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The lunch that got Sonny Liston back

Image: The lunch that got Sonny Liston back

By Ronan McIlhennon: “Get up and fight, sucker!” Muhammad Ali growled, “fix,” the crowd yelled. Politicians and the press called for the abolition of boxing. In San Antonio, a promoter apologized to his theatre television customers for this “shameful spectacle,” The New York Times wrote under the headline ‘The Unwanted’ that “Clay and Liston have loused up a sport that already had seemed much too pediculous for further contamination.”

Everyone was thinking the same, Sonny Liston had taken a dive, and the State Athletic Commissions raced to see who could punish him the fastest.

This was one last dark cloud to add to Liston’s unsavory image, one that the Commission’s could not forget, and one by one, they banned him. Sonny was a man without a country. He borrowed $3000 from a bank on the strength of his car and took off for Europe to apply his trade and ended up in the beautiful Swedish port city of Gothenburg. “I’m staging my comeback campaign in Sweden because it seems impossible for me to get fights in my own country,” he told reporters.

The first fight of his European tour was a KO win over Gerhard Zech in front of a 12,000 crowd in Johanneshov, Stockholm, in July 1966. He was out again in August of that year, picking up a guaranteed straight $10,000 tax-free cheque and 25% of the gate knocking out Amos Johnson in round three of ten. Two more knockout wins followed in 1967 over Dave Bailey and Elmer Rush, respectively, with all four shows being promoted by Ingemar Johansson, the former world champion from Sweden. Although these fights helped Sonny continue to make a living, he longed for the bigger pay-days and another shot at the title, so he returned to Vegas.

In early 1968 Sonny went to lunch at the Sands Casino Las Vegas with Rat Pack entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. The American singer wanted to get into the boxing business and decided that promoting ‘The Big Bear’s comeback was a good place to start. Also at the lunch was television personality Ed Sullivan who acted as a kind of advisor.

Completing the quartet was the only established black promoter in boxing, Henry Winston. All four men had the same agenda, get Sonny back into boxing. Sullivan addressed Sammy with their major challenge; “how do you propose getting around the questions that are going to be asked about organized crime?” Sammy was not concerned, “don’t worry about the mob,” he told Sullivan, “I’ve got control over them.” This was enough to convince Winston, and he agreed to use his influence to try and get Sonny a fight license in California.

Over the next few weeks, Winston turned on the charm. Taking associates on the Californian State Athletic Commission to expensive dinners. He pointed out that nothing had come from the investigations into Sonny. He reminded them that one punch can change any fight and what looks like an innocuous blow from the safe side of the ropes can have a dramatic effect on the recipient. It was only right that they let Sonny earn a living with the little time he has left in the sport. Sonny was 36 years old at this point. Winston’s persistence was finally rewarded when the Commission formally announced that it was putting the issue of a fight license for Sonny on its end-of-the-month docket.

The Commission hearing was set for late January 1968, and as expected, Winston got questioned on whether Sonny was now free from the clutches of the mob who had followed him since his days in St Louis. Winston convinced them that he had, and after dropping Sammy’s name, he reassured the Commission that the two of them would do everything they could to keep Sonny away from organized crime. When it was time for Sonny to speak, he kept it simple, “I feel I’ve paid my debt to society and severed my ties with the underworld,” he said.

The following month on February 3rd, 1968, the Commission approved his application.

On the 16th March 1968 at The Centennial Coliseum, Reno, Nevada, in front of 3,081 spectators, Sonny knocked out Californian journeyman Bill McMurray in round four of ten. He would go on to win the next fourteen on his comeback before being stopped by former sparring partner Leotis Martin on December 6th, 1969. He would return for one last outing stopping ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’ Chuck Wepner in round nine of ten, but he would never again get another shot at the title, and Sammy Davis Jr would never become his promoter. He would be found dead in his Las Vegas home by his wife Geraldine on January 5th, 1971.

The cause of death was lung congestion and heart failure, although still today, some suspect that the mob ties he could never really shake followed him all the way to the grave. A fearsome competitor with one of the most dangerous jabs in boxing history, Charles L. ‘Sonny’ Liston, the original baddest man on the planet.

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