Recalling The Sonny Liston vs. Cleveland Williams Wars

No-one knows for sure when heavyweight king Charles “Sonny” Liston was born, therefore we don’t know how old Liston was when he was at his absolute peak. But there is one fight that stands out as the peak performance of Liston’s entire career: a fight that saw Liston show some truly ferocious punching prowess, a rock of a chin, great speed of hand, superb accuracy and a truly unquenchable thirst for battle.

This primed and peaked performance came in March of 1960, as Liston, then (officially) aged 30 or 32 (depending on which official record you go by; really there being no such thing in existence) met fellow monster puncher, the equally carved from granite Cleveland Williams. It’s mindboggling to think how these two superb, and avoided, fighting machines were matched together twice, inside 11 months. Today, both men, with good connections and even better protection (as Muhammad Ali might say) would have been kept apart, at least until one of them won a world title (as both would undoubtedly do today).

But Liston and Williams fought in a different time, a far tougher time. And so they went to war, first in April of 1959, and then again in March of the following year. Williams, who was born in 1933, was 47-3 at the time of his return rumble with Liston (the three losses coming against Sylvester Jones, on points in 1953, Bob Satterfield, by KO in 1954, and to Liston in 1959). Williams enjoyed a one-inch height advantage over Sonny, while Liston had the edge in reach at 84” to 80”.

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In their first encounter was held at Miami Beach, with Liston then being 27-1 (the loss coming on points to Marty Marshall in 1954, later avenged) and the crowd had been treated to a quite magnificent and highly entertaining three-round slugfest. Williams had success early, hitting and hurting a slow-starting Liston; bloodying the older man’s nose. But Liston, a fighter with the single best “poker face” imaginable, never let on if he was in fact hurt. Liston poured it on towards the end of round-two, and then, sensing his man was hurt, decked Williams twice to get the stoppage in the third. It was a great win for Liston; a man who, like Williams, had real trouble finding quality opposition.

Three fights, three wins and 11 months later, Liston faced Williams a second time.

The return took place in Houston, Texas, and another violent affair unfolded. A fairly even opening round went by, but no-one was expecting the action to last too long. And it didn’t. A great second-round saw both men land with power punches, but once again Liston would not be denied. Sonny had to take a fierce left hook from Williams, however, along with a burst of hurtful follow up blows which had him stuck in a corner, before retaliating with blistering shots of his own.

Then, after three consecutive lefts from Williams, Liston landed a cracking overhand right , followed by another right hand that landed flush, and then a perfect left hook to the jaw that dropped his man heavily. Showing great bravery, the badly battered fighter got up at eight – only to be met by a ferocious Liston who was coming to finish him off. With the courageous Williams stuck in the same corner that he himself had just been forced into, Sonny teed off on his wounded target. Blow after blow landed, until Williams slid down the ropes to the floor. He was grimacing in pain as he did so.

Somehow, in a truly amazing display of guts, Williams pulled himself upright once more. But the referee had seen enough and he stopped the onrushing Liston in his tracks, putting a stop to the brutal fight.

Liston had looked absolutely awesome. As near to unbeatable as anyone could imagine a fighter to look.

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Indeed, this was the peak Sonny Liston – the most terrifying, the fastest, hardest hitting and just plain best heavyweight on the planet at the time.

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