THIS JUST IN: MUHAMMAD ALI’S HERNIA KILLED SONNY LISTON!
by Paul Gallender
BOSTON, MA – Friday, November 13, 1964
In three days, Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston would meet at a time when their physical and mental conditions were as closely aligned as they would ever be.
The much older Liston was in the best fighting shape of his life and had never been hungrier or more motivated than he was for his rematch with Ali. He was also an 11-9 favorite. Conversely, Ali was more confident than he should have been and much more dismissive of the threat Sonny posed than he could afford to be. But none of these things would matter because this fight would never take place.
When Sonny Liston unexpectedly lost his title to Cassius Clay on February 25, 1964, his world quickly began to implode. Within an hour, his purse was seized and a federal income tax lien of $868,000 was filed against the Listons by the Internal Revenue Service.
The bout was a fiasco of epic proportions for Sonny. He had been fooled by a boxer young enough to be his own son into thinking that he couldn’t possibly lose the fight. He had also been manipulated by his manager and business partners (the Nilon brothers) into believing that he was getting the best deal any fighter ever got. It was a worst-case scenario for Liston on both counts.
The rewriting of Sonny’s boxing legacy began that very night. Calling Liston a crude lumbering oaf, Arthur Daley said Sonny’s performance “showed unmistakably that he was the biggest hoax since the Cardiff Giant.”
A Sports Illustrated article said Sonny “quit on his stool for reasons that will be found only in his strangely confused character.”
Referring to him as “the old hoodlum,” Jimmy Cannon said Liston was “as dumb and helpless as a scarecrow on sticks.” Ring Magazine said Liston was “by nature a lazy man,” but stopped short of calling him shiftless.
Florida State Attorney Richard Gerstein initiated an investigation of the fight to focus on Liston’s shoulder injury, for which he enlisted the services of his office’s medical/legal adviser and the Dade County Medical Examiner. A Florida state law provided for a prison term of up to ten years for anyone found to have fixed or thrown a boxing match.
The boxing commission in Sonny’s home state of Colorado suspended him immediately after the bout. “I’m not gonna look at any medical examination and let that guide me wrongly on account of his being injured,” said one commission member. Some people suggested that Sonny should be barred from the ring for life.
Four weeks after the bout, the results of Gerstein’s investigation confirmed the findings of the eight doctors who had examined Sonny after the fight. “While Liston’s injury is beyond doubt, there is also little doubt that he went into this fight with a sore or lame arm,” stated the report. It also noted that none of the pre-fight information was imparted to the Miami Beach Boxing Commission.
That means the commission chose not to mention the fact that they had turned down Sonny’s request for an injury-related postponement. The investigation revealed no evidence that the fight had been fixed, and Gerstein’s office found no fluctuation in the betting odds anywhere in the country.
Though he’d been cleared of throwing the fight, Sonny’s first full month as an ex-champ ended even worse than it began. Michigan Senator Philip Hart’s Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly met to determine whether or not boxing should be placed under federal control.
“I do not believe,” said Senator Keating, “that with the possible exception of deaths in the ring, there has been another single occurrence that has contributed more to bringing professional boxing into widespread public disrepute than the Clay-Liston bout and the antics that both preceded and followed it.”
Keating was more disturbed by Ali’s conversion to Islam than he was by the fight’s outcome. In its coverage of the hearings, Time misspelled Sonny’s name as Listen.
Without his knowledge, Sonny’s promotional company, of which he was President, entered into an agreement with Ali’s Louisville Sponsoring Group that paid Ali $90,000 for the right to promote the new champ’s next fight in the event he beat Liston in their rematch.
It meant that Sonny now owned 22.5 percent of a promotional company that was betting he would lose.
By the end of the hearings, several Senators were incensed by what they had learned. They had been provided with what one of them termed a “shocking illustration of how a championship fighter, unversed in the ways of business and finance, can fall prey to the very persons who pretend to be his friends and his intimate advisers.” In Liston’s case, he had escaped the mob’s fire by jumping into the Nilon brothers’ frying pan.
The World Boxing Association’s executive committee voted unanimously to drop Liston from its ratings, the first time in the 45-year history of official ring ratings that a former heavyweight champion had been unranked immediately after losing his title. WBA President Ed Lassman said his group might reinstate Sonny if he “behaved himself” for several months.
