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Sonny Liston: The Forgotten Champion

March 11, 2004  By Jason Petock
Many fighters' memories get lost in history. Some get passed over, some are underachievers, and some people just don't like them. It's a fact of life. Regretfully the legacy of Sonny Liston has been lost somewhere among these lines of time and needs some resurrecting. He got a bum rap as many boxers have, and fell into the typical, threatening stereotype that Mike Tyson has fallen prey to in recent times. This view is and was nothing more than a source of paranoia, ignorance and fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of a champion.

Sonny's life played out like a 1940's boxing drama. He struggled constantly and was always the underdog, the thug and the criminal.

He was born in Arkansas on May 8, 1932. The year is a little off and subject to continual argument in certain circles (Sonny would frequently state different birthdates and ages throughout his lifetime). He was one of 13 children born to his father, who sired 25 children in total with 2 different women.

Liston worked as a field hand at 12. All the hardships of his young life were to prepare him for his future strife and boxing career.

He served jail time; of course it's no secret. This tends to be a subject of great importance to sports writers and fans alike. His incarceration will not be mentioned in detail here, as it serves no point. Everyone makes bad decisions in life; it's what we do to correct them that are so important.

After Sonny did his stretch in the joint he won the National Golden Gloves and jumped to the pro ranks. His pro debut was on Sept 2, 1953 at the St. Louis Arena. He set the tone for most of his fights with this opener, beating Don Smith in 33 seconds flat. It's been said that as mean as he was in the ring, he was twice as surly on the street. That's how he ended up back in the can in May 1956. At this point in his career he had tallied up an impressive 14 wins out of 15 fights. He did his time, 5 months, and returned to the ring January 1958. Liston came back stronger than ever too, eliminating Bill Hunter in the second round.

From February 1959 to July 1960 Sonny earned 8 straight KO victories. He beat guys like Zora Folley, Cleveland Williams and Nino Valdez. He should have gotten a chance to fight Patterson earlier than he did, but Cus D'Amato (RIP) knew better and made sure to protect his fighter for the time being. When he did get his shot on Sept 25, 1962 he wiped out Floyd with his trademark left hook in the opening round, with over 2 minutes left in the round to spare claiming the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

The punch barrage that Sonny unleashed on Patterson (who was so terrified it was said he didn't even box) went as follows: A couple of rights to the body, 2 lefts to the side, and then the showstopper - that left hook that landed high on the forehead.

More focus has been put on all of his transgressions outside of the ring, instead of what is most important - his performances inside the ring. Mention Sonny Liston to some and you'll hear every name in the book and then some, except the one you're looking for. Champion, puncher, intimidator, underrated, victim, hero and anti-hero.

We as a society tend to focus too often on the negative aspects of our athletes, often forgetting their contributions and sacrifices in the process. One day we are praising them with hero worship, and then kicking them the next day when they are down. Sometimes we don't see the big picture. Sometimes the only thing that separates an idol from a loser is one loss unfortunately.

Boxing is a demanding, grueling profession and it seems as if the press is the toughest opponent any fighter must face. Sonny Liston was no exception.

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