Sonny Liston At 50: Old But Still Lethal

When was the great Sonny Liston born? 1930? 1931? Or much earlier – maybe as early as 1919. Maybe even before that, in 1917. The fact is, we will never know, no matter how much time, work, effort, and research some great Liston fans and admirers have dedicated themselves to in an ultimately fruitless if admirable task to get to the bottom of it.

It does seem, though, that Liston was a good deal older than his official listing when he was fighting his best fights, his biggest fights. It’s amazing to think, Liston might have been 40 years of age when he went to war with Cleveland Williams and a little older when he slugged it out in short and sweet but incredibly demanding fashion, with “Cleve” in the rematch, in 1960.

By the time he met a brash, loud-talking, and incredibly fast challenger named Cassius Clay, this in Sonny’s second title defense, this some months after he had almost killed Floyd Patterson to rip the heavyweight crown, the man who was born a son to a man who had fathered 24 other children was way past his best. Reflexes? Sonny had begun to betray him. Chin? Liston was still one tough hombre, but he could be hurt if hit on the sweet spot. Stamina? Sonny entered every fight from 1962-on, knowing he would be best served if he got the job done quick – as in a couple of rounds quick.

It was this mindset that Liston had when approaching the 1964 fight with Clay. But here, Liston didn’t think he HAD to get the quick win; he was SURE he would get the quick win. Sonny was convinced the gobshite from the Olympics was scared to hell of him. Scared to death of him. Maybe he was.

But history tells us all how the super-skilled Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali) chopped Liston up, outboxed him as he did so, and then made him quit on his stool after six rounds. Even better, Ali chopped Sonny down inside a single minute in the 1965 rematch.

Believe what you want of that lot, but the fact is Sonny kept on fighting (in more ways than one). It was in September of 1969 when Liston, possibly 50 years of age or more, scored the final KO win of his career.

At the time of his third-round KO of Sonny Moore, the former heavyweight king was living in Vegas, and he had notched up a 13-fight win streak following the Ali (Jersey Joe Walcott) disaster. Sonny met Moore in Houston, Texas (he was by this time sparring and educating a young George Foreman), this in a rematch of an October 1968 fight with Moore, who he had taken out in three in the first fight.

The rematch lasted roughly the same amount of time, and Charles “Sonny” Liston had scored the last knockout he would ever score. In his next fight, Liston met Leotis Martin in a fight that contested the new NABF heavyweight title. Losing energy after having built an early lead, Liston was flattened in the ninth, left on his face, with no debate about the legitimacy of the knockout.

Liston fought just once more – scoring a bloody stoppage over the extremely tough but also insultingly hittable Chuck Wepner, this in June of 1970. and then – Sonny was gone. Leaving this world under extremely murky circumstances, Liston was found dead in his Vegas apartment in early January of 1971. Was it drugs? Was it murder? Was it suicide? We will never know. We can add Sonny’s cause of death to his date of birth. We will never have acceptable evidence of either.

But even when he was a man who was fighting in his fifties (maybe), Sonny Liston was still a heavyweight to be reckoned with. As was the one to be celebrated.