SONNY LISTON ... THE MENACING BLACK BEAR"
By Tracy Callis
 

Sonny Liston was one of the most awesome, massive, and powerful heavyweights of all-time. At his peak, he was the closest thing to Jim Jeffries in the last 100 years in terms of raw strength, hard-hitting, and ability to take a punch (with the possible exception of George Foreman). If Joe Frazier qualifies as the "Black Marciano", then Sonny Liston at his best could be called the "Black Jeffries."

Liston possessed a stiff left jab and vicious hooks from both sides. He moved quickly for a big man and fought from a rather straight up stance, crouching when attacked. Never off his feet until the second bout with Muhammad Ali, his chin was pure granite. Only his endurance was a question mark since most opponents were unable to extend him.  

Liston was avoided by champion Floyd Patterson and labeled as undeserving of a title shot because of his bad character and background. When he was finally given a chance at the crown in 1962, he cleaned up Patterson without breaking a sweat. His reign as champion was short-lived, but had his title match with Patterson taken place when it should have, in the mid-fifties, he would easily have been champion from 1958 to 1964 and possibly longer (since some mystery surrounds his title fights with Ali).

Many knowledgeable boxing people rate Liston in his prime among the best heavyweights ever. Some rate him above Muhammad Ali. It is difficult to think of him as better since Muhammad defeated him twice in the ring. But, he was "over-the-hill" during these fights. Also, the question of fixed bouts has been raised in connection with these matches.

A few rate him as the greatest ever. They think he could knockout any man he could hit including Dempsey, Louis, Marciano, Foreman, and Jeffries. They say the only type of fighter who would have a chance of beating him would be a runner like Muhammad Ali, Gene Tunney, or Jim Corbett. And, at his best, they feel he would catch up with these guys over the long haul.
 

Liston flattened Floyd Patterson on two occasions, each fight lasting only one round. He took Pattersonís best punches without blinking. He twice stopped the thunderous puncher Cleveland Williams and took his best shots with ease. He required only fifteen rounds to finish off the following top eight contenders - Billy Hunter, Julio Mederos, Wayne Bethea, Frankie Daniels, Nino Valdes, Roy Harris, Zora Folley, and Albert Westphal.

Gary Cartwright wrote "No one in his right mind wants to fight Sonny Liston" (see Litsky, 1975 p 205). Atyeo and Dennis (1975 p 35) stated "One by one the top ranking heavyweights crashed beneath Listonís bulldozing tactics and massive fists." Litsky (1975 p 205) called Liston "a big, mean, intimidating brute."

Odd (1974 p 59) said if any man was ever equipped advantageously to be heavyweight champion it was Sonny Liston. Muhammad Ali said of Liston, "He was everything they said he was, a mass of muscles, power, force Ö" (see Durant, 1975 p 106).

Houston (1975 p 100) called him "one of the most formidable heavyweights in history Ö powerfully-muscled former convict who oozed menace." He goes on to say (1975 p 101) that Listonís fighting was so impressive that it was difficult to find a weakness. Sonny had a "pole-like" left jab, hit heavily with both hands, and seemed impossible to knockout due to his tremendous neck muscles.

Carpenter (1975 pp 125-126) said he was massively broad with impressive measurements. He added that Listonís left jab compared favorably with Joe Louisí jab, that he appeared to be impervious to punishment, and that he looked like the best champion since Rocky Marciano. According to Reg Gutteridge (1975 p 19), Marciano once told him that he would not relish being in the same ring with Liston.

McCallum (1974 p 300) said about Liston, "There was just too much dynamite in both hands for most fighters to handle him." Joe Louis predicted that Liston would be champion as long as he wanted to be (Durant 1976 p 150).

Odd (1974 p 59) said if any man was ever equipped advantageously to be heavyweight champion it was Sonny Liston. Muhammad Ali said of Liston, "He was everything they said he was, a mass of muscles, power, force Ö" (see Durant, 1975 p 106).

