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  • Steve Hunt

The Liston Files: Part 4

At the start of 1959, Sonny Liston was tucked just inside the Ring magazine top ten heavyweight rankings. His record now read 22-1, and he was on a hot streak of 15 consecutive wins. This promised to be a big year, if only he could get the right fights.

Liston’s first assignment of the year was against Mike DeJohn, a fellow top ten contender. The bout would be a ten-round nationally televised contest at the new Exhibition Hall, in Miami Beach on 18 February.

DeJohn, fighting out of Syracuse, NY., was 27 years old and coming off a good win over Willi Besmanoff. He had previously suffered two points losses to Nino Valdes in the last year to derail his aspirations but came into this contest with a very respectable record of 36-5-1 and back on winning form.

The Miami News were predicting a slugging match between the two men who had 38 knockout wins between them. Liston was favoured to win by most neutral observers, but DeJohn was talking a good fight.

“I’m not that impressed with Liston. I think I can knock him out.”

As was often the case, Liston left the talking to members of his team. On this occasion it was left to trainer Willie Reddish to respond.

“Sonny will do his talking with his hands, and I feel very confident that we will win. If we win by knockout, okay, but we’re ready to go ten rounds.”

It is interesting to read contemporaneous descriptions of Liston from this period. Pre-fight, the Miami News labelled him as a “shuffling stalker who employs a left jab and a right cross from a stand-up position,” suggesting that his footwork still needed attention. Then again, Joe Louis was sometimes thought of as a shuffler and he didn’t do too badly.

At 209lbs, Liston outweighed his opponent by 7lbs. DeJohn was marginally the taller man. Sonny forced the action from the outset and had DeJohn in trouble in the second round. DeJohn kept it competitive enough, even getting Liston’s attention with a big right hand in the fourth round. It proved to be an entertaining battle, with the Ring describing the fight as a slugfest. However, Liston was beginning to administer a beating as the halfway mark of the contest approached.

His nose bleeding profusely, DeJohn staggered back to his corner at the end of the fifth round and had his mouthpiece sent flying across the ring for the second time in the sixth round. He was floored twice in the sixth round by crunching right hand body shots and referee, Jimmy Peerless, stopped the fight at 2:43 of the round.

As the victorious Liston crossed the ring to speak with DeJohn at the conclusion of the contest, the Syracuse heavyweight let Liston know that he thought his win had been the result of a cheap shot. According to DeJohn, Liston had landed a finishing punch while Mike was on one knee. Words were exchanged between the two before their respective teams stepped in to separate them. It is unclear why DeJohn thought he would have more success with Liston in any post-fight fisticuffs than he’d had during the actual contest.

Liston later acknowledged the foul, but claimed it was unintentional.

“Yes, I uppercutted him alright. But I didn’t know he had a knee on the floor. I thought he was squatting like he did a couple of times earlier. I’m sorry about it, but he’s so tall. I didn’t realise he had a knee down.”

Despite the controversial ending, it had been an impressive result for Sonny, with one ringside reporter comparing Liston’s left jab to that of the great Joe Louis. While Liston’s jab may have conjured images of the old Bomber, there was another great former champion present at ringside. Rocky Marciano was impressed with what he saw.

“If he stays lower, gets those hands moving faster and sharpens that left jab, he’ll be ready for Floyd Patterson in a year.”

Incidentally, it was reported on the same day as the Liston-DeJohn fight reports that Marciano had just purchased a 36-lane bowling alley in Hollywood, Florida, and was not just planning for it to be an investment.

“This will be my job from now on. I have purchased a home in the area and will be at the lanes every day.”

Maybe Rocky felt an affinity with the ten pins. After all, every time he had been knocked down, he got up again.

Back to the boxing and Sonny Liston was a long way from thinking about his post-fight career options. He only wanted fights that would take him up the rankings and closer to a title shot, but that was going to prove tough to accomplish.

Liston’s victory combined with other results among the other top heavyweights, resulted in a significant reshuffle in the heavyweight pecking order and Sonny climbing five places to number four in the Ring rankings. An interesting sidenote of the heavyweight rankings this month, was that it was the first time since their ratings began in 1926 that the top ten contained three British fighters.

