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  • Steve Hunt

The Liston Files: Part 1

How do we assess Sonny Liston’s place in heavyweight history? The most iconic image of Liston is of him on the canvas at the dancing feet of Muhammad Ali. He was considered a brooding, mob-controlled fighter. The President of the United States did not want him to be given a title shot. When Liston finally did get his shot, he destroyed Floyd Patterson in one round and repeated the trick in his first defence. It was assumed he might hold the title for a very long time. But then came the two Ali fights, both hugely controversial, with some believing that Liston took a dive in each of them. He was never really close again to getting another crack at the title.

But Liston has his supporters. Like many lead characters in a black and white film noir, maybe he was the victim of his environment. There are those who argue that on his best day, and without any outside interference, he would have been too much for almost any heavyweight that ever lived.

The following is the first of what will be a series of occasional articles looking at the heavyweight division as Liston made his move towards the heavyweight championship of the world. While I will focus mainly on Liston, there will be plenty of detours along the way. I hope you enjoy it.

 



At the start of 1958, Sonny Liston’s life and career were at a crossroads. Liston might well have already been the best heavyweight in the world, but he was nowhere near a title shot. Remaining in St. Louis was looking like potentially leading to a literal dead end. Sonny felt he was being targeted by the St. Louis police, claiming they had picked him up maybe up to 100 times. In May 1956 he’d been arrested for assaulting a police officer. In January 1957, he was sentenced to nine months in the city workhouse for the offence. Whatever the truth behind Liston’s altercation with the cop, having already served one stint behind bars a few years earlier, nine months could be considered lenient.

After serving his sentence, it was time to get out of town. He and his wife, Geraldine, moved to Philadelphia in the hope of a fresh start. Officially, at this point he was being managed by Joseph ‘Pep’ Barone. However, Sonny and Geraldine were living in an apartment that also happened to be in the same building as a restaurant owned by notorious gangster Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo. As fresh starts go, this one didn’t smell too good.

At the beginning of August 1958, the heavyweight champion of the world, Floyd Patterson, was preparing to make his third defence of the title. The fight was set for 18 August at Wrigley Field, Los Angeles. The man in the opposite corner would be the unbeaten, but unheralded Roy Harris. Patterson was a heavy favourite to win against the challenger from Cut and Shoot, Texas.

Patterson had won the title by beating Archie Moore for the vacant crown following the retirement of legendary champion Rocky Marciano. Patterson stopped Moore in five rounds in November 1956. In the two years since winning the title, Patterson had made just two defences. The first was a repeat win over Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson and the second was a laughable contest against a man making his professional debut, Olympic gold medallist, Pete Rademacher. As champion, Patterson was still lacking credibility.

Two weeks before Patterson and Harris were due to meet in Los Angeles, Sonny Liston had a fight lined up in Chicago. When Liston had stopped Billy Hunter in two rounds at the Chicago Stadium back in January, New York heavyweight Wayne Bethea also appeared on the bill, taking a decision over Young Jack Johnson. A match between the two winners made sense, so it was agreed for 6 August.

Bethea was born in Dillon, South Carolina, but now fighting out of New York. He worked as a tomato packer in a Bronx market and had 13 older siblings. He’d been fighting professionally for four years, amassing a record of 17-8-2. He’d mixed in better company than Liston. In the ring that is, but probably out of it too. He held a win over Ezzard Charles and had gone the distance with the likes of Zora Folley and Harold Johnson. He’d never been stopped. Going into the Liston fight, Bethea was coming off a controversial loss to Nino Valdez. The world ranked Cuban had taken a ten-round decision, but both the Associated Press and United Press International scored it for Bethea, despite him being floored by a Valdez left hook in the seventh round.

Liston-Bethea was scheduled for ten rounds and would be nationally televised. It would be a great shop window for the winner. Both men weighed in at 204lbs. Liston’s record stood at 18-1, the only loss to Marty Marshall having been avenged twice. Sonny was looking for his twelfth straight win and was the bookmakers’ favourite at odds of 1/3. In the Chicago papers of the time, Sonny was reported to be 26 years old. Having been plagued by inactivity through 1956 and 1957, the Bethea fight was Liston’s fifth contest of the year and Chicago was becoming a regular hunting ground.

