Sonny Liston: The Champion Nobody Wanted

Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali square off in a boxing ring

Sonny Liston was a divisive figure, to say the least. A young thug who went to prison and took up the noble art. A man who fought his way through the ranks, but refused to play ‘The Good Negro’ in a sport where a black man could make a decent living, as long as he followed the rules. He dominated the Heavyweight Division, was hated for it, then became the ‘Great Black Hope’ after he lost his title to Cassius Clay who had the gall to show up for their return bout under the name of Muhammad Ali. Sonny Liston was the champion nobody wanted until it suited them and after the return bout with Ali, Sonny Liston was a boxer nobody wanted around.


Early Life

Sonny Liston’s early life was so awful, so outlandishly terrible, that if you saw it in a Hollywood movie you’d call the writers out for having such unbelievable writing. Sadly for Sonny Liston, it was all true. The 24th of 25 children was so unwanted and unloved that he spent most of his formative years being beaten like a mule by an almost psychopathic father. In fact, when the actual mule that they used to farm their cotton field died, his father, Tobe Liston—a man who was so evil and vile, that I hope that if there is a Hell, they’ve reserved a special section just for him—threw down the dead animals’ harness and forced his son to put it on and plough the land himself. Whenever he felt that Sonny wasn’t doing a good job, he would receive another beating.

So horrendous were his father’s acts that Sonny Liston wore the scars on his back for the rest of his life, but when he turned 13, he thought he’d finally found a way out of this nightmare. His mother, Helen Baskin, broke free of her husband and moved with some of their children to St. Louis under the premise of finding factory work. Sonny saw a chance for a fresh start and eventually followed her to the city. Yet, if he was expecting some form of an emotional reunion with the woman who had given birth to him, he soon discovered on his arrival that he was, to her, just another mouth to feed.

At such a tender age and with nobody in his corner—a trait that would seemingly follow Sonny Liston for the remainder of his short life—he turned to crime.

He became known as “Yellow Shirt Bandit”, on account of the fact that he wore a yellow shirt whenever he mugged someone or robbed a store, and though this might have appealed to his outlaw sensibilities it would prove to be his downfall. After all, how many 15-and-a-half stone black men could there have been running around St. Louis at that point in time, wearing a yellow shirt and shoving guns into people’s faces? Eventually, Sonny Liston was arrested in January of 1950 and sentenced to five years.

Yet, what could’ve been another case of a young man getting lost in the system, proved to be the turning point for him.

Taking Up Boxing And Ruling The World

While doing his term in Missouri State Penitentiary, Sonny Liston caught the eye of Rev. Alois Stevens, who suggested that he take up boxing. Liston did and was a natural. He destroyed everyone that he was put in the ring with. So much so, in fact, that they brought in a fighter that was managed by the mobster, and the man who ran boxing at the time, Frankie Carbo. A proper professional. Someone who knew the ropes. Someone who could handle himself. Someone who wasn’t just from D block and biding their time until they could taste freedom.

Liston knocked him out.


This impressed Frankie Carbo so much that when Sonny Liston came up for parole, he—allegedly—made sure that strings were pulled and palms greased so that this monster of a man could be released into his management. Liston embarked on a short amateur career that would see him pick up The Golden Gloves, turning pro in September of 1953 and going on a seven-match winning streak, before losing a surprise split decision against Marty Marshall to take his record to 7-1. This would have little to no effect on Sonny Liston who would go on to win his next 26 fights—including his return bout with Marshall—before he finally got his shot at Floyd Patterson’s WBA World Heavyweight Title.

A lot has been written about how Patterson didn’t want to face Liston and it’s not hard to see why. Sonny Liston had changed the face of Heavyweight boxing. Nobody before him had what Sonny had. He stood at 6 ft 1 and had an 84-inch reach—the greatest reach of any boxer, anywhere, up to that point. Add to that the fact that Sonny Liston hit like a runaway freight train and it was no surprise that Patterson was ducking him. Except it wasn’t Floyd that didn’t want the fight, it was his trainer Cus D’Amato, who knew that if Patterson was to step in the ring with Sonny Liston, Liston would kill him.

So D’Amato—being the sly old fox that he was—preached that Sonny Liston didn’t deserve a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship. He was a thug, a criminal, a notorious jailbird who had done hard time. Why should he get the chance to challenge for the belt when so many other law-abiding boxers were waiting in line to lay down for Floyd? And it worked. For a while.

