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Mythical Matchup: Sonny Liston vs. George Foreman

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Dec

The following article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Ring Magazine, which can be purchased at The Ring Shop.

 

A FANTASY FIGHT FOR THE UNDISPUTED HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP

Veteran referee and historian Ron Lipton, a former amateur boxer who was inducted into the New York and New Jersey boxing halls of fame, is proud to present the fourth instalment of his well-received mythical matchup series for The Ring. 

“This mythical matchup pits two of the hardest-punching heavyweight champions in boxing history against one another,” said Lipton. “The mental and physical package of both Liston and Foreman was stronger, meaner, and more confident than any other heavyweight of their eras, which briefly overlapped in the late 1960s.

“Keep in mind that a mythical matchup is just that, ‘mythical.’ It is pure imagination for fun and your enjoyment with a dash of poetic license to flavor the main course.”

 

While on top of their game, Sonny Liston and George Foreman dispatched their awesome power with ruthless abandon. Both men radiated menacing brute force with just a look.

As they stood in their corners, awaiting the opening bell, fans knew they would soon witness mayhem. From the onset of their bouts, Liston and Foreman were on the hunt to hurt and destroy their opposition. They usually devoured their prey like apex predators, even when matched against world-class opposition, although a few experienced and wily veterans were able to make it to the final bell.

Early in his pro development, Liston learned some of the nuances to his brutal trade during three bouts with Marty Marshall, two of which went the distance. Marshall, a seasoned fringe contender who also fought at light heavyweight, upset the fearsome prospect in their first meeting in 1954 (Liston’s eighth pro bout) but was stopped in their rematch and outpointed over 10 rounds in their 1956 rubbermatch. As an emerging contender, Liston was taken the 10-round distance by Bert Whitehurst in 1958 and the 12-round distance by fellow contender Eddie Machen in 1960.

George Foreman was taken the 10-round distance against both Levi Forte and the undersized but vastly more experienced Gregorio Peralta in 1969 and 1970, not long after his gold-medal winning showing at the 1968 Olympic Games.

Once they reached their primes, Liston and Foreman crushed the champions and top contenders of their eras. Liston destroyed Cleveland Williams (twice), Nino Valdez, Zora Folley, Mike DeJohn and Floyd Patterson (twice in one round). Foreman did the same to Boone Kirkman, George Chuvalo, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton.

I knew Liston very well through our close friend Rubin Carter. I witnessed them spar together in Philadelphia. Sonny treated me well and we had some good laughs together with Rubin.

I’ve seen every Liston fight available on film and I watched all of his fights that were broadcast live on network TV and closed circuit.

I also attended many of Foreman’s fights in person. I enjoyed his company during his years as color commentator for HBO Sports. I spent some wonderful moments with George before and after several of the big fights I refereed at Madison Square Garden.

***

GEORGE FOREMAN SONNY LISTON
AGE:  25*

HEIGHT:  6-foot-3

WEIGHT: 224¾ pounds

REACH: 78½ inches

FIST: 12½

RECORD: 40-0, 37 KOs

* AGE AND RECORD AFTER THE KEN NORTON FIGHT

AGE: 31*

HEIGHT: 6-foot-1½

WEIGHT:  215½ pounds

REACH:  84 inches

FIST: 15 inches

RECORD: 35-1, 25 KOs

* AGE AND RECORD AFTER THE 2ND PATTERSON FIGHT

 

The Making of the Fight:
THE UNIFIED HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD

Liston was still seething and hurt by the absence of any crowd to greet him in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia following his one-round stoppage of Patterson to win the WBA and WBC titles.

He was tired of being the bad guy. He never wanted that label. Liston was a hard man with a dark past, but he felt like he’d transcended all that when he saw that children were delighted to be with him and take photos on the champ’s lap. Being loved, wanted, and respected had a glowing effect on him and smoothed out his inner demons.

His wife, Geraldine, knew what he went through as a child, how he was beaten unmercifully by his father, and what he had to do in order to make a living once the mob got their clutches into him. She, and others, saw him differently and felt he had a lot of good in him if given the chance.

Among those who believed in Sonny was Father Edward P. Murphy of the St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Denver, Colorado. It was another man of the cloth, Father Alois Stevens, who encouraged Liston to take up boxing while he was incarcerated in the Missouri State Penitentiary.

