“Learn from the Fight” continued from the previous less0n by staying with the heavyweight division to show just how competitive it had now become. We first looked at the rise of another fearful force in the heavyweight division – considered by many as the most feared boxer of all time – Sonny Liston. Then we covered Floyd Patterson’s fifth defence of his world title facing Ingemar Johansson.
Sonny Liston versus Cleveland Williams 15.04.1959
Charles L. “Sonny” Liston’s date of birth remains a mystery. He was born into a poor sharecropping family who worked the the Moreledge Plantation near Johnson Township, St Francis County, Arkansas. His parents were Tobin “Tobe” Liston and Helen “Big Hela” Baskin who had moved from Mississippi to Arkansas in 1916. Tobe was the son of a slave called Alexander, listed in an 1860 census as the property of a small farmer called Martin Liston. When slavery was abolished, Alexander became a sharecropper renting a plot of land close to his old master’s estate. It was a deeply corrupt system designed to be a scarce improvement on slavery where a family was expected to live on one quarter of the money they raised from their small crop yield. Alexander’s son, Tobe, was an understandably angry, bitter and resentful man. Despite being only 5′ tall he was openly hostile to pretty much everyone around him. Taking his new wife and elderly father with him, he decided to move the cotton fields in Arkansas.
Helen was 30 years younger than Tobe and had given birth to one child prior to their marriage. Tobe, in his mid-40s when the couple moved to Arkansas, already had 13 children with his first wife. Sonny Liston would be the second to youngest of the 12 children that Helen and Tobe had together. Birth certificates were not made mandatory in the state until 1965 and Sonny didn’t have one. His family but he aren’t listed in the 1930 census. He first appears on a 1940 census where he is reported as being 10 years old. Liston doesn’t seem to have to known what year let alone day he was born and was very sensitive about it. He stated it was 8th May 1932 for official purposes but his mother claimed it was 18th January 1932, declaring she recalled it being cold that month and despite she had told the census reporter he was 10 in 1940. Sports writer, Springs Toledo, investigated contemporary evidence, including reports from Sonny’s mother and census records of the other children concluding the most plausible date was 22nd July 1930.
Sonny was a very large child and very quiet. His father believed him to be simple-minded and was enraged by his lack of talking and the time he took to pick cotton. Although he remained affectionate to his mother throughout his life, he would later say that the only thing he got from his father was “a beating”. Matters got worse in 1946 when Helen and some of her children began working in a factory in St. Louis, leaving Sonny amongst the other children behind to work under Tobe. The scars he took from those beatings were still visible decades later. In 1947 he sold pecans he had thrashed from his brother-in-laws tree to Forest City, Arkansas, so he could move to St. Louis and be with his mother. Whilst he began his new life there he tried to go to school but was mocked for his illiteracy. He looked around for work but soon fell into crime, leading a gang of muggers and armed robbers. Due to his very obvious shirt, he became known as the “Yellow Shirt Bandit”.
After being arrested for robbery in January 1950, he was sentenced to five years at Missouri State Penitentiary. Guaranteed three meals a day, Liston never complained about his time in prison. A priest, Rev. Alois Stevens was the athletic director and suggested that Liston take up boxing. Although already in his early 20s, he immediately showed promise in the ring. A sparring session was set up with professional heavyweight Thurman Wilson. It took two rounds for Wilson state he wanted out, declaring that Sonny was going to kill him. Stevens helped Liston use his success at the sport to win points with the parole board and he was released on 31st October 1952.
His short career as an amateur included winning the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions on 6th March 1953 where he defeated Ed Sanders (the 1952 Olympic Champion who had beaten Ingemar Johansson) and the Intercity Golden Gloves Championship on 26th March. He lost in the quarterfinals of the United States National Championships at Boston Garden to 17 year-old Jimmy McCarter on 15th April who he would later employ as his professional sparring partner. On 23rd June he knocked out West Germany’s Herman Schreibauer at 2:16 mark of the first during USA vs. West Europe International Golden Gloves team event. Tony Anderson, head coach of the St. Louis Golden Gloves team, would state after this event that Liston was the strongest fighter he had ever seen.
