the public image of Sonny Liston verges on the indigestible. He is, depending upon the site and occasion, an uneducated boor, a semireconstructed no-account subject to instant relapse, a beast in beast's clothing. The tepid publicity campaign to pass off the heavyweight champion as a Good Humor man in disguise has fallen as flat as Floyd Patterson.
Liston the fighter is something else, however, and it has been a long time since a nearsighted manager ticked him off as "an ordinary pug with a big punch." Sonny Liston is a remarkable physical specimen, and seldom if ever has a fighter so dominated the sport by sheer muscular mass. His baleful, obsidian stare intimidates fighters, sportswriters and the occupants of the first 20 rows of any arena he enters. Though actually smaller than almost any professional football lineman, Liston seems gargantuan. His jab is fracturing and his hook is cold storage. He has become Super Sonny: faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive—and all the rest.
What one sometimes forgets is that a large part of the Liston legend is built upon his last three fights, fights that were spread out over a three-year period and lasted exactly six minutes and four seconds. In less than a round Liston twice knocked out Patterson, the weak-chinned former champion, and humiliated an inept German, Albert (Quick-fall) Westphal. But before that Sonny Liston sometimes had more than a little trouble defeating fighters whose names were hardly household words. Even in their own households.
There was, for example, Eddie Machen, who went 12 rounds to a decision, taunting Liston all the way. Bert Whitehurst twice lasted 10 rounds to decisions. Mike DeJohn staggered Liston, and later, when the fight was stopped, DeJohn had to be restrained from going after Liston once again. Zora Folley had Liston cowering and covering from a volley of combinations. Cleveland Williams all but knocked Liston out. Lumbering Howard King went eight rounds with Liston, standing toe to toe, swapping punches all the way. Marty Marshall broke Liston's jaw and beat him. In a rematch Marshall knocked Liston down. In a third tight Marshall hurt Liston, by Sonny's own admission, and went 10 rounds before losing the decision. Rotund Willi Besmanoff slipped Liston's jab and lasted seven rounds. Jimmy McCarter, who beat Liston in an AAU championship bout, later stood up to him defiantly in training camp.
February 10, 1964
Some of these fights were long ago, and Liston has improved; perhaps none of the fighters could do as well against Liston today, although at least four are eager to try. But their success and their tactics indicate how Liston can be beaten by a strong, courageous man.
The pertinent experiences arc those of McCarter, Whitehurst, Marshall and, to a lesser extent, Machen. These four developed individual styles for fighting Sonny. Machen stayed away and kept Liston lunging and missing, although he was never in danger of winning the fight, since he seldom bothered to risk a punch of his own. Marshall did everything that was unexpected, and Liston, a predictable fighter, found the unpredictable Marshall beyond his ken. After three fights he was still frustrated by Marshall's style. Whitehurst, a thick-bodied, heavily muscled man, moved in and out, kept Liston busy and smothered his power. McCarter, a former college football player at the University of Washington, was the equal of Liston in bulk and strength. He stayed inside and traded punches. He was too big for Liston to throw around, and his body blows hurt the future champ.
These four men followed the old hustler's maxim: never play the other man's game. They fought the fight best suited to their individual styles—not Liston's.
Whitehurst is now a science teacher in the New York City public school system and is planning to finish his master's degree in biology at CCNY. He has the blocky build of a college lineman—which he was at Morgan State—and the agility of a high jumper (he jumped 6 feet 3 while in college), but his comparatively short arms made it difficult for him to fight Liston outside. They fought for the first time in St. Louis on April 3, 1958, and Whitehurst tried to counter Liston's jab and failed. "Every time Liston stuck out his left in the first round," Whitehurst says, "it was as if he held a stick in his hand and the stick was telling me to stand back."
Trainer Charlie Brown told Whitehurst to slip the jab, to take a quick step inside and throw his own left hand. The result was a revelation. In the hollow of Liston's powerful arms, Whitehurst fought from what appeared to be a squat—with his body erect and his knees flexed, his head snug against Liston's chest. There he stayed, battering Liston's body. When Sonny tried to break away, Whitehurst tied him up.
