“Learn from the Fight” brought us onto the continuing career of Sonny Liston as he beat his way through the heavyweight division. We watched him face Roy Harris, who we last saw challenge Floyd Patterson for the world title, and then Eddie Machen whose in-ring tactics against Liston was claimed inspired a future nemesis.
Sonny Liston versus Roy Harris 25.04.1960
Although Roy “Cut and Shoot” Harris had been definitively stopped by Patterson after being knocked down four times, he had lasted 12 rounds and even knocked the champion down once. He’d given no excuse for the loss, simply stating he had done his best, and took his own title defence less than four months later. This was for the Texas heavyweight title he had first won in 1955. Harris won a unanimous decision over Donnie Fleeman twice, sandwiching in a no-contest with John Hunt also in Texas. He continued to please Texan audiences with unanimous victories over Chuck Powell, visiting Jamaican-born UK nationalised former Commonwealth heavyweight champion, Joe Bygraves and visiting Argentinian Alejandro Lavorante. Before facing Liston he took on the ageing Henry Hall, winning a unanimous decision in former ranked contender’s final bout. Hall’s career had seen him rise to the number 9 heavyweight contender position, fight exhibitions against Joe Louis and Ezzard Charles, hold German and European champion Heinz Neuhaus to a draw, and even defeat the great Archie Moore in 1948.
Liston, like the other six fighters, met Harris in his home state. The fight took place at Sam Houston Coliseum, Houston, Texas, USA. It was shown on close-circuit television in 11 cities. A gate of $70,200 gross was yielded from an attendance of more than 12,000 spectators. Both fighters were guaranteed $10,000 plus 25% each of the gate and television receipts. They ended up with a purse $20,000 each.
Liston who had just come off his second round stoppage of Cleveland Williams just over a month previously, weighed in 212.5 lbs. Harris was 195 lbs. The fight was to take place under NBA rules where they decided to run the rarely used three knockdown rule. If a fighter was knocked down three times in one round they automatically lost to a technical knockout.
Harris’s career through most of the ’50s had shown signs of a boxer-puncher up until he won Ring Magazine’s Progress of the Year in 1957. However, since winning this award he hadn’t won a single fight by way of stoppage. He was definitely much closer to the out-boxer end of that particular hybrid style’s spectrum.
Liston’s record at the time of the fight was 28-1-0, Harris was 29-1-0 (1).
Harris’s record was close to Liston’s. Both men had only lost one fight. Harris’s had been the stoppage in his title challenge of Patterson. Liston’s had lost an 8-round split a decision early in his career against Marty Marshall. Marshall had broken his jaw but Liston had knocked him down in the first round. Unlike Harris, however, Liston avenged his loss with a sixth round knockout of Marshall.
Liston was ranked number 2 by the NBA whereas Ring Magazine had him at number 3. Both NBA and Ring had Harris at number 6. The bookies favoured Liston at 3-1.
Round 1 – The fight began with a clinch as the two immediately clashed. They separated and Liston began working his stiff jab. Harris moved in and caught Sonny with his own jab before clinching again. They parted again and Roy took to the back-foot as Liston advanced. Sonny was clearly pressing the fight and Harris circled to the outside. Liston moved in, eating a few jabs without any concern and posted with his head. Harris tried to fight from the outside but Liston’s longer reach made it difficult and he was forced into tying up his heavier opponent. This pattern repeated itself as Liston purposefully moved forward whilst laterally slipping his head and the two became entangled again. Sonny shuck off his opponent and Roy didn’t waste any time in firing two sharp jabs at his opponent’s head.
Harris cautiously tried to keep the jabbing from the outside in-between clinches but Liston was now making good use of his reach advantage. Roy did his best to evade and slip the jabs. With the fight controlled at long range, Liston slightly changed the direction of his lead punch turning his jab into a thunderous straight-arm left hook. The strike caught Harris in the side of the head and sent him down for a nine-count. He had little time to recover as Liston was immediately on top of him, landing a thunderous overhand right. Roy made it to his feet at the count of nine. This time he decided to not move to the outside, where Liston could easily find and dominate him, but to clinch and spoil instead. He seemed to have more luck as Sonny struggled to land his intended heavy finishing shots. Harris wrestled his opponent into the ropes as Liston’s punches bounced off his back. They were separated and Liston pressed his advantage. Roy rolled under a right hook and clinched again. As the two fell into the ropes he slid to the floor again but it was ruled a slip. Harris went to the outside, trying to negotiate how he was going to keep upright for the remainder of the round. However, the end was inevitable. Barely a few seconds later Liston sent over his right again and, in line with the three-knockdown rule, the referee stopped the fight at 2:35.
