FEW fighters have the capacity to intrigue like the late, great Sonny Liston, whose early death – either by murder or drug overdose – will probably never be explained. Even his birth year is subject to conjecture. Was Liston 40 when he died, in 1970, or several years older? He has no official birth record, so we may never know. Then there are his early years of armed robbery and prison time, rumours of mob involvement and fixed world title fights.
But Sonny could draw the crowds even without the intrigue and controversy. Back when he was heavyweight champion of the world, he was a magnetic figure, despite his menacing demeanour. In September 1963, reigning world champ Liston came to Britain to box a series of exhibitions, and headlines about his stay dominated the Boxing News columns. His arrival came just two months after the first Muhammad Ali-Henry Cooper fight, and though Liston’s engagements were not proper bouts, they generated almost as much excitement.
London was the first UK city to see the world champ in action, but on September 16, Sonny took his sparring and training act to Newcastle’s New St James’ Hall where Mickey Duff was promoting. Liston arrived in the North East city on the night before the show, and was mobbed by fans when he left the train at Newcastle’s Central Station. Next morning, after a bacon and egg breakfast in his suite at the Royal Station Hotel, he took a stroll around the city. Soon recognised, an entourage of several hundred curious admirers followed him back to his hotel. Later that day, a huge throng gathered outside the hotel to see Sonny depart on a white horse, which he rode to the afternoon weigh-in.
Inevitably, there were no spare seats in New St James’ Hall that evening. “I’ve had calls from people for tickets who haven’t been to a fight in years,” said matchmaker Joe Shepherd. Just before 8pm, the lights went out, a fanfare blared through loudspeakers and a spotlight picked out a smiling Duff leading Liston to the ring. Sonny sparred three rounds with US compatriot Foneda Cox, skipped to his favourite tune, James Brown’s Night Train, and then took to the mic.
He talked of his imminent world title defence against Ali (then Cassius Clay), ribbing the crowd by saying, “Good evening, all you Cassius Clay fans! I’m just as anxious to get him as he is to get me. You come to the fight and I won’t keep you out long. It’ll just be a matter of catching up with him and giving him the medicine!” He also said, tongue in cheek but as it turned out prophetically: “If it goes more than five rounds, I’m gonna quit!” In the event, as readers will know, Liston retired on his stool after the sixth.
Although Sonny was the chief draw that evening, there was another thrill when North East bantam George Bowes chopped down Liston’s lanky 5ft 11in countryman Johnny Bean in five rounds with a solar-plexus punch that sent the American crashing through the ropes and onto the floor. Sonny was heard saying: “Bowes can hit!”
Bowes, incidentally, is the subject of a new book by author Richy Horsley. As well as exploring George’s 62-fight pro career, the book covers his time as a coach through interviews with former charges such as George Feeney, Neil Fannan, Alan Temple, Paul Lister, John Westgarth, Kevin McKenzie, Ken Foreman and Manny Burgo. Bowes, an all-action Hartlepool miner whose pro career stretched from 1957 to ’67, was unlucky not to win a British title. Battling Bowes is available for Amazon Kindle at just 99p.