Lassman also tried, unsuccessfully, to get the executive committee to withdraw recognition of Ali because of his “detrimental” behavior since becoming champion—i.e., his conversion to Islam.
At their July convention, the WBA formally voted to strip Ali of his title. “This borders on the ridiculous, to have to take a man’s title with a fountain pen,” said Archie Moore. “I would say it’s almost as hard to come by a title as it is to be President of the United States.”
One of the many bigoted WBA members said, “Let’s put Liston back where he belongs, in the gutter.” A delegate from North Carolina said the colored gentleman who worked in the locker room of his country club told him that Liston was a disgrace to his race and he got the man’s permission to use the quote at the convention.
In truth, the WBA was a self-appointed joke of an organization. It was basically the old National Boxing Association reconfigured with a few representatives of foreign commissions. Many of the 37 member states were staffed by people who knew nothing about boxing. The WBA was so pathetic that it seriously deliberated the issue of who to pick as heavyweight wrestling champion of the world.
Politics aside, everyone knew that Ali and Liston had to fight again. When Ernie Terrell beat Eddie Machen for the vacant WBA title, the live gate was just $47,000, and less than 2,000 people at nine theaters across the country attended the closed-circuit telecast.
“There are no other worthwhile heavyweights around,” wrote SI’s Robert H. Boyle. “What fighters Clay has not beaten, Liston has demolished. They have no one but each other.”
Spokesmen for both fighters said they would stage the rematch with or without WBA approval but the problem was that no city seemed to want the bout. Casino executive Ash Resnick hoped to promote the rematch in Las Vegas and told the city’s 11-member hotel association that Vegas could have the fight if they would each buy a certain amount of tickets to ensure the live gate.
At the time, all association votes needed unanimous approval, and two of the hotels objected after considerable pressure was applied to them by Athletic Commission chair Art Lurie. “I haven’t seen Liston on any Wheaties boxes, or Mr. Clay either,” said Lurie. “I know when I was a kid I could look at a cereal box and see my heroes.”
Finally, at the urging of some of the promoters’ most influential friends, Governor Endicott Peabody of Massachusetts said his state would host the bout. Each fighter would get 30 percent of all net revenues. Tickets would sell for $10 to a high of only $50, a far cry from the Miami Beach fight where $50 got you only the fifth most expensive ticket.
On September 14, contracts were signed for a November 16 rematch at the Boston Garden and Ali became the first and only fighter in history to sign a contract using two different names. Throughout the proceedings, Ali criticized the press for continuing to call him by his slave name.
“Let’s get this understood right now,” he told reporters. “My name is Muhammad Ali. It’s not Cassius Clay.” Still, much of the nation’s press would continue to call him Clay for years. They also demeaned him by calling him Cassius XYZ and Gassy Cassy.
Ali’s face was puffy from all the weight he had gained since winning the title. He was also suffering from a cold and for once was more subdued than a relaxed and amiable Liston. Ali expected a much tougher fight but reminded reporters that boxing was a sport for young men.
“How old is Liston? Well, I hear he’s pushing 40,” said the champ. “He ain’t physically capable of forcing a body that old through four and a half months of the strong training a fighter would need to meet a young, strong fighter like me.”
The champ would seem to have been stating the obvious but Archie Moore believed that if Sonny pushed himself in training, the fight wouldn’t last more than five rounds.
“This man has a depth of fighting potential that is astounding,” said Archie. “I would say here and now that Liston has much more to work with than Clay, despite the fact that he lost to Clay. And despite the fact that he is older. You see, Liston has an amazing amount of energy, and Clay has an unusual amazing amount of energy. But Liston is, we’ll say, five times more durable than Clay when it comes to absorbing punishment when it is meted out.”
The oddsmakers agreed and installed Sonny as a 13-5 favorite, making Ali an even bigger underdog than Patterson was when Floyd defended his title against Liston. The betting community knew Sonny had fought angry and injured in Miami and had hardly trained for the fight. They knew he was a lot older than he said he was, but they also knew what he was capable of doing.
Ash Resnick said Sonny got rid of almost everybody and everything that was associated with the Miami Beach debacle. Liston’s close friend, Father Edward Murphy, said Sonny would sometimes drop by just to talk but not about Ali or fighting.
