Ask anybody who knows anything about boxing in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and they’ll tell you Sonny Liston was a perfect storm of heavyweight domination. From 1959 to 1963 he was unbeatable. Sonny was an awe-inspiring physical presence with a ramrod jab and a devastating left hook – two hundred and fifteen pounds of smoldering rage he unleashed every time he fought. Before Vitaly and Vladimir Klitschko, George Foreman, Iron Mike Tyson, and Smokin’ Joe Frazier, there was Sonny Liston.
Joe Louis once called him, “the greatest heavyweight champion in history.”
Archie Moore described him as, “something extraordinary with a pair of Everlast gloves.”
During the referees’ instructions, he wore thick towels under his robe to bulk up an already massive physique and pysch out opponents. He combined an intimidating ring presence with awesome punching power. Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson 2:05 into the first round of their title fight, then knocked him down three times in the first 2:09 of their rematch. He won 39 out of 50 wins by knockouts, and RING Magazine ranked him number 15 of the 100 Greatest Punchers of All Time.
Sonny Liston was an original badass heavyweight.
He was also a man, “who neither knew his age nor felt any ties of blood … nor saw any future. He knew only that he was nobody and that he had come from nowhere, and that he was nowhere.” Sonny Liston was the 24th child out of 25 fathered by an alcoholic, abusive man who beat him so severely it left physical and emotional scars he carried his entire life.
He was arrested over 20 times and carried a lengthy criminal record. He was the same fighter who never learned to read or write, had underworld connections to St Louis mobsters like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, and took the biggest fall in the history of sports.
The first time I watched Liston fight was against Leotis Martin. It was late in his career – part of a three year comeback beginning a year after the second loss to Muhammad Ali. Martin had been Liston’s one time sparring partner, and for the first six rounds Liston pounded him mercilessly. It was a savage, brutal fight, and when Liston dropped Martin in the fourth round with a vicious left hook, it was vintage Sonny Liston. But then Martin started connecting with his jab and Liston got old – it looked like he aged from thirty-nine to fifty in two rounds. Howard Cosell, who called the fight on ABC, said, “He’s not the Sonny Liston of 1962.”
In the ninth round Martin hit him with an overhand right that KO’ed Sonny into oblivion. “There goes his career,” Cosell said.
A year later Sonny Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home.
Memories of Liston getting hammered in that ninth round lingered for more than forty years. I have always been drawn to him as someone more than a dark, tragic, fallen boxer. He was an illiterate man used ruthlessly by the mob, called a gorilla and a jungle beast in print by sports writers like Jimmy Cannon and Larry Merchant, and was disrespected by the public because of his criminal record. He got no respect for his talent or skills. He was a man deeply loved by his family and friends without regard to race. The same man who once stopped his car on a highway overpass and emptied his pockets to buy every pencil a blind woman was selling from a cup.
In Fight Card: Can’t Miss Contender, I wanted to write about a fighter whose life was saved by boxing. Someone who made mistakes, lost everything, and had to start all over. Someone like Sonny Liston. He was the inspiration behind Can’t Miss Contender, and his shadow was on every page I wrote.
Can’t Miss Contender is about a young middleweight named Billy Flood who gets in trouble with the law and winds up in the same Missouri State Penitentiary where Liston did time. Inside, Billy finds salvation through the prison boxing program, just like Liston. Boxing gave Sonny an outlet for his rage and a direction when he got out of prison. When Billy gets out, people from his past try to pull him back into the life he had before prison. His future is clouded with obstacles and he finds himself backed into a corner by the same kind of unscrupulous promoter who hung on Liston throughout his seventeen year career. Billy might get his shot at becoming a contender, but it could cost him everything.
Billy Flood’s path goes one way.
Sonny Liston’s went in another direction.
In spite of his demons and flaws, Sonny Liston was a more complete boxer than he ever got credit for - the kind of fighter who was made for a role in Fight Card.