 2005 was unsatisfying, Wonjongkam winning an exciting technical decision after seven when an accidental clash of heads caused a cut to be opened above Naito’s right eye.

Their third and fourth fights, both contested in Japan, were ramshackle, turgid affairs which could have been won by either man. Wonjongkam lost the first of these and drew the second, probably deserving of a narrow win. This represented the end of his rivalry with Naito who dropped his title to Koki Kameda in 2009. Wonjongkam defeated Kameda in turn to become a two-time lineal flyweight champion.

Aside from this, the Thai bested several fringe contenders and nobodies to build his astonishing title-fight figures. He leaves a curious legacy. Few fighters to have spent so long at the pinnacle can leave me feeling so uncertain as to their quality. On the other hand, there is no arguing with the numbers.

That’s because numbers hold power over us. They matter. The difference between twenty-one and twenty is no wider than a hair but for some reason, it matters. Next week, we meet the fighters who cross that crucial hair’s breadth.

To read Part One of The Fifty Greatest Flyweights of All Time, please CLICK HERE.

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Thomas Hauser’s Latest Book, ‘A Dangerous Journey,’ is Another Peach

Arne K. Lang




In 2001, the University of Arkansas Press released Thomas Hauser’s “A Beautiful Sickness: Reflections on the Sweet Science” and a tradition was born. Decades from now, if someone wants to know what was happening in the world of professional boxing during the first two decades of the 21st century – “on and off the field,” so to speak – a complete set of Hauser’s annual anthologies will be a prized resource.

Hauser’s latest book is titled “A Dangerous Journey,” subtitled “Another Year Inside Boxing.”
Like the others, it is a compilation of previously published stories. There are 46 in all, arranged under four headings: Fighters and Fights; Curiosities; Other Sports; and Issues and Answers. Regular readers of The Sweet Science will recognize some of the stories as they appeared first in these pages.

Fighters and Fights opens with Canelo-GGG II, taking the reader from the contentious lead-up to the scene in Canelo’s dressing room as he waits to be summoned into the ring, and then on to the actual fight. In the last entry of this section, Hauser is back in Canelo’s dressing room for his match with Rocky Fielding. Canelo’s “key to victory,” notes Hauser, was that Fielding didn’t belong in the same ring with him.

There are 11 entries in the “Curiosities” component. Two of the more interesting segments deal with the history of mouth guards and the history of ring walks.

I wasn’t aware that mouthpieces did not become standard until the 1930s. Neither Dempsey nor Tunney wore a mouthguard in their historic “long count” fight. A boxer can buy a mouthguard off the shelf for a few dollars or have one custom made for a few hundred dollars. According to Freddie Roach, Marlon Starling was too cheap to go to a dentist and have a mouthpiece customized for him.

In the old days, ring walks were straightforward. The procession normally included only the fighter, his trainer and his two cornermen. The boxer walked behind the trainer with his hands on the trainer’s shoulders, followed by the cornermen. Then music was introduced and nowadays for some big fights the ring walk is a major production with pyrotechnics.

Hauser quotes Teddy Atlas: “The ring walk in boxing is part of a tradition, two fighters taking a short but long journey to a place that’s dangerous and dark. That’s lost now. It’s not about introspection or history or tradition anymore. It’s about self-celebration and how sensational can we make it.”

Atlas, Hauser informs us, was once hired by the New York Rangers hockey team to teach the rudiments of boxing to one of their bigger players who wasn’t “engaging” as often as they would have liked.

Although stiffer penalties have been introduced to reduce the frequency of fights in hockey, the NHL, says Hauser, doesn’t want to eliminate fights altogether. Moreover, although fights are real, they are, needless to say, seldom injurious. (Try getting leverage behind a punch when you’re boxing on a slick surface with ice skates as your boxing shoes). “As far as technique is concerned,” said promoter Lou DiBella, “hockey players who are fighting make Butterbean look like Sugar Ray Robinson.”

In one of his fun pieces, Hauser compares the two Kid Galahad movies, the 1937 original in black and white with Hollywood heavyweights Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart in supporting roles and the 1962 re-make starring Elvis Presley. The former, says Hauser, is unrealistic, hokey, and lots of fun. In the Elvis version, the fight scenes are “as realistic as a theatrical production would be if Adrien Broner played Hamlet.”