Murphy found the ex-champ to be a hurt, humiliated, and lonely man and could sense a difference in him and in the way he felt about the rematch. Mark Kram noticed it too and said it “permeated Liston’s camp. You could feel it and it made you wonder what kind of man will be facing Clay this second time.”
You could tell what losing the title meant to Sonny by the looks he gave Al Braverman whenever he introduced him as former heavyweight champion of the world at his public workouts. Right after he became champ Sonny told Reddish he didn’t feel any different but that changed after a while. “He realizes now what it meant, and he wants it back,” said Reddish.
The fact was that Sonny wasn’t nearly as happy about winning the title as he was unhappy about losing it. He was bitter but not bitter enough to lose his head as he had in Miami Beach.
“When I catch him, you’ll know I’m bitter,” he said. Sonny had lived with that feeling since losing his title. He said he was taking it out on the world in general and wasn’t any good to anybody, including himself and his wife. “It was the loneliness and disappointment,” he said.
Strategic planning was now part of Sonny’s training routine and it underscored his new-found dedication. He knew he had fought a stupid fight by running after Clay. “I guess I just stopped thinking,” he said.
Liston trained harder for the rematch than for any of his previous fights. As if doing his roadwork in the high altitude hills of Denver wasn’t difficult enough, Sonny did it wearing a backpack filled with bricks. He also spent a week in the woods chopping down trees. Liston spent three months at Stanley Zimmering’s martial arts club in south Denver where they worked on a regimen of conditioning exercises aimed at strengthening and repairing his left shoulder and upper arm.
Before he left Denver, Sonny said his left shoulder was fully healed.
Liston would box more than 170 rounds preparing for this bout, almost twice his total for the first fight. His workouts included 6 rounds of sparring, 6 minutes on the big bag, 9 minutes on the speed bag, and 9 uninterrupted minutes jumping rope.
“Ain’t no playin’ this time,” said Sonny. He was being trained for a 15-round fight and Zimmering said he’d be able to go 30 rounds by the time they got to Boston. This time Sonny would fight his fight, just as he had against everyone except Eddie Machen and Clay. One solid left hook is all it would take to unleash the killer in him, and Ali knew it. “I face reality,” Muhammad admitted. “I may not sound human, but behind closed doors, I worry and pray.”
When Sonny set up his training camp in Plymouth, Massachusetts, two undercover agents from the Boston DA’s office were on hand to watch for any indication that something might be wrong with the upcoming fight.
A spokesman for the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce described Liston as a terrific asset for the town. “He’s an awfully nice person,” said Chamber member, Beverly Barr. “A person can’t help but feel a warm rapport with him.” The ex-champ welcomed children of all ages to his training quarters, smiling at them before and after his workouts and giving out autographs. There was a noticeable change in Sonny’s demeanor; people said his glare was far less intimidating than it used to be.
For the first time, Sonny bared his feelings when asked what was important to him.
“Just the title, just that championship, that’s all there is in this world. That title—my title—is there and I’m going to get it and I’m going to keep it a long time. And I’m going to like it and with it I won’t be lonely…You’ll never know what it’s like, I hope. One day you are the king. Your friends or the guys you think are your friends, are all around you. They give you, ‘Yes, champ; no, champ; you got no worries, champ. No one in this whole world can beat you, champ.’ Then all of a sudden you’re not the champ and you are alone.
“The guys with the big mouths are out talking about you, not to you, and what they say isn’t what they said the day before. It’s a big price to pay.” Sonny smiled and said he looked forward to seeing which guys from the old crowd would have the gall to come around again after he regained the title.
Getting sparring partners was still a major problem and keeping them was an even bigger one. In exchange for two, three-minute rounds each day, a brave man received $250 a week, all he could eat of some very good food, and a large, comfortable room with a view of Cape Cod Bay.
In Miami, Sonny didn’t feel the need to prove he could beat up his sparring partners, a mindset he believed had contributed to his defeat. But it was open season on these guys now.
After 35 very tough rounds, Amos Lincoln spit out a tooth and said, “This is a hell of a way to make a living. I wouldn’t wanna be Clay.” On October 26, Lee Williams became the third to quit in two days and the 10th since Liston began training. His trainers flew in Ed Green from Detroit and flew him back after one round of work—with eight stitches in his mouth.