Houston (1975 p 100) called him "one of the most formidable heavyweights in history Ö powerfully-muscled former convict who oozed menace." He goes on to say (1975 p 101) that Listonís fighting was so impressive that it was difficult to find a weakness. Sonny had a "pole-like" left jab, hit heavily with both hands, and seemed impossible to knockout due to his tremendous neck muscles.

In spite of his punch, chin, and menacing attitude, there are many who ignore him in the all-time rankings. His personal life was a disgrace as he was constantly in trouble with society and its laws. One of 25 children, Liston could barely read or write. Grombach (1977 p 86) called Liston "probably one of the most illiterate top performers in modern boxing. He was a mental deficient, hardly able to read and write."

 According to Fleischer and Andre (1975 p 159), Liston himself said that when he was thirteen, he joined a bad crowd that was always looking for trouble. McCallum (1975 p 67) said "His biggest fault lay in the fact that he grew up thinking that criminals were great people." Durant (1975 p 142) wrote, "Liston was a hoodlum, a labor goon, and head-breaker." Jim Bishop said, "Liston had all the character of a mongrel, but he could hit" (see McCallum 1975 p 68)

Odd (1974 p 59) said if any man was ever equipped advantageously to be heavyweight champion it was Sonny Liston. Muhammad Ali said of Liston, "He was everything they said he was, a mass of muscles, power, force Ö" (see Durant, 1975 p 106).

Houston (1975 p 100) called him "one of the most formidable heavyweights in history Ö powerfully-muscled former convict who oozed menace." He goes on to say (1975 p 101) that Listonís fighting was so impressive that it was difficult to find a weakness. Sonny had a "pole-like" left jab, hit heavily with both hands, and seemed impossible to knockout due to his tremendous neck muscles.

Cooper (1978 pp 149-150) stated, "People didnít like him, and he didnít like people" and called him "a man with a grudge against everything and just about everybody." He later described Listonís fighting by saying "looking after himself without needing to use science was nothing but second nature."

Cosell (1973 p 169) wrote about an interview he did with Liston saying, "Suddenly, I realized that at heart he was just a big bully."

In the same book, Cosell discusses the possibility of Sonnyís involvement with gangsters and a fixed fight in Listonís loss of the title to Muhammad Ali. Of the knockout punch in the second fight, Cosell quotes Jimmy Cannon, boxing writer, as saying "I was sittiní right there. I saw the punch, and it couldnít have crushed a grape" (see Cosell 1975 p 181). Cosell goes on to say, "There was a look of absolute relief on Listonís face. I donít think I ever saw Sonny appear so content in his life, and I wondered about that."

Robert Lipsyte wrote, "It must never be forgotten that he was a very good fighter" (see Litsky 1975 p 205).

In the opinion of this writer, Liston was the #8 heavyweight of all-time Ė this only after giving in to pressures of colleagues and consideration of a possible lack of stamina in Sonny. At times, there is a strong feeling he was among the four best heavyweights ever.

References:

Atyeo, D. and Dennis, F. 1975. The Holy Warrior Ė Muhammad Ali. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Carpenter, H. 1975. Boxing : A Pictorial History. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

Cooper, H. 1978. The Great Heavyweights. Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell Books, Inc.

Cosell, H. 1973. Cosell. Chicago: The Playboy Press.

Durant, J. 1976. The Heavyweight Champions. New York: Hastings House Publishers.

Durham, R. 1975. The Greatest Ė My Own Story (Muhammad Ali). New York: Random House Publishers.

Fleischer, N. and Andre, S. 1975. A Pictorial History of Boxing. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books.

Grombach, J. 1977. The Saga of the Fist. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company.

Gutteridge, R. 1975. Boxing : The Great Ones. London: Pelham Books Ltd.

Houston, G. 1975. SuperFists. New York: Bounty Books.

Litsky, F. 1975. Superstars. Secaucus, NJ: Derbi-books Inc.

McCallum, J. 1975. The Encyclopedia of World Boxing Champions. Radnor, Pa: Chilton Book Company.

Odd, G. 1974. Boxing : The Great Champions. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.

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