Hauser reviews more boxing books than any other boxing writer and all of his anthologies have a “Literary Notes” section: A pictorial history of Muhammad Ali from the archives of the Louisville Courier-Journal comes highly recommended although the “wonderful” compilation is marred by some inaccuracies in the text. The Courier-Journal’s collection of Ali photographs dates back to when he was a 12-year-old boy.

Collectors of boxing memorabilia might be interested in knowing that the “Holy Grail” of collectibles is The Ring magazine championship belt inscribed to Cassius Clay (whereabouts unknown). That’s according to Scott Hamilton who Hauser identifies as America’s leading boxing memorabilia dealer. Hamilton notes that when he started his business, 85 percent of sales were to collectors in the U.S.; now it’s down to 40 percent because of European buyers. Interesting.

Hauser’s writings have earned him numerous awards, including multiple BWAA awards for investigative reporting. He covers issues large (boxing’s PED problem; incompetent boxing commissions and ring officials) and small (the pervasive scent of marijuana at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center). “I appreciate the pleasures of marijuana as a recreational drug and also its benefits as a medicinal aid, “writes Hauser. “But it shouldn’t be forced on those who don’t want it.”

In this vein, Hauser’s examination of CompuBox is food for thought. Do you suspect that the CompuBox punch stats are sometimes way off the mark? If so, those suspicions will be reinforced after digesting Hauser’s book.

Thomas Hauser is a renaissance man. He’s well-versed in the works of Beethoven, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain, among others, and to this list we can now add Albert Einstein. One of the longer of the 46 pieces in “A Dangerous Journey” is a mini-bio of Einstein who, despite being dead for more than 60 years, “remains the world’s most powerful symbol of scientific inquiry.”

There is something self-indulgent about this piece. It belongs in a different book. Moreover, not all readers will appreciate his swipe at the Commander in Chief.

Many years ago, Hauser collaborated with golf legend Arnold Palmer on Palmer’s autobiography. Palmer wasn’t outwardly political, but he was a Barry Goldwater conservative who had numbered Dwight D. Eisenhower among his closest friends.

What would Arnold Palmer think of Donald Trump? Palmer died in 2016 shortly before the election, so Hauser could not reach out to him. But he reached out to Palmer’s older daughter, Peg. Her discernment, in a nutshell: My dad would have cringed.

This reporter wishes that it was mandatory for all non-fiction books to have an index. And that goes double for books of this nature as the various chapter headings don’t always point the reader in the right direction if he wishes to re-visit a slice of the book that particularly struck his fancy.

One can appreciate why the publisher eschewed an index as it would have been very long, substantially thickening a work that already clocks in at 316 pages. And index or no interest, “A Dangerous Journey,” aside from its historical value, is bound to provide hours of enjoyment for boxing fans of all ages.

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From Womb to Tomb, Sonny Liston’s Fate Was Seemingly Preordained

Bernard Fernandez




In Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston, a remarkable 90-minute documentary on the rise and fall of former heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston, viewers are apt to discover that any preconceived notions they might have had about the baddest man in boxing history are, by turns, both legitimate and misinformed.

No matter what fight fans think they know of Liston, it’s a fairly safe bet more opinions will be shaped by watching the Nov. 15 premiere of Pariah (9 p.m EST and PST) on Showtime. While questions about how and why Liston died remain a source of speculation, the disparate elements of his conflicted, turbulent life suggest that much of the actual truth about him, good and bad, is forever destined to be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Inspired by The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin and Heavyweights, a book authored by Shaun Assael, the documentary examines the pros and cons of the oft-arrested, twice-incarcerated, mobbed-up wrecking machine who did not so much defeat opponents as to eviscerate them. Viewers – especially white people old enough to be familiar with the era in which he rose to prominence — are left to decide for themselves if Liston really was or deserved to be representative of their deepest fears, or a frequent victim of circumstance who wanted nothing more than some positive acceptance instead of the widespread loathing to which he had become accustomed.