"After three or four rounds of this," recalls Whitehurst, "Sonny's belly began to get the message, but he couldn't escape and he couldn't retaliate. He was furious." In the fifth round Whitehurst violated his instructions: he stepped back. Liston hurt him with a glancing left. Charging in, Liston followed with a right, but Whitehurst ducked the punch, came up and hit Liston with a left to the body and a right to the jaw. The flurry startled the rushing Sonny. Hurt, he covered up. Whitehurst had learned his lesson, but so had Liston, and Sonny thereafter refused to force the fight. For the next five rounds he warily tried to prevent Whitehurst from getting inside. He succeeded well enough with this new task to win a close decision.
"In our second fight [St. Louis, Oct. 24, 1958] my manager, George Gainford, told me to stay outside," Whitehurst recalls. "For six rounds I took a good beating. The crowd yelled, 'Run, Whitehurst, run,' and I ran and I ran until I ran out of gas. Exhausted, I moved inside. It was like being in the eye of a hurricane. On the outside it was hell, but in close it was calm and I was safe.
"If I had listened to Charlie Brown," he continued, "I might have beaten Liston. Then I might have been...but that's an old story. Liston's an excellent fighter. A mean fighter. But if I could get another shot at him I'd quit teaching and give up studying, go into training and fight him winner-take-all. And, believe me, I wouldn't do all that unless I was convinced I could beat him."
For two years Jimmy McCarter was a starting tackle and a fullback at Washington. The bullying tactics he learned from line play and the easy head and shoulder fakes practiced by backs stood him in good stead as a fighter. McCarter beat Liston in the quarter-finals of the 1953 National AAU Championship in Boston. Ancient history? Too far back to be pertinent? Well, McCarter proved the value of his style a year and a half ago while working with Liston at Sonny's training camp before his first title bout with Floyd Patterson.
"It was funny," McCarter says wryly. "Liston just didn't remember fighting me in the AAU tournament. He didn't remember losing, either. Even though it was in the record books. But from the moment I arrived in camp up in South Fallsburg, [N.Y.] last spring, I seemed to be the butt of all of Sonny's jokes. If someone had a question, Sonny would say, 'Ask college boy, he knows all the answers." After we began to spar, he liked me even less.
"One day after we had worked out. Sonny woke me up by cocking a gun at my head and firing a blank. I guess I annoyed him. He was murdering all the sparring partners in camp except me. This he didn't like. I wasn't about to be raw meat for his bloody appetite. I protected myself. I fought like I did in the amateurs, only I was better. Willie Reddish [Sonny's trainer] had been working with me, and Liston resented this. Willie was forced to stop, but by then I had learned more than I had in my entire career."
McCarter did more than annoy Liston—he infuriated him. Fighting on top of Liston, McCarter was too big for Sonny to move, to set up. When he tried to push McCarter off, the burly college boy pulled back and often gave better than he got. In close, McCarter kept hammering at Liston's body. "Sonny likes to talk about training," he says, "but he's lazy. He doesn't like to do roadwork. And he does not like to be hit in the gut." When Liston managed to get clear, McCarter says, he timed the jab and beat Sonny to the punch. Every punch McCarter threw was a counter to Sonny's lead.
"The right hand was the one I waited for," says McCarter. "Liston throws the right with a lot of body behind it so that when he misses he is off balance. The momentum pitches him forward."
McCarter rolled away from the right and, as Liston lunged forward, he chopped back with his own right hand. In a money match this would have made Liston cautious, but in training it made him mad. Shoving and bullying were, always, Liston's final resort.
McCarter's last session with Liston was on a day when a group of sportswriters was in camp. Anxious to show off, Sonny quickly used up his meager supply of sparring partners by knocking one out and breaking the rib of another. He was forced to use McCarter. For the better part of three rounds McCarter stayed on top of Liston, punching him in the belly. At times McCarter would step back, giving Liston punching space. Instead of getting killed, however, McCarter either slipped the jab or rolled with the punch and chopped back with a rapid combination.
In the face of such insubordination Liston began to maul and shove. McCarter mauled and shoved right back. Liston tried to throw McCarter out of the ring, but McCarter held on and both men flew into the ropes. The sparring session came to an abrupt end—and so did McCarter's career as a Liston sparring mate. He had made the No. 1 heavyweight contender look bad by refusing to play straight man and passively accept his lumps. Instead, he exposed the flaw that Whitehurst had found: Liston's power can be neutralized by fighting in close.
