50 years ago today, Sonny Liston was found dead in his Vegas apartment, this by his wife Geraldine, who had been away on a trip. Liston’s body was already in a state of advanced decomposition.
It was a sad end for a great fighter, a vastly misunderstood and underrated fighter. One man who has devoted many years of his life to getting to the truth about the former heavyweight champion, is writer Paul Gallender.
Kindly taking the time to speak about Sonny with this writer yesterday, Paul had plenty of fascinating things to say about Liston.
Q: As you know, Paul, it’s fifty years ago (Jan. 5 1971) when Sonny Liston’s dead body was found in his Las Vegas apartment – officially by his wife Geraldine.
Paul Gallender: “Yes, time really does fly. In fact, I’ve been looking for something on Sonny, an article or a tribute, and I’ve not been able to find anything. I thought there would be something, on the 50th anniversary, but apparently nobody is doing anything on Sonny any more. The last two articles I read on Sonny were pieces in the New York Times, and they were be freelancers, on the two Ali-Liston fights. And not to denigrate the writing, these articles were ridiculous; they were so factually wrong. You know, the website of Ali – The Greatest – has on its main page, a photo of Ali standing over Liston, and he’s screaming, his mouth wide open.. Yet nobody asks what Ali is saying. He’d just knocked out the toughest heavyweight ever, in the firsrt round with his first real punch, and Ali went back to his corner and he said three words: “he laid down.”
Q: In your superb book – “The Real Story Behind The Ali-Liston Fights” – you get to the bottom of the real Sonny Liston. One of the greatest heavyweights ever.
P.G: “I have him top-two. It’s between him and Ali. But yeah, Liston, who never had a prime, destroyed the heavyweight division in the early 1960s – Cleveland Williams, Eddie Machen, Roy Harris, Zora Folley and Floyd Patterson. And by the time he destroyed Patterson to become heavyweight champion, Liston was in his mid-forties. That should not happen!”
Q: In your book, you go into detail, from research you did, on Sonny’s date of birth. You say he was born in either 1917, 1918 or 1919.
P.G: “That’s right. And it’s not just me. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has Sonny fighting under the name ‘Charles Sailor Liston,’ in 1934. So that would make Liston around the age of 17. One of the doctors said, before the first Ali fight, that he was at least 47. And that’s what I mean – Sonny was already an old fighter by the time he finally got a shot at the title. What Floyd Patterson and Cus D’Amato did was really unfair. They made Sonny wait, he was the number-one contender after he beat Cleveland Williams the first time, yet Patterson had the nerve to fight Tom McNeleely instead of Liston. One of the bad things Patterson did was, he only fought one black guy as champion, in Tommy Jackson, before he finally fought Sonny. Sonny, after he beat Williams the second time, knew he was the best in the world, that he could beat anybody.
“The thing about Sonny is, most people in America were born before 1965, and their timeframe of Liston, all they know about him, is that famous [Neil] Leifer photo of Sonny laid out on the canvas. And people say, ‘ah, he was a bum.’ People don’t know the real Sonny Liston. Like I say, this is not about me, and I’m not about to say Liston was a saint. But I ask for people to do one thing if they if are going to do anything as far as Sonny is concerned, and that’s judge him by his talents. He was a great fighter.”
Q: One of the things about Liston was his awesome chin. You say he never had a prime, but during his “peak years,” he took everything Cleveland Williams had, in two great fights!
P.G: “The second round of the second fight Liston had with Williams is the greatest round of punching ever! Liston hit Williams with everything and Williams came back, before Sonny knocked him out. The Liston-Zora Folley fight was perhaps Sonny’s greatest performance, and Folley’s even though he lost. From what I’ve read, that was an absolute war. Unfortunately there is no footage of that fight.”
Q: The Marty Marshall fight is a subject that is fascinating. Did Marshall break Liston’s jaw, and was it when Sonny was laughing at Marshall, and open-mouthed?
P.G: “That’s what happened. Sonny was laughing at Marty’s antics, he was jumping around the ring, and he hit Sonny with a shot. Liston was not that far into his pro career at the time. But that was a controversial fight, as two judges had Marshall ahead, while the other had it 77-70 for Liston, which is really wide. But Marshall could box, and any puncher can have trouble with a good boxer.”
Q: Sonny was harassed during his life as well?
P.G: “Every cop had a photo of him in his car at one point, so they could easily identify Liston! Harassed is not a strong enough word. My God, nobody had Sonny’s back, apart from one person, this being his wife. I researched Liston, and I thought to myself, somebody MUST have had his back, and Geraldine did. But no-one else.”
Q: You really rank Liston as the best, or the second best heavyweight of all time?
P.G: “I do. Only Ali could match his talents, yet Sonny was already an old man by those two fights. Look, I recently looked up George Foreman’s list of opponents before he fought Joe Frazier for the title, and I don’t want to knock George. But Foreman’s opponents on the way up really were bums! The last nine opponents Foreman fought before he fought Frazier, had records of: 1-2, 11-9-1, 21-39, 18-7-1, 1-14-1, 3-25-2, 15-5-1, 48-15-3, and, before he fought Frazier, Foreman fought a 4-15 guy. That’s really poor.”
Q: As you say, most people know Liston only for the two Ali fights. What happened?
P.G: “Liston trained like never before for the rematch with Ali, knowing he had fallen for Clay’s psychological warfare of making out he couldn’t really fight. The Clay who struggled with Henry Cooper and Doug Jones had no chance against Liston and Sonny felt the February ’64 fight was an easy deal. For the rematch, Sonny was in such great shape and the entire Ali camp was scared to death. Archie Moore said that the shape Sonny was in, the fight would not last five rounds. But then Ali had to have the hernia operation and the fight was postponed.
“But the Black Muslims, as they were called back then, had their guy as champion and they wanted to make sure he remained as champion. Sonny had a gun put to his head, the deal being he lost or else. And to make doubly sure, Liston’s wife and their boy were taken in, held against their will, and Sonny knew he had to lose or else he would never see them again. That was a classic mob tactic. Again, it’s such a shame that most people know nothing about Sonny Liston other than those two Ali fights.”
Read Paul Gallender’s book: “The Real Story Behind The Ali-Liston Fights.”