But the journey from villain to hero is never smooth for someone with Liston’s checkered background, and especially so given the social unrest of the late 1950s and early ’60s. Hasan Jeffries, a black assistant professor of history at Ohio State University, said that Liston, a product of the Jim Crow South, was widely considered to be “America’s worst nightmare” and a “literally dangerous Negro,” someone who was “unafraid of white people as demonstrated by his consistent encounters with police.”

When he returned to his adopted hometown of Philadelphia after his title-winning, one-round blowout of popular but hopelessly outclassed champion Floyd Patterson, and discovered that there was no one at the airport to celebrate his triumph or to finally recognize him as something more than a glowering bully with a lengthy rap sheet, an increasingly bitter Liston decided that he might as well settle for being who and what the masses thought he was instead of trying to change millions of minds that had long since been made up.

Liston’s sudden embrace of his malevolent reputation reminded me of a line of dialogue from The Vikings, a 1958 movie in which a fierce Norse warrior, played by Kirk Douglas, is unable to win the affection of a captured British beauty played by Janet Leigh. “If I can’t have your love,” Douglas, as Einar, defiantly tells Leigh’s Morgana, “I’ll take your hate.”

Not that Liston, the 24th of 25 children born to an Arkansas sharecropper who was less a father than a tyrannical family overseer, ever chose to be hated. But neither was he apt to be idolized in the manner of, say, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano or the man who would ultimately succeed him upon the heavyweight throne, Muhammad Ali. Liston, who could neither read nor write, lacked the basic communication skills that might have gained him a bit more favorable press, and his personification of danger was accentuated by a withering glare that left more than a few opponents frozen with fear before the opening bell rang.

“He was a real badass, a real menacing force,” Mike Tyson, a future heavyweight champion with a similar gift for intimidation, said of Liston. “Sonny could pull it off. I could pull it off. Not a lot of people could pull it off.”

It would be a disservice to Liston, however, to say that the main weapon in his arsenal was a gift for winning staredowns. Scary as Liston was simply by standing there, he was so much more so when he began whaling away at flesh and bone as might a burly lumberjack chopping down a thin tree. Forget so-called experts’ arbitrary rankings of the hardest punchers ever to lace up a pair of padded gloves; Liston’s knockouts were spectacular for their savagery, toppled foes crashing to the canvas as if they would never again get up. He needed only 69 seconds of the first round to put a decent journeyman, Wayne Bethea, down and motionless, in the process dislodging 16 of Bethea’s teeth. Nobody in the fight game supplied oral surgeons with more patients in need of emergency treatment than Sonny Liston.

By reputation, Liston, who compiled a 50-4 record with 39 KOs from 1953 to 1970, was a huge heavyweight for his era, but he stood just 6-foot-1 and weighed in around 215 pounds during his prime. Then again, Liston’s unextraordinary height and heft were not his measurements of consequence. His 86-inch reach, those incredibly long arms extending down to massive fists the size of a catcher’s mitt, were. Liston might have had the most devastating jab ever, as accurate as Larry Holmes’, only harder. Sonny could use that jab as a range-finder when necessary, but its concussive force was such that the numbers-crunchers at CompuBox today would be obliged to categorize it as a power punch. He could knock a man down and even out with that jolting jab, and sometimes did.

“Sonny’s left jab was a nose-cracking, teeth-busting experience,” offered Randy Roberts, a boxing buff and assistant professor at Purdue University who serves as one of the documentary’s talking heads. “They said getting hit with his jab was like getting hit with a pole.”

Liston’s penchant for destruction inside the ropes, had he not come along when he did, might have made him as rich and celebrated as Tyson would become 50 years later. So why wasn’t he? Liston had so many brushes with police that fibers from their blue serge uniforms clung to him like permanent lint. Not only was he arrested 19 times and did two prison stretches, but cops in St. Louis and Philly, cities that for a time served as his home bases, tracked his movements as a meteorologist would an impending storm. Perhaps all that extra attention was justified at times, but Liston’s freedom of movement was so inhibited that he often felt as if he were somehow encased in an invisible jail.

“There was nothing they didn’t pick me up for,” Liston once complained. “If I was to go into a store for a stick of gum, they’d say it was a stick-up.”