Eventually, though, the Patterson camp had to cave. If they were so sure that Floyd could put Sonny in his place, then wasn’t it time that they did it? And on September 25th, 1962 that’s what was supposed to happen as Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston faced off for the WBA Heavyweight Championship of the world.

Sonny knocked Floyd out in one round.

10 months later, Floyd got his rematch and his team vowed to right that wrong and bring the title back to the good, honest, Americans who wanted nothing more than someone to put this uppity…well…you get the idea.

Sonny knocked him out in the first round of their rematch as well.

So there he was. Sonny Liston. The child nobody loved. The Champion nobody wanted. With the belt around his waist and the jeers of the world in his ears. He was going to be the most reviled Heavyweight Champion of all time, and undoubtedly would’ve been if a young, brash, cocky, loudmouth called Cassius Clay hadn’t jumped into the ring at the end of the second Patterson/Liston fight and started running his mouth.

Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston

When Cassius Clay hijacked the Patterson/Liston post-match interviews, he did the one thing for Sonny Liston that nobody else could’ve done: he made him the good guy. Here was this braggadocious 22-year-old, demanding—not asking, but demanding—that he be the next in line for a shot at Liston’s title. Nobody had ever done that. You waited your turn and if you were a good boy, they threw you a bone. But that wasn’t Clay’s way. He knew that if he wanted to make waves in the Heavyweight division, he’d have to make as much noise as possible so people would bay for his blood. And bay they did.

He also managed to make Sonny Liston the white hat in this film. Clay was so obnoxious, so over the top, so full of himself, that everyone wanted to see him get his teeth literally knocked out, just to shut his mouth up. Even Liston wanted to kill him. Which, considering that Clay showed up on his doorstep at stupid o’clock in the morning to call him out, wasn’t a surprise.

Nobody—and I do mean nobody—gave Cassius Clay a chance against Sonny Liston. Liston was a beast He could knock out anyone at any time, almost seemingly when he chose to, and when they finally met it was nothing more than a formality that Sonny Liston would send Cassius Clay into the footnote of boxing history.

But there was just one problem. Sonny Liston couldn’t get anywhere near Cassius Clay. Never in his life had Liston faced an opponent who was not just fleet of foot, but also had the power to back it up. And that was the problem. No one before or after had what the then-Cassius Clay, and a future Muhammad Ali, had during those years. He moved like a middleweight and hit like a heavyweight. The way he carried himself on the balls of his feet was only matched by the power of the shots in his arms. He was unique.

So unique that somebody—possibly Liston’s cornerman, Joe Pollino—poured the same substance that was used on the swelling and cuts that were forming around the champ’s eyes, onto Liston’s gloves before the start of round four, meaning that when he hit Clay, Clay became blind.

Even though this could’ve and should’ve tipped the scales in Sonny Liston’s favour —and nearly did, as Clay wanted the gloves cut off at the end of round four, and it was only through Angelo Dundee’s instance that he went out there and danced for the next round—Clay soldered on and ran like a gazelle for the next three minutes, before regaining all his senses. When he did, he punished Liston. Badly enough that the champ failed to answer the call for round seven and Cassius Clay shook up the world and became the youngest ever Heavyweight Champion at the age of 22.

Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston

If the people had been baying for Cassius Clay’s blood in the first meeting between the two, by the time they got to the rematch, the people wanted Muhammad Ali dead. In the 15 months that had passed, Cassius Clay had undergone a transformation, having joined The Nation of Islam and taken on the mantle that he would wear with pride for the rest of his life: Muhammed Ali. As you can imagine, in 60s America, this went down about as well as if he’d gone on national TV and drowned a bunch of kittens in a sack.

Liston trained hard for this bout. Having worked himself into the greatest shape he’d ever been in, the fight was postponed due to Ali needing a hernia operation. It would be another six months before the two faced off. It’s hard to say whether or not the time between when the fight should’ve taken place to when the fight did take place took its toll on Sonny Liston, but it couldn’t have helped. Sonny liked all the excesses that his status brought him, so expecting him to act like a Saint for another six months must’ve been asking a lot.

Still, on May 25th, 1965, Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston stood across from each other in one of the most hostile environments that any boxers have ever had to deal with, and before round one was over, so was the fight.

