Leotis Martin: Unlucky but OK in the end
Fans of metaphor and of the late, arguably great Charles “Sonny” Liston like to muse over whether Liston was born under a dark cloud or in some way or another doomed from birth. You can understand it.
Though an ex-con, prodigious puncher and frequent associate of characters of ill-repute, Liston was by most reliable accounts not nearly the malevolent thug many in America assumed him to be.
Whether or not he was may seem unimportant now, but Liston was the world heavyweight champion during a period in history when holding that title was like being president, but with fewer mistresses.
It was important to people that the heavyweight champion be what the majority held as virtuous and a good role model for children, like that nice fellow Floyd Patterson, whom Liston had treated so inhospitably during the very brief times the two had spent together.
Further, Liston had the great misfortune of being the first of Muhammad Ali’s many foils, and died in Las Vegas, too soon and under mysterious circumstances at an age somewhere between 38 and 42 years old.
What happens in Vegas and all that.
All that heartache notwithstanding, when it came to bad luck, Liston couldn’t hold a candle to Leotis Martin, who effectively ended Liston’s career when he knocked him out in Vegas 40 years ago next Sunday.
It was in perfect alignment with the rest of Martin’s hard luck career that his upset of Liston, a 3-1 favorite, was also the last bout of his career. On the precipice of a world title fight and finally some meaningful paydays, he retired due to a detached retina, reportedly suffered against Liston, and never fought again.
Talk about bad luck.
Martin was born in Helena, Ark., and fought as an amateur in Chicago, winning Golden Gloves titles as a middleweight in 1960 and ’61. He made his way to Philadelphia, at the time one of the great hotbeds of American boxing, and turned pro in 1962.
Martin was trained early on by Yank Durham, who would gain fame taking Joe Frazier to the world title and boxing immortality, and later by Quinzell McCall at the legendary Champs Gym in Philadelphia.
There is some talk that Frazier’s management team ducked Martin. Writing about Martin for Sports Illustrated in 1967, Mark Kram observed, “Martin, out of the violent, devouring pits of Philadelphia, had been ducked by everyone, including Frazier, who would not fight him with a shotgun.”
The Ring magazine editor-in-chief and longtime Philadelphia-area resident Nigel Collins told RingTV.com that Martin would have had a chance and against Smokin’ Joe.
“There’s no guarantee that he would have beaten Frazier, but he had a better chance of beating Frazier than the other guys Frazier was fighting at that stage of his career,” Collins said. “He wasn’t going to be intimidated by Frazier. If he could slug with Sonny Liston, he could slug with Joe Frazier.
“Martin was a really solid, all-around fighter who could box and punch. He was a tough guy who was basically unlucky,” Collins said. “That he knocked out Sonny Liston on national television and got a detached retina, which at that time was the end of your career, was the final irony.”
Philadelphia-based Hall of Fame promoter and historian J Russell Peltz said that Martin may indeed have been seen as too dangerous for Frazier to fight, but the reason they never met was more likely the result of a personal feud between their managers.
“Pinney Schaefer who (managed) Martin, also had Bennie Briscoe,” Peltz said. “Yank had been Briscoe’s trainer and Leotis’ trainer. Schaefer fired Yank after Briscoe lost to Kitten Hayward and because of that Yank would never let Frazier fight Leotis.”
Whatever the case, Martin developed into a sound, heavy-handed light heavyweight and then what we would today call a cruiserweight, topping out at around 200 pounds. He more than held his own in the gym wars that were a staple of the era.
“I watched Leotis box in the gym all the time, and he could punch, man,” Rob Murray, longtime Philadelphia fight figure and Eddie Chambers’ manager and trainer, told RingTV.com.
“He was big and strong and a murderous puncher. He could flat out punch and then stay right there in the pocket and punch with you,” Murray said. “Leotis Martin was the truth.”
Murray was ringside for Martin’s May, 1965 win over Sonny Banks. Banks, a limited but hard-slugging left-hooker who is recalled for flooring a young Muhammad Ali in their meeting in 1962, died of injuries suffered in the loss to Martin.
Longtime Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin covered the fight and wrote about its dramatic conclusion:
“A tremendous brawl came down to a frantic ninth round where Martin was out on his feet after an unanswered Banks pummeling. Then he threw one textbook straight right that caught Banks on the left temple. ÔÇª I can still hear the bass drum sound of Banks’ head hitting the mat. And I can still see them, bearing him to the locker room on a stretcher, the fighter lapsing in and out of consciousness.”
It didn’t slow Martin down. Nine wins and two years later, he found himself among the participants in the WBA’s eight-man tournament to name a successor to Muhammad Ali, whom the WBA had stripped when Ali’s license was revoked. Thad Spencer, Oscar Bonavena, Jimmy Ellis, Patterson, Jerry Quarry, Karl Mildenberger and Ernie Terrell were the others.
In the first round Martin drew Ellis, with whom he had split a pair of meetings when both were middleweight amateurs. Ellis, the eventual tournament winner, dominated Martin and opened a cut so large in Martin’s mouth that the fight was stopped after the ninth round.
Again writing for Sports Illustrated, Kram reported, “Martin was whipped early in this fight. He never really had a chance, or anything left after the first round, and he survived as long as he did only because he has a soccer ball for a heart.”
