Happy Halloween, Sonny Liston – The Scariest Fighter Of Them All

The closest the great Sonny Liston got to fighting on Halloween Night was on October 24th, 1958, when he won a decision over the extremely tough and durable Bert Whitehurst (in a rematch); Whitehurst being a fighter who was stopped just six times in 64 pro fights. But Liston, easily and without any debate, the most terrifying fighter of them all regardless of weight class, would have been happy to fight on the night when people everywhere celebrate all things scary.

Sonny, who had a wicked sense of humor, loved kids also, and it’s been said that he was most able to be himself when he found himself in the company of either kids or old people. Anyone else and Sonny didn’t trust them. They were always out for something. Liston also enjoyed wearing the black hat as a prizefighter, his image in the media perhaps giving him no other option than to, as he might have put it, “swing along with the idea those folks have of me.”

But it’s true: when it came to terrifying an opponent, of making the guy in the opposite corner wish he was any place else, nobody did it like Liston. Even Muhammad Ali, who twice defeated Liston (in a forever questionable and debatable fashion), was sure enough scared of Liston. Ali admitted as such years after the 1964 and ’65 fights. And Ali had good reason. Did Liston pull a gun on Ali? Liston certainly had the young Cassius Clay wondering if it was Liston who was genuinely crazy, not he himself merely pretending to be crazy (this at the infamous weigh-in ahead of the first fight; Clay’s mind games given much praise then and now).

Sonny loved to fight, but he also knew his job of making a man’s legs turn into jelly was that much easier if his bale stare could do the job even before a punch was thrown. And Liston was great at intimidation; he really was. In short, no fighter was ever as capable of scaring a fighter witless. Liston, of course, had the fighting tools to get the vicious knockout or, on the rare occasion, the points win.

On the occasion when his opponent was not afraid of him – see the two short but X-rated for violence wars with the vastly underrated Cleveland Williams – Liston had the chin, the heart, the long left jab, the crunching punch-power and the strong mind needed to go into the trenches and come out the other side holding his rival’s heart.

But then Sonny got old. In fact, Liston was an old man when he won the title; this by annihilating a petrified Floyd Patterson in 1962. By the time he met Clay, Liston was perhaps as old as 45 (read Paul Gallender’s superb book and educate yourself). As old as he was, Liston was still a capable fighter, but no longer did he have the stuff he once had. It’s truly one of the most fascinating questions in all of boxing: what would have happened had a prime Liston met a prime Ali?

We will, of course, never know. But today, on Halloween Night, it remains a pleasure being both terrified and mesmerized by the peak Sonny Liston and his ring exploits. Away from the cameras and the image they and the writers of the day painted of him, Sonny was a genuinely affectionate, nice guy. It just so happened that when it came to turning the blood of his ring opponent cold with fear, no one could live with Liston.

To this day, no fighter has ever come close.

2 thoughts on “Happy Halloween, Sonny Liston – The Scariest Fighter Of Them All”

  1. If Sonny Liston was ~45 years old when he fought Ali in 1964-1965 he was probably 35 in 1955, a great fight during the early to mid 1950’s would’ve been Sonny Liston vs Rocky Marciano!

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