I have watched this bout over and over and over, ad infinitum. I’ve seen Ali himself joke about how he hit him with a punch so fast the cameras couldn’t pick it up. I’ve heard the slander against Sonny Liston, claiming he threw the fight. I’ve even seen documentaries where people have claimed that Liston said that he fell down for Ali so he could own part of Ali’s contract, meaning he would never have to fight again.

Some theories are subtle, some theories are ridiculous, but that’s all they are. Theories. What of the facts?

The fact is that Ali catches Liston with a beautiful overhand right. Sonny throws a jab and Ali moves, pulls back, and cracks him right on the button. Is it enough to make Sonny Liston stay down? I have no idea. But it is so fast and so sudden that it rocked him badly enough to send him sprawling to the canvas.

From there, it all becomes about the ref and the ringside officials. Jersey Joe Walcott—who should never have been the ref in a fight of this magnitude and was only there because he was Jersey Joe Walcott—not only loses the count but also loses control of the ring, with Ali dancing around instead of going to a natural corner and even standing over a prone Liston yelling;

Get up and fight”

The timekeeper, Francis McDonough, carried on the count, instead of waiting for Ali to get away from Liston, so when Jersey Joe turned back around after making Ali go to the correct corner, the fight was over as both Francis McDonough and Nat Fleischer—who was The Ring magazine editor at the time, and had a vested interest in the bout as The Ring Heavyweight Title was also on the line—decided that they’d counted Liston out.

Sonny Liston got up.

People seem to forget that.


And what’s more, he carried on fighting. It was only after Joe had been informed that the fight was over that he pulled the two men apart as they had begun trading blows once more.

The Aftermath

No one believed that Sonny Liston hadn’t thrown the fight, and he became a pariah. He could still pick up fights and went on an impressive 14-bout unbeaten run after his second loss to Ali, but they didn’t mean anything. Not really. He would never be taken seriously again as a challenger to the throne, and wouldn’t see a title fight—outside of his loss against Loetis Marin in ’69 for the vacant NABF belt—for the rest of his life. A life that wasn’t very long for this world.

On January 5th, 1971, Sonny’s wife, Geraldine, came home after a two-week trip away and walked into their house to be met by the most horrendous odour. When she investigated further, she discovered that her husband had been dead for a very, very long time. And like everything else in Sonny Liston’s life, even his death wouldn’t be simple.

It took Geraldine three hours between coming home, finding his body, and then placing the call to local law enforcement. Three hours. This has led many people to question why it took her so long to make that call. What was she doing in all that time? What did she discover that took her three whole hours to call the cops?

There have been enough conspiracy theories around the last days of Sonny Liston to last a lifetime. He was murdered by The Mob. He was a junkie that just got unlucky. He was whacked by a business partner. All of them could be true, or they could all be the thoughts of a bunch of idiots pissing in the wind. It doesn’t really matter.

What matters is how Sonny Liston should be remembered. For a vast majority of fight fans, he’s the guy that took a dive in the second fight with Ali, but for me, that is so wrong that it only falls from the mouths of people who know nothing about boxing. Sonny Liston didn’t take a dive against Muhammad Ali. He just didn’t. Go and watch that fateful opening round in their return bout and you will see that everything I’ve written about it is true. Ali catches him unawares, sure, but Liston gets back up and gets back at it. Does that sound like a man throwing a fight? No. Of course it doesn’t. Jersey Joe and the others around the ring are to blame for Sonny Liston being tarnished as a cheat, not Liston himself.

Sonny Liston was a hell of a boxer. He was bigger, meaner, and had a longer reach than anyone had ever had in the entire sport. He didn’t just win the Heavyweight Championship of the World, he destroyed Floyd Patterson, twice, to do so. And until he faced Ali in their first bout, he was 35-1. 35 and 1. That isn’t the record of a chump. It’s the record of a champ.

Was Ali a bridge too far for him? Of course he was. But hindsight is a beautiful thing as there wasn’t a single person on the planet that went into that first bout thinking that Ali was going to win. Nobody. And yet because of one brilliant performance, followed up in the second meeting by one brilliant punch—and make no mistake, that overhand right from Ali is a work of f*cking art—and the fact that the three men who were supposed to be in charge of the whole situation couldn’t organize a piss up in a brewery, Sonny Liston will always be remembered for ‘falling down’.

Instead of the amazing, beast of a fighter he really, truly was.

I think it’s time we fight fans put some respect on Sonny Liston’s name, don’t you?

Written by Neil Gray

The Grandmaster of Asian Cinema.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *