Leaving Las Vegas: Sonny Liston
By Mike Casey: On those rare occasions when Sonny Liston beat Muhammad Ali in their games of psychological warfare, the only people who laughed were the acolytes who were too afraid not to. Certainly, nobody applauded Liston for possessing a razor sharp mind and a slashing wit.
Article posted on 08.08.2008
People generally like or dislike their villains straight up. They don’t care for bad guys who punctuate their violence with bursts of black humour. Sonny Liston was most definitely a villain in the eyes of most, and the fairness of that classification continues to be a grand subject for late night debate.
The die was cast early and the cement quickly hardened in the harsher and more austere days of the fifties and sixties. The truth about Liston was undoubtedly distasteful to most. It is fairly safe to assume that he wasn’t the nicest of men. Look at his rap sheet. Look at the nasty and unconventional ways in which he frequently supplemented his income. The most devout of conspiracy theorists cannot seriously argue that all the ugly stories were invented.
Where the truth ends and the fiction begins is another question entirely. An over zealous cop is always going to give a famous felon a rough ride and sprinkle some imaginative topping on a rather tedious cake. Liston started it all and continued his walk on the wild side right up to his untimely death. But his endlessly intriguing story was undoubtedly twisted, bloated and hijacked by various individuals who yearned for their own sad little hour in the sun. What we know for a fact is that Liston’s designated role was that of the marauding and semi-mythical terror of the night that an insecure society both fears and needs. We still want to know more about him. We want to know how he truly lived and died. We dig for new, juicy details about the people he ran with, the people he slugged as a mob enforcer and the true extent of his double life as a faithful, tea-drinking husband and a womanising juicer.
Such is the hypocrisy of human nature. We have been rightly taught to deplore and condemn the terrible deeds of Jack The Ripper. Yet more than a hundred years on, we still long to know who he was and what he looked like. Was he the powerful and evil force of our nightmares or just a meek and inadequate little man who went mad? His famous London hunting ground, the seedy and stinking little streets of Whitechapel with their swirling fogs and blood-covered walls and opium dens, continue to hold us in the grip of their morbid intrigue.
Sonny Liston, whilst certainly being no Jack The Ripper, was an appropriate substitute for his times. There always has to be a boogieman to keep us on our toes and fire our humdrum lives with some dangerous excitement.
Depending on what you read and whom you believe, Liston and Muhammad Ali had numerous little clashes on the way to their rivalry in the ring. We remember Ali as the quick-witted dancing master even then, the brash and super smart kid called Cassius Clay who ran cerebral rings around the lumbering, mumbling Bear. It wasn’t always so. The story goes that Ali was never faster on his feet than on the day he fled from a Las Vegas casino after Sonny jokingly pulled out a gun and fired off a round of blanks at him.
There was also the time when Clay admitted to getting a fatherly slap in the face from Liston. “He was running his mouth,” Sonny later explained with his usual economy of words.
“Was it a hard slap?” a reporter asked.
“I didn’t have no gauge.”
Many moons ago, the erudite Dave Anderson wrote a fascinating article on Liston and told of the time when Sonny was shooting dice and Clay came along to bait him. Cassius started by grabbing a handful of Liston’s chips and then got brave by snatching the dice. It was a step too far and the Bear bit. Motioning Clay to a nearby corner, Liston roared, “Get the hell out of here. Get out now or I’ll whip you right here.”
It is unclear whether the slap in the face accompanied this little lecture or was part of another clash between the two men. In any event, as Dave Anderson wrote, “Clay got out.”
Horseplay? Mr Anderson didn’t get that impression and revealed what Clay later said of the incident: “That was the only time since I have known Liston that he really scared me. People tell me how he was a cop fighter and beat up tough thugs. I believe it now. That time I saw that streak in him.”
If you lived in the sixties, you know what that decade was like and will be aware of the countless and curious contradictions that ran through it. It was indeed a wonderful time of exploration and revolution, in which many old cobwebs were thankfully blown away. Man went to the moon. People began to think for themselves and rebel when they believed they had just cause to do so, tired of being subjected to the steady drip-drip of cosy indoctrination.
But the old ways and the old superstitions took much longer to shift than history would have us believe. They linger even now in quiet little corners. The average, trite summation of the decade offers us inspiring film clips of Neil Armstrong, President Kennedy, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, mini skirts and the summer of love. But the dark side of the moon, that eternal counter balance of a society in dangerous transition, harboured murder, mayhem and mistrust. There were still a great many places a man didn’t want to visit if he liked to wear his hair long. Black people were still likened to apes in ways that were far from Darwinian. Cassius Clay won a gold medal in Rome but still had to take a bronze medal seat in his local restaurant when he went home to Louisville. The sixties really weren’t that different from the fifties when you took a shovel and scraped away the thin top layer of enlightenment.