When his managers came to him with the offer of the George Foreman fight, Liston wasn’t surprised. He knew the showdown with the other heavyweight champ was coming sooner or later. Liston had let Foreman spar with him when Doc Broadus brought George to Dick Sadler’s gym in Oakland, California, and once more before one of Sonny’s fights.

Liston knew the kid was strong as an ox, and they got along OK until Foreman embarrassed him by handing him a horoscope book to read. Sonny growled at him to get it out of his face and brushed him off.

George was later told that Sonny could not read, and he was truly sorry about the mistake he had made. It was forgotten and Sonny kept teaching him things in the ring.

Foreman revered and respected Liston, and always said that he patterned his own style after Liston’s, including the hard looks and intimidation.

Now, after watching Foreman collect heavyweight titles as he blasted his way through the division, Sonny knew their paths would cross.

He believed Foreman was as dangerous as Cleveland Williams and hit harder than Mike DeJohn, but fear and doubt were not part of Liston’s psyche. He knew he could handle his former gym apprentice no matter how much George had improved. And despite their friendship, Liston was never so fond of anyone that he would take it easy on them in a fight. The Missouri State penal system had burned pity out of him long ago.

In fact, there was a bit of a grudge in this matchup. It bothered Liston that Foreman was a glorified Olympic champion and a beloved American while he was loathed as an ex-convict.

Liston was generally sour on the boxing business because the mob guys still had their hooks into him. He wanted to break away from Joseph “Pep” Barone, Frankie Carbo, Blinkie Palermo and all they represented forever, but knew what they were capable of, and being a hard-punching heavyweight wouldn’t mean two straws in a wind storm to them. He was money on the hoof to them and nothing more.

Mob ties or not, Madison Square Garden wanted the fight. Sonny’s manager, Jack Nilon, told him it was a done deal and to get ready. Sonny’s trainer, Willie Reddish, would be in his corner with assistant Milt Bailey. He was told to keep Joe Polino as his cut man.

When George’s trainer-manager, Dick Sadler, came to him with the fight, Foreman agreed to it, as it was all business, but inside he felt something he had never experienced when accepting an opponent. Liston remained the only fighter who made him back up in the ring. His jab was like running into a telephone pole, and he had underrated boxing skills that made him hard to hit. George also admired and respected Sonny. The mentor-to-pupil relationship he once had with Sonny was a fond memory, but one that had to be put aside for this fight.

Liston trained at the Pines Resort in Fallsburg, New York. Foreman trained in Houston.

Their respective camps were spartan. Both trained for an all-out shootout if it came down to throwing bricks to survive.

The Garden sold out the first day, and even hardcore fans had butterlfies thinking about what this fight would portend. Oddsmakers set Liston as the slightest favorite at 6-to-5 in the pick-’em dream bout.

Liston was more taciturn than usual and brusque with reporters who tried to get him to commit to a prediction. When pushed too far one day, he snapped back, “Just get a ref that knows how to count to 10.”

One reporter asked Liston: “You guys used to spar, but what about a real fight, Sonny?” Liston replied: “Haven’t I been having real fights?” Everyone laughed, but Sonny was serious.

Liston refused to say anything bad about George and Foreman did the same.

The reports from all the boxing writers were practically the same. Both Liston and Foreman were in great shape, and witnessing their sparring and heavy bag work was like watching a freight train slam into a brick wall.

The night of the fight, both men were in their dressing rooms, taped and warming up.

Geraldine was off to one side of her husband’s dressing room. The two priests that Liston cared very much for had his permission to be in the room with him for a prayer before the fight.

However, prior to his walkout, three of the old crew who had pulled the mob strings with Sonny early on entered the dressing room along with a big man wearing a cowboy hat and boots that did not go with the tailored suits of the others.

One of the mob guys shot a look at Reddish, himself a former heavyweight, and waved him to get out of the way. The two priests looked on as if Satan himself had walked into the room.

Geraldine had a frightened look on her face and had seen this kind of thing before.

Liston looked twice as big as all of them in his white terry cloth robe with a towel under the hood as they whispered to him. No one but Liston could hear them, but everyone in the room could feel that something sinister was going down.