There appears to have been some organised crime interest in Liston from the time he began shining at prison, but by September 1953 they were the only people willing to back his career. They were only willing to do this if Liston would supplement his income by becoming an enforcer and strike-breaker for various underworld figures.
Liston came under the training of Willie Reddish Snr and his son, Willie Reddish Jnr who stayed with him for most of his career. They ran an extremely tough Philadelphia based gym. However, it is recorded that the only people Liston really listened to were Alois Stevens and his hero, Joe Louis. After 1961 he also listened to James Brown’s version of “Night Train” almost religiously.
Liston won his first seven fights but lost a split decision to Marty Marshall who broke his jaw when he was allegedly laughing. Liston avenged the loss the following year with sixth round stoppage after he had knocked Marshall down four times. A rubber match in 1956 went to Liston on a ten-round unanimous decision. His record was now 14-1, but this was not to be his lucky year. Due to his criminal record, intimidating appearance and known association with mobsters, Liston was frequently stopped by the police on spot checks. He began avoiding main streets but on 5th May a policeman confronted him about a cab parked outside of his house. This turned into physical altercation resulting in the police officer receiving a broken knee and a gash to his face. Liston also took his gun. In his defence, Sonny said the officer used racial slurs. His later arrest, where he resisted, was reported in sensational detail in the press with descriptions of night sticks breaking over his skull. He received a nine-month sentence and paroled after six. However, he continued to garner police attention and was regularly detained overnight. In 1957 he decided to move to Philadelphia but his reputation as a fearsome figure in the boxing world was now solidified. He became known as “The Indestructible One”.
Having not been able to get a fight since his defeat of Marshall on 6th March 1956, Liston resumed boxing on 29th January 1958 with a second round technical knockout of Billy Hunter. He was making up for lost time and now he was under new management. Joseph “Pep” Barone took over these duties at the behest of boxing’s biggest mobsters, Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo. Two months later Ben Wise was stopped in the fourth. Just under a month later he won on points over Bert Whitehurst. Just over a month after that Julio Mederos retired on his stool after the second. On 6th August Wayne Bethea was stopped in round one. Frankie Daniels was then knocked out also in round one on 7th October. Proving to be more durable than his other recent opponents, Whitehurst lost for a second time to Liston via a 10-round unanimous decision. ’58 was then closed out with Ernie Cab being retired in round seven on 18th November.
Barone began campaigning for the heavyweight title in 1959. Liston went to 23-1 when he stopped Mike DeJohn in round six of their match. He had won fights in six states. 13 of these had been by stoppage and most of these stoppages had been later in his burgeoning career. Now he would be pitted against another fighter with an outstanding reputation for ferocity.
Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams was born into poverty on 30th June 1933 in Griffin, Georgia. He began working at pulpwood mill when aged just 13, having dropped out of school in the seventh grade. Whilst working at the mill, workers were given just one 15 minute break. During this break, Williams and his co-workers would go to a clearing in the woods to engage in bare knuckle fights. This was where, according to Williams, he first developed his upward angled left hook he called a “pulpwood punch”. When he was 14 he already weighed 180 lbs and had a thick muscular build. Like Sugar Ray Robinson, Ezzard Charles and many other legends of boxing, Williams idolised Joe Louis and decided what he wanted to do as a career. This was when he took up prize-fighting and, due to his extraordinary size, was able to lie about his age.
Only three of these six early fights were officially recorded with Williams winning the first two by technical knockout at Griffin High School Gym. The third one was a draw that took place at the City Auditorium. They all occurred in his native state of Georgia. He was then barred from boxing due to his age being discovered. Williams claimed he fought a total of six prize fights, winning four of them all by knockout. He acknowledged the draw that is on his official record but also said he lost one that wasn’t recorded.
On 11th December 1951, now aged 18, Williams began his professional career in earnest with a second round knockout over Lee Hunt. This fight had been secured after Cleveland had read about a manager called Lou Viscusi in Ring Magazine who lived in Tampa Florida. The young hopeful jumped on a greyhound bus from Georgia to Florida and tracked Viscusi down. He convinced the man to take him on and Viscusi got him many regular fights in what was known as the “cracker barrel circuit”. These were matches held primarily in Tampa, New Orleans and Miami Beach, allowing Williams to build up an impressive record.