I paint this little picture merely to underline the uncertainty that prevailed in the America of Sonny Liston’s time. It is hard even now to explain the extent to which Liston’s bullish presence scared a ponderous establishment that had finally been hustled and harried into dragging itself up to date. Meaningful progress was being made at last on social, racial and civil rights issues, but the lid couldn’t be allowed to blow off the pan in the meantime and release the bubbling brew.
Martin Luther King was a big enough nuisance to establishment hawks, but at least he was a man of peace. Liston, by contrast, didn’t give a flying damn about upsetting anyone. After the quietness of Floyd Patterson, Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott, after the phoney life of impossible temperance imposed upon Joe Louis, Liston was pulling everyone back fifty years and reminding them of a maverick called Jack Johnson.
One hell of a fighter
In the short time that he dominated and terrorised the heavyweight division with his formidable brand of thunder, Sonny Liston was one hell of a fighter. You will never get too much of an argument on that simple point. He was the premier heavyweight long before he officially wore the crown, tearing through the ranks with a pole-like jab that was one of the best we have ever seen and a tremendous punch in either fist. Not since Joe Louis had we seen a situation where opponents were frightened into defeat before they left their dressing rooms.
In gentler times when fighters ate simpler and more honest food, Liston was a physical colossus at around 210lbs. The few giants that had preceded him had been, for the most part, timid and reluctant warriors. Liston possessed the gung-ho that the likes of Willard and Carnera so sorely lacked and the talent that Max Baer so sorely wasted. Being a big man never inhibited Sonny. He threw his weight around like a Grizzly barrelling towards the next meal.
That simple but dramatic phrase, ‘one hell of a fighter’, keeps coming up whenever one chews the fat about Liston. It was the choice of words of boxing analyst Mike Hunnicut when he gave me his assessment of Sonny’s style and technique.
“Liston was a tough fellow to out-punch and was certainly among the top four or five heavyweights for power,” said Mike. “He could knock you out with either hand and didn’t need a lot of room to do so. He had an excellent jab and one-two combination. He was not fast of hand or body and often left his right hanging in mid-air after a miss. Some less notoriously named heavyweights might have beaten him. Sonny wasn’t that great in the later rounds, but I think you’ve still got to put him in or around the top ten.
“Liston was sometimes too cautious in the ring. There were definitely times when he seemed more nervous than he should have been. Perhaps that was largely due to managerial and self-promoting expectations. Here was a man so tough, so strong, so apparently impervious to punishment, that people were led to think that even armour-piercing bullets couldn’t cut him down. That’s a tough thing to live up to, because no fighter was ever that invincible.
“Sonny had his jaw fractured early in his career by Marty Marshall and got decked by Marshall in their second fight. Like any other fighter, Liston knew he could be hurt. Too often, he didn’t take some of the chances he could have for fear of being decked. Even a flash knockdown would have seriously dented his image of the indestructible beast.
“Nevertheless, of the champions who followed him, with the obvious exception of Ali, I think only Evander Holyfield at his best would have taken Sonny’s measure.”
Marty Marshall, whose fighting style was eccentric to say the least, broke Sonny’s jaw in their 1954 fight by doing something very rare. He made Liston laugh. Young Sonny, who had yet to perfect his killer stare, found Marshall hilarious and couldn’t help but chuckle at Marty’s ring antics.
Liston told the story to Bob Burnes, who was sports editor of the St Louis Globe-Democrat.
“I’m sort of standing there, wondering what this fellow’s going to do next. All of a sudden he jumps up and down, lets out a whoop like a wild man, and I get to laughing at him. I had my mouth wide open laughing when he whomped me right on the jaw. It didn’t hurt much, but I couldn’t close my mouth.
“That happened about the third or fourth round, and I had to fight him with my mouth open the rest of the way. After a while it got to hurting pretty bad.”
A while ago, a large package was delivered to my home, containing some great old clippings on Liston from early sixties issues of Sports Illustrated and various now defunct boxing publications. They were sent to me courtesy of Ted Luzzi, a good writer friend from San Diego and an avid Sonny Liston fan. Tired of skimpy and sensationalist articles and formulaic ‘What if?’ features on Liston, Ted asked me if I would consider writing a big feature on Sonny. “I won’t tell you how to write it,” he promised. “Just write it as you will and tell me what you think of him.”
Well, as a man, Liston has always intrigued me and probably always will do. But not passionately so. For all the times I have been to Las Vegas, I have never visited his lonely grave. I have no great desire to uncover some jewel of a lost tape on which he might be discussing the succulent details of a piece of work with his famous ‘protector’ Frankie Carbo. We are talking about the events of more than forty years ago. Liston the hoodlum has been done to death and dusted to the point where the bare furniture is beginning to show through the polish. Perhaps indeed there are some sticks of dynamite that were never detonated. Perhaps there is nothing. The saddest aspect of that side of Sonny’s life was that it took him out of his natural element as an all-conquering destroyer and vastly shrank his status. To gangsters and godfathers, he was just a handy slab of beef for cracking heads.
