Charles “Sonny” Liston was an enigma that, by way of testimonial, put fear in the hearts of men all throughout the 1960s. The inaugural WBC world heavyweight champion cemented himself in history as one of the hardest hitters and soundest craftsmen of all time.
After a loss to Marty Marshall in only his eighth professional fight, Liston strung together 28 consecutive victories, earning himself a shot at the title and a “bogeyman” allure, trademarked by his stone-faced glare underneath his hooded robe.
Liston stood at 6’1”, with a jaw dropping seven-foot wingspan. He appeared on the “On the Spot” show with host Max Goldberg in 1964 ahead of his fight with Muhammad Ali. Goldberg did everything but venerate Liston’s physical characteristics. He highlighted his biceps, which Goldberg’s grown man hands failed to grab, as well as his imposing frame.
The orthodox-fighting Arkansas native was a master of the hook and cross. As you’ll see throughout this profile, Liston was formidable in punishing fighters to the body, whether clinched, toe-to-toe, or at a distance. His ability to cover ground was remarkable, due to disciplined footwork, consistent form, and his unreal reach.
Liston was not a one-trick-pony either, as his jab was very active and precise. He could send a man to the canvas with his uppercut, but didn’t favor overhand punches much. His hands were quick, yet not up there with the likes of Joe Frazier or Roy Jones Jr.
“The Big Bear” was also sound defensively with model head movement, but a dormant retreat and blocking tendencies that left something to be desired. Throughout his fights, his strengths and weaknesses spoke for themselves. Let’s delve into some of the most crucial fights of Liston’s career.
Sonny Liston vs Floyd Patterson 1 (1962)
Photo by Stanley Weston/Getty Images
Liston came out looking graceful and imposing. He didn’t tarry with his jab, and was counteracted with typical exaggerated body movement from Patterson, bobbing and weaving from side to side. Soon, the fighters would get tied up after Patterson landed a jab, and then Liston brought the thunder to Patterson’s rib cage. Two sweeping body shots had Patterson about to take a knee, before a barrage sent him to the canvas, and that was all she wrote.
Sonny Liston vs Floyd Patterson 2 (1963)
Great champions often respond to and avenge losses, but Liston wasn’t having any of that in their rematch.
Liston came out even more aggressive with his jab, and Patterson barely threw in the round, but tried to get very low like an Arturo Godoy to dodge the blistering blows of Liston. No matter, Sonny scored four vicious blows to the ribs when clinched, and then proceeded to walk him down. Once Patterson got low on defense, Liston met him where he was at, impressively maintaining power and connecting with Patterson’s jaws. When Patterson got back up, he landed a powerful right hand to Sonny’s face, which Liston ate well and came back with counters of his own, sending Patterson home early once again.
Sonny Liston vs Muhammad Ali 1 (1964)
Liston’s great head movement was met with otherworldly movement from Ali (then known as Cassius Clay, but only for a couple more weeks). Liston’s ready jab was counteracted by Ali’s overactive jab. Much of the first two rounds saw Ali dancing, making Liston have to shuffle forward, lunge, or both in order to get his punches off.
The third round was a beautiful spectacle of Ali landing and making Liston miss, using much ring space, before Liston caught Ali with a nice uppercut and a small right hand later in the round. As the fourth continued, Liston was ineffective with his jab, throwing often but unable to catch the retreating Ali. Both fighters threw a multitude of feints.
Something was bothering Ali at the top of round five, and Liston could smell blood. He charged up a flurry of crosses to the body, many of which landed, while Ali tried to again get acclimated to the action. With an opponent as visibly unnerved as Ali, Liston didn’t capitalize on the opportunity as he would’ve liked. Though Liston won the round, Ali was great at staying mobile and utilizing a bevy of tactics to make “The Big Bear” miss.
Damage under the eyes caused Liston’s corner to stop the fight, and Ali spring-boarded off of his misfortune into arguably the greatest career in boxing history.
Sonny Liston vs Eddie Machen (1960)
As usual, Liston wasted no time throwing his jab and keeping Machen at bay, who was trying to get his hands off with minimal success. When Machen clinched in the second, Liston focused on the body, punishing his rib cages with hooks. Throughout all three initial rounds, Machen favored his left hook despite being an orthodox fighter. Liston countered his opponent’s movement with precise shots at the beltline.
Things got sloppy in rounds four and five, with Machen suffering lapses in his footwork, and even wrapping his arms around Liston as if to take him down, all while Liston maintained impeccable form. Liston showed admirable head movement in the middle rounds, going left, right, and forward with ease.
Machen had moments in the eighth and ninth where he tried to bully Liston. At one point, he had him up on the ropes and partially landed with his flurries. Those were the closest rounds of the fight, which Machen probably did enough to narrowly win. Liston also threw some wild uppercuts that missed everything.
In round 10, both fighters stood their ground and traded crosses. After many tie-ups, Liston unloaded a short yet devastating uppercut-type shot to the center of Machen’s midsection that forced him to take a knee at the end of round 11. Luckily he was saved by the bell. Liston got Machen off balance once more in the final round, and stayed the course, earning the unanimous decision victory.
Liston’s focus on his opponents’ torsos was clear in all of his fights. He had no glaring weaknesses on offense, save light feet, and would stand a great chance against most heavyweight greats.
Liston was no stranger to the Mob, and trouble accompanied his lifestyle. According to an ESPN exposé, Liston was arrested 19 times, had both his fights against Ali questioned by the masses due to the strange nature in which they ended, and succumbed to an alleged heroin overdose in his early forties.
Personal life aside, Liston did his talking in the ring. Despite a short-lived championship reign lasting only 17 months, he ended his career on a 15-1 tear, and will forever be remembered as a legend. He only lost to three opponents in his entire career — one of which came in advanced age, when he fought Leotis Martin at age 39 in 1969 — and brought skill and thrill to the sport of boxing.