Christmas 1963, When Sonny Was Heavyweight King – And Liston Looked Unbeatable

By James Slater - 12/13/2023 - Comments

Rewind to the Christmas holidays of 1963, and it seemed as though the man who sat on the heavyweight throne would never be knocked off it; certainly not by a loudmouth named Cassius Clay, who had won Olympic gold down at light heavyweight, and who had talked his way into a shot at Liston’s crown.

60 years ago, Charles Sonny Liston, whether he was 31 as officially listed or if he was way older, as many historians believe, really did seem set for a long, long title reign. As more than one boxing writer put it, Sonny would reign as champ for as long as he wanted to. And Liston, who was all smiles as he sat as a guest on the ‘On The Spot’ TV show with host Max Goldberg, had absolutely no fears of losing to Clay.

The TV appearance on the show by Sonny (available on YouTube) shows a fighter, one who was on the top of his game at the time, making the fatal mistake of overlooking an opponent, of failing to show him respect. Of course, nobody would have blamed Liston for the way he brushed off Clay as a serious challenge to his throne, to his dominance. After all, Liston had obliterated Floyd Patterson to take (see rip) the world title, and Sonny had made equally short work of Floyd in the second fight that was demanded by way of a rematch clause but was ultimately pointless.

How could the skinny, unproven at heavyweight Clay pose any threat to the rampaging Liston?

The interview Liston gave to Goldberg proves quite fascinating all these years later. Sonny, whose hands really do look massive when we look at the black and white footage, comes across as charming, witty, and not at all offensive. It’s worth remembering how Liston, dubbed “The champion nobody wanted” – caused a real stir by posing as Santa on the December 1963 cover of Esquire magazine. Back then, Liston was pretty much public enemy number-one.

But Sonny’s effervescent performance (and we must remember how Sonny pretty much hated doing interviews, along with making TV appearances where he wasn’t gloved up) looks today like more than enough good stuff to sway even the most hardened Liston hater. In short, Sonny comes across as a great guy… a likeable guy. A man in whose massive hands the world title was honourably held.

But again, Sonny was so off-guard as far as how much of a threat the young Clay posed him.

After complying with a call to show the viewers his huge hands, and to then stand up and display the enormity of his reach, Liston politely answers the questions that come his way. TV was altogether different 60 years ago, and guests were never thrown hard ball questions. But still, in watching the film of December 1963, it’s clear Sonny is not comfortable in the hot seat, even though he manages to carry himself with dignity.

Here are some of Sonny’s best answers to the worst questions:

Q: You knocked out Patterson in two-minutes and six seconds of the first fight, and in two-minutes and ten seconds the second time you met. Do you think you will dispose of Cassius Clay before that?

Sonny: “Well, I think all this talking he’s been doing is a way of pushing himself into the ring with me (smiles). I’d say it won’t go over three [rounds].”

Q: Is there any real hard feelings between you and Cassius Clay?

Sonny: “There isn’t any with me. I know it would be just a like a guy coming in to stick you up….there’s no hard feelings between you, but you’ve got something he wants (laughs).”

Q: Are you going to go into full and serious training for this fight?

Sonny: “Well, I’m going to take this as serious as if I was fighting Joe Louis, in his prime.”

Q: What do you plan to do after this fight?

Sonny: “Well, I take it one step at a time. ‘Course, this is no step, it’s maybe half a step (laughs).”

Q: Who do you think might be a worthy challenger for your crown after you and Clay have fought?

Sonny: “Well, I think [Ernie] Terrell is ranked about third, I think. I don’t know where [Eddie] Machen’s standing now. He’s sliding some place….I don’t know whether it’s down or up (laughs).”

Q: Is the heavyweight division so devoid of good material, is it just you and Clay?

Sonny: “Well, you don’t need to name Clay, it’s just me. Leave Clay out of it (smiles).”

Q: How long do you expect to hold the heavyweight title?

Sonny: “Well, as long as I can. I wanna retire undefeated. I guess it’s like Joe Louis said, that there’s no heavyweights around for me to prove how good I am, and I’d like to prove it to myself.”

Whatever you may feel about the two fights Liston had, and lost, to Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali), it seems clear Liston, as great as he was, had zero fear or inclination to train his hardest for the two bouts. Liston looked all set for a heck of a long reign as champ as the world approached the end of 1963. Instead, the world was “shook up” in February of 1964.

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