Liston: The most intimidating of them all

By Clive Bernath
There have been many colourful and informative documentaries made over the years involving practitioners of the sweet science and last week’s Sonny Liston, The Champion That Nobody Wanted was by no means an exception. Liston was one of the most feared and controversial heavyweights of all time. There is no doubt that he was a troubled and vulnerable man, who tried his best to pacify the demons within. But was he the evil, intimidating monster the media continually portrayed him to be? .

Reputations chronicles his rise from the cotton plantations of Arkansas to the heavyweight championship of the world. And some of boxing’s most respected journalists and commentators provide an intriguing and invaluable insight into the ‘Bear’s’ troubled existence.

The public image of Liston was quite simply, that of a bully and hired muscle for the mob. He was jailed at 18 for armed robbery, and that along with his connections to organised crime, and his untimely death from an drug overdose in 1970 just added to his notoriety.

Veteran boxing commentator Larry Merchant describes Liston quite openly in the documentary as a ‘thug’ and others testify to his somewhat intimidating presence. But there are also those, including his wife, Geraldine and family friend Dana Resnick that argue Liston was a caring and gentle man. ‘The Champion That Nobody Wanted’ manages to balance the argument better than any other Liston documentary to date and brings new and compelling evidence to support this.

Most of the footage of Liston has been broadcast before, and the programme does not offer any new evidence surrounding Liston’s premature and controversial death. But just to hear former heavyweight Chuck Wepner analyse his 10th round loss to Liston and the horrendous injuries he received in 1970, make viewing this latest Liston offering a must.

In the documentary, Wepner, who had a reputation as the toughest of the tough, and some say, the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky Balboa in the Rocky series of genre’s in the 1970’s says of his fight with Liston: “Nobody ever hit me like he did. I was never intimidated until I met him. Everytime he hit me he broke something. He broke my cheekbone, my nose and gave me 72 stitches. I was an intimidator until I met him.”

That along with boxing writers Bert Sugar and Jerry Izenburg’s accounts of the two fights with Cassius Clay as he was known in their first fight in 1964- means it is a must for all serious boxing fans.

‘The Champion That Nobody Wanted is indeed well researched and as reliable an account of the former heavyweight champion’s life, as anyone of the books and past offerings that has attempted, to make sense of Liston’s controversial life.

Maybe David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker summed up Liston’s legacy best,at the end of the programme by saying: “Sonny Liston was the most powerful powerless person imaginable. He was heavyweight champion of the world but he owned nothing, least of all himself.”
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