“Every good thing has an end, Sonny. This kid is going places and America loves this guy. Olympic gold, the whole thing. The bets are in and you are covered. Don’t give it all you have, make it look good and pick a time and that’s that. You’ve been told.”

Liston said nothing at first, but then he mumbled, “I’m tired of being the bad guy.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Before Sonny could answer and possibly make matters worse, the priests quickly walked over and intervened. “Excuse me, it’s time to say a prayer with Charles.”

The men gave Liston one hard glance and then collectively walked out of the dressing room.

The priests’ motioned for Geraldine to come over and join them in prayer.

Father Murphy had a different prayer in mind until he saw what had just happened.

He wisely knew what he had to ask of God now.

They held hands: “Dear Father in Heaven, in Jesus’ name we ask you to hear our prayer. You are a prayer-answering God, and we ask that you forgive us for our sins and bless Charles Liston tonight by standing by him and inside him. Forgive him for his past sins and help him to be the good man and great champion he worked so hard to become.

“Let no one lead him down the path of evil men. Stand with him tonight and help him to do his honest best and be an example of a great champion to all the children who look up to him.

“Protect both fighters in the ring and let people remember Charles as a good, decent, God-fearing man who always did his best to take the right path, as he will tonight. Amen.”

Liston was touched deeply.

As tears stream down his wife’s face, the menacing scowl vanishes from Liston’s face and is replaced with a fierce determination more powerful than any rage or emotion he has ever felt. He feels a weight lifted from his broad shoulders and knows what he must do.

Reddish drapes a white and gold satin robe with the blazing emblem of the shining sun over the terry cloth. They walk out of the dressing room into the arena to confront fate.

In Foreman’s dressing room, Dick Sadler, Archie Moore and former featherweight champ Sandy Saddler talk to the undefeated champion.

Foreman has a good sweat going and is brimming with confidence. Moore tells him, “Haste makes waste. Use your jab at the right time and remember how damn long his arms are. He’s like Jimmy Bivins: You think you are out of range and he tags you.

“He can box; he slips shots. When he closes the gap, fire a hard jab-right uppercut-left hook. Catch him on the duck with the right hand and hit him with that damn hook out of nowhere you hit Chuvalo with. Get him going and rain on him. Don’t chase him. Break him up and wear him down.”

Dick Sadler interrupts: “OK, OK, enough. Just fight your fight. You ain’t that kid he banged around way back when. Now he gets banged around. You hit harder and now you’re the one who is stronger, got it?”

Foreman frowns while summoning up his fire from within and readily nods in agreement.

The sold-out crowd has seen both men warming up in their dressing rooms on the big screen, and the fans are wild with anticipation now that the prelims are over.

Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” blares as Liston, surrounded by his corner men, enters the arena.

His carriage is straight up, head held high under the hooded robe. He looks directly toward the ring. The whole package screams nitroglycerin on ice. Liston climbs through the ropes with the aura of the most menacing heavyweight in history.

Under the bright ring lights, he turns to face the crowd and sees his beloved priests at ringside. But as his lion’s gaze sweeps around ringside, he also sees the mob guys looking up at him. Only after seeing his wife does he start to loosen up his powerful shoulders, throwing short punches while the crowd is delirious with excitement.

Now Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” echoes throughout the fabled arena.

Here comes Big George in his red, white and blue satin robe. He looks big as a mountain and is in-between Archie Moore and Dick Sadler, with Sandy Sadler and the great Al Gavin, his cut man, trailing behind.

Foreman looks confident, powerful and ready. Archie sits on the ropes and Big George climbs in to do battle.

It is down to Michael Buffer now.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is the main event of the evening, the fight we have all been waiting for: 12 rounds of boxing for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world! It’s brought to you by Madison Square Garden boxing, HBO Sports and sanctioned by the New York State Athletic Commission, Executive Director Kim Sumbler and Director of Boxing Matt Delaglio.

“The three judges scoring from ringside, assigned by the New York State Athletic Commission, are Harold Lederman, John McKaie and Steve Weisfeld.

“Inside the ring, the man in charge of the action when the bell rings is Shada Murdaugh.

“Now the officials are ready, the fighters in the ring are ready. And for the thousands in attendance and the millions watching around the world: Are you ready!?

“Ladies and gentlemen, LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!”

