the public image of Sonny Liston verges on the indigestible. He is, depending upon the site and occasion, an uneducated boor, a semireconstructed no-account subject to instant relapse, a beast in beast's clothing. The tepid publicity campaign to pass off the heavyweight champion as a Good Humor man in disguise has fallen as flat as Floyd Patterson.
Liston the fighter is something else, however, and it has been a long time since a nearsighted manager ticked him off as "an ordinary pug with a big punch." Sonny Liston is a remarkable physical specimen, and seldom if ever has a fighter so dominated the sport by sheer muscular mass. His baleful, obsidian stare intimidates fighters, sportswriters and the occupants of the first 20 rows of any arena he enters. Though actually smaller than almost any professional football lineman, Liston seems gargantuan. His jab is fracturing and his hook is cold storage. He has become Super Sonny: faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive—and all the rest.
What one sometimes forgets is that a large part of the Liston legend is built upon his last three fights, fights that were spread out over a three-year period and lasted exactly six minutes and four seconds. In less than a round Liston twice knocked out Patterson, the weak-chinned former champion, and humiliated an inept German, Albert (Quick-fall) Westphal. But before that Sonny Liston sometimes had more than a little trouble defeating fighters whose names were hardly household words. Even in their own households.
There was, for example, Eddie Machen, who went 12 rounds to a decision, taunting Liston all the way. Bert Whitehurst twice lasted 10 rounds to decisions. Mike DeJohn staggered Liston, and later, when the fight was stopped, DeJohn had to be restrained from going after Liston once again. Zora Folley had Liston cowering and covering from a volley of combinations. Cleveland Williams all but knocked Liston out. Lumbering Howard King went eight rounds with Liston, standing toe to toe, swapping punches all the way. Marty Marshall broke Liston's jaw and beat him. In a rematch Marshall knocked Liston down. In a third tight Marshall hurt Liston, by Sonny's own admission, and went 10 rounds before losing the decision. Rotund Willi Besmanoff slipped Liston's jab and lasted seven rounds. Jimmy McCarter, who beat Liston in an AAU championship bout, later stood up to him defiantly in training camp.
Some of these fights were long ago, and Liston has improved; perhaps none of the fighters could do as well against Liston today, although at least four are eager to try. But their success and their tactics indicate how Liston can be beaten by a strong, courageous man.
The pertinent experiences arc those of McCarter, Whitehurst, Marshall and, to a lesser extent, Machen. These four developed individual styles for fighting Sonny. Machen stayed away and kept Liston lunging and missing, although he was never in danger of winning the fight, since he seldom bothered to risk a punch of his own. Marshall did everything that was unexpected, and Liston, a predictable fighter, found the unpredictable Marshall beyond his ken. After three fights he was still frustrated by Marshall's style. Whitehurst, a thick-bodied, heavily muscled man, moved in and out, kept Liston busy and smothered his power. McCarter, a former college football player at the University of Washington, was the equal of Liston in bulk and strength. He stayed inside and traded punches. He was too big for Liston to throw around, and his body blows hurt the future champ.
These four men followed the old hustler's maxim: never play the other man's game. They fought the fight best suited to their individual styles—not Liston's.
Whitehurst is now a science teacher in the New York City public school system and is planning to finish his master's degree in biology at CCNY. He has the blocky build of a college lineman—which he was at Morgan State—and the agility of a high jumper (he jumped 6 feet 3 while in college), but his comparatively short arms made it difficult for him to fight Liston outside. They fought for the first time in St. Louis on April 3, 1958, and Whitehurst tried to counter Liston's jab and failed. "Every time Liston stuck out his left in the first round," Whitehurst says, "it was as if he held a stick in his hand and the stick was telling me to stand back."
Trainer Charlie Brown told Whitehurst to slip the jab, to take a quick step inside and throw his own left hand. The result was a revelation. In the hollow of Liston's powerful arms, Whitehurst fought from what appeared to be a squat—with his body erect and his knees flexed, his head snug against Liston's chest. There he stayed, battering Liston's body. When Sonny tried to break away, Whitehurst tied him up.
"After three or four rounds of this," recalls Whitehurst, "Sonny's belly began to get the message, but he couldn't escape and he couldn't retaliate. He was furious." In the fifth round Whitehurst violated his instructions: he stepped back. Liston hurt him with a glancing left. Charging in, Liston followed with a right, but Whitehurst ducked the punch, came up and hit Liston with a left to the body and a right to the jaw. The flurry startled the rushing Sonny. Hurt, he covered up. Whitehurst had learned his lesson, but so had Liston, and Sonny thereafter refused to force the fight. For the next five rounds he warily tried to prevent Whitehurst from getting inside. He succeeded well enough with this new task to win a close decision.