Williams came under the coaching of Bill Gore, another native of Tampa Florida, who had begun his long-lasting business relationship with Viscusi since 1940. He was the man responsible for training Willie Pep to and through his prime, including both his reigns as world featherweight champion. He also trained lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown, light heavyweight champion Bob Foster, Roy Harris, Tony Licata and Manuel Gonzalez.
After his destruction of Lee Hunt, Ray Banks was stopped in the first round and Rudolph Wood was knocked out in the second. Williams won a six-round unanimous decision over Roosevelt Holmes before knocking out Ray Banks in the first round, Johnny Fowler in the fifth, Ray Brown in the third, Paul Favorite in fourth, Harry Turner in first, Eddie Joe Williams in the first and Jimmy Felton in the third. He then scored a technical knockout over Lee Raymond in the fifth, knocked out Sam Harold in the fourth, Candy McDaniels in the second, Baby Booze in the first and Roosevelt Holmes in the first round of their rematch. Cleveland’s next two wins were technical knockouts over Art Henri and Joe McFadden. This was followed by four more straight knockouts. Ponce de Leon proved to be another extremely rare example of a loser who went the distance with Williams. This would addressed after Terry O’Connor was stopped in the third round and de Leon was beaten by the count in round two of his rematch. Bob Garner was the next opponent and KO victim when he ate the canvas in round seven.
With his official record at a truly impressive 30-0-1, most coming via stoppage, Cleveland Williams now began to face tougher opposition. Omelio Agramonte and Keene Simmons were both unanimous decision victories for this most promising of heavyweight contenders. However, Sylvester Jones gave him his first defeat, out-pointing him in a four round contest. A week later, Williams knocked out Claude Rolfe in round 3. Bo Willis and Jack Walsh were knocked out in rounds 2 and 8 respectively. Jimmy Walls was stopped in round 1 before Williams avenged his single loss by knocking out Sylvester Jones in round 6. It was a short-lived celebration because a fortnight later the powerful puncher Bob Satterfield would hand Williams his first defeat by knockout, sending him down in round 3. This knockout left Williams on the canvas for several minutes. He left boxing with an official record of 33-1-1 for a two-year stint in the army.
Williams did not get on well with military authority. He was eventually classified as a deserter due to the number of times he went AWOL. It was discovered that he was continuing to fight for money using his father’s name and spent the rest of his service either in the brig or doing hard labour. Naturally these fights do not appear on his official record.
Cleveland’s next six opponents lost via stoppage, usually a straight knockout. He then won a unanimous decision over Frankie Daniels before stopping Gene White in round 1. His scheduled fight against Dick Richardson was to be his first international contest. Williams traveled to Earls Court Empress Hall, Kensington, London, England, UK for his 25th March 1958 match. Prior to the contest, Williams claimed he heard voices telling him not to enter the ring. He won the contest on a DQ. Richardson, a Welsh boxer, was disqualified for persistent headbutting. Williams had knocked Richardson down in round 1 after the latter had received his first warning for butting. He took charge for the next two rounds, stunning his opponent with his vicious hook and also his uppercut. By the end of round 3 Williams was bleeding from his cheek due to the repeated headbutting. In round 4 the referee stopped the match after Richardson continued to butt.
Exhibiting far more disturbing behaviour, Williams attacked his girlfriend upon his return to the US with a meat cleaver, sending her to hospital with lacerations to her shoulder and head. His girlfriend refused to press charges. After a morning jog, Williams then entered a police precinct demanding back his meat cleaver claiming it had sentimental value. His demand was honoured.
Cleveland fought Daniels in a rematch that he won again by unanimous decision. He then beat Howie Turner on points and knocked out Ollie Wilson in round 3. Cleveland Williams had fought in seven states, although mainly Florida and Louisiana, and also in the UK when he fought Dick Richardson.
By this stage, it was reported that both Williams and Liston were having trouble finding quality opponents. Williams knockout of Wilson had occurred over three months ago. It was noticeable that his cracker barrel was looking a little crumby in the previous year with the fights having far larger gaps between them than there had been up to this point. If the fight had occurred in a later time, the two would have been kept apart outside of a title match-up.