Buffer’s famous introduction thunders throughout the Garden. Around the world, boxing fans roar in anticipation.

“Introducing first, out of the blue corner, wearing the black trunks trimmed in white weighing in at 215½ pounds with a record of 35 wins, one loss with 25 knockouts, hailing from Denver, Colorado, the WBC, WBA heavyweight champion of the world, CHARLES “SONNY” LISTON!”

The Garden crowd explodes in applause for Liston and his fistic accomplishments.

“And in the red corner, wearing the red, white and blue trunks, weighing in at 224¾ pounds with a record of 40 wins, no losses with 37 knockouts, hailing from Houston, Texas, the Olympic gold medal winner and the reigning IBF, WBO and Ring Magazine world heavyweight champion, ‘BIG’ GEORGE FOREMAN!”

The crowd’s response is deafening.

HBO’s ringside commentators are talking about the referee, who is 6-foot-7, and how he should be able to control the fighters.

The crowd simmers to a murmur as Murdaugh calls Liston and his chief second, Reddish, to ring center along with Foreman and Sadler.

Foreman is taller by 1½ inches and outweighs Liston by a little over nine pounds, but Liston looks bigger and more powerful through the shoulders.

“I’ve given you the rules of the New York State Athletic Commission,” Murdaugh tells them. “Protect yourself at all times, obey my commands at all times. Any questions? OK, touch gloves and let’s get to work.”

Sonny looks right through George. Foreman stares back at him and then breaks away as if he did not like what he saw. This is a different Sonny Liston tonight.

 

Liston comes in toward Foreman, who has his hands held high.

Liston snaps long jabs that Foreman blocks with his high gloves. The jabs are so hard they violently jam Foreman’s own gloves into his face.

Foreman sets himself and throws stiff rights and left hooks that Liston ducks and weaves under as he works his way in close enough to start blasting to George’s body. Liston’s aim is to back Foreman into the ropes.

Foreman, already on his back foot, keeps throwing hard hooks and chopping rights out of self defense. He momentarily stands his ground, locking his powerful legs, and punches back furiously with uppercuts and left hooks to get Liston off of him, but he’s still backed to the ropes.

Foreman grabs Liston’s arms to move him sideways but cannot shift the veteran. Liston knocks Foreman’s gloves away and goes to the head and body with short hard punches.

They slug it out along the ropes and the Garden crowd is on their feet screaming and cheering for the wildfire shootout. Foreman, back still to the ropes, doesn’t give an inch and blazes back at Liston.

Foreman finally pushes Liston back with two open gloves, and with the room the illegal move gives him, he bombs at Liston with the same uppercut that floored Frazier in Jamaica. The crowd roars in anticipation, but Liston catches the punch with an open right glove under his chin and counters with a whistling left hook that is so fast it catches Foreman by surprise but does not land flush.

The punch grazes Foreman’s chin and rocks him back on his heels.

Murdaugh gestures and shouts to Foreman, “NO PUSHING WITH OPEN GLOVES! Punch him off; don’t push!”

The bell rings.

10-9 Liston

 

Liston bounds right in at Foreman, who is moving laterally now after Sadler screamed at him in the corner not to move straight back to the ropes. The veteran manager implored Foreman to take command and get off first.

George is jabbing hard and landing high on Liston’s head. One hard jab, then another. Soon, Liston sports swelling above his left eye as Foreman gains confidence. The young champ moves in to throw his hardest punches and Liston is all too glad to exchange with him in the middle of the ring.

The sound of Foreman’s punches are chilling as he lands murderous hooks to the side of Liston’s body.  Every impact is a veritable explosion of leather.

Foreman is swinging wildly to get things over with, following hooks with chopping rights. But Liston skillfully weaves under the head shots and fires back. Now both men are landing heavy shots.

A tremendous left hook lands on the side of Liston’s jaw and the crowd stands, screaming. The punch is so hard it moves Liston’s entire body, but he takes it, and before Foreman can bring the hook back, Liston retaliates with a pulverizing short right hand between George’s gloves. Foreman wobbles into a tremendous Liston left hook that lands flush on his jaw.

George’s gloves drop to his waist as Liston rolls his shoulders and lands short, jolting punches. Foreman sags one knee to the canvas. Liston runs to a neutral corner.