Roy Harris commented to the press:
“It seemed as though he had a foot of reach on me. One time I thought I was half-way across the ring from him and he popped my head back with a jab.”
Harris’s fought again three months later, travelling to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. This was the first time in two years and his fight with Patterson that he had fought outside of Texas. He was handed his third career loss to native Canadian Bob Cleroux. It was also his third stoppage, a clear fifth round knockout from a heavy slugger who would finish his own career with 47 wins, 37 by knockout and six losses none of which were stoppages. After knocking out Harris, Cleroux would climb the pinnacle of his career with a split decision victory over Canadian heavyweight champion, George Chuvalo in a bout refereed by Jersey Joe Walcott. Chuvalo had won the title from Yvon Durelle and would take it back from Cleroux before the year was out in a match refereed by Jack Sharkey. He would lose it again in the rubber match in 1961.
Harris then took on another rising foreign star. This was in the form of the UK’s Henry Cooper. “Our ‘Enry” will become one of the UK’s most beloved boxers, rivalling ’80s and ’90s star Frank Bruno. Cooper, then the British and Commonwealth champion, would outpoint Harris over 10 rounds. Roy’s last two professional bouts took place the following year in 1961 and they were back on his home turf of Texas. He won when Britain’s Dave Rent was disqualified for headbutting in round 5. His decision to hang up the gloves relatively early compared to his contemporaries was prompted by incurring a fourth round stoppage in a rematch with Bob Cleroux. He retired with a record of 30 wins and five losses.
Roy Harris then took the unusual career move of pursuing law. He became county clerk for Montgomery County for 28 years. In 1972 he began his legal practice and drew papers for Cut and Shoot to become incorporated. It has been stated that he is the only person to have challenged for the world heavyweight title before becoming a lawyer. Harris ran his office from home, was married for 47 years, had six children and died on 8th August 2023 surrounded by his family.
Meanwhile back in 1960, although the world version of the title might not have been so readily up for grabs as the Patterson/Johansson trilogy looked set to be resolved in ’61, the heavyweight contendership remained competitive. Liston was now at the centre of this arena and earned Ring’s number 1 ranking. His statement at the end of the Harris fight was quite clear:
“I want a shot at the title next, but if I can’t get it, I’ll fight anybody that gets in my way.”
The next person in his way was Zora Folley. Folley had been in the top 1o contendership since 1956 and had reached the number 1 spot in ’59 but had been overlooked by Patterson who took . He had begun ’60 strong with unanimous decisions over his main rival, Eddie Machen, who was ranked ahead of him at the time, and Clarence Williams. With a career record of 51–3–2 Folley came into his fight with Liston off a 10-bout winning streak but got into trouble early in round 2. Liston knocked him down for a nine-count and Zora did well to bounce back for the majority of the round, even forcing Liston to give ground. However, just ahead of the bell Sonny knocked him down again. He tried to keep to the outside in round 3 but eventually Liston landed a crushing right cross followed by a devastating left hook that put him out for the full count. Folley had only been stopped twice before in 57 fights and those had been corner retirements where he had failed to come out in the next round. This was his first straight knockout and his fourth overall loss.
Looking around for other available opposition as Patterson was only interested in giving Ingemar Johansson his deciding match next year, the next logical choice in the rankings was Eddie Machen. We would watch highlights of their fight.
Edward “Eddie” Mills Machen was born in Redding, California on 15th June 1932. Eddie had five siblings all fathered by a rural mail carrier. He dropped out of high school to pursue an amateur boxing career but soon ran into problems. After just three bouts he was convicted of armed robbery. Upon his release he became determined make up for lost time with a resolute promise never to return to prison and on 23rd March 1955, three months shy of his 23rd birthday he made his professional debut. His start was even later than Liston’s but like his future opponent, he quickly established a reputation for stoppages. He knocked out his first three opponents within the first round. Heavyweight journeyman, Clarence Williams then fell in three. Artie Lucido was another one round KO. Shamus Jones was out in two and the referee stepped in to prevent Frank Burford’s murder in round 8. Bill Davis joined the ignoble 1-round club. Howard “Honeyboy” King was next and provided Eddie with his most noteworthy scalp at the time and regularly mentioned in lessons. King had beaten George Chuvalo and drawn once against Archie Moore. Machen stopped him in round 10.
