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  • Steve Hunt

The Liston Files: Part 3

August 1958 was a good month for Sonny Liston as he had forced his way into The Ring magazine’s top ten heavyweight rankings for the first time. At the top of those rankings, champion Floyd Patterson had received mixed reviews for his successful defence of the title against the unheralded Roy Harris.

The following month it was the unbeaten Swede, Ingemar Johansson, who grabbed the attention in the heavyweight division with a first-round knockout of Eddie Machen over in Gothenburg. Machen had also been previously unbeaten, with the only blemish on his record having been a draw with Zora Folley. By flooring Machen three times to force the first-round stoppage, 25-year-old Johansson had established himself unequivocally as the most deserving challenger for Patterson’s title. Meanwhile, all Liston could do was to keep busy. Across a six week span in October and November, that’s what he did.

First up would be he his debut contest in Miami Beach. This would be a location he would return to on several occasions over the next couple years, appearing on the promotions of Chris Dundee. On 7 October, Liston faced Frankie Daniels in a fight scheduled for 10 rounds.

Daniels came into the fight with a record of 34-15-2. The Miami Herald were probably being kind to Daniels by describing him as “granite chinned”. He’d suffered some stoppage losses, but he had gone the distance twice with the ferocious punching Cleveland Williams to demonstrate his durability.

That durability would be tested by Liston. When Sonny arrived in Miami, he told reporters about his fighting philosophy.

“In a fight, somebody’s gonna get beat. So, you might as well come out slugging and not waste all night finding out which man it’s gonna be.”

Liston’s training was being overseen by Joe Pollino. He was impressed by Liston’s physical assets and felt that Sonny was benefitting from fighting more regularly after his earlier layoff.

“He’s going good now though. Strong? He’s that. And big? Listen, this kid’s got arms like an elephant’s legs.”

Daniels appeared untroubled by the threat that Liston posed. He’d had his own management problems and had travelled 3,000 miles for this bout.

“I need this fight. I’ve been trying to get a fight since June. I can box, punch and take a punch. My legs are good, my reflexes are good, and I plan to stay busy now. This guy – slugger or not – ain’t going to stop me from doing that.”

Liston weighed in at 212lbs, compared to 191lbs for Daniels for the Tuesday night fight in the Miami Beach Auditorium. The crowd of 1,814 got to see Liston throw four punches.

An early left hook staggered Daniels. Liston followed that with a left jab and then two right hands, the second of which was almost surplus to requirements. Daniels hit the canvas and was unable to beat the count. The referee waved it off at 2:22 of the first round.

Chappie Roberts, working Daniels’ corner, gave his summary of the brief action.

“He hit Frankie with that hook – a good, good punch – and that was the beginning. Then that other left and those two rights… and I don’t know many men around who can take those kinds of punches.”

In the build up to the fight, Liston had been telling reporters how Father Stevenson, a Catholic priest, had been a positive influence in his life. Father Stevenson had guided Sonny away from street fighting and into the ring. After the fight, Liston was again asked about this mentor. As often with Sonny, his response was brief.

“I hope I never let him down.”

Just a couple of weeks later, on 24 October, Liston was back in action. After only having to throw four punches to win a fight, a man doesn’t need much rest. His ten round, nationally televised contest in St. Louis with Bert Whitehurst would take Liston back to the city where he’d had his debut and many of his early professional fights. It was also the city that he left to progress his career and escape what he saw as police harassment.

The Friday night fight at the St. Louis Arena would be a rematch, as Whitehurst had taken Liston the full ten rounds back in April, losing a unanimous decision. In that first fight, Liston dominated with his heavy jab, but struggled to find a home for his right hand. No one expected Sonny to lose their second meeting, but the question was could he improve upon the result of their first contest.

