On February 25th 1964, Cassius Clay -he had to change his name yet- won the heavyweight title for the first time, a star was born, the world of boxing knew that they were witnesses of something that would have been remembered in the years to come, that young, ambitious -and yes, a bit arrogant- guy was right, he was the greatest, he had just won the title, a new era started.
What people often do not remember is that for every person that celebrate a title, there is someone that has to deal with a terrific lost, someone who’s gonna be part of the story forever, but he will always be remembered like the one on the wrong side of history.
That someone, in this story, is Charles “Sonny” Liston, the former heavyweight champion that gave up the crown 50 years ago, when he didn’t answer the bell for the seventh round.
Sonny Liston was officially born on May 8th 1932, even if no one knows exactly when he was born, that is the date that he set up for all the official records.
Liston didn’t had what we can call an average childhood, he was the 24th of 25 siblings, and he learned quickly that he had to take care of himself by his own:
“I had nothing when i was a kid but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother and a father who didn’t care about any of us”.
When in 1945 he moves to St.Louis he soon get troubles with the law, at 16 years old Liston was well known to the local police. He was arrested twenty times and in 1950 he was convicted for larceny and first degree robbery, and he spent more than two years in a prison in Jefferson City. While he was serving his time in jail, the athletic director of the prison introduced him to the world of boxing.
“I didn’t mind prison, for the first time i had three meals per day” – Sonny Liston –
Liston was a natural talent, he had a jab with which he could knock out his opponent, he had a strength and a power that no one had. When he was released on 1952 he started his career as amateur boxer and he quickly became the Golden Gloves Champions. Within one year Liston turned pro, on September 2 1953 Sonny Liston did his first match as professional boxer, against Don Smith, the match lasted 33 seconds before that Liston knocked out Smith.
During his professional career Liston collected 54 wins on 58 matches, with an impressive streak of 26 winning in a row. He was the fighter that nobody wanted to meet, he was too strong, too powerful, too “bad” for everyone.
“I would not relish being on the same ring with Liston” – Rocky Marciano –
“No man in his right mind wants to fight Sonny Liston” – Journalist –
Between 1958 and 1960 he defeated Billy Hunter, Julio Menderos, Wayne Bethea, Frankie Daniels, Nino Valdes, Roy Harris, Zora Folley and Albert Westphal, he took a total of fifteen round to win those matches.
But seems that Liston couldn’t stay away from trouble, the world of boxing at that time was controled by the mafia, and Sonny Liston was a walking gold mine for them. He started to fight for Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, two of the most famous and dangerous exponent of the mob. They managed all about boxing, if someone wanted to arrange a match he had to deal with them, they were in charge of the entire gambling market and with their influence they could set up the result of a match. Sonny Liston was a man unable to write his own name so we can reasonably guess that he wasn’t well aware about what was happening around him. He just wanted to fight and earn money.
The FBI was on tracks of all the mob’s businnes, and consequently the were on Liston’s tracks. They started to investigate Liston, they followed every movement he did to see if he could lead them to expose the mafia.
Liston became the FBI file number 163-1275.
Despite the mafia, despite the FBI, Liston kept to do what he did better, beat people on a ring and knocked them out. He couldn’t meet an opponent who could beat him, he took their best punches without even blinking.
At some point in his career people said that Liston won the matches before they were started, sometime at the press conference, sometimes outside the locker rooms, he just needed to look at his opponent, and his scowl won the match for him. His opponents could act as tough as they wanted, could act brave or fearless, Liston didn’t care, for most part of his career he was unbeatable.
Then came Alì, and the rest is known history, Liston retired at the seventh round, then, one year later, the phantom punch and he lose again. He was older than Alì, he wasn’t at his prime anymore and maybe it was just time for the boxe to move on, to crown a new champion. Sonny Liston has nothing to regret, he lost to the greatest but he was much more that just the guy who has started the legend of Muhammad Ali.
“He was everything they said he was, a mass of muscle, power and force” – Muhammad Alì –