Two weeks prior to the fight, only two sparring partners remained in Liston’s camp. Everybody in Liston’s camp had grim looks on their faces.
Sonny had studied the films of the first fight and had seen something that would help him. He wouldn’t talk about it but in one sparring session, Liston landed three hard, right-hand leads, one of which knocked the helmet off his sparring partner’s head. It was the kind of adjustment that Ali wouldn’t have expected Sonny to be capable of making.
“Liston always was a predictable fighter,” said Cus D’Amato. “He isn’t now. He’s changed.”
Sonny expected to weigh between 209 and 212 pounds for the bout, which had always been his prime fighting weight. “Clay has to only make that one mistake Sonny needs,” said Joe Louis, who knew Ali had a history of making mistakes against lesser opponents. Both Sonny Banks and Henry Cooper had floored him with left hooks. Doug Jones and Billy Daniels repeatedly showed that the young fighter could be tagged with right-hand leads and Liston knew that Ali had been knocked down by a short right hand from one of his sparring partners.
Amos Lincoln had sparred with Ali two years earlier and told Sonny he patiently waited for an opening and landed some pretty good right hands.
“You can’t go after him swinging all the time, because that’s what he likes,” echoed Willie Richardson who sparred with both fighters. “He would move around, dance in, hit you pop, pop, pop, dance out, make you miss…But I used to wait and wait and look for my shot, and I hit him pretty good.” Willie was let go by Clay’s camp after only four days because they didn’t want a sparring partner showing up their fighter.
Zimmering compared Sonny’s physical condition to a stick of dynamite that would be lit by the sound of the opening bell. Though never a fan of Sonny’s, Howard Cosell said he had never seen him look so formidable and thought he would destroy Ali. Time said Sonny was in the best shape of his career and “the toughest looking 40-year-old (or so) around.” The old man, as Ali would often call him, was prepared to show the world that he still had it. “He gets his mental attitude into condition, he’ll win,” said Joe Louis.
Something quite different from the first fight was taking place. In a stunning turnaround, Liston was the more dedicated gym worker. This time it was Ali who was living the life of a champion and taking his opponent lightly. He had gotten married and gone on an 8,000 mile trip to Africa and the Middle East, where he was given what may have been the warmest reception a visiting American ever received.
He had also eaten himself out of shape for the first time in his life and when he looked at his 245-pound body in the mirror, he saw Jackie Gleason. After getting his weight down to 217 Muhammad claimed it had been “health fat.” Six months later, Angelo Dundee would readily admit that Ali was in much better shape for the Lewiston fight than he was in November for the originally scheduled rematch in Boston.
Bundini said the champ had grown into a man since the first fight and his main worry was that Ali would try too hard to prove that he was one. “The man apt to take too many chances trying to prove that, and he can’t afford no chance-taking,” Bundini said Ali had shown only one-quarter of the things he could do in Miami and though he was exaggerating by a factor of at least two, Sonny had displayed absolutely none of his talents in the first fight.
Most national sportswriters, though, accepted Sonny’s performance in Miami on its face. In Gilbert Rogin’s final pre-fight story for Sports Illustrated, not a word was devoted to the real reasons behind Sonny’s debacle, which were his injured left shoulder, his decision to fight angry, and his unwillingness to train.
Liston’s physical was scheduled two hours before Ali’s, but Muhammad showed up 30 minutes earlier to resume his campaign of harassment. Dragging a bear trap around, he barely missed being hit by a streetcar and tied up traffic by stopping drivers to ask if they had seen Sonny. “There’s a bear loose and I gotta catch him,” Ali told any motorist who would stop to listen.
When Liston pulled up to the building, Ali and his entourage surrounded the car, shouting for Sonny to come out and be caught. Sonny was escorted inside by the state police, where one of the examining doctors estimated that Liston’s age was “at least 45 no matter what he says.”
The doctor called Sonny a freak because his reflexes and physical condition were apparently as sharp as Ali’s, despite the huge gap in their ages. When Liston drove away, Ali sprinted after his car.
Ali boasted that 1 billion people would be praying for him on the night of the fight, but conceded almost none of them would be in the Boston Garden. Ali worried about a plot to somehow cheat him out of his title and talked of flying in 15 United Nations observers as insurance.