Sonny Liston’s fight with Cleveland Williams was booked to take place at the Auditorium at Miami Beach, Florida. Like the vast majority of his fights, this would be on Williams’ familiar soil although Cleveland’s hometown was now registered in Texas. Sonny Liston had one of the most incredible physiques in the heavyweight division. He stood at 6’1″ but possessed an ape index of 84″. Despite fighting in an orthodox stance, many thought him to be left-handed as his left hand looked disproportionately more muscular. This was where he delivered his powerful jab, considered by many, including Joe Louis, to be the strongest of its kind in boxing history. “Big” George Foreman said that Liston had the entire package as far as boxing skills and physical attributes were concerned. He also supported the view of his jab being the most formidable he had ever faced. Others, including future rival Muhammad Ali and sports writer Gilbert Rogin, stated that Liston possessed power in both hands. He also favoured a cross-arm guard and was a shrewd fighter. ESPN put Liston behind Tyson as the second hardest hitter of all time, but trainer George Tocco, who worked with Liston, Tyson and Foreman, said that Liston was the harder puncher of the three.
Liston’s weaknesses included his reliance on his strong chin and his lack of speed. Despite having a good technical and strategic approach to boxing that was supported by his immense power and strength, Liston was undeniably slow. This didn’t mean couldn’t box or wasn’t light on his feet for his size, but nevertheless his hands were slow. This was where some thought Cleveland Williams would be his match. Williams was not only a very powerful slugger he possessed remarkably fast hands. He was taller than Liston at 6’2″ and, although he didn’t have his reach, at 80″ he still possessed a very impressive ape index. Liston would go on record stating that he was impressed with Williams’ physique, claiming the boxer had muscles everywhere including his eyelids. Sonny Liston weighed in at 213 lbs to Williams’ 210 lbs.
This would be a fight against a slow but extremely powerful boxer-puncher against a fast and powerful slugger. Liston’s record was 27-1 and Williams was 47-2-1. The former was probably older and yet the latter was undeniably more experienced. 3-1 odds had it that whichever the fight went this was not going to go the full 10 scheduled rounds.
The referee was Jim Peerless with judges Stuart Winston and Gus Jacobson.
Round 1 – Liston came out slow and Williams predictably took the lead. He threw jabs, crosses and left hooks that regularly caught out Liston. This was where Cleveland broke Liston’s nose and the blood was evident. However, given his remarkable poker face – the same that had not betrayed the broken jaw he had received in his first match with Marty Marshall – he did reveal it he had been hurt.
Round 2 – Liston had been told to wait Williams out but it appeared that he grown tired of being a punching bag in round 1 and the continued drubbing he was receiving now. He opened up fairly early in the round and began putting both his lethal jab and right to work. Liston began dominating at the end of this round, landing far heavier punches and forcing Williams to back off and circle out.
Round 3 – Sensing the damage done by his previous onslaught, Liston continued with the pressure. A two-fisted assault sent Williams down for an 8-count. He was back up but in good time but Liston was on him immediately and sent him down for good this time. After landing flat on his back Williams tried to roll over and stagger to his feet but Jim Peerless stepped in to stop the action.
Liston would later comment that “He treated me rudely in the first round”. Indeed Williams broke Liston’s nose and he would later comment he was the hardest puncher he ever faced and the two would meet again.
Ingemar Johansson versus Floyd Patterson Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship 26.06.1959
Floyd Patterson now turned his attention to the number one ranked contender for his title: Ingemar Johansson. Patterson’s manager/trainer Cus D’Amato had tried hard to avoid the big mafia dealings in New York and Chicago by fighting in other states. He also taken on challengers ranked lower down the Ring Top 10. However, after Johansson’s shock first round knockout of Eddie Machen he could not be avoided and the fight was arranged to take place at the famous Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York. Perhaps D’Amato saw that the Swedish heavyweight was yet another fighter who favoured the European style of fighting that Patterson’s peek-a-boo technical swarming was tailored to destroy.
Johansson may have looked menacing in his destructive undefeated rise through the heavyweight ranks but, having been given the opportunity to take the belt, his preparations now appeared a little slack. Patterson, under D’Amato and Nick Florio, was known for his monastic training camp. He was kept away from the press and his doors were mainly shut. By comparison, Ingo came over as a charismatic figure who enjoyed the attention he received in New York. His workouts did not look especially tough when he trained openly at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort and Hotel. During these sessions a aura of mystery arose regarding Johansson’s “Toonder and Lighting” right hand. Despite his knockouts coming from this potent weapon that hadn’t been much evidence of when the press had watched his workouts. He even began a romantic and very public short-lived relationship with Sports Illustrated’s Elaine Sloane. The two were regularly seen at popular nightspots.
