Why Sonny Liston Was The Bad Guy Boxing Desperately Needed

    Happy Birthday, Sonny Liston. Before Floyd Mayweather made the world collectively call him the bad guy, there was the original blueprint created by Sonny Liston. The boxing game was never hotter and pop culture coursed through the lifestyle of the pugilist the way hip-hop does in the world today. 

    Remember when artists like Eazy E and M.O.P. made the music industry feel dangerous? That was the ethos that Sonny Liston engendered from his time in the boxing game. His prowess in the ring was legendary and his hit list was just as memorable at the time. 

    Sonny Liston vs Muhammad Ali I

    25th of February, 1964……………Convention Hall, Miami Beach, Florida, United States Heavyweight World Championship

    Twice the giant slayer of Floyd Patterson with two first round knockouts of a planned 15-round fight. The man who knocked out Zora Foley in three rounds and inspired a future champion in George Foreman, Sr., also showed the world the power of marketed negativity. The rumors swirled about the Italian mafia managing his career and his image as a big tough guy loomed large over the world of sports in the 1960’s.

    Before Liston, Jack Johnson was the victim of being branded the bad guy which was the code word for just being an amazingly physical black guy. Liston didn’t ask to be branded as the bad guy but it worked naturally due to his penchant for little words and all knockout action. Liston was not the consummate athlete with a chip on his shoulder like Marvin Hagler, he also wasn’t the All-American with a Broadway smile like “Sugar” Ray Leonard. Liston embodied the fact that a fighter’s life is hard and it shows in his disposition. 

    Although Liston was widely regarded as unbeatable, he lost the title in 1964 to the man later known as Muhammad Ali, who entered as a 71 underdog before their first meeting in 1964. Controversy followed with claims that Liston had been drinking heavily the night before the fight. 

    Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston II – 1965

    The two fights between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston for boxing’s World Heavyweight Championship were among the most anticipated, watched and controversial fights in the sport’s history. Sports Illustrated magazine named the first Clay-Liston fight (Ali had not yet changed his name from Cassius Clay) as the fourth greatest sports moment of the twentieth century.

    In his 1965 rematch with Clay, Liston suffered an unexpected first-round knockout that led to unresolved suspicions of a fix. He was still a world-ranked boxer when he died under mysterious circumstances in 1970. Underworld connections and his unrecorded date of birth added to the enigma.

    The Ring magazine ranks Liston as the seventh greatest heavyweight of all time, while many other boxing writers have ranked him as high as second. Liston will always be remembered for his fights with Muhammad Ali and essentially, passing the torch, although unwillingly to Ali. 

    Liston was found in his Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971, and the world lost one of the best “heel’s” ever in the game. However, when you look at the willing “bad guy” and how profitable it made Floyd Mayweather, it is impossible not to mention the legacy of Sonny Liston. 

    Rhett Butler is a Boxing Writer Association of America Journalist, Play-By-Play Commentator, Combat Sports Insider, and Former Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing Promoter. The New York City native honed his skills at various news outlets including but not limited to: TIME Magazine, Money Magazine, CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, and more. Rhett hosts the PRITTY Left Hook podcast, a polarizing combat sports insider's take featuring the world's biggest names.