Sonny was back in Miami Beach just two months after his win over DeJohn to face Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in a ten-round contest at the Auditorium on 15 April.

The 25-year-old Williams, fighting out of Houston, Texas, had a record of 47-2-1. He was not ranked in the top ten but considered a good prospect and a strong puncher. There had been a two-year hiatus in his ring career from the summer of 1954 when he went into the army. He had been unbeaten in 12 contests since returning to action.

In previewing the fight, one report described Williams as “a stand-up slugger”, but less encouragingly revealed that, “the word is that Williams tends to lose form when pressed.”

Williams’ manager, Lou Vicusi, said that the match came about because both men were finding it hard to find opponents, so the natural outcome was to fight each other.

Vicusi claimed that Williams had been knocking out sparring partners in gym sessions. So much so, in fact, that his training schedule had to be modified when no sparring partners turned up for what was due to be the final day of ring practice.

Liston would certainly be a step up in terms of quality of opposition for Williams. To come out on top, Williams would have to beat a man described by one reporter as, “a stalking giant with arms like an elephant’s leg.”

Physically, the two were well matched. Williams was slightly the taller man at 6ft 2in. Sonny weighed in at 213lbs, Williams at 210lbs.

The first round went to Williams as he started well; his left jab finding a home and bloodying Sonny’s nose. Liston got closer in the second round and took charge. The third round was more of the same and it was Liston’s left hand that was now doing the damage. A vicious left hook floored Williams for a count of nine. He beat the count, but the end was nigh. Moments later, Williams was on the floor again from a volley of eight heavy shots. He again bravely made it to his feet, but the referee had seen enough and waved the fight off at 2:04 of the round. It had been a brutal display from Liston.

Sonny was unusually talkative after the fight and some of his comments were as chilling as his power punching.

“He seen my blood and he seemed to like it. So, I decided to let him see a little of his own and see how he liked that. I wasn’t worried when he bloodied up my nose in the first round. I was just slow getting off. But I picked up in the second, and when he started backing off in the third, he wanted a little air, and I wasn’t fixing to let him have any. Then I let him have it.”

Williams had no qualms about the stoppage.

“It was like an electric shock had hit me. I knew what was going on, but I couldn’t move.”

By this point in the year, it had been announced that Floyd Patterson would be defending his title against the unbeaten Swede, Ingemar Johansson, in June. Prior to that, he would sneak in a tune-up defence against Britain’s Brian London. Floyd did not want to go into the Johansson fight with another ten months of inactivity behind him.

Liston’s manager, Pep Barone, felt Sonny was ready for a title shot now.

“I’ll tell you; we’ll take Brian London’s place against Floyd Patterson in the championship bout next month. What do you think Sonny would have done to Patterson tonight, huh?”

That was clearly wishful thinking. However, following his wins over DeJohn and Williams, Liston was now being seen as a logical and worthy contender. Sadly, logic and worthiness often aren’t enough in boxing.

Patterson, along with manager Cus D’Amato, were facing ridicule in the press for his choice of opponents. In the Miami News, Ed O’Neill wrote that Williams was more likely to get a title shot than Liston given this result. While Mel Derrick, of the Miami Herald, didn’t see Sonny being given a chance any time soon.

“Unless Patterson has a new philosophy, fourth-ranked Liston won’t get a shot.”

Also in the Miami Herald, Edwin Pope was picking Liston to be the man to dethrone Patterson if he was ever granted a shot at the champion. He had no doubt that Liston had the power to hurt Patterson but could not see Floyd’s punches making Sonny flinch.

“Even at Williams’ deadly best in the first round, he could not damage Liston beyond a bloody nose. It is hard to see Patterson raising much of a bump on Liston’s granite-like dome.”

Pope also expressed the lack of interest or expectation regarding Patterson’s next two outings.

“Nobody this side of the water knows much about Brian London and Ingemar Johansson, Patterson’s next two title opponents. Nobody is very curious either. Foreign heavyweights are, as a rule, just bodies.”

Time would tell.

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