Liston vs Patterson: Two Fights, Two Rounds

Liston vs Patterson: Two Fights, Two Rounds

By Paul Gallender

No one who followed boxing should have been surprised when Sonny Liston needed just 126 seconds to take the heavyweight title from Floyd Patterson in September 1962. Yet, fifty-one of 80 sportswriters polled by Time prior to that match didn’t see it coming. They should have, and here’s why.

Patterson’s bouts against mediocre white opponents had been measured in rounds. Liston’s fights against top black contenders were measured in seconds. 

Liston stopped Cleveland Williams in 484 seconds in April 1959, and in 313 seconds in March 1960. Zora Folley survived 388 seconds against the Bear four months later. Both men were highly talented pugilists and in their primes. Roy Harris went twelve rounds with Floyd in 1958, but just 155 seconds against Sonny in 1960.

When Liston needed just 130 seconds to KO Patterson again in 1963, those 51 sportswriters were no longer surprised, nor were they happy. And neither was Liston. Those two fights should rightfully have taken place in late 1960 and early 1961. If they had, Sonny Liston would have died a rich man, and very likely from natural causes. 

Sports Illustrated called the debate over Liston’s right to fight for the title “sport’s liveliest moral controversy.” Because Sonny had twice served time and was previously managed by the mob, Patterson’s manager, Cus D’Amato, was indignant that a man with Liston’s background could or should be given a shot at a title that he considered being as much his as it was Patterson’s. Floyd was champ for five years only because Cus avoided fighting all of the major contenders, all of whom were black.

In truth, Floyd wanted to fight Liston almost as much as Donald Trump wanted people to see his tax returns. Both men knew the end result would be humiliating and highly catastrophic to their respective careers.

Patterson vented his anger at having to fight Liston by abusing him in the negotiations. He grabbed 45% of the live gate and 55% of the ancillaries while insisting Liston get only 10% of both, half the usual challenger’s cut. “He said he’d fight me for nothing,” Floyd said flippantly. “Now he can put up or shut up.” Sonny settled for 12.5%, which he called crumbs.

For the record, when they finally fought, Liston had been the #1 contender for two-and-a-half years, during which time Patterson fought Ingemar Johansson a third time, for no good reason, and a white, undefeated, questionably-ranked, former college football player.

The promoters wanted the bout held in Yankee Stadium but New York turned down a  million-dollar-gate, and millions more in local revenue by deeming Liston to be untrustworthy, morally unfit, and an all-around public threat. Geraldine was angrier than her husband when she said: “Do they think Charles is so bad he can come in for just one night and turn the whole town rotten?”

The very real prospect of Sonny Liston becoming heavyweight champion bothered the New York Times editorial board so much that they called for the abolition of professional boxing. Their senior boxing writer, Red Smith, described Patterson as “a thoroughly decent human being,” and Liston as “a jailbird.” 

That was mild compared to the lead of Newsweek’s lengthy pre-fight story. “The image of Floyd Patterson, heavyweight champion, is one of gentleness and everything that is good. The image of Sonny Liston, heavyweight challenger, is one of viciousness and everything that is evil.” 

In Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Dr Nicholas Casciato found Liston’s dressing room to be a festive place with “Night Train” blaring on the phonograph. While taking Sonny’s vital signs, Dr Nick asked him how he felt about the fight. “Doc,” said Sonny, “no 185-pound motherfucker can beat me.” Truer words have never been spoken by a fighter.

In contrast, the mood in Patterson’s dressing room was beyond grim. Floyd was so gripped by fear that Dr Casciato needed help from Cus in order to take Floyd’s blood pressure and pulse.

Fewer than 19,000 people came to see good conquer evil on a cold, damp, early fall, Windy City night. Patterson hit the canvas directly in front of his wife, mother, Rocky Marciano, and Joe Louis. When Floyd got to one knee, Sonny thought he looked like a man reaching for the alarm clock. Patterson was counted out for the first time in his career. 

The fight’s $4.8 million gross was the most in boxing history, but short of the $6 million gate the promoters expected in New York. Patterson’s gross earnings were a record $1.2 million, more than four times Liston’s $282,000.

Patterson lived in seclusion for several months in an apartment in the back of his home. “Oh, I would give up anything to just be able to work with Liston, to box with him where nobody would see us,” he told Gay Talese. “Oh, I’m not talking about a rematch. All I want to do is get past the first round.”  

Oddsmakers immediately installed Liston as a 7-to-1 favourite for a rematch that seemed pointless but had been written in stone. Both fighters made less than $250,000 on this fight, though the challenger made slightly more on the closed-circuit revenue than the champion.

The booing of the man Las Vegas would soon come to love was so intense when he entered the Convention Center ring that A.J. Liebling thought the crowd resented Sonny’s competence. Patterson was counted out for the second and last time of his career after the third knockdown. He came four seconds closer to hearing the bell than he had in Chicago, but was still fifty seconds short of achieving his goal.. 

Jim Brown attended the fight with Cassius Clay and was in awe of Liston. “I thought Superman was white and wore a cape,” said the NFL great. “I was wrong. He’s black, and he’s standing right in front of me.”

Time compared Liston’s performance to “a man killing a rabbit with a stick.” Rocky Marciano said Sonny was so big and strong that it was almost like he was walking through his opponent.

“The second fight, I think he held back on me because I got up,” Floyd said years later. “Man, could that guy hit! If I went in with a shovel and a gun, I still couldn’t have beaten him.”

When told of Liston’s death, Floyd contained his grief but not his disappointment. “No, no! I had told them I would fight Liston again!” he blurted out. How ironic that Floyd Patterson ended up feeling cheated by Sonny Liston. How ironic indeed. 

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