By the time he got to Sonny Liston, Machen had won 34 of his 37 fights and was ranked number 2. His two losses were the aforementioned unanimous decision to Zora Folley and his own first round knockout to Ingemar Johansson. He had also drawn against Folley in an earlier fight. His victories included two unanimous decisions over the iron-jawed former light-heavyweight champion Joey Maxim, a unanimous decision and a later eighth-round knockout of Cuban heavyweight champion Nino Valdes, and a unanimous decision over tough regular heavyweight journeyman, Bob “The Grinder” Baker. Perhaps Machen’s greatest victory to date was a tenth round stoppage over the great Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson. Jackson, a highly unorthodox fighter, employed a “wild windmill attack” and even pulled off double-uppercuts. His victories included two over the legendary former world heavyweight champion, Ezzard Charles, and technical knockout over top contender Rex Lyle (who had also beaten both Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott). Jackson had also lost twice to Patterson, once on a split decision when the latter was headed for the world title, and then in a tenth round stoppage when Patterson was champion.
Sonny Liston versus Eddie Machen 07.09.1960
Eddie Machen weighed in at 196 lbs whereas Liston was currently 211 lbs (2 lbs lighter than when we last saw him fight). He stood at 6′ and possessed a 75″ reach. Machen was a boxer-puncher much closer to the slugger end of the spectrum than out-boxer.
It was reported that Machen went into the fight with an injured right hand and shoulder. Machen would later say he strained ligaments in shoulder whilst sparring with Willie Besmanoff six days before the bout. He was an orthodox fighter so this would take something out of his power and also his defence.
The fight took place at Sicks’ Stadium, Seattle, Washington, USA. The fight was refereed by Bremerton’s mayor, Whitey Domstad and judged by Ely Caston and Sam Heller. Two of these people were celebrities in the boxing world.
Helmer Oliver “Whitey” Domstad was born in Grafton, North Dakota but had become a resident of Bremerton, Washington when he travelled their with the Navy whilst stationed on the destroyer SS Sinclair. Domstad had run away from his home in Grafton to join the Navy in 1927 and served there until 1936 but rejoined for three years during World War II. Whilst serving he discovered Boxing, winning the battle force’s heavyweight title in 1934 and the all-Navy heavyweight title in his final year.
Becoming an extremely active member of Bremerton’s committees, Domstad was elected president of the Association of Washington Cities and the Puget Sound Governmental Conference, and had been mayor since 1955 and would only step down in 1964. During his time in office he came up against ex-president Harry Truman when the statesman made a public appeal to retrieve the famous USS Missouri that had been lying dormant in Bremerton since 1954. Truman’s daughter had christened the ship in 1944 when Truman was vice-president. A native of Missouri, Truman had also made his name during a rally at Bremerton in 1948 during the famous “Give ’em hell” speech. Nevertheless, it was Domstad who won the war of words on this occasion and even invited Truman to visit the ship which he ignored. The Mighty Mo did eventually Bremerton decades later in 1998 when it was reactivated for combat and made Pearl Harbour its new permanent home. Domstad’s refereeing of this particular fight was a highlight of his career and he would go on to referee Golden Gloves competitions until 1974. Domstad died in 1991 aged 81 from complications connected to Parkinson’s Disease. Whether the disease was directly connected to his time boxing is a subject for debate. He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007 and Whitey Domstad Park, situated at the East End of the Manette Bridge, 1101 Wheaton Way, Bremerton was named in his honour.
Ely Caston shared one thing in common with Sonny Liston, his birthdate was never recorded. He first showed up in US documentation in 1905 as a Turkish immigrant. He would die of a heart attack just one year after the fight with his approximate age put at just 59 or 60. Caston was one of four brothers, three of which became professional boxers, and three sisters. All of his siblings outlived him. He made extra money as a jitney driver (illegal/unlicensed taxi driver) along the Seattle waterfront. After retiring from fighting, he became a regular matchmaker and graduated through promoting bouts at “smokers”. He became quite successful running promotions and trading boxers with other promotions. He owned a professional soccer team and for the last 15 years of his life he was a Washington state athletic commission official boxing judge. Robert W. Jepperson’s “A Dream, A Buck, An Era”, a biography taken from a re-discovered scrapbook of an aspiring professional boxer during The Great Depression, dedicates an entire chapter to Caston’s time as a boxer.