It was to Liston’s benefit and detriment to have turned his career over to organized crime figures Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, boxing manipulators who had enough clout to not only advance his career but to get him sprung earlier from prison sentences that would surely have been longer were he not a possible future heavyweight champion. The downside of the arrangement is that the Feds spent a lot of time looking into the nefarious activities of Carbo and Palermo, which meant they also had a thick dossier on Liston. It did not escape the FBI’s attention that the non-boxing “jobs” for Liston lined up by his influential backers to gain him early release were something less than fully above board.

“He’s a leg-breaker for the mob, he’s an alley-dweller,” Roberts noted. “Sonny never walked on well-lit streets. Sonny lived in darkness.”

Maybe so, but there are more than a few boxing historians who have tried to determine what made Liston tick. A case can be made that inside those shadows in which he was obliged to exist there was a better, brighter version of himself almost desperate to break out.

“I don’t think the general public ever knew the real Sonny Liston,” opined Nigel Collins, former editor of The Ring magazine. “They knew the persona, the thug-like guy who just knocked everybody out, was associated with the mob and had been in jail. He wasn’t really that. That was a front. That was what he needed to protect himself, and also to intimidate his opponent. He was a very sensitive person. He could be hurt easily.”

That description of Liston was seconded by his wife, Geraldine, who described her husband as “a good man and a kind man, and worthy of a chance to contribute to society.”

To Sonny’s way of thinking, his ticket to validation as a human being was to gain the heavyweight championship then held by Floyd Patterson, a nice guy but lesser fighter whom Roberts called the “Sidney Poitier of boxing.” It wasn’t necessarily a compliment. Patterson’s shrewd manager-trainer, Cus D’Amato, had managed to supply Patterson with a steady stream of marginally qualified and eminently beatable challengers, but D’Amato wanted no part of Liston. The first of the two title bouts between Patterson and Liston came about only because Floyd, embarrassed by the spreading public perception that he was more protected than the gold in Fort Knox, demanded that Liston be given the chance at the title he had earned with those ham hock fists.

Jerry Izenberg, the esteemed sports columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, visited Patterson’s well-manicured rural training camp before checking in on Liston’s, which was urban, grittier and unquestionably better suited to a reformed leg-breaker on a mission.

“He’s got two chances – slim and none,” Izenberg said in recalling his impressions of Patterson’s preparations for a fight few gave him a chance to win, or even to finish in an upright position. After Izenberg got a glimpse of Liston’s laser-beam focus, he amended his original assessment. “I’m saying those two chances for Floyd, slim and none? Slim just went out the door.”

The fight, such as it was, took place on Sept. 25, 1962, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Custer had a better chance at the Little Bighorn than Patterson did against Sonny. The annihilation required only 2 minutes, 6 seconds to complete, whereupon the humiliated Patterson snuck out of the arena in disguise, and Liston returned to Philadelphia, foolishly expecting the hero’s welcome he believed to be his reward for all those hard years of poverty and dues-paying.

“There are people who don’t want me to be there (as champion),” Liston upon attaining the title. “Regardless of them, I intend to stay there and I promise everyone that I will be a decent, respectable champion.”

Jack McKinney, then the Philadelphia Daily News boxing writer and the only media person in town who had earned Liston’s trust, called City Hall to see if a group of dignitaries could be on hand to greet the new champ. But there was no brass band at the airport, no cheering fans, no smiling politicians to pat the not-favorite son on the back and say that all had been forgiven. Nor was the reaction to his seemingly improved lot in life any warmer elsewhere.

“I didn’t expect the President to invite me into the White House, but I sure didn’t expect to be treated like no sewer rat,” Liston grumbled.

The chip on his shoulder now the size of a log, Liston showed up for the July 22, 1963, rematch at the Las Vegas Convention Center more determined than ever to cruelly demonstrate his superiority over Patterson and any other heavyweight that might be foolish enough to share the ring with him. Like Kirk Douglas’ Einar, if he was unable to win the public’s love, he would revel in its hate. Again Patterson was destroyed in the first round, the fight a virtual replica of the original.

“The only difference,” Collins said of the do-over, “is that it lasted four seconds longer.”