Despite a patchy record of 24-14-4, Whitehurst, of Baltimore, was a capable fighter, described in the local press as a “rugged, durable heavyweight”. But Liston was now on a roll. He was 20-1, with the solitary defeat coming in an early career points loss to Marty Marshall, when Sonny suffered a broken jaw in the third round. Liston had twice avenged that defeat.

When Liston arrived in St. Louis to complete his preparations, his final training sessions were held at the Lucky Athletic Club. On the Tuesday of fight week, reporters watched Liston spar a total of five rounds as he wound down his training. He went two rounds with local heavyweight Jerry Buchanan and staggered him twice in that time. Another local fighter, Penny Brown, took over for the final three sessions. One reporter noted how Liston “chopped Penny with a blazing right that all but tore his spar mate’s headgear off.”

Also watching on was Liston’s manager, Pep Barone. He felt his fighter was ready for a title shot, but unlikely to get one any time soon.

“While I think Liston would whip him, I just don’t believe Cus D’Amato would let Floyd fight my man. D’Amato’s feud with the International Boxing Club has reached a ridiculous stage. If he continues to refuse to fight IBC affiliated fighters, then he’ll continue to fight nobodies. We’re at the stage right now where it’s tough to get fights. None of the managers of the top fighters want any part of this fellow.”

Barone went on to say that all Liston could do was to keep winning against legitimate contenders until public opinion forced D’Amato to put Floyd in with him.

The fight with Whitehurst appeared briefly in doubt when it was reported in the local press that controversy was brewing over the gloves Liston planned to use. Due to his unusually large hands, it was suggested that Liston would be wearing bespoke gloves that had been made for him in Chicago.

Whitehurst was managed by George Gainford, who was better known as the manager of Sugar Ray Robinson. Gainford was enraged when informed of Liston’s “special” gloves, protesting that he would pull his man out of the contest if these were used. There must be hundreds of examples throughout boxing history of managers in fight week threatening to pull their man out of the looming contest. As with nearly every other comparable situation, the fight went ahead.

The expression “saved by the bell” is part of the boxing lexicon and has been adopted into the mainstream of the English language. It was never more appropriate than for the ending of this fight.

At the weigh-in Liston came in at 212.5lbs, with Whitehurst hitting the scales at 190lbs. Press reports had Liston looking “lethargic throughout most of the fight” except for “a crackling, snapping left jab that is one of the most potent weapons in the ring today.”

As with their first meeting, Liston dominated with his left, but his right was less effective. Whitehurst had a fast-moving style that caused Liston trouble, though unlikely to secure victory for the Baltimore fighter. Sonny appeared to be cruising to victory as he built up a lead on the scorecards.

Liston, however, did not want to settle for another points win and came out for the final round looking for the stoppage. With seconds remaining, he smashed Whitehurst through the ropes. The stricken fighter lay on the ring apron as referee Harry Kessler began his count. Whitehurst was trying to crawl back in when the final bell sounded at the count of seven. It took the assistance of his cornermen to get him back to his chair. Saved by the bell. It didn’t matter what condition he was in; he had gone the distance with Liston for a second time and Sonny had to settle for a wide unanimous points win.

When he had a chance to regain his composure, Whitehurst offered an interesting perspective on why Liston seemed to be less effective with his right hand.

“Liston would be a great fighter, but he has such a powerful left that he drives you so far back with it that he can’t reach you with the right.”

While Sonny was building an impressive record and reputation, he was still relatively inexperienced as a professional with a limited amateur career prior to that. When men known as punchers get taken the distance, it invites criticism. Charles Gould, of the St. Louis Globe Democrat recognised that Liston was still a work in progress.

“Unless he sharpens up that right hand and quits fooling around, he still has a way to go. He’s got the equipment; all he has to do is use it.”

Next up was a return to the Miami Beach Auditorium and a date with Ernie Cab. Sometimes the headline writers work has already been done for them. On 18 November 1958, the Miami Herald ran with the story, “Liston tries to catch Cab in Beach fight tonight.”