Liston and Machen were guaranteed $25,000 each. A crowd of 7,682 produced a gate of $63,660. The television take pushed this above $100,000. Liston was the 5-3 favourite and informed predictions had it that the fight was not going to go the full scheduled 12 rounds.
Round 1 – Machen began the fight as he intended continue, from the outside. He fought in an upright style and although possessing power in both hands, decided not to mix it up too much with Liston. He had a difficult job ahead. Roy Harris had attempted to fight from the outside, tying up when necessary so as not to trade blows with Sonny but could not get away from that jab. Cleveland Williams seemed like the only boxer could truly match him in a slug-fest and he had twice gone down early. Machen needed to lean more into his out-boxing but this was always going to be a struggle when handling Liston’s 84″ reach. After dealing a few light cuffs to Liston early on and some brief clinching, Machen was on the receiving end of some stiff jabs. Machen countered a few times but Liston was clearly having the most impact at long range. As they closed in again, Sonny tore in four solid body shots.
Machen’s guard shifted between shoulder height and high, his hands quite far from his face as he adjusted to handle Liston’s power-jab. Sonny began to punctuate his jabs with a left hook which Machen caught on his gloves and then later rolled under. They milled a little on the inside but Machen was quick to move out. Liston continued his jabbing campaign and then finally landed with his left hook. Machen took it well and continued to circle. Liston clearly took this round with the most engagement.
Rounds 2, 3 and 4 were summarised as seeing Liston forcing the fight but also taking some sharp counter-punches.
Round 5 – Machen was clearly very mobile at the beginning of this round and demonstrated some excellent footwork. Sonny continued to pursue and be the aggressor. Machen did well to defend against Liston’s jab and also manoeuvred his opponent in the clinch, turning him, as they reached the ropes. As they moved to the centre of the ring, Eddie slipped Liston’s jab, blocked the next one and then rounded on him with a solid left hook to his jaw.
After momentarily taking stock on the spot, Liston continued his forward pressure and began putting together 1-2s and an occasional downward right. Machen was momentarily driven back by the onslaught but again relied on his superb circular footwork to counter Sonny with a two-fisted assault. This deteriorated into a clinch that was soon split by the referee. As they resumed their fight in the centre a few back and forth exchanges at long range collapsed into another clinch but this time Machen was more overt with his turning, effectively trying to spin Liston off-balance and ending up behind him. Already impressing spectators with his aggression, this move was a clear demonstration to Liston that he wasn’t going to be intimidated.
Eddie’s next ploy was to switch levels, crouch low and drive in under Sonny’s jab. His right seemed to get caught in Liston’s left and the resulting clinch was separated. Machen took the outside, almost strolling as Liston reached for him. He slipped another jab and seemed to paw at the side of Liston’s head. This was quickly followed up by a powerful left hook that undeniably shook Sonny. Despite being rocked, Liston resumed his plodding approach and kept jabbing.
Machen’s guard seemed very flexible as he negotiated his opponent’s regular jabs. He did well to slip a couple and counter effectively with his own. He then over-hooked Sonny and was separated. His guard took on a high shelling position to intercept the jabs. However, Liston was far from being a one-trick pony. He swept in with a long left body hook, short right combination but Machen spoiled both and clinched from his crouching attack. He then left close-range with a parting left hook gesture. Liston fired back with a power jab which Machen ducked and counted to his stomach. Another left jab was slipped and Machen caught Liston with a left hook to the head. Another clinch followed and again Machen went to a body-lock and spun Sonny into the ropes. This was quickly followed up with an aggressive assault at close-range turning into a clinch that needed separating. This round was scored evenly by all three officials but I would have given it to Machen.
Round 6 was also scored evenly but it was noted that Machen did well to counter Liston’s aggression throughout. 7-8 were Liston’s but he was still having trouble landing shots on his faster opponent.