It was around this time that Martin became, in the words of Peltz, “the other heavyweight in Philly.” He beat Mildenberger, Spencer and Al Lewis, but lost to Roger Russell, Henry Clark, and Bonavena.
“He was always the undercard guy,” Murray said. “If he wasn’t behind Sonny Liston, he was behind Joe Frazier. If he wasn’t behind Joe Frazier, he was behind (light heavyweight) Von Clay,” he said.
“He just didn’t have the charisma and he developed late. Also, he was a very quiet guy. He was very country. He wasn’t very outspoken and wouldn’t demand anything and had a bad stutter. He was quiet. If I saw him at the gym 40 times, maybe I heard him say 10 words. He shied away from talking but he was a wonderful guy and a hard worker.”
By the time Martin was being talked about as an opponent for the comebacking Liston, he was viewed more or less as a trial horse. Liston, since his second loss to Ali, had won 14 straight, 13 by knockout, but Martin was clearly a step up in competition. If Liston won, he would likely face Frazier for the heavyweight title.
Despite Liston’s win streak and high ranking, some had doubts about his ability to return to the form that in his salad days had made him the most-feared fighter on earth. He was 37 years old and one of his comeback victims, Elmer Rush, went down six times against him. Five times he got up.
“That's not the Liston who used to be,” Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, told the press. “He was a great finisher. If he put you down once, you might stagger up, but if he got a clean shot and put you down again, you stayed down for good. He's no spring chicken. If he's lost his punch, forget him.”
Dundee’s words proved prophetic when Liston, mostly controlling Martin with little more than his still-formidable thunderbolt of a left jab, dropped him in the fourth with a wide left hook but could not finish him.
Late in the eighth Martin took the offensive and from there Liston’s wheels came off quickly. When he tried four straight jabs in the ninth, Martin countered with a right-cross, left-hook, right-cross combination and down went Liston, who outweighed his opponent by a full 20 pounds. He hardly moved while referee Mike Kaplan counted him out. Liston led by scores of 37-34, 38-35 and 38-36.
Martin said afterward that he wanted Frazier but it never happened. He retired after the bout because of the detached retina, and for the next 26 years lived a quiet life in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. Early in 1995 he retired from Budd & Co. after 31 years as a machinist.
In November of ’95 Martin had a stroke brought on by hypertension and complications from diabetes, and died en route to a local hospital. But that’s not really the end of the story.
Peltz believes Martin suffered the career-ending eye injury not against Liston, but in a bout Peltz promoted at the Blue Horizon against Wendell Newton two months before the Liston fight.
“I’ve always believed that to be the case,” Peltz said. “It was supposed to be an easy fight for Leotis but it wasn’t, and his eye blew up. He might have been behind on the cards when he stopped Newton.”
Collins was at ringside and recalls the bout as being especially dramatic because there was so much at stake for Martin.
“There was a lot of tension in the air because he had to beat Newton to get Liston,” Collins said.
He beat Newton, and after that Roger Russell, who’d beaten Martin two years before. Then came the Liston fight.
Is it possible that Martin fought Russell and then Liston with a detached retina? Physicals weren’t administered as strictly in the late 1960s as they are today.
And as Peltz pointed out, another famous Philadelphia cult hero, Gypsy Joe Harris, fought for years while legally blind in one eye.
Martin wasn’t the most talented heavyweight ever. Not nearly as talented as was Liston. And he got the big fight against the former champ in front of the whole world. He didn’t get the title shot, but the graveyards are full of old pugs who would have given anything to get as close as he did, and to live the life he did after leaving the ring.
All things considered, perhaps Martin was luckier than Liston after all.
Some random observations from last week:
I call Liston “arguably great” rather than “great” because I am not aware of any fight in which he successfully overcame a desperate circumstance. When you got ahead of him, you won. Though he was an exceptionally good heavyweight, there are no late-round, come-from-behind wins on his record of the type that mark the careers of all legitimately great fighters. ÔÇª
Won’t it be great when Lucian Bute challenges the winner of the Super Six tournament? For our sake, let’s hope it’s Arthur Abraham or one of the other punchers, because Bute against another fast counter puncher won’t do anyone any good. ÔÇª
Librado Andrade: back on grease trap duty. ÔÇª
Just because a guy’s bleeding all over the place it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s getting his clock cleaned. From my couch I scored Joan Guzman-Ali Funeka 114-114, the same as two of the judges. ÔÇª
Kudos to HBO’s Lennox Lewis, who, during a rare moment of lucidity during the Funeka-Guzman fight, observed that fighters should make weight before they’re required to. There’s real beauty in simplicity. ÔÇª
Whatever they paid Martin Honorio and John Molina to blast the bejesus out of one another on ShoBox Saturday night, it wasn’t enough. Excellent scrap and good for Honorio for pulling off the upset. ÔÇª
Two more notes on Saturday’s ShoBox telecast: Steve Farhood and Al Bernstein make an excellent team, and I think we have a late winner in the Best Round Card Girl Crew of the Year contest. Agreed? ÔÇª
Are there any fighters not giving out turkeys to the homeless these days? Publicists just don’t put the effort into their photo-ops that they used to. Where’s the originality?