No one could have known it at the time, but the second demolition of Patterson would be Liston’s only winning defense of the title he had so relentlessly sought and, many figured, would hold in a vise-grip for at least the next five years. But even before Liston left the ring, a conqueror beyond compare, an audacious young upstart entered his space and loudly berated the newly crowned champion. His name, at least at for the time being, was Cassius Clay.

“I want you! I want you! You ugly!” Clay yelled at a seemingly bemused Liston, who regarded the impudent kid as he might a Martian who had just stepped off a spaceship. But Clay kept up his campaign to force a showdown with Liston where it counted. In the weeks that followed, he repeatedly demeaned Liston in newspapers and on TV. And if those affronts weren’t enough to produce the desired effect, Clay went so far as to physically confront the man he had dubbed the “big, ugly bear” in Vegas, a mob town to which Sonny had relocated and enjoyed a level of tolerance he had been unable to find in St. Louis or Philly. Clearly Liston would have no peace of mind until he did unto this loudmouth what he had twice done unto Patterson. He was a 7-to-1 favorite to do just that when the fight took place on Feb. 25, 1964. Some media members were concerned that Liston was determined to, and quite capable of, literally beating Clay to death.

But on a night where one legend died and another was birthed, Clay fought through a tense fourth round in which an astringent that had gotten into his eyes and made it difficult for him to see. Flashing the speed of hand and foot for which he would become renowned, Clay, his vision cleared, increasingly took control of the contest until Liston, gashed below the right eye and with a large mouse under his left eye, declined to come out for the seventh round. He cited a shoulder injury as the reason he was unable to continue.

In boxing, it is one thing to lose. It is quite another for a fighter, especially a champion of Liston’s magnitude, to surrender. Author Robert Lipsyte was among those who took him to task, saying, “If you’re heavyweight champion, you die trying. But he just kind of sat there. He gave up. Why did he give up? This, of course, is the mystery at the heart of it all. Did he give up because he was in such terrible agony he couldn’t move? Did he give up because he suddenly realized he couldn’t win this fight? Did he give up because he’d been paid to dump it? Who knows?”

But the plot, as the saying goes, soon thickened. Cassius Clay announced the following day that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, more commonly known as the Black Muslims, and now wanted to be known as Cassius X, a stopover on the way to a more permanent identification as Muhammad Ali. It was as if he had become the bad guy, at least to a segment of the American populace, with the disgraced Liston now viewed as the possible savior and re-capturer of a championship that had fallen into presumably radical hands. The rematch was to take place on June 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine, a sleepy outpost (the town was mostly known for its factory that manufactured bedspreads) near the Canadian border which stepped up when Boston, the originally announced site, bailed.

“Liston got more cheers than Ali,” recalled journalist Don Majeski of the fighters’ respective ring walks. “They finally said, `Well, between these two, the lesser of the two evils is Sonny Liston,’ so we’ll cheer this ex-convict who lost his title on his stool rather than to root for a guy who says he’s a Black Muslim separatist. (Liston) enjoyed that. He sort of basked in that kind of glory for the first time in his life.”

Or he did, for a fleeting moment.

“But then what happened was the Kennedy assassination of boxing,” Majeski continued. “Everyone has an idea, but nobody knows the truth.”

What happened was that Ali landed (or missed) with a flicking right hand in the first round that sent Liston careening to the canvas, where he floundered around like a reeled-in fish tossed onto the bottom of a bass boat. To this day there are those who are convinced that Liston, for reasons unknown, took a dive, an argument countered by Ali loyalists who insist that the punch was legitimate and powerful enough to fell even a big, ugly bear.

Assael straddles no fences on the issue. His position is that Liston purposefully went into the tank.

“Why fix the fight?” Assael asks, rhetorically. “That’s where the secret percentage theory comes in, which is that Sonny had agreed to an under-the-table deal to get a cut of Ali’s future earnings if he went down. It’s exactly what a mobster would have done, and it’s exactly what I think Sonny did do.”

In any case, Liston – whom former fight fixer Charles Farrell insists was “the greatest heavyweight who ever lived … a bonafide monster” – had taken a downward turn from which there could be no recovery. He would fight 16 more times over the next five years, winning 15, but he was, as the documentary’s title attests, a pariah.