It may have appeared that Liston’s career was gaining momentum, but he was not confident that even a win over Bethea would get him the fights he wanted.

‘I don’t know where I go from here. I don’t believe there’s a guy in the first five heavyweights who’ll fight me. I’m in no position to be guaranteeing any fighter a lot of money to fight me, and they won’t gamble that they can beat me and improve their position.’

If Liston worried that an impressive win would scare off potential opponents, he didn’t let it affect his performance. The fight was over in 69 seconds and Bethea never landed a serious punch. A Liston right hurt the New Yorker then a combination of punches put Bethea on the canvas. He made it to his feet by the count of four, but another combination sent Bethea staggering away from Liston towards the ropes where the referee waved it off. It was the first time Bethea had been floored in his career. He lost seven teeth during the bout. That’s about one every ten seconds, if maths is your thing.

Bethea’s co-manager, Tony Vone, was incensed by the stoppage. After all, who needs teeth? Vone alleged foul play. He was heard to shout at referee, Bernie Weissman, that the fight was “in the bag” and that he could see it in the Weissman’s eyes as the referee called off the fight. Vone repeated his allegations to reporters in the dressing room later.

Illinois Athletic Commission chairman, Frank Gilmer, defended the stoppage and went on to say that Vone would be called before the commission to explain his suggestions of impropriety.

“That kind of talk hurts the sport. Vone is on notice to explain what he meant and to show cause why his license should not be revoked. His fighter was thoroughly beaten and, if anything, the fight should have ended sooner.”

It didn’t take long for Vone to backtrack on his claims that the fight had been fixed. Back in New York he explained there had just been a misunderstanding.

“One of the newspapermen out there quoted me right after the fight as saying it was in the bag as the referee stopped it so quick. I never said that. The reporter misunderstood me. I said Liston bagged him early. Liston hurt him early.”

He went on to say that he had advised Bethea against taking the fight with Liston, who he described as the most murderous puncher in the division, but the fighter had insisted. Vone was now going to retire his fighter. In his view, Bethea had slowed up and was now getting hit too much. He wanted him out of the game before he got hurt. Only 24 hours previously he had been claiming that Bethea, who was floored, staggered, bleeding from the mouth and spitting teeth should not have been stopped.

After the fight, Truman Gibson, president of the International Boxing Club announced he was offering Floyd Patterson a $250,000 guarantee to defend his title against Liston in Chicago. Gibson acknowledged a fight with Patterson was not likely to come to fruition in the short term so would be looking to match Liston with Zora Folley or the winner of the Nino Valdez-Mike DeJohn match. “This kid is sensational. He could breathe some fire in this heavyweight division which needs it so badly.”

Having brutally dispatched a durable fighter in one round and in front of a nationwide television audience, Liston could now sit back and watch how the heavyweight landscape would take shape. Several prospective opponents would be in action in the coming weeks. Liston would be back in the ring in just two months’ time. His pursuit of a title shot had truly begun.

Wayne Bethea did not retire following the loss to Liston, contrary to the public announcement of his manager. He boxed for another five years, competing in another 22 contests. He won some and lost some, but he was never stopped again and competed in very good company, going the distance with the likes of Ernie Terrell, Eddie Machen, Cleveland Williams, Karl Mildenberger and Henry Cooper.

Five years after his loss to Liston, in October 1963, Bethea faced local fighter Ernie Knox at the Baltimore Coliseum. Knox was due to marry Pearline McCluney that December. On the morning of the Bethea fight, McCluney prepared Ernie’s breakfast for him, and he took a nap in the afternoon to rest for the fight that evening. He told his sweetheart that he was not nervous about the fight but was just anxious to get in the ring.

Bethea stopped Knox in nine rounds. Ernie was paid $243 for the fight and died of a subdural haematoma two days later. Both fighters had weighed in with clothes on. Bethea hit the scales at 204lbs, while Knox was 184lbs. When his body was being prepared for the autopsy, it was found to weigh 153lbs. No reasonable explanation could be made for the weight discrepancy. What was the real weight difference between the two men as they faced each other in the ring and who knew the truth? Had heavyweight Bethea beaten a middleweight to death? A grand jury investigated Knox’s death but found no evidence of criminality. Wayne Bethea never fought again and retired with a record of 28-18-4 with 11 knockout wins.

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