Liston the fighter is much more fascinating to me, because of how he evolved over the span of three vividly contrasting chapters. There was the stone killer that could not be beaten. There was the naked beast whose cloak of invincibility was suddenly snatched away. Finally, there was the creaking old gunfighter putting some final notches on his belt before biting the dust for good.
On his inexorable march to the championship, Liston went through the heavyweights like the proverbial dose of salts. He twice dispatched Cleveland Williams in titanic slugfests. Nino Valdes and Mike DeJohn were crushed by Sonny. Zora Folley went out in three rounds and Roy Harris in one. One would have to be pedantic to pick holes in a portfolio of that quality.
It is also a fact that Sonny’s best years as a fighter were probably during this period of 1959-1961, when he was lurking in the backwaters and feasting on the challengers that Floyd Patterson and canny manager Cus D’Amato were studiously avoiding.
Liston was officially thirty by the time he got to Floyd, quite probably older. Sonny’s age was always a constant source of fascination, something else that got a little silly. The usual suspects were counting the lines on the back of his neck and pegging him at anything between forty and fifty.
Did he take too long to win the prize and then get tired of the grind, or did he just get arrogant? Liston was never the most conscientious of trainers. He worked hard in the gym in short bursts when the motivation and the hunger were driving him. But he never wanted to be there. He once spoke of the sacrifices of the training camp, where 50 or 60 steaks packed in dry ice would accompany him.
Steak constituted his one meal of the day and he would eat it raw. “That’s why they have training camps,” he said. “They take away women and feed you raw meat and this puts you in a fighting mood. It makes you angry and brings up the evil inside you.”
But the bright lights were always too much of a temptation for Liston. He was a heavy drinker and a skirt chaser who was quite clever at hiding his secret life. Friends and colleagues insisted that alcohol made him sick. Wife Geraldine, accustomed to a gentle husband who drank tea with his meals, innocently defended him to the last.
Where was there to go for Liston after he destroyed Floyd Patterson with such ridiculous ease? Sonny was immensely proud of being the world champion and promised he would be a fighting monarch and a good ambassador for the game. But his image as the invincible monster of boxing had bred the belief within him that he could take his foot off the accelerator and still stay miles ahead of the rest.
Why sweat in the gym and run for miles on freezing cold mornings when he could knock out guys with an icy stare? Patterson, in two attempts, had shared Liston’s company for just four minutes and fourteen seconds. Cassius Clay, Sonny believed, wouldn’t last much longer. The few other contenders that rated a shout had already felt the mighty swipe of the Bear’s paw.
When somebody suggested former champion, Ingemar Johansson, Liston could not conceal his contempt. “Johansson should be arrested,” he scoffed. He turned to manager Jack Nilon and said, “Hey, Jack, give me Johansson for a birthday present!”
Then Sonny gave the game away when the conversation turned back to the young Clay. “The only thing I’d have to do with Clay is a lot of roadwork – because he’s gonna run like a thief.” Of Clay’s boast that he would take Liston in six rounds, Sonny retorted, “By the time of the sixth round, I’ll be halfway through the victory party.”
He truly believed this when he journeyed to Miami Beach to put the Louisville Lip to sleep. In fairness, so did most others. By that time, Sonny had been slopping through his training and partaking of the wrong kind of supplements for some time. He gambled heavily too and was paying back debts right to his dying day. The expectations and demands of his management team and their dubious associates must have constantly weighed on his mind and nagged him with worry.
The first fight with Patterson didn’t just put Floyd to sleep. It put Sonny into a dangerous slumber too. Las Vegas, the venue for the return match, was the one place on earth where Liston was unlikely to knuckle down to the serious business of running, punching and catching medicine balls with his stomach. The crap tables got far more of his attention. The muscle on his big body began to lose its hardness and his legs began to lose their strength as he shunned heavy boots in favour of sneakers for some none too strenuous roadwork. He sleepwalked to another decimation of Patterson and was still dozing against Clay at the Miami Beach Convention Hall.
I have never believed that anything fishy was going on in that first clash of the famous rivals. Liston trained poorly and he trained for two or three rounds of action at the very most. He was badly caught out by a brilliant young boxer who jerked a thumb at all the musty old textbooks and re-shaped the technical grid. It is wrong to say that Ali was unique. Gene Tunney was just as fast and probably cleverer. Muhammad’s great talent, apart from his wonderful physical gifts, was to mix the best of the past masters and produce his own funky hybrid. He laughed in the face of conventional teaching and got away with it. And he had the mettle to match his mouth.
If Liston had one glaring weakness, it was an old school inability to adapt to an evolving battleground and paint instinctively instead of by numbers.