The 30-year-old Cab had a record of 13-9-1 and fought out of The Bronx, New York. His career had never really had any momentum, but he was now signed with manager Bobby Gleason, who promised things were going to change for the better.

Gleason referred to Cab as being “more dangerous than famous,” which is a statement that was both possibly true and yet still not as threatening as Gleason intended it to sound. He then went on to talk up his man’s chances in this fight.

“I don’t mess with nothing fighters. I took this kid’s contract over because I think he’s got a good chance to lick anybody. I know Liston… and if I don’t give Cab a chance, I don’t fight him with no Liston. I don’t think Liston’s anywhere near as good as people say he is.”

In one of their pre-fight reports, the Miami News described Cab as “relatively unknown but a lethal puncher.” One gets the sense from that kind description that the writer of that line may have been a friend of the promoter.

For Sonny this was a return to Miami Beach on another card promoted by Chris Dundee. The fight was scheduled for a Tuesday night. Sonny arrived in Miami Beach on Sunday and chose not to train in those last couple of days, so local reporters didn’t get to see any final preparations. That didn’t bother Liston.

“I’m ready. I don’t need the work.”

Sonny was becoming a popular television fighter, leading the Miami News to describe Liston as “the latest darling of national television.” As far as I can ascertain, that is the only time in the history of print media that the word “darling” has been used in the same sentence as Sonny Liston.

Physically, it appeared an even match with both men weighing in at 211lbs and the same height at 6ft 1in. The key physical difference, which would have been the same in every Liston fight, was his extraordinary reach. Cab’s reach is recorded at 77 inches, while Sonny’s is 84 inches.

To put this into perspective, Anthony Joshua is recorded as being 6ft 6in tall, but with a reach two inches shorter than Liston. Sonny would be in range to land his shots even when his opponents thought he wasn’t.

It was another fight that Sonny dominated with his powerful left hand. He cut Cab’s left eye in the second round. Liston continued head-hunting methodically as the rounds progressed and the cut worsened. The Miami Herald described Liston’s left hand as being “more powerful than most fighter’s roundhouse swings.” Cab fought courageously, but to no avail. There were pleas from the crowd for the fight to be stopped as Cab’s face was reduced to a bloody mess.

Ringside physician, Dr Alex Robins examined Cab’s eye damage after the sixth round and then again after the seventh, at which point he asked referee, Jimmy Peerless to stop the fight. Dr Robins had seen enough.

“Cab had a couple of squirters, and his eye was beginning to close. And he had taken enough punishment.”

The fight was recorded as a seventh round TKO win for Liston. After an absence from the ring of almost two years from March 1956, Sonny had made a strong return in 1958 with eight wins in the calendar year. Only the stubborn Bert Whitehurst had managed to go the distance.

Despite talk of another television fight date in December for the winner of this fight, it never materialised, and Liston wouldn’t be back in the ring until 1959.

As for Ernie Cab, from here

he won only two of his final nine bouts, ending with a record of 15-17-1. His career came to an ignominious ending when he lost his final fight in September 1962. He was disqualified in the tenth and final round for biting his opponent’s arm!

Sonny may have been done for the year, but there were still prospective opponents out there for him who would be in action before 1958 was over. On 28 November, Mike DeJohn rebounded from his points loss to Nino Valdez in August with a 10-round decision win over Willi Besmanoff at Madison Square Garden. DeJohn, who got the nod on all three scorecards, had success repeatedly with right uppercuts against his shorter opponent.

Following this win there was talk of a possible rematch with Valdez or a fight against Zora Folley. Neither of these contests, however, came to fruition. Next up for Mike DeJohn, as it turned out, would be the dubious honour of date with Sonny Liston.

But that will have to wait until the next instalment of… The Liston Files.

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2 commentaires

3 hours ago

Where can u find parts 1 and 2?


Caroline Smithers
Caroline Smithers
18 mai

Enjoyed this article!

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