The alternate ringside referee shouts the count up to Murdaugh, who picks it up at “four” and is shouting it to Foreman with a finger count: “five, six!” Foreman is up.  “Seven, eight! Take a step forward, to the side.” Foreman obeys and is ready to fight back. “You OK?” Foreman nods and says, “Yeah.”

The bell rings and both fighters return to their corners.

10-8 Liston

 

BETWEEN ROUNDS:

The crowd is a delirious mass of excitement at the spectacle of heavyweight power and courage that has exceeded their wildest expectations.

Liston looks down at ringside while Reddish works on his left eye to take the swelling down.

He sees the suits and the cowboy looking up at him with murder in their eyes. He ignores them and looks at the priests, who are looking back up at him. Sonny sees the love and concern for him in their eyes – the same look is in his wife’s eyes at ringside.

 

Foreman leaves his corner with grim determination. This time he goes for broke, using all his strength to force Liston off-balance and into the ropes. He has Liston pinned there, as he had Frazier and Norton. Foreman’s shotgun jab sets Liston up for a tremendous right uppercut and left hook that land flush.

Liston is visibly shaken, and once again the crowd stands as one. Foreman bombs Liston with everything in his arsenal as the crowd senses a stoppage. But Liston does not fold. He does not go down, but he is hurt and not punching back.

The referee looks closely at Liston as he contemplates intervening. However, while Liston’s eye is close to swollen shut and his nose pours blood, Foreman is clearly getting tired from his relentless attack. Liston is taking a pounding but weathering the storm. Foreman looks spent as the bell rings.

10-9, maybe 10-8 Foreman

 

BETWEEN ROUNDS:

Liston looks down at the priests and allows himself a small smile at them.

He’s endured a lot worse than the beating Foreman had just put on him, from his father’s abuse to the brutal street fights and the horrors of prison to his previous ring battles against the best of the division. Sonny’s hard life had steeled his soul. Without a mob puppet master pulling his strings, he is a force unto himself.

 

Liston and Foreman meet in the center of the ring like two Kodiak bears ready to fight to the death.

Foreman has instructions to finish Sonny off while he is still hurt, but an explosive left hook beats him to the punch.

Liston follows up with both hands, driving George back to the ropes again, where he chops away at the Olympic gold medalist the way he did during his two savage encounters with Cleveland Williams.

Foreman’s right cheekbone immediately swells from the impact of that big left hook, but he fires back and cuts Liston’s other eye. Liston steps in fast, putting his massive shoulders, legs and back into hard, fast punches that drive deep into the younger man’s body. Foreman doubles over in agony, protecting his damaged right rib cage.

He’s fighting for survival now and retaliates with fierce uppercuts that bloody Liston’s nose again, but a series of short, jarring punches to the head force Foreman to slowly collapse to the canvas.

The bell rings and George makes it up at Murdaugh’s count of “four.”

Liston stands in the neural corner watching it all. Blood continues to flow from his nose down his chest and onto the canvas. Both of his eyes are cut and almost closed.

Foreman survives the round, but Dr. Nitin Sethi visits both corners, and before the bell rings to start Round 5, he orders the referee to stop the fight after examining the damage to Liston’s face and the disoriented condition of Foreman, who is having trouble taking a breath.

Michael Buffer takes the mic: “Ladies and gentleman, on the advice of the chief ringside physician, Dr. Nitin Sethi, both fighters are not allowed to continue due to injuries, and this bout is declared a technical draw at the start of the fifth round.”

Liston and Foreman struggle to their feet and pull away from their corners to find each other in the middle of the ring. “I always thank God that I met you and you helped me,” Foreman tells Liston. “I will always pray for you. Thank you for everything you ever taught me.”

Liston hugs him. “Promise me you will be a better person than I ever was and a great champion. Pray for me.”

Foreman looks at Sonny and wonders why he said that. “I will, my big brother, always.”

As Sonny walks down the steps to the dressing room, he sees the mob guys glaring at him.

The priests hug him and tell him they are proud.

Geraldine looks into his eyes and says, “Charles, I’m not stupid. I’m worried for you now.”

Liston’s arm is being tugged at by the doctor to go back to the dressing room for medical attention, but before he goes, he says to his wife, “Don’t worry, baby. What can they do to me?”

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