Twice in a blue moon! When Liston and Quarry were KO’d in the same month
17.02.06 - BY MIKE CASEY: If three brave and pioneering astronauts believed that they had a lock on thrills and spills for the year of 1969, they reckoned without the unpredictable world of sports. While Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins were taking one giant leap for mankind on the moon, some distinctly unworldly events were beginning to unfurl back home on the blue planet.
Article posted on 17.02.2006
One wondered where the madness came from and how long it would last. It began in May, when basketball’s New York Knicks, a charter member of the NBA and still in search of their first league championship, had the temerity to knock off the stately LA Lakers by four games to three in the NBA finals.
Normal life was further dismantled by baseball’s lowly and long suffering New York Mets, who came along in the fall to win the World Series over Baltimore. For those of you who don’t have an interest in such pursuits, these things are not supposed to happen. Even New Yorkers will reassure you on that point..
The natural order of things had been turned inside out and one sensed that there was more to follow. Such cataclysmic events are supposed to come in threes after all. But even trusted old adages were discarded and tossed out of the window as the sporting world was torn apart and re-arranged by a mischievous hurricane that refused to blow itself out. There would be four bolts from the blue in all before the sixties died and the seventies dawned.
It seemed entirely fitting that the stage was left to professional boxing to set off the last couple of explosions. The old game waited patiently until December before plucking two of its premium heavyweights out of the hat and giving them a very rude and sobering Christmas.
The big blows came only six days apart, like a good old-fashioned one-two. On December 6, at the International Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, the last vestiges of Sonny Liston’s mythical invincibility were brutally erased by a single blast to the jaw from Leotis Martin. On December 12, at Madison Square Garden, Jerry Quarry somehow contrived to get himself knocked out by George Chuvalo.
To those youthful and lucky souls who can boast that they were not even born in 1969, I can only say that those two results were more shocking than you can ever imagine. It was akin to being told (as indeed we subsequently were by the usual mischief makers) that Neil, Buzz and Michael hadn’t gone to the moon at all, but had simply been larking around on a cunningly disguised film stage.
To fully appreciate the full impact of that crazy December, it is first necessary to turn the spotlight on Leotis Martin and George Chuvalo.
Leotis and George were two of the great heavyweight plodders, but with potent additives. They were dangerous plodders, capable of the extraordinary at any given time. They never gave up, they never stopped trying, they never stopped believing that tonight would be their night. Both men had too many limitations to ever attain greatness, but inhibition was not among their flaws. Martin and Chuvalo were fringe contenders who could never quite step over the line and join the elite. They had been hardened by that certain brand of mental toughness and disdain that comes from repeatedly being knocked back into line. Far from feeling humbled by adversity, Leotis and George acquired the simmering bloody-mindedness that so often finds its voice at the unlikeliest of times.
Chuvalo’s standing in the game was almost unique for a man who lost the vast majority of his big fights. Astonishingly tough and durable, he achieved the rare dual status of world class contender and trial horse by being consistently competitive and just occasionally turning the form book upside down. In between times, George would pad his record by knocking out a succession of lesser fighters. He was the perfect opponent for Jerry Quarry in 1969, and indeed for most of the top ranked contenders at any other time. Chuvalo was ideal: a top ten contender, a good draw at the box office, a respectable name to have in your win column. All the top guys knew that good movement and a persistent jab would always see off old George from Canada. Nearly always!
Chuvalo was what the game calls a catcher, and he was catching big time from his early days as a pro. Like a great water bison, George was dangerous if he could suck you into his bulling and slugging domain, but the smarter boxers knew that he could be easily speared and out-paced.
Chuvalo even dropped a decision to the former Olympian Pete Rademacher, who was adhering to his curious game plan of starting at the top and working steadily downwards. In his first professional fight, Pete had famously challenged Floyd Patterson for the championship and had also been blitzed by Zora Folley and Brian London before mastering Chuvalo.