“I expect dirty stuff,” Ali said. “The referee, the judges, newspapermen, and everybody is against me. If I’m going to lose, it’s going to be fair and square. So I’m going to have cameras on everyone and both corners and at ringside.”
By some accounts, Liston was a very superstitious man. He wouldn’t train at the Dunes in Las Vegas because five fighters, including Patterson, had trained there and lost. He knocked on wood for luck, conscientiously avoided stepping on sidewalk cracks, and if someone ran around a pole during roadwork, Sonny made him go back to the other side. He would always touch or shake the hand of his trainer just prior to the opening bell, and his friends knew better than to throw a hat on a bed or sit on a trunk.
So it’s likely that Sonny approached every Friday the 13th with at least some trepidation. However, Friday, November 13, 1964, would be the cruelest day of his life.
Ali wanted to mark the occasion by delivering a sack of black cats to Liston’s training camp but was talked out of the idea by his handlers. After running five miles in the morning, he canceled his afternoon workout and went shopping for a new suit. Back in his hotel room, Ali dropped a water glass that shattered on his bathroom floor.
“I ain’t superstitious,” he said to Dundee, “but I wonder if that’s a bad omen?”
After eating a large meal of steak, spinach, potatoes, and a tossed salad prepared by three Muslim women cooks he had brought from Miami, Ali was watching Little Caesar on a projector when he was overcome by nausea and began to vomit. He had suffered an incarcerated inguinal hernia when a loop of his intestines popped through the wall of his abdominal muscles and into his scrotum, raising a lump the size of a lemon on his right groin. Ali had known about the hernia condition for four months and had scheduled an operation after the rematch.
Rudolph covered his brother’s face with a towel and he and another man walked Ali’s stretcher down the hotel corridor to a service elevator. The police arrived with an ambulance and took Ali to the emergency room of Boston City Hospital. Reporters were limited to the outer hallway of the hospital’s fourth floor, where Muslims guarded every door, glaring at intruders.
There were no other patients on that floor. “Keep away,” said a minister of Boston’s Muslim mosque. “Nobody goes through these doors; somebody get hurt if they try.”
A Boston Herald photographer was so intimidated by Ali’s bodyguards that he took no pictures. Doctors said if Ali had been in the ring when the hernia occurred, he might have died. They speculated that Ali might be able to return to strenuous activity in three months and be able to fight again in six.
Sonny and Geraldine had just returned from a walk when Reddish and Harold Conrad gave them the news. Geraldine cried and Conrad remembered looking at Sonny and seeing a man get old right in front of his eyes. “I don’t believe it,” said Sonny. “That faggot. It’s another one of his tricks.” When the report was verified, Sonny said, “Shit, I worked hard for this fight. What a letdown.”
Liston said he wished the injury had happened earlier rather than after all the hard work was over. In response to a question, Sonny said he didn’t plan to visit Ali before returning to Denver.
Lost to history is the fact that Ali’s hernia altered the course of both men’s lives and careers in major ways. Given Liston’s physical and mental condition, it was better than even money that Ali’s championship reign was about to end. Because of the depth of Sonny’s bitterness, it may have ended very badly for the young man.
Had their rematch taken place as scheduled, by the end of the first round the world would have seen that Sonny wasn’t the same guy who stunk up the joint in Miami Beach.
By the end of the second round, Ali would have known that he was fighting more for his life than he was for his title—because Liston was fighting for his entire future. It would have been the greatest boxing match of all time.
I’m not saying Ali couldn’t have won that fight. What I am saying is that no one could have beaten Liston if he was in physical and mental shape. Sonny would have hurt Muhammad at some point in their 15-round fight and that would have unlocked the gates of boxing hell on this remarkable young man.
The rematch in Boston could easily have been Ali’s final fight; he was tough enough and young enough to absorb the kind of severe beating from which he may never have recovered.
Ali was one of a kind but Liston was the only one of his kind. No one is that tough in his ’40s. No one is that tough, period. Unfortunately, the postponement changed everything for Liston and changed it forever. In retrospect, a congenital defect common to every man started the clock ticking on the final 2,237 days of Sonny’s life. It’s not that much of a stretch to say that Ali’s hernia may have saved his own life and that it probably killed Liston.
(This article is an excerpt from Paul Gallender’s book, Sonny Liston – The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights. It is available in hardcover from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org and in paperback on Amazon.com.