Round 9 – Again, we saw Liston pressing forward and Machen dancing to the outside. Eddie was now sticking to his crouching attack too that bypassed Liston’s left and also was scoring with check hook whilst exiting a clinch. Machen displayed some very slick footwork as he was pursued on the outside, regularly switching angles and avoiding Liston’s left. When Sonny got on top of him he tied him with under-hooks or ducked in low with gloves covering his face. At times he was so low he touched Liston’s legs but was not penalised for doing so. Liston scored with another hard left hook to Machen’s jaw but was unable to shake him. Eddie slipped and countered to Liston’s face well but Sonny was fast to exchange back, landing some solid body shots. Machen tied him up closer and pulled him into the ropes as Sonny continued to wail away with both fists. The referee separated the two. Machen’s parting gesture was noted by the referee and Liston!
Perhaps Machen’s mind was still on the rebuke or Liston’s temper gave his already lethal jab more penetration force as Eddie’s shell was cracked open. Eddie was forced to clinch again and yet again as Liston began taking over matters at long range. Machen began resorting to clinching as Liston moved forward. They were tied up several times and only moments before the bell Eddie hit Sonny for a second time on a break, further enraging Liston and forcing the referee to step into the brawl as the bell went. Liston took the round for more effective punching.
Rounds 10 and 11 were marked by Machen’s excellent counter-punching skills as he did well to avoid Liston’s powerful left hook and overhand right. He took both these rounds.
Round 12 – The final round saw both men not wasting time with their exchanges. This was punctuated with Machen slipping after throwing a powerful left hook. He caught Liston’s legs and the two were quick to brawl in the clinch again. Whitey Domstad struggled for several seconds to get between the two desperate fighters as they wrestled with each other into the ropes. As the battle resumed on the outside Liston began edging matters and as Eddie backed towards the ropes, Sonny caught him with a powerful left hook to the body. Machen came off it looking wary, moving out and fending off with his left. It looked like Liston might have caused some significant damage for a second or two before Eddie lunged in and the two clinched. As they were parted Liston pressed forward with clear determination, looking for a knockout. Machen ducked in again and another clinch was separated. This time Liston opened up matters with jab but Machen countered with a sharp left hook, knocking Sonny’s head down. As Liston resumed his pursuit, Eddie moved off the ropes, circled and seizing his moment came in with a blistering combination – double left hook/right uppercut/gazelle punch. Liston was backed into the corner and Machen was on him, driving in his shots in a desperate effort to win the fight.
The fight was separated and then resumed in the centre of the ring with more clinch-work. Liston continued to work the body as Machen used his under-hooks. With the round coming to a close both men were now readily exchanging in the ring with Machen now becoming the aggressor. Nevertheless, he was beginning to get caught by a few of Sonny’s shots. They battled their way in and out of clinches, both keen to get a knockout. The fight ended with both men up against the ropes close to the corner with Eddie actively pushing Sonny.
The decision was not in dispute by anyone. Both the Associated Press and United Press International scored the fight to Liston although AP put him much further ahead than UPI. The UPI said that Liston had been twice penalised for low blows in the eleventh round but the AP had it down as occurring only once.
Going by the highlight footage and hearing summaries of the missing rounds, it seemed like a very close fight. Eddie Machen was clearly the most difficult opponent we have watched face Sonny Liston and his style exposed a lot of Sonny’s weaknesses. Machen’s reflexes, footwork and strategy provides us with what might beat the man regularly cited to be the most terrifying boxer of the gloved era.
Machen told the press he wanted a rematch with Liston. “Liston is a good fighter,” Machen said, “but he won’t knock down any walls. I don’t like to alibi, but I hurt my shoulder six days ago in training and couldn’t use my right too well. I want very much to fight him again when I have two hands…Only my manager and trainer knew about it[the injury]. Maybe I could have gotten a postponement, but everything was set for the fight.”
Years later, Machen would also claim that his eyes had been affected by some sort of liniment Liston was using. It should be noted this was after a more famous rival of Sonny’s would complain he had been blinded during their fight. Machen said that the liniment was rubbed onto Liston’s shoulders and then dripped into his eyes during the clinches, and he believed Sonny knew about it. Unlike said future rival, Machen would state that he fought through the disability without complaint, not letting his opponent know it had affected him.
Sonny Liston continued to demand a shot at Floyd Patterson’s title and little respect for Machen,”All Machen wanted to do was go 12 rounds. He didn’t want to fight. I had a bad night. [Patterson] wouldn’t last that long with me. He would get in there and fight and I’d get him out.”
Next lesson we look at available footage of the rising career of Liston’s aforementioned future arch-nemesis. A man who was keenly watching the Machen fight. Both Eddie and the man who would eventually call himself Muhammad Ali would make their own comparisons as the decade unfolded.