Sonny was desperate to recapture his past glory when the rematch was set for Boston. He made a concerted effort to get back to his best physical and mental shape, shaving pounds specifically from his hindquarter and legs for greater speed. He weighed around 209lbs when Ali succumbed to a congenital hernia condition and the fight was called off. The news devastated Sonny. He had to wait for months and do it all again.
He was still trim and fit for the bizarre set-to in Lewiston, but his ambition had seemed to evaporate with the discarded beef. Ali appeared to physically dwarf him. Modern technology now shows us that Muhammad’s seemingly invisible right hand chop to Liston’s jaw actually carried quite a kick, enough to jerk Sonny’s head sideways. Was it forceful enough to flatten the man who took the Sunday best of Cleveland Williams without flinching? I have never believed so. What I do believe is that it was sufficiently jarring to make Sonny consider his options when he hit the deck. Tough guys can take a whipping but they cannot abide being humiliated. Liston must have known in his heart that he would only get up to be a dancing bear in a muzzle all over again. But it was still a shocking quittance that forever scarred his legacy. We are told to this day that he went into the tank at the behest of his shadowy masters, which is wholly believable.
There was another hammer blow for Liston when he was dropped from The Ring ratings by editor Nat Fleischer, who told him, “Frankly, you are the forgotten man.” In 1965, The Ring’s order of merit was still largely recognised as the only meaningful barometer of current form. Old Nat, for all his great deeds, never missed a chance to haughtily remind all and sundry of its clout and influence.
Liston’s expulsion always struck me as a cynical act of self-importance on Fleischer’s part. Here was a man who had been cosy pals with Jack Johnson and wouldn’t hear a word said against the gun-toting Stanley Ketchel, whose own circle of friends and associates included the likes of Emmet Dalton. To the best of my knowledge, Jake LaMotta wasn’t dropped from the ratings on the basis of suspicion after going out like a lamb against Billy Fox. Nor was Willie Pep for stinking the joint out in his melodramatic collapse against Lulu Perez.
Liston plodded on. Frozen out and unable to get a license in most parts of his homeland, he travelled to Sweden to knock out Germany’s Gerhard Zech and begin the final and almost surreal chapter of his turbulent career.
In truth, Sonny was all but gone as a top fighter. He was being carefully managed and sensibly matched, his handlers all too aware of the cracked and fragile package they were shipping from one port to the next. Mac Foster, the fast rising young ex-Marine, reportedly knocked Liston unconscious in a sparring session.
Sonny rolled to a series of wins over modest opponents who were mesmerised by his past reputation and melted at the mere sight of him. But the game was nearly up.
Big Train To The Big Crash
For all his aching joints and advancing years, Sonny Liston never did lose his reputation as the great intimidator. When he walloped his ex-sparring partner Amos (Big Train) Lincoln in two rounds at Baltimore, poor Lincoln looked as frozen in the headlights as so many before him.
Then everything fell apart one terrible December night in Las Vegas, when Philly puncher Leotis Martin kept banging back at Liston and finally hit the jackpot in a tumultuous ninth round. Like one of his beloved old casinos being dynamited, Sonny seemed to collapse in instalments from the final smashes to the jaw, out to the world.
Even though he was old, even though he was running on empty, there was something utterly shocking about the sudden execution. Ali had taunted him, humiliated him and cruelly savaged his pride. But Muhammad had never truly vanquished the Bear beyond all reasonable doubt. The belief had persisted that nobody could knock Liston cold in the good old-fashioned way. It was 1969, more than seven years since Sonny had become the king of all he surveyed.
There was a final act of defiance. In June 1970, Liston pounded his way to a bloody ninth round victory over Chuck Wepner at the Jersey City Armory, just six months before the Grim Reaper ducked between the ropes to take his turn.
Sonny’s body was badly decomposed as it rested against a smashed bench in the master bedroom when Geraldine Liston returned home from a long trip to make the grisly discovery. Believed to be heavily involved in the Vegas drug culture before his demise, Liston’s body showed traces of morphine and codeine. One of his arms revealed fresh needle marks. In terms of solid facts, that is pretty much all we know. What we don’t know, we probably never will.
What we truly know for sure is that the curious appeal of Sonny Liston will never fade away and die like his tired old body. We will always want to know more about him. We will always wonder just how much greater he would have been if he had stayed clean and trained with Marciano’s unyielding commitment.
Tom Petty once sang, “And he went down – swingin’! – like Sonny Liston.” Others will drop Sonny’s name for decades to come. Rightly or wrongly, it’s a cool thing to do. Just as skipping little girls in the East End of London will continue to jump rope whilst chanting the oddly chilling little ditty: Jack The Ripper’s dead/And lying on his bed/They cut this throat with Sunlight soap/Jack The Ripper’s dead….
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), an auxiliary member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).
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