“After the second fight (with Ali), Sonny’s a dead man,” Assael said. “He’s not only just reviled, he can’t even get a job. Boxing commissions won’t license him … Sonny was toxic. I mean, really radioactive.”

The mystery of Sonny Liston took an even more tragic turn when his decomposing body was discovered at his Las Vegas home on Jan. 5, 1971. An autopsy indicated his death might have owed to an overdose of heroin, which those who knew him well insist could not have been the case because Liston was almost paranoid in his fear of being stuck by a needle.

“The medical examiner called it natural causes, but nobody around Sonny believed that,” Assael said. “Everybody believed he was murdered. So many people wanted Sonny dead. The only question was, who got to him first?”

Larry Gandy, a Vegas cop, was among those who saw the body. “It didn’t even look like Liston, he’d been dead for so long,” Gandy said. “He’d been dead four or five days. He was bloated, full of methane gas. It really made me sick to my stomach because he’d been such a predominant figure in the sports world. It was a terrible, disrespectful way for him to go.”

Gandy’s expression of compassion might or might not be genuine since the documentary hints at the possibility of his having some measure of culpability in Liston’s demise, in mob retaliation for Liston’s final fight, on June 29, 1970, in which he defeated Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner on a ninth-round stoppage brought about by numerous and severe cuts to Wepner’s well-sutured face.

“Liston was not brought into that fight to win,” said Farrell. “I believe the Wepner fight was a deal that went terribly, terribly wrong.

“As the rounds went by, Liston couldn’t find a place to fall, Wepner’s increasingly beat up and eventually the fight gets stopped because of the cuts. Liston won the fight. It’s a series of miscommunications where nobody does exactly what they’re supposed to do. The mob lost a lot of money and there were dire circumstances.”

In the end, all that is left of Sonny Liston is a headstone in a Las Vegas cemetery and a raft of recriminations and might-have-beens. For every boxing historian who includes him among the greatest and most fearsome heavyweight champions of all time, there is another who sees only the warts and blemishes of perceived transgressions committed both inside and outside the ring. The International Boxing Hall of Fame seemingly leans more toward the former, as evidenced by Liston’s 1991 induction.

“You can always make a case for someone’s exclusion,” Bert Randolph Sugar, then the publisher of Boxing Illustrated, told me for a story I did on Liston’s posthumous enshrinement by the IBHOF. “It depends on how moralistic you want to be. But remember, this is boxing we’re talking about.”

Upon reflection, it is somewhat curious that Ali, who generated so much fear and mistrust for the rematch with Liston in Lewiston, and for some time thereafter, evolved into such a sympathetic and beloved figure, widely acknowledged as the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). Also, upon reflection you have to wonder how the career paths of he and Liston would have proceeded had a semi-blinded Ali’s demand that trainer Angelo Dundee cut off his gloves before the fifth round of his first fight with Liston been granted.

What is indisputable is that boxing, so rich in stories about great and flawed fighting men, needs more documentaries of this quality that peer behind the curtain of what fans only see on fight night, giving insight into the whole person. Then again, how many prospective subjects are capable of taking viewers on the kind of roller-coaster ride that Sonny Liston’s tumultuous journey did?

“There was one thing that Sonny was better at than boxing, and that was compartmentalizing himself,” Assael said. “He could be a loving husband, he could be a womanizer, he could be a criminal, he could be a boxer. That’s what he was a master at – boxing and being able to lead so many different lives. There were so many men inside that one man.”

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Featured Articles

Weekend Recap: Hits and Misses

Kelsey McCarson




Weekend Recap: Hits and Misses

Boxing is a global sport and multi-faceted entertainment spectacle.

There were a wide variety of cards over the weekend displaying those properties with everything ranging from an important title fight for a pound-for-pound superstar against a formerly elite champion hoping for one more big win, to a new titleholder attempting his first defense against a highly regarded prospect, with even a fight between two YouTube celebrities thrown in the mix for good measure. 

Here are boxing’s biggest hits and misses from a weekend that began on Friday in Japan (Thursday in the U.S.)  with Naoya Inoue vs. Nonito Donaire and ended on Saturday with Jamel Herring vs. Lamont Roach Jr. in Fresno and KSI vs. Logan Paul in Los Angeles. 

