Celebrating Black History Month: Sonny Liston

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On the occasion of Sonny Liston’s vicious, first-round knockout of popular heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson in 1962, Larry Merchant, then editor of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote, “In a fair fight between good and evil, evil must win.”

Sonny Liston Cassius Clay

Sonny Liston throws a punch at Cassius Clay during their first title fight in Miami in 1964.

Liston was not a well-liked guy.

In the ring, he was ferocious. He won 24 of his first 35 fights by knockout—including the Patterson fight where he was the first man to take the heavyweight title with a first-round knockout.

Patterson didn’t fare any better in the rematch. Liston sent him to the canvas three times in just over two minutes.

Out of the ring, Liston was troubled. He had been arrested 19 times before his title shot.

Less than four years after being released from prison, where he learned to box, Liston assaulted a police officer and took his gun. And that doesn’t even take into account rumors that he had connections to organized crime.

When Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) forced Liston to quit on his stool before the seventh round in their 1964 tilt, few national tears were shed. But those old alleged mob ties haunted Liston.

Both in the first fight, and in the 1965 rematch—the famed “Phantom Punch” fight—there were suspicions. After Liston went down in the first round, the cries of “fix” went up from the crowd.

Liston went on to fight for another five years, but he never again reached the heights of the sport like he had before fighting Ali.

Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home in January 1971 of a heroin overdose, although there are still those who believe he was murdered.

Liston was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. The Ring magazine named him as the seventh-greatest heavyweight of all time in 1998.

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