Sonny Liston: The Final Fights
By Paul Gallender
On May 25, 1965, Sonny Liston took a dive in his rematch with Muhammad Ali. Losing that fight, and the way he chose to do it, cost him his reputation, his livelihood, and his legacy.
Liston’s adjusted gross income fell precipitously from $562,651 in 1964 to $19,180 in 1966. The former Heavyweight Champion of the World fought his final 16 fights for chump change. Liston had three fights of consequence after Lewiston, but none of them paid well.
On July 6, 1968, he stopped 8th-ranked Henry Clark in the 7th round after winning the first six on all three cards. The former champ was happy and even joked about his age in his dressing room.
“Bring on the big money,” the Bear said with gusto. “Everyone knows how good I am. I ought to fight Frazier. That would prove that I’m the best fighter, that I’m champion. Frazier, you know, he comes at you. That’s what I like. I have no doubt I can beat him,” Sonny said, grinning.
Archie Moore thought Sonny would be too strong for either Joe Frazier or Jimmy Ellis. “Don’t tell me that Sonny is through,” echoed Muhammad Ali. “Sonny can whip any man in the world, exceptin’ me.”
In truth, none of the new crop of young heavyweights wanted anything to do with the aging Bear. Liston won his first 14 comeback fights, 13 by knockout.
Sonny was in Tucson in late November 1969 for a guest appearance on Love, American Style when he took a fight against his former sparring partner, Leotis Martin, on two weeks’ notice. Lem Banker and George Foreman said Sonny was suffering from a cold he couldn’t shake.
“Liston was guaranteed a Frazier fight if he beat Martin,” said Brooklyn matchmaker Johnny Bos, “and that’s why he took the fight. Liston-Frazier was going to be a big, big fight.”
Sonny hurt Martin with his jab and knocked him down with a left hook in the fifth. After eight rounds, Liston was ahead by three points on two scorecards and two points on the third. His nose was bleeding and he had trouble breathing through it, so he spat out his mouthpiece before the ninth round.
One minute into the round, a right hand by Martin stopped Liston in his tracks. A follow-up left-right combination rendered him unconscious before he hit the canvas. The sight was so stunning that announcer Howard Cosell kept his mouth shut for a few seconds for one of the few times in his life.
“I think he finally went to the well, and there just wasn’t any water,” said Foreman. “It was a tough fight,” Ash Resnick told me. “Sonny didn’t have anything, so we knew he was shot.”
There was to have been a victory party at Liston’s Las Vegas home that night. Foreman went to pay his respects to his idol and said it felt like a condolence call. “The depression hung on Sonny like a straitjacket,” said George. “He sat in the backyard, staring ahead, a dog in his lap.”
Later, Geraldine began to sob. “What you guys gotta understand is that sometimes you lose. You can’t win them all. Nobody wins them all. You hear that, George? You lose. Everybody loses. But you can’t just die!”
Sonny should have hung up the gloves, but he didn’t. The following day, he went to his old friend Johnny Tocco’s gym. “He came right in that door and stood right over there and said, ‘Are you going to be my trainer?’” said Tocco. “What about (Dick) Sadler?” asked the trainer. “I fired that guy last night,” replied Sonny. Tocco told him he’d have to “run in the morning, chop wood, go home for a nap and come back to train in the afternoon.” Liston replied, “Who says I ain’t gonna do that?”
Liston made $13,000 for his final fight against Chuck Wepner at the Jersey City Armory on June 29, 1970. The promoters were trying to build up Wepner for a big New York fight, and they did all they could to make sure he won.
“They offered to set up training facilities for Sonny in New Jersey and then messed them up so that he couldn’t train as he should,” said Lem Banker.
Sonny lacked a third cornerman, so Wepner’s trainer put one of his men in Liston’s corner. British matchmaker Mickey Duff was in town at the time and told Sonny not to drink from the water bucket between rounds because it would probably be tainted.
Tocco was in the motel coffee shop with Sonny when a couple of wiseguys entered and motioned the fighter to come over. Liston told Tocco he’d be right back but was gone for hours.
“When I see him, I ask him who those guys were, and he just mumbled something,” said Johnny.
The following day one of the two guys came up to Tocco, shook his hand, and told him not to feel bad if his friend lost the fight.
“Well, I went up to Sonny, and I said, ‘Hey, who are those guys? If something’s goin’ on, I want to know about it.’” Sonny replied, “Aw, go to sleep, I’m gonna knock this guy out.”
During the bout, it appeared that the Bayonne Bleeder might bleed to death. The ringside doctor examined Wepner’s six facial wounds after the third, sixth, and eighth rounds. “Man, I hate to hit this guy anymore,” Sonny told Davey Pearl between the eighth and ninth rounds. When referee Barney Felix stopped the fight in the tenth, Wepner’s chest, Liston’s shoulders and gloves, and Felix’s shirt were covered with blood.
Chuck needed 74 stitches to close the cuts on his face and 25 more for the ones in his mouth. He lost two teeth and had trouble regaining his equilibrium.
“They iced me down for two days. I was in shock for three days,” said Chuck. “I swear he was taking it easy on me. I thought he was holding back.”
“I would quit boxing if I had another source of income,” Sonny said after the bout. He thought beating Jerry Quarry would earn him another title shot. He picked Ali to beat Frazier and felt strongly that Ali should enter the ring as champ.
Ali came to the fight unannounced, wasn’t introduced to the crowd, and refused to talk to reporters. After the fight, he stopped by Liston’s dressing room, and the two chatted briefly for the last time.
Two mobsters were waiting for Liston when he got out of the shower. One of them threw an envelope containing $7,000 at Sonny’s chest, scattering money as it fell to the floor.
“The next time we see you nigger, you’re dead,” said one of them. Liston had been told to lose the fight, but one dive was enough for him.
Accompanied by a lady friend, Liston fled his dressing room in his bathrobe and slippers. Sonny’s refusal to throw the fight might have been the reason he was murdered by gangsters six months later in his Las Vegas living room. I’m inclined to think it was.