Floyd Patterson’s fifth defence of his world title was shown on closed circuit TV in 170 locations in 135 cities. The New York area was blacked out. ABC radio broadcast the fight live and over in Sweden hundreds of thousands of its citizens stayed up to 3 a.m. to listen to the bout.
According to BoxRec:
Patterson was guaranteed $300,000 and Johansson $100,000. They were also working on percentages. Patterson received 30 percent of the gate and Johansson 20 percent. Promoter Bill Rosensohn got 50 percent.
A gate of $470,712.25 was produced by a crowd of 21,961 at Yankee Stadium. Ticket prices ranged from $5 to $100.
Ingemar Johansson entered the fight at the 5-1 underdog. 63 out of 69 polled writers for the Associated Press liked Patterson to hold onto his belt. Floyd Patterson weighed in at 182 lbs and Ingemar Johansson came in at 196 lbs.
The referee was Ruby Goldstein and the judges were Frank Forbes and Bill Recht.
Round 1 – Johansson immediately made use of his longer reach, stretching out his jab at regular intervals. Would this be a repeat of Brian London? Patterson launched his gazelle punch and caught Ingo on the mouth. Johansson went back to jabbing. Patterson slipped but wasn’t eating much distance. The challenger’s right loomed, cocked reminiscent of Max Schmeling. He also circled as he dabbed. With seconds to go, Johansson finally landed the right and Patterson also got in his gazelle punch.
Round 2 – Patterson came in more aggressive but Johansson demonstrated good footwork as he maintained his distance and controlled the range. Patterson briefly fought his way in to not much effect and few seconds later the challenger landed an unusual combination of chopping right leads and a left hook. After some tentative toing and froing, where the two fought over the range, Patterson let fly with a Gazelle punch but it was partially blocked. He then began trying the same body punch strategy he had used to wear down Brian London. Johansson countered by moving in and smothering the punches.
Round 3 – After some cautious circling, Johansson kept bothering Patterson with his jab getting set to land the right. Patterson fired back his own left that caught the challenger in the mouth and back him off momentarily. However, he quickly came back and resumed bouncing the jabs off Patterson’s forehead. The champion seemed fixed in his movement rather than the constant slipping and ducking. He fired back again but this time Ingo moved out of range. The challenger moved in with another jab and then turned his next left into a long hook. He moved closer and repeated the action.
The commentator said this one hit Patterson on the jaw but the slow motion replay seemed to show it landing on the champion’s gloves. Regardless of its accuracy, it rocked the champion’s head and was immediately followed by Ingemar’s trademark right to the head delivered at full force. Patterson was sent down flat on his back. The champion wearily made it to his feet. Dazed, it later transpired he thought he had knocked the challenger down and began walking towards his neutral corner. Johansson unloaded a left and right hook to the head that sent the champion down again.
Patterson got to one knee and held onto the ropes to take a longer count this time. He rose to his feet in time and turned to face Johansson. As the challenger moved forward with a pawing jab, the champion tried to counter with a long lead hook to the opposite side ribs but Johansson parried it away, the punch just shaking his pectoral muscle. Floyd crouched and covered in anticipation of Ingo’s terrifying overhand right. Despite the contemporary report, slow motion reveals it sailed over Floyd’s shoulder. However, betraying one of the weaknesses in his style, the champion unconsciously bobbed up. In fact, he seemed to straighten up in a way that far exceeded the stylistic parametres of the peek-a-boo and took the full brunt of “Toonder and Lightning” to the side of the head. He hit the canvas on his hands and knees.
Patterson rose for a third time. Keen to finish the job quickly, the challenger was on Floyd straight away. He set his datum with his pawing jab and swung a mid-right hook to Patterson’s jaw. That one clearly did the damage. Johansson’s follow up left hooks were not damaging. The first was closer to a single collar tie in the way the challenger used it to move Patterson in a half circle. He then followed it with a light left hook that barely touched the now stumbling champion who fell backwards to the canvas for another count. Showing incredible resilience, courage and composure, Patterson was back up and even seemed game to fight.