HIT: Huge Win for Boxing’s Little Monster 

Naoya Inoue suffered two fractures to one eye socket during a grueling World Boxing Super Series-winning performance against Nonito Donaire in Saitama, Japan. Inoue defeated a resurgent Donaire by unanimous decision in one of the best fights of the entire year. The 26-year-old captured the WBA bantamweight belt to go along with the IBF and The Ring magazine titles he already carried into the fight. 

More importantly, Inoue was finally tested against a quality opponent who appeared to have a real chance to win the fight. But Inoue’s sharp jabs, solid footwork and amazing athletic skill combined with some old-fashioned championship guile to produce the single most important win in Inoue’s already impressive career. 

After the fight, Inoue signed a multi-fight deal with Top Rank. That means his star power is finally about to be fully unleashed in the U.S. and while that’s a huge win for the Japanese dynamo, its also a pretty big win for us, too. 

MISS: Shocking Purse Size Disparity Between Saturday’s Main Event Participants 

Logan Paul and KSI each made $900,000 in their professional debuts on Saturday night in Los Angeles. Jamel Herring only made $300,000 for his title defense against Lamont Roach who made $100,000.

Something just seems off about that.

It’s not that I don’t understand the economics. The reason why the two You Tubers were able to make so much money in their professional debuts was because of their star power. More global interest plus more ticket sales in a big venue equals more money for the combatants. 

It just seems wrong that they would make three times as much money as Herring, a former Marine who won his first world title against Masayuki Ito in May and defended it on Saturday night against Roach Jr. on ESPN+. 

HIT: The Shrewd Gambit of BJ Saunders and Devin Haney

WBO super middleweight titleholder BJ Saunders and secondary WBC belt holder Devin Haney both swallowed their pride to appear on the undercard of the Logan Paul vs. KSI card. Here were two elite professional fighters with real boxing fan bases choosing to play second-fiddle to a couple of guys who were the main event for the sole reason that they had millions of subscribers on YouTube. 

But it seems shrewd for both Saunders and Haney to have taken the risk. Nobody knows how much good it might do for their careers or how many people from that much younger and very different audience might have discovered an attraction to the sweet science buried within them that night for the first time. Still, Saunders and Haney gave themselves chances to find new fans from a world that otherwise might never have even known they existed. That’s something. 

Besides, they got paid well and were able to grab wins that will move their careers forward no matter how everything else works out. It was a savvy move that other fighters might have been too proud to make. 

MISS: Bad Night on a Big Stage for Referee Jack Reiss

Referee Jack Reiss is one of the best at what he does, but he didn’t have a great night in officiating KSI’s split-decision win over Logan Paul. In fact, it seemed from the start that he was over-involved and constantly making his mark in a fight that should have been left to the two fighters. 

During the third round, KSI landed a blow behind Paul’s ear that probably should have been scored a knockdown. Riess ruled it a slip.  In round four, Paul landed an uppercut that hurt KSI badly, then the novice held KSI behind the head to land another one as his opponent was going down to the mat. Reiss took two points away from Paul, something deemed overly punitive by many who watched the fight. 

In the end, two scorecards were in KSI’s favor 57-54, 56-55 with one for Paul at 56-55 so Reiss’s rulings seemed to be crucial to the outcome of the fight. Boxing results should always be left to the fighters to solve, even for two celebrity newcomers to the sport. 

HIT: Jamel Herring’s Veterans Day Weekend Title Defense

Could there have been any better weekend to pit Herring against Roach Jr.? 

Herring, 34, from Rockville Centre, New York, qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London while being an active-duty Marine. The fighter served his country nine years as a soldier including two tours in Iraq. After competing in the Olympics, he began his professional career. 

To most eyes, Herring appeared at the time to be a hard worker who probably didn’t have what it took to become a world champion. In fact, boxing writer Cliff Rold shared on Twitter recently that he had tabbed Herring in an article he wrote as one of the less likely members of the 2012 team to excel as a professional and that Herring had emailed him after reading it to tell him he was wrong. 

Herring’s grand entrance included being escorted to the ring by two Humvees and 300 Marines. He went on to outwork Roach over twelve rounds to further solidify why never doubting a Marine is some pretty good advice. 

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