McCarter, then a schoolteacher in Wilmington, Del., was so encouraged by his Sonny-doesn't-scare-me showing in the Liston camp that he quit teaching and is now training to return to the ring. "Who knows?" he says. "Maybe one day Sonny will have to try me again."
When Eddie Machen fought Liston on Sept. 7, 1960 in Seattle, Machen appeared to be running for his life. If this was his only intention, Machen succeeded admirably. He was on his feet as the 12-round bout ended. Machen claims he fought Liston with only one arm, that he had hurt his right shoulder sparring with Willi Besmanoff a week before the fight. "I needed the money, so I fought him anyway," Machen says. He also says he might easily have won had he punched more, or at all. His excuse is not important but the strategy he developed is.
From the opening bell, Machen retreated, forcing Liston to move and turn, never presenting an open target. It was not a wild, fearful panic; it was clever and effective. And as he moved, Machen taunted Liston. "C'mon, Big Punch," he said. "C'mon, show me that big, terrible punch." Furious, Liston took off in pursuit, swinging wildly.
Machen's tactics of changing directions—in and out, side to side—forced Liston to reset himself constantly, and he was seldom in position to punch effectively. When Liston caught him on the ropes, Machen moved inside and tied him up. "When you are on the ropes and he is alongside of you, that's when you're in trouble," says Machen. "If you stand back from him, it's his meat. He says Cleveland Williams is the toughest guy he ever fought. That's a laugh. Williams laid back and got smacked. Patterson did the same thing. Patterson was a changed fighter when he fought Sonny. He used to move a lot, but against Liston there was no action from the waist down. He tried to bob and weave standing flat-footed, and that's silly.
"Liston," continues Machen, "is not the smartest guy in the world. He moves like a train—one track all the time. When he finds a sitting duck like Patterson, or a Williams, he knocks them off the track. I think of my fight with him and I know I can beat him. He jabs, puts everything behind it—then he drops his left hand. No man can get away with that forever."
Machen has fought infrequently since the Liston bout. Once the No. 1 contender, he suffered a mental breakdown a little more than a year ago. Recovered, he is now back fighting and after four knockout victories is hopeful of a rematch.
"I can see myself now," Machen says. "I'd wait for that left, and then I'd counter, either under or over or both. I'd bring my right in under his heart, and then I would come over with a hook. Maybe the first volley wouldn't dent him but I'd keep it up until he began to grunt or back off. Liston can be beaten, and I'm the guy who can beat him."
Sonny Liston is a proud man with a sense of history. He would like to be remembered as boxing's greatest heavyweight. It irritates him that his professional record is not perfect, that he was beaten by Marty Marshall. "That cat," says Sonny, "started hollering and whooping and I got to laughing. Then, boom! he caught me with my mouth open, and bam! he broke my jaw." Sonny's attempt to characterize Marshall as a clown and the defeat as a fluke is widely circulated and generally accepted—but not by people who saw the fight, and certainly not by Marty Marshall.
This is part of the Detroit Free Press account of the Marshall-Liston fight of Sept. 8, 1954: "Marshall, who fights from an extremely unorthodox style which finds him as a right-hander one minute and a southpaw the next, confused Liston through most of the bout.
"As the fight wore on, Liston became more and more disturbed by his inability to catch up with the ever-moving Marshall and the Detroiter took the play from him through the final three rounds to clinch his triumph.
"Liston suffered a possible fractured jaw in the fourth round."
Marshall was no clown. He was a very clever fighter who later that year knocked out Bob Satterfield and was ranked nationally. But all the more galling for Liston was the fact that Marshall was a blown-up light heavyweight, an after-hours fighter, a ring moonlighter with nine children and a fulltime job with the Acme Quality Paint Co. Inc. that he has held for 13 years.
Invariably, Marshall agreed to fights on short notice, taking off from work only the day of the fight and then reporting for work the morning after. Marshall accepted the second Liston match three days before the fight. For the third, he had six days' notice. "That's how Marty kept his budget going," says Al De Napoli, Marshall's manager. "I never wanted him to take those quick fights, but he insisted. Six days before the Harold Johnson-Liston match [Pittsburgh, March 6, 1956], Johnson comes up with a shoulder injury. Liston is without an opponent, and the fight is off, unless they can come up with a substitute."