Johansson came in with those laser pointing left pawing jabs which this time the champion ducked under to throw a right to the body. However, it was either blocked or didn’t register. Patterson seemed frozen momentarily in his crouched stance deep in the killzone and Johansson unloaded with short punches. The challenger threw an overhand right followed by a tight uppercut and then another right at which point Floyd used the same explosiveness he usually brought to his gazelle punch to put Ingemar in a head clinch. This might have been an attempted right hook that over-reached its target and turned into a hug. Regardless, Ingo was having no of it and framed Floyd with the inside of his left glove to set him up for battering short rights and lefts as he drove across the ring to the ropes. Patterson covered up but he was like a broken toy now and could not dodge the onslaught. The best could do was lean into the punches with his tight high guard and try to throw back. A left hook detonated harmlessly on the challenger’s hip whereas a right hook looked a little more serious. However, although this combination might have stalled proceedings, it just put Johansson at his more comfortable range.
The challenger, throwing caution to the wind, led with a long range upward arcing punch (not unlike Geoff Thompson’s self-defence uppercuts). This was followed with a digging two-fist assault. Johansson buried his fists relentlessly into Patterson’s guard, taking full advantage of his reach. Floyd weathered this particular assault and leant into close range where the challenger manhandled him round and caught him with a right to the side of the head. As Patterson tried to hang on without clinching but rather leaning, Johansson took advantage by continuing to punch in angles around his opponent’s guard. Eventually a straight right connected flush on Floyd’s forehead and he was down for a fifth time. However, he was also up for a fifth time.
Ingo moved in with his long jab. He connected twice as single shots and then whipped in a damaging almost straight arm uppercut that caught Floyd in the face. The champion stumbled towards the ropes as the challenger clipped him with a left hook swing to his head but then connected with a solid right hook. For the sixth time The Gentleman was down this time catching the middle rope with his right hand quickly as he rested on his knees, moved to single knee and then rose for an incredible sixth time. This time he charged into the challenger but his left hook to the body was easily evaded and countered with a short right-left-right series of hooks to the head. He was down yet again.
As the courageous champion made it to his feet yet again, Ruby Goldstein had seen enough and stepped in to stop the match. This was Patterson’s only second ever loss in his professional career and his first by stoppage. The defeat exposed weaknesses in Patterson and possibly in the peek-a-boo style.
Johansson’s victory gave Sweden their first world heavyweight champion and Ingo was also the first European to defeat an American for the title since 1933 (when Primo Carnera won it from Jack Sharkey). He was also awarded “Fighter of the Year” by Ring Magazine for 1959, an award he had also gained in ’58. As it stood at the time, he joined Tommy Loughran, Barney Ross, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano in the list of fighters to win the prize twice. He also joined Louis, Charles and Marciano in becoming the fourth fighter to win it two years in a row. However, Marciano and Louis won the award more times. Marciano was a three times fighter of the year and Louis won it four times. After Max Schmeling he was the second European to win the award. He was also the fourth undefeated professional fighter to win the heavyweight crown.
Whatever flamboyance he had shown prior the fight now went into overdrive as the new champion was determined to make the most of his international fame and success. He was now romantically involved with a new girlfriend (who would also be his future wife) Birgit Lundgren. The two would appear on the front over both Sports Illustrated and Life Magazine that year. He was even dubbed “Boxing’s Cary Grant” and would later be seen as one of the precursor stars to the “Swinging Sixties” as the paparazzi followed him everywhere in the US and Sweden. When he returned to Sweden he was flown by helicopter to Gothenburg’s main football stadium where he was cheered by 20,000 people. In 1960 he appeared as a marine in the movie, “All the Young Men” starring Alan Ladd Snr. and Sidney Poitier.
However, 1960 would also see him have to put the title on the line for the first time. Rocky Marciano, who had been in the audience when Johansson had won the title, seriously considered a comeback. However, after a month’s low profile training camp, he abandoned the idea deciding he couldn’t get back into his previous condition and was too old. Besides Floyd Patterson was hungry for revenge. They signed their fight for 20th June 1960, just six days shy of year since they had first met.