The Sonny Liston Questions

By Paul Upham
From September 25, 1962 when he won the title from Floyd Patterson until February 25, 1964 when he was stopped by Muhammad Ali aka Cassius Clay, Charles Sonny Liston was world heavyweight champion, making one successful defence against Patterson in a rematch on July 22, 1963. That we know for sure.

There are many things we don’t know about Sonny Liston, 50-4 (39), and two of the biggest questions surround his performance in the rematch loss to Muhammad Ali on May 25, 1965 and his suspicious death on December 30, 1970.

The night of the Ali rematch will go down in boxing history as one of the most peculiar and bizarre boxing contests ever.

Everybody has a theory, said boxing agent and historian Don Majeski. People have said everything, that it was fixed by the Muslims, fixed by the Mafia. It’s like the Kennedy assassination of boxing. Ali-Liston II is the Kennedy assassination of boxing.

For the 2,434 in attendance and those watching live on television, the question was how many people really saw the Ali punch which dropped Liston to the canvas in the first round and did it come from behind the grassy knoll?

For me it is difficult to look at the rematch in Lewiston, Maine against Muhammad Ali and say there wasn’t something odd about that fight, anchor punch or not, says SecondsOut’s own Contributing Editor Patrick Kehoe. As Jimmy Cannon said, ‘I saw that punch and it couldn’t have crushed a grape’. Well, I didn’t see that punch. I can only see it in the footage that exists. As anyone knows who has seen the film, Liston’s back is to you, so you don’t actually see the blow and how it landed. But that’s not a knockout punch to me.

Legendary television broadcaster the Colonel Bob Sheridan is convinced that an outside influence saw Liston take a dive.

We didn’t see the real Sonny Liston in the Ali fights. He was mobbed connected, he was a hitman supposedly and if he wasn’t a hitman, he was a leg breaker. He was a tough, bad boy, said Sheridan.

With his connection to the mob, a lot of people talk about whether his fights with Ali were fixed. The answer to that question is uneqvivocably ‘no’. They weren’t fixed. Ali would not have gone for it any way. In the first fight he was Cassius Clay. He believed in his mind that he was the ‘greatest’ and he was out to prove it and he would not have gone for it, neither would have (trainer) Angelo Dundee. But the problem then was that Cassius Clay had already been approached by the Muslims (the Nation of Islam) and the Muslims totally intimidated Sonny.

I don’t have first hand knowledge that they threatened him, but I do know first hand that Sonny Liston was scared to death of them. If that played any factor in the shoulder injury in Miami or the fact that he stayed down when he got clipped by a short crisp punch that he should have been able to absorb in Lewiston, I don’t know. But that’s what I believe in my heart and my mind and with my experience of over 10,000 fights and all the world title fights that I have broadcast. I believe in my heart that Sonny Liston was intimidated by the Muslims. The Muslims at that time intimidated a lot of people.

Majeski has a totally different theory on what happened in the fight, pointing to the physical condition of Liston in both title fights with Ali and his decline as a fighter that went unnoticed by many people through his lack of activity in the ring.

I think he quit on his feet like he did in their first fight. The first fight was similar to the Duran-Leonard II fight, where Liston was getting beat and he saw he was going to get embarrassed and he basically said, ‘screw this guy, I’m not going to let him embarrass me’, and he just quit. If you look at the history of Liston going into the second Ali fight, in December 1961 Liston goes one round with a fighter named Albert Westphal after stopping Howard King in March of that year in three rounds. That’s four rounds of boxing in the year, said Majeski.

In September 1962 he knocks out Floyd Patterson in one round, that’s five rounds of boxing. Then he trains eight weeks for the Patterson rematch, which was meant to be in Miami, but he injures himself and the fight is called off. He goes back into training again and they fight in Las Vegas in July 1963 and he knocks Patterson out in one round. Between March 1961 and his first fight with Muhammad Ali in February 1964, Liston had exactly six rounds of boxing. Between October 1960 and February 1964, Ali had 19 fights. Liston was probably over the hill when he won the heavyweight title, but you couldn’t tell because he had scored two one round knockouts over Patterson.

Liston had three one round knockouts going into the first Ali fight and he is no shape in the first fight figuring that he was going to blow him out. He loses the first fight and they train for a rematch in Boston and Ali gets a hernia and that fight is called off. He trains for two phantom fights and between March 1961 and May 1965, Liston has had thirteen rounds of boxing and dissipates terribly during that time. There is a picture of Liston standing with his back to the camera and you see these two big rolls of fat around him. You say this is a guy who wasn’t in the best shape. He had no boxing for nearly four or five years. Liston was an older fighter and in that time I think his ability had slipped.

When it comes to the circumstances of Liston’s death, Sheridan has no doubt that it was not through a drug overdose as is the official record.
My theory was he was absolutely killed by the Mob and I’ll tell you why, he says.

I know for a fact if ever I saw two athletes that were afraid of a needle, one of them was Sonny Liston and the other was Muhammad Ali. It was common in those days for fighters to have their hands injected before commissioners watched the wrapping. Guys who were heavy punchers injured their hands in the early portion of fights so they injected them to get through the fights. Liston and Ali would not have their hands injected.

Now 25 years later, you can’t convince me a guy who was scared to death of a needle, would have any type of recreational drug habit that would involve injection of heroin. Sonny Liston was a ‘juicer’, he liked to drink. He talked a lot when he did drink. He had notorious connections with the Mob and maybe he was talking too much when he drank a lot. It was around New Years when he was found dead in his house here in Las Vegas and his wife just happened to be away. It doesn’t add up that Liston would have been a recreational heroin user. It doesn’t add up to me at all. My theory is that he was killed by the Mob for reasons I don’t know.

Paul Upham
Contributing Editor
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