George toiled for eight years before he tore up the script and pulled his first shocker. In a thrilling finish at Madison Square Garden in October 1964, he attained his special place among the leading heavyweights by stopping Doug Jones in the eleventh round. Even Rocky Marciano took an interest in the rough and tough body puncher who had seemed to suddenly catch fire.
But George would always be a dangerous nearly man, which was why he remained so fascinating. Competitive defeats to Patterson, Ernie Terrell Muhammad Ali and Oscar Bonavena over the next couple of years served to keep Chuvalo in the picture, but he seemed to be skidding seriously when Joe Frazier became the first man to stop him inside the distance in 1967.
With typical defiance, George rallied to score a fifth round TKO over Mexican contender Manuel Ramos in 1968, but it was a victory that flattered to deceive. Ramos had also been savaged by Frazier and there were many who felt that Manuel’s high ranking was far too generous.
Coming into the Jerry Quarry fight, George was treading water and going nowhere. He had scored a couple of meaningless wins over Stamford Harris and Leslie Borden, but had been bloodied and outpointed by Buster Mathis in his last fight of real importance. Quarry, it seemed, was going to have a field day.
Leotis Martin had been hewn from the tough school of Philadelphia boxing and was thirty years of age when he got the chance of his life against Sonny Liston in Las Vegas. Dame Fortune had never smiled kindly on Leotis. He didn’t get the breaks and he didn’t get the odd decision or two he might have deserved. When he knocked out Sonny Banks in a 1965 match, Banks subsequently died from his injuries. Cruel luck would haunt Leotis to the end, for even his greatest accomplishment would be soured by his greatest frustration.
Just as George Chuvalo appeared to fit like a glove for Jerry Quarry, so Martin seemed tailor made for the creaking but still formidable Liston. Leotis could box and he could punch, but the one thing he couldn’t do was seriously inconvenience the top men of the division. He had been outmanoeuvred and stopped by Jimmy Ellis and out-bulled by Oscar Bonavena.
Martin had carved out a respectable 30-5 record and his eighteen knockouts were testament to his power. Turning professional in 1962, the year in which Liston won the championship, Leotis had recovered well from a rude awakening in his tenth fight, when he was knocked out in two rounds by Floyd McCoy.
Like so many quietly dangerous journeymen, Martin took fights wherever he could get them. He fought Bonavena in Beunos Aires, knocked out the fading Karl Mildenberger in Frankfurt and came from behind to stop Thad Spencer in an absolute thriller at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Martin’s credentials were solid without being spectacular when he shaped up against Liston. Leotis was on a good run of four straight wins, including a couple of quality victories over that other dark horse, Alvin ‘Blue’ Lewis.
With the priceless gift of hindsight, it is easy to say now that Sonny Liston was heading for a big fall. Sonny was slowing all the time and was no longer the killer of his prime who got the job done quickly. Now his fights were beginning to draw out longer as the old bear paced himself and used his pole-like jab to break down opponents at a more leisurely rate.
Yet still there was a grand and almost imperious mystique about Liston. His reputation had been all but shredded in his bizarre fights with Muhammad Ali, to the point where Sonny found it impossible to obtain a license to box in his native land. Ring editor Nat Fleischer famously told him, “Frankly, you are the forgotten man.”
Yet as time moved on, it was those infamous fights themselves that seemed to be forgotten in the minds of many Liston supporters, as denial applied its blinding grip. Burned into my memory is the letter of one shocked fan after witnessing Sonny’s incredible collapse against Ali in the great Lewiston fiasco. “I may be a voice in the wilderness,” the fan wrote, “but I still think Sonny Liston can beat Muhammad Ali!”
In truth, Sonny had been getting away with it for a lot longer than most people ever knew. In the parlance of the trade, he was always a bad trainer. In the run-up to his second fight with Patterson, Liston was seen more often around the Las Vegas crap tables than he was in the gym. He trained poorly for the first Ali fight at Miami Beach, eschewing heavy boots to do his running in sneakers. For the second fight, according to one observer, he could barely skip rope.
What we will probably never know is the extent to which Liston abused his body in other ways. He certainly enjoyed lacing his soft drinks with the hard stuff and might well have eased his constantly troubled mind with more adventurous potions. One only has to look at the vastly conflicting reports on the circumstances of his mysterious death in 1970 to appreciate the danger of surmise. Many stories about Sonny Liston were true. Many others were plainly absurd.
What is undeniable is that Liston was a fighter in decline from as early as the Patterson fights. By the late sixties, as he awaited a slim second chance at glory, Sonny was plainly being protected by some prudent matchmaking. Back stage, the alarm bells were becoming too audible to be denied. During one sparring session, he was reportedly knocked cold by Fresno puncher Mac Foster, whose own limitations would later be exposed by Jerry Quarry.
For all that, Liston remained a daunting proposition for the majority of would-be contenders and he got off to an impressive start against Leotis Martin. Sonny still possessed the intimidating air of a big grizzly and Martin was shrewd enough not to bait the old man in the early rounds. Leotis was making Sonny chase him, countering when possible, but looking for the most part like a capable journeyman heading towards honourable defeat.
That impression gathered momentum when Sonny decked Leotis for a mandatory eight count in the fourth round. By the end of the fifth, Liston had accumulated a substantial points advantage and was apparently cruising. But age and laziness had come to collect their dues and were now eating into Sonny’s old body by the second. The sixth stanza was one of those strange, tell-tale rounds.
Nothing overly dramatic happened, but suddenly Liston looked to be tiring as Martin upped the pace and enjoyed some success with left and right counters. Leotis was a good old pro who could read the signs, and the signs told him that Liston could be taken. The underdog was no longer back-pedalling and making do with slim pickings. He was taking the fight to Sonny and mixing it.
The tempo of the bout increased in the seventh as Martin’s accurate shots brought blood from Liston’s nose. One wondered what Sonny was thinking as he headed for the guillotine. Did he sense the end was nigh? Did he still believe he could make it to the finishing line? In the old days, he didn’t have to concern himself with such trivia. Few men had dared to cuff him about and mess him around like this guy Martin.
In the eighth round, Sonny was given a further reminder of his shrinking status as a man of terror. Trying to turn back the clock, he drove Leotis into a corner with a barrage of lefts and right to the head and body. The bully boy was back on the block, putting the young upstart in his place. But Martin would have none of it. The greatest victory of his life was now within his reach and he fired back confidently to force Liston back into mid-ring. Blood trickled from Sonny’s mouth as the welcome bell gave his some much needed respite. He still had the points in the bag, but now it seemed that the gods were dragging the end zone beyond his reach.
The ninth round was shocking. Even though the writing was the wall, one couldn’t quite picture Sonny Liston being knocked out. Not genuinely knocked out. Against Ali, Sonny had looked like a man having a snooze. Against Martin, he looked like a luckless pedestrian who hadn’t seen the truck coming.
The two men exchanged hard punches before Leotis hit the jackpot with a perfectly drilled straight right to the chin. Liston stopped and wavered slightly as the blow registered. Like one of his beloved casinos being dynamited, sections of his great body seemed to linger stubbornly in mid-flight as a following left hook made him lurch sideways and a final right to the jaw sent him tumbling. Sonny was out. Face down, spread-eagled, dead to the world. No longer the big bad bear who could defeat opponents before they even got out of the dressing room. Never again.
Six days later and six rounds into his fight with George Chuvalo, Jerry Quarry was imitating Liston and looking like another comfortable front-runner going through the motions. The reverberations of Sonny’s mighty fall from grace were still being felt around the boxing globe, but Jerry was no Sonny. The ruggedly handsome Irishman from Bellflower, California, was young and strong and still very much on the upswing. He was coming back after a losing but heroic stand against Joe Frazier in the summer, and a victory over Chuvalo would serve as a springboard back to the really big fights.
