50 Years Ago: Sonny Liston Becomes Champ

Before there was a Mike Tyson, there was Sonny Liston. A quarter-century before “Iron Mike” became an MTV Generation icon, another heavyweight fighter was striking fear into opponents and fans alike. As we mark the 50th anniversary of Sonny Liston’s first-round knockout of Floyd Patterson to win the World’s Heavyweight Championship, it’s easy to draw parallels between Liston and Mike Tyson, and, indeed, there are some similarities, but a closer look at the two men reveal vast differences…more on that later.

There are several mysteries surrounding the life of Sonny Liston, beginning with his birth. Although Charles L. “Sonny’ Liston was officially listed as being born on May 8, 1932 in Sand Slough, Arkansas, there are no records anywhere that can back that up. Although the 1940 Census listed him as being born in 1929 or 1930, Liston insisted the 1932 date was correct, but it’s probable that Sonny didn’t know his exact age. What we do know is that Liston was one of 25 children, and endured a very harsh childhood, devoid of any schooling, but filled with regular whippings at the hands of his father, Tobe Liston. Sonny was left behind when his mother moved to St Louis, taking only a few of her children with her, but Sonny, at about age 13, was able to locate her after running away from his father.. Within a few years, Liston was pursuing a life of crime, engaging in a series of smalltime armed robberies and petty thefts. In 1950, after being arrested for knocking over two gas stations and a diner, Sonny was convicted on two counts of first-degree robbery and sentenced to five years at Missouri State Penitentiary. It was during his prison stretch that Liston took up boxing, where he showed an almost immediate aptitude. Paroled in 1952 and after a brief but successful amateur career, Liston made his professional debut on September 2, 1953, knocking out Don Smith in one round in St Louis. Liston showed great promise in the heavyweight division, winning 14 of his first 15 bouts, but unfortunately, Sonny was still getting in trouble with the authorities. In May of 1956, Liston was charged with injuring a police officer, leading to another six month stay in the “Big House,” and his suspension from the ring during all of 1957.

Although boxing in the 1950’s is fondly remembered by many as the era of Rocky Marciano and “Sugar” Ray Robinson, the truth is that the sport was dominated by two forces…television and organized crime. During the early days of television, all of the major networks turned to boxing as an easy source of primetime programming. Mob figures, already deeply entrenched in the sport, loved the revenue that TV was injecting into the sport, and began to tighten the grip they already enjoyed. Fixed fights, crooked judging and manipulated ratings were commonplace throughout the decade, and the man most responsible for it all was crime-boss Frankie Carbo, who was known behind the scenes as boxing’s “shadow commissioner.” Although an organization known as the International Boxing Commission supposedly was the major governing body, it was Carbo who often made the key decisions in terms of which fighters would get title shots, who would get television exposure, and how the money would be divided among the many hands in the till. When Sonny Liston resumed his boxing career in 1958, Carbo and his partner Blinky Palmero obtained a controlling interest in Liston, although their names were never to be found in any paperwork. Now connected, Liston’s bouts began appearing on television, and Sonny made the most of the opportunity, defeating one heavyweight after another. By this time, Sonny Liston started to establish his signature persona as a thuggish brute whose pre-fight stare down was enough to make some opponents want to leave the ring before the opening bell. At 6’1, 215 lbs, Sonny was not only among the hardest punchers in the heavyweight division, but was also a skilled boxer, owning one of the best left-jabs in boxing history. By 1961, after beating top contenders Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley and Eddie Machen, Liston was rated number one among heavyweight contenders, and considered the logical man to get a shot at Floyd Patterson’s title. But getting Patterson into the ring would not prove easy.

Fifty years ago, boxing’s World Heavyweight Championship was considered the richest prize in sports, and many felt Sonny Liston’s criminal background and underworld ties made him unworthy at a chance at the title. Various boxing commissions, civic groups and even former champion Jack Dempsey came out against a Liston-Patterson fight. Even more against the bout was Cus D’Amato, Patterson’s manager, who knew a fight with Liston could result in Floyd losing the title. But eventually, the potential amount of money the fight would generate became too high to ignore, and finally, on September 25, 1962, Sonny Liston met in the ring at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

Liston was a slight favorite going into his fight with Patterson, but soon after the opening bell it was apparent that Sonny’s 25 lb weight advantage was too much for Floyd. With Patterson unable to tie Liston up in the clinches, Sonny was able to pound away at will whenever the two fighters were locked up. Midway through the opening round, Patterson was already a beaten man, clinging to the middle strand of the ropes, trying to stay on his feet. A three-punch combination by Liston ended with a left-hook that lifted Patterson off of his feet, and dropped him to the canvas. At 2:06 in round one, Sonny Liston was the new champion.

Sonny Liston wearing the heavyweight crown was unsettling to a lot of people. Famed sportswriter Jim Murray described it as like waking up on Christmas morning and finding a bat hanging from the tree. But Sonny tried to change that, and for the next year, did his best to soften his image by sitting down for a series of friendly interviews on various TV shows, and even appearing on Ed Sullivan, where he skipped rope accompanied by a recording of “Night Train.” Sonny Liston, at times, revealed a sly sense of humor and a soft side, but unfortunately continued to associate with shady characters, and more than once had run-ins with the authorities. A rematch with Floyd Patterson in July 1963 resulted in another first round win for Sonny, and by now, boxing experts were beginning to place Sonny among the top heavyweights of all time. It seemed that, despite his failings, Sonny Liston was there to stay.

Sonny Liston’s aura of invincibility was short-lived. On February 25, 1964, Liston, a 7-1 favorite, was beaten by Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in Miami Beach. Sonny, after being outfought for six rounds, quit on his stool claiming an injured shoulder. The Ali-Liston rematch in May, 1965, saw Sonny being counted out in the first round, after Ali may or may not have hit him with a right hand. The suspicious endings of both fights permanently removed Liston from the heavyweight title picture, although Sonny started a comeback in 1966, that resulted in 14 straight wins, mostly against non-entities. In December, 1969, Sonny Liston suffered a ninth round knockout at the hands of Leotis Martin, ending any chance of a title bout. Sonny fought once more, traveling to New Jersey, where he defeated Chuck Wepner in June, 1970. Sonny then returned home to Las Vegas, where he was reported spending much of his spare time with undesirables. On January 5, 1971, Sonny’s lifeless body was discovered in his bedroom by his wife Geraldine, who had returned from a trip…he may have been dead for a week. Although officially ruled as lung congestion and heart failure, rumors persist to this day that Sonny Liston may have been murdered.

As stated earlier, the rise and fall of Mike Tyson invited inevitable comparisons to Sonny Liston. Both were fearsome men, who relied on intimidation as much as punching power…both spent time in prison, and both were considered unbeatable until flaws were discovered in their abilities and character. But I see more differences than similarities. Mike Tyson was a New York City boy, Liston from rural Arkansas. Mike Tyson was the ultimate man-child with the little boy voice, while Sonny was the strong, silent type. Tyson won his world title at the age of 20, while Liston may have been well into his 30’s before getting his chance. Tyson beat up parking-lot attendants, waiters, and hotel clerks…Liston beat up cops. But the biggest difference may well be how their lives turned out. Tyson, while no scholar, is a student of boxing history. Against all odds, Tyson might have learned enough to reach middle-age. Sadly, Sonny Liston never got that chance.