There was no fanfare, no sizeable payday and no indication of what was to come, but today in 1953, Charles “Sonny” Liston boxed as a professional for the very first time. Halting a guy named Don Smith in one-round in St. Louis and managed by underworld figures, Liston had learned to box in prison (and he would return to jail a few fights into his career) and after a year-long amateur career he was on his way.
Good fighters like Marty Marshall (who beat Liston, breaking his jaw on the way to a points win that was later avenged), Cleveland Williams (twice) Nino Valdes and Eddie Machen were taken care of as Sonny closed in on a shot at the world title. But would Floyd Patterson (or Cus D’Amato) grant Liston a chance?
Just over fifty years ago, at The Convention Centre, Las Vegas, Liston finally got his bog chance; the pressure having mounted on Patterson to face the undisputed number-one contender. Two fights later, both compromising of a round each, Liston was able to win and then defend the crown. His punches weapons Patterson, and it was thought, any other man, had no answer for, Liston really was looking every bit like an unbeatable and long-ruling heavyweight champion.
Not only was he a destroyer inside the ring – the rematch win over Patterson being his 34th career win, all but seven coming inside the distance – but Liston was also seen as a bad guy out of it. All but illiterate, Sonny was not a champion the general public warmed to. Still, Sonny was a champ to stay. Or so it seemed.
No-one would have guessed it, but in his very next fight after despatching Floyd, Liston would be beaten and all but finished as a top class heavyweight. Today, we all know who was waiting in the wings to “Shake up the world,” but back in the summer of 1963 no heavyweight seemed up to the task of taking Liston’s belt; least of all a loud-mouthed kid who had boxed in the Olympics as a light-heavyweight.
Still, that monumental upset was a good few months away. For now, Liston could enjoy being the heavyweight champion. Sonny didn’t really enjoy it, however, as he was upset with the fans’ decision not to like him. “The fans aren’t with me now,” Sonny said, “but pretty soon they’ll have to swing along.” He was wrong, the fans never did swing along and get to really like him. Having said that, when he fought his eventual conqueror in Cassius Clay for a second time – Clay by now, of course, being known as Muhammad Ali – the fans did root for the former bad guy. Liston was not now a hero, but in comparison to a member of an unknown and dangerously perceived group such as The Nation of Islam, as Ali was, Liston was all of a sudden seen as a better option for heavyweight champion.
Sadly for Liston, with the fans at last on his side, he was to suffer the fate Patterson had twice experienced against him. Sonny was stopped in the first round of his return fight with Ali. Even worse, Liston was derided for having taken a dive. His boxing career was all but dead.
But the Liston legend is alive and well. Fans and historians often look back and wonder: how great could Liston have been had he: A – received his shot at the title when he was far younger than he had been when he finally got his crack at Patterson, and: B – if had been looked after by decent handlers, not unscrupulous mob guys.
Another question: how would Liston, with his pole-axe of a left jab, his brutal right hand, his granite chin, his ultra-intimidating nature and his underrated boxing ability, have done against today’s heavyweights? Like a knife through butter is a phrase some use when suggesting what Liston would have been had he been around today.
Never has a heavyweight champion been so shrouded in mystique and proved so fascinating.