When Europe Met Sonny Liston
By Paul Gallender
When Sonny Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson in their mandatory rematch on July 22, 1963, he looked forward to fighting Cassius Clay in late-September in front of 100,000 people in his hometown of Philadelphia.
It figured to be the biggest grossing fight of all-time but his Louisville Sponsoring Group, along with trainer Angelo Dundee, didn’t think their fighter was ready for the Bear.
Liston could have defended his title against somebody else on home TV but opted for a September exhibition tour of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Great Britain.
When the trip became public knowledge, an agent in the FBI’s London office alerted J. Edgar Hoover that a higher-up in England had read that Liston had a criminal record. The agent requested that a copy of Sonny’s fingerprints be immediately furnished to the London office.
More than 100,000 people turned out to see the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Ten thousand fans were at his first exhibition in Stockholm. Eleven thousand saw him in Karlstad, 30,000 in Oslo, and 14,000 in Helsinki.
Working out in front of 11,000 people at London’s Wembley Pool, Liston bowed to all four corners of the audience and took several curtain calls.
“I appreciate you coming here tonight,” Sonny told the crowd. “You people show up better here than they do back home. That’s the truth, and the truth don’t hurt no one.”
To his great surprise no one asked Sonny about his criminal record or organized crime.
In Glasgow, thousands cheered Sonny as he rode down the town’s main street on a white horse in full Highland dress. Sonny caused something of a scandal in Belfast when he kissed a white model from a local clothes shop. The model was promptly fired by her employer.
According to the tour’s organizer, Peter Keenan, Sonny was disturbed by and couldn’t understand the bigotry he saw in Belfast.
“He thought only blacks were treated badly,” said Keenan, a former …. “He kept talking about the march (in Washington, D.C.) Martin Luther King was organizing and how he really wanted to be back home for it.”
Marching in the nation’s capital wouldn’t have been dangerous like a Civil Rights march in the South.
“They don’t fight fair,” he said of the police in most Southern states. “They don’t fight my kind of fight. I ain’t got a dog-proof butt. Some cop puts a hose on me, and I’ll forget where I am.”
Sonny met privately with Ingemar Johansson in Stockholm, after which the former champ said it was possible that he would come out of retirement. That would have been a two-million-dollar fight in Sweden, given Ingemar’s popularity there. When Jack Nilon said Liston would defend his title in Britain against Brian London if the terms were right, Sonny said he’d gladly fight London and Henry Cooper in the same ring at the same time.
Liston’s string of one-round knockouts (currently at three) could have gone on for quite a while against the likes of Johansson, London, and Cooper.
“We had nobody anywhere good enough to fight him,” admitted British boxing promoter Mickey Duff.”
Liston could have exercised the accepted prerogative of any new champ to take what amounted to a victory lap like Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes did. It would have provided him with some very big money. It also would have made Cassius Clay fight either Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley, or Eddie Machen, all of whom would have been tough fights for the young Louisville Lip.
The highly successful tour was cut short when Sonny suddenly flew home to Denver. Liston’s publicist Ben Bentley said he had never seen Sonny in such an angry mood.
Publicly, Sonny said he was leaving because of the illness of his daughter, Eleanor. Until then, few knew that Liston was a father.
When Liston switched planes in Chicago, he brandished a black cane at sportswriters and refused to say anything.
After landing in Denver, Sonny jogged down the ramp into the terminal. As the press ran after him, Sonny stopped and told reporters he was ashamed to be in America. When asked why, he said.
“You ought to be able to figure that out. You should see the way they (the British press) treated me. It made me ashamed to be from America.”
A fellow passenger told UPI that a young girl on the plane had asked Liston for an autograph. When he declined, the girl asked where he had been and Sonny replied:
“In Alabama.” Sonny was distraught over the bombing of a Birmingham church that had killed four young black girls.
The following day Geraldine said her husband had been deeply disturbed by the Birmingham bombing.
“You should hear the things they ask you there about the race problem,” she said. “They kept bugging him, and he finally said, ‘I can’t take this anymore.”
Sonny remained in seclusion for two weeks before speaking at a press conference organized by a local boxing promoter. He said he couldn’t sleep, had terrible headaches, and decided he needed to come home. He didn’t expect to be greeted at the airport and didn’t feel like talking to anyone about the Alabama bombing.
“People asked a lot of questions about the race problems over here. The questioning was real bad after the bombings. Everywhere I went, they would ask me over and over, ‘What about the Alabama bombing? What do you think of it, Sonny?’ I’ve never been afraid in the ring, but I used to get real nervous when they’d start asking me about the race problem because I just didn’t know how to answer them. If I hurt anybody’s feelings, I’m sorry.”
Sonny’s sensitivity to America’s racial problems actually only heightened his unpopularity. In a column titled “Sonny Needs To Grow Up,” the Denver Post’s Jim Graham wrote, “If his temper tantrum of last Wednesday is any indication of the ‘new’ Liston, then the sports world ought to pack it in as far as calling him by the name of ‘champion.”
Graham went on to say, “Since when does a two-time loser take it upon himself to judge the whole of American society? There are an awful lot of Americans who are ashamed of Sonny Liston. He hasn’t exactly made his supporters or the people of the United States proud of him.”
What had Sonny done wrong? His reaction to the Birmingham bombing was no different than a majority of Americans, black or white, just more pronounced. Apparently, Liston could do no right in some people’s eyes. He felt the fans treated him like dirt and everyone acted like he had stolen the title. In retrospect, he would have been better off moving overseas.