by James Slater – Exactly 40-years ago yesterday, in Jersey City, New Jersey, the career of one of boxing’s most fascinating, most mysterious and most brutal heavyweight champions came to an end with a bloody victory. A 38-year-old Charles “Sonny” Liston, over six years removed from his tenure as the world’s heavyweight champion, and six months removed from his painful 9th-round KO at the hands of Leotis Martin, took on a relative unknown called Chuck Wepner.
Wepner, a 31-year-old from Bayonne, New Jersey with a 20-5-2 record, was a tough brawler who had been in with names like Buster Mathis and George Foreman (Liston’s sparring partner in the late ’60s-early ’70s) – and he also had a ring moniker that spoke volumes.. Known in the trade as “The Bayonne Bleeder,” due to the appalling facial atrocities his paper-thin skin had succumbed to in the ring, Wepner often left the arena, win or lose, with a face needing many stitches. And, boy, was that the case when he met Liston in June of ’70!
Liston, 49-4 overall, was considered a long shot to ever regain his old title – the one he’d surprisingly, and meekly, surrendered in his now infamous February 1964 fight with Cassius Clay – but he was still more than expected to take care of the hittable Wepner. And, sure enough, after a largely one-sided fight, Liston got the TKO win in the 10th-round. Having decked the durable Wepner in the 5th-round, with a body shot, the 38-year-old also proceeded to tear Chuck’s face to shreds. At one point, in going back to his corner, Liston told an aid that he felt unable to hit Wepner any more; such damage had he done to the gutsy brawler’s face!
Finally, after the 9th, referee Barney Felix, via the ring doctor, signalled he’d seen enough and pulled out the badly bloodied Wepner. Later, when asked if Wepner was the bravest man he’d ever known, Liston replied, “no, his manger is.” Wepner’s manager was Al Braverman!
But for two things: one, the fight was the last in the career of an all-time great, and two, Sonny was rumoured to have been instructed to take a dive in the fight; this fight would have fallen well from the public’s conscience. However, this last detail has ensured that the 1970 fight has remained a talked about issue.
For years, rumours told us how Liston, ordered by Wepner’s mob “handlers” to take a dive so that they may earn a bundle at the bookmakers, was subsequently killed for not complying. And there is no doubt, a mere six months after the fight was over, Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas apartment (the official version says Sonny’s wife Geraldine, upon returning home from a trip away, found her husband’s lifeless and already decomposing body on January 5th, 1971 – six months and two days after the Wepner bout).
But was Liston really murdered, and by the mob if by anyone?
The official story has it that Liston, a man who was always afraid of needles, died of a self inflicted, but possibly accidental, heroine overdose. Reportedly, a syringe was found near Liston’s body, small bags of heroine were found in his kitchen and, perhaps most importantly, a small puncture wound was seen on his right arm. However, Liston’s body was so badly decomposed when authorities arrived that no 100-percent autopsy was ever possible. To this day, Liston’s death screams of murder in many quarters. But would the mob, if they even did the deed, really have waited six months before paying Liston back for not taking the dive they demanded? It’s not likely they’d have waited so long, is it?
But if not murdered, was Sonny a victim of a self inflicted overdose? A number of people close to him doubt it. First of all, his wife Geraldine has stated many times that her late husband was no drug taker, and Liston’s last manager, the late Davey pearl of referee fame (think Leonard-Hearns I) went on record as saying Liston was hospitalised around a month before the Wepner fight, and that is was then that the tough guy who had a fear of needles was put on an intravenous drip; thus explaining the needle mark on the former champ’ s arm.
Add it all up, as far better detectives than fight experts have attempted to for more than four decades, and Liston’s death remains one helluva mystery. Indeed, Liston’s whole life was something of a mystery. As one great writer once put it; no-one knows when Sonny was born, and no-one knows quite when he died. Officially, Liston was two years short of 40 when he passed, but some experts believe he may have been closer to 50.
One thing we can all agree on, however, is how great Liston was in the ring (at least from the years of 1958-1962). Liston may not have lived the most fulfilled of lives, and he may well be remembered best for the three fights he lost (two to Muhammad Ali, the other inside his Vegas apartment sometime in early 1971), but Charles “Sonny” Liston remains one of the most intriguing of men to have ever fought for a living.
And, despite all the bad luck that befell him in his short life, at least Sonny went out a winner in his chosen field – exactly 40-years ago yesterday.
Charles “Sonny” Liston – heavyweight king 1962-1964 – 50-4(39) as a pro.