They offered me $750 to fill in," says Marshall, "but I said no. The minute they upped it to a thousand I went into training." When Marshall signed to meet Liston for the first fight, he knew nothing about Sonny except that here was a big, powerful heavyweight who outweighed him by 25 pounds. "Sonny didn't know nothing about scaring people then." says Marshall, "but he was trying. We got to the middle of the ring and Sonny grabs my hand and puts his other hand on my head, pulling my head down. He was smiling all the time, as if to say, 'Too bad, little boy, but I'm going to demolish you.' "
It was Liston who was almost demolished. In the course of the fight, Marshall couldn't remember being touched by a jab at all. "It is a strong punch, all right," he recollected, "but it's so long that it is easy to slip. It was the right hand that I remember—if I didn't remember, my stomach would. He always keeps the right cocked, so whenever I'd slip the jab I'd keep thinking, here comes the right, and I was prepared." Most of the time Marshall chose to parry the left and counter. If he slipped the jab, he went to the outside, away from Liston's right-hand power. (Patterson, on the other hand, twice slipped jabs to the inside, then was clubbed by right hands.)
Marshall gave Liston plenty to puzzle over. He was never idle. He faked and moved and varied the sequence of his punches, much the way Jersey Joe Walcott did in 1947 when he almost took the title from Joe Louis. (Liston's stalking style is, in fact, reminiscent of Louis', and Marshall, with his skittering, crablike mannerisms, is not unlike Walcott.) He wheeled his hands up and down in an attitude of careless defense, but one hand was always up to protect his head, and if he threw the left he brought the right over to cover.
His punches rained on Liston from every angle. Sometimes he brought the fist down in what he calls his "hammer punch," other times he used an up jab. The jab was just flicked out, merely intending to touch Liston, "to keep nagging him." In the fourth round Marshall suddenly changed direction, began to move around Liston counterclockwise, all the while feinting right-hand leads. Liston had just adjusted his body position when Marshall switched direction again, and in the same motion threw an open glove right in front of Sonny's eyes. Behind it rode the left, and this was the punch that broke Sonny's jaw.
"But I never knew he was hurt," says Marshall. "You hit him with your Sunday punch but he don't grunt, groan, flinch or blink. He don't do nothing; he just keeps coming on. He's discouraging that way. After the fight Liston came back to my dressing room. I noticed he was holding his jaw funny, but he didn't say nothing about it. All he says is: 'You fight good. I'd like to get you again." I told him, 'Anytime.' "
The second fight, April 21, 1955 in St. Louis, agreed to by Marshall on three days' notice, followed much the same pattern but turned out differently. The referee stopped it in the sixth round when Marshall was knocked down for the fourth time. In the fifth round, however, Marshall slipped a Liston jab to the outside and crossed a right to Sonny's jaw, √† la Max Schmeling when he knocked Louis down in 1936. The result was the same. Liston went down. Unlike Louis, he got up. Marshall foolishly tried for a knockout and was knocked down himself. The experience was not entirely useless. When Liston charged in for the knockout, Marshall threw up his left arm as a shield, crouching as he did to put his head into Liston's chest. The left arm knocked Liston's jab off course and blocked his right hand. It also had the appearance of a punch, and Liston pulled up his hands to defend.
"When we met in Pittsburgh for the third fight, I was able to score with a variation of this same trick," Marshall says. Then, as Liston got off his jab, Marshall jabbed. Expecting a counter, Liston pulled up the right and at the same time Marshall dropped down, stepped in and landed a solid right under Liston's heart.
The third fight again proved the effectiveness of keeping Liston moving and turning, never allowing him to get set. On several occasions Marshall spun Liston around and ended up behind him. Once, in the middle rounds, Marshall was hurt by a right hand to the body, but he used Liston's dodge—never let on you're hurt—and snarled and feinted an uppercut. Liston backed off, but ultimately won the decision.
After the fight Liston once more showed up in Marshall's dressing room. "You know," he said, "you almost had me in the seventh round."
"I'd like to fight him again," says Marshall. "Sure, he's improved, but he doesn't punch any harder and he still throws the same punches. The big difference in Sonny Liston now is in his confidence. Now he's like a general in the ring. He gives the orders—but his opponents can have something to do with this. I know if he was in there with me he'd be more respectful. I'd tap him on the chin and remind him of that broken jaw."