Madness had reigned in Las Vegas, but then Vegas was a mad place. Logic would surely prevail in the more hallowed and orderly environs of the Garden. Chuvalo was following the script perfectly, chasing and throwing but eating too many punches in return to make an impression.
Perhaps George’s very predictability was Quarry’s problem. Jerry’s mental approach to certain fights was always his Achilles heel. Chuvalo wasn’t stirring his mind and forcing it to think and work. Take your eye off the punching bag and we all know how silly it can make you look.
Jerry jabbed and hooked and opened up with an impressive volley in the fourth round to split George’s cheek open. It was par for the course. George wasn’t George if he didn’t get banged up and swollen.
Coming up for the seventh round, Chuvalo bore the look of a man who kept slipping out into the back alley between rounds and getting mugged by the same gang. But he was scoring with some hurtful wallops of his own as the round drew to a close and then he tossed the big one. A long left found Jerry’s temple and caused him to check and dither for a moment before he fell back and sat down. It didn’t seem too big a deal. Embarrassed by the sudden turn of events, Jerry got straight up but then took a knee to clear his head and buy some seconds. His action seemed to be a matter of choice rather than necessity, but then everything went wrong. As the crowd roared and referee Zach Clayton picked up the count, Quarry’s attention became scrambled. Before he knew it, the train he needed to jump on had sped through the station. He still had one knee on the canvas as the count reached ten. Out!
Nobody could believe it. Not the crowd, not Quarry, and probably not even George Chuvalo. In his dressing room, Jerry raged at what he believed to be an injustice. “Nobody knocks me out,” he insisted. “I was looking at the clock and I couldn’t hear the count because the crowd was yelling so much. I got gypped. I got ruined. That destroyed me. I could have gotten up. I couldn’t tell the count by his (Clayton’s) fingers.”
Chuvalo dryly retorted, “If he couldn’t tell nine from ten, it must have been a good punch.”
When the smoke cleared and some degree of normality returned, the four players of the crazy December of ’69 went off on decidedly different paths. Sonny Liston enjoyed a last hurrah as he pounded out a ninth round TKO over the Bayonne Bleeder, Chuck Wepner, at the New Jersey Armory. Six months later, Sonny was found dead in his home, the cause never satisfactorily established. He is buried at McCarren Airport in Las Vegas, where a simple plaque is engraved: Charles Sonny Liston, 1932-1970, ‘A Man’.
Leotis Martin, the hard luck man from Philly, suffered his cruellest blow of all in sustaining a detached retina during the Liston fight. Leotis harboured hopes of carrying on, but the injury forced him into retirement. He died in 1995 at the age of fifty-six.
Six months after getting knocked out by George Chuvalo, Jerry Quarry charged to the number one spot in the rankings by wrecking Mac Foster in six rounds at Madison Square Garden. Jerry remained a top contender for several more years and enjoyed his finest campaign in 1973 with huge wins over Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers. Sadly, Quarry couldn’t leave the game alone and was still chasing ghosts as late as 1992, his glory days long gone and his health in frightening decline. He died at fifty-three in 1999 from pugilistic dementia.
But what of George Chuvalo? The old rock from Canada, who took more punishment than all of them but never took a knockdown, remains outrageously sprightly and youthful at sixty-eight: still witty, still full of fight, still meeting up and chatting with old friends and former foes.
The Quarry victory resurrected Chuvalo’s career as a major league contender, but, reassuringly perhaps, didn’t change the nature of the beast. As 1970 got underway, George slipped effortlessly back into his familiar role of world class trial horse, bruising men’s fists with his incomparable head.
MIKE CASEY is a boxing journalist and historian, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization and founder and editor of The Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for boxing historians and fans. www.grandslampage.net
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