Former heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston was officially 38 years old. Chuck Wepner, AKA “The Bayonne Bleeder,” was 31 years of age. The two fought a half-century ago today in Jersey City. After the fight, Wepner would require 72 stitches in his face. Liston was paid $13,000 (in cash, the dough handed to him in a brown envelope). Wepner’s purse was a reported $3,900. The fight lasted nine bloody rounds.
But numbers are the least of it. The big talking point is still, all these years later, Liston’s demise. Just what happened to Liston in December of that year? Was Liston murdered? Did he accidentally overdose on drugs? Did Sonny OD on purpose?
Liston, courtesy of his slice and dice job on Wepner, went out a winner in the ring, yet he would die just six months later under murky circumstances. Some say Liston was the victim of a mob hit, payback for not taking an agreed dive against Wepner. Others say Liston, who might have been as old as 50, suffered a heart attack in his apartment. We will of course never know.
Wepner stopped wondering, caring, a long time ago.
“They say Liston was involved with some, how shall I put it – shady characters, and that maybe he was murdered,” Wepner told this writer a few years back. “To be honest, and I don’t want to come across as uncaring, I don’t know what happened to him and I don’t particularly care. They say he died of a drug overdose yet he was afraid of needles? I don’t know.”
Wepner, who is still with us, having recently won a battle with cancer, is the only man to have fought Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Both Liston and Wepner have been given the Silver Screen treatment: Wepner with the film “The Bleeder,” Liston with the movie “Phantom Punch.” Both heavyweights have been featured in countless documentaries. Yet large portions of Liston’s life remain mysterious, his death especially.
After beating up Wepner, Liston hoped to fight on, his aimed for fight one with Jerry Quarry. As it is, Liston never fought again, apart from, maybe, when he engaged in a fight for his very life inside that Vegas apartment some time late in December of 1970/early January 1971. Was there a police cover-up? Did members of the Vegas police force in fact know Liston was dead days before they arrived on the scene, content to “let him rot” (as is one version of this sordid tale)?
Liston went out with a final record of 50-4(39). Some historians say Liston deserves to be ranked no lower than in the top-three or four greatest heavyweights of all time.
On Liston’s grave in Vegas, the words “A Man” are written in tribute to Sonny, one of the most misunderstood and fascinating athletes to have ever walked the earth. In terms of being a fighter whose life (most of it) and departure from this world are so utterly shrouded in mystery, nobody comes close to Liston.