At 2:06 of round number one, boxing's worst nightmare became a reality. In the same stadium where Joe Louis forty years before washed clean the sins of Jack Johnson, Sonny Liston rekindled the flame of hatred that had burned so brightly in opposition to Jack Johnson that a quarter century passed before a black was allowed to fight for sports most cherished crown. Now the specter of another bad black man was specter no more. He was real, and his name was Charles Sonny Liston.
At Chicago’s Comiskey Park, on the evening of 25 September 1962, virtue met vice. And two minutes and six seconds into the first round, vice abruptly came out on top.
It was a bout for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, pitting 30 year-old contender Sonny Liston up against reigning champion Floyd Patterson. In the subsequent vernacular of one Cassius Clay, it was The Big Ugly Bear up against The Rabbit.
Possibly, the belt was Liston’s before even the weigh-in. Under advice from his manager Cus D’Amato, Patterson had until then avoided fighting the cold-staring Liston, ostensibly on account of the latter’s criminal past (he’d spent time inside Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery) and connections with the mob, but perhaps it was Liston’s gigantic 6’1”physical presence, crushing left hook and great ability to take punches that kept the Patterson camp's guard up. But Patterson however was under public pressure to face the number one contender.
At 21 years and 11 months old, former Olympic middleweight champion Floyd Patterson had become in 1956 the youngest ever holder of the world heavyweight crown when he put Archie Moore down in the fifth. After a spate of successful defences, he lost a title fight in 1959 to Ingemar Johansson, but a year later regained the title, thereby becoming the first boxer to regain the world heavy weight crown.
Meanwhile, ex-con Sonny Liston was careering through the heavyweight division, having turned pro in 1953 after winning the National Golden Gloves title for that year. Opponents described his blows as paralyzing or excruciatingly painful. In 1958, boxing journal The Ring ranked him as the ninth-best contender; by 1960 he was number one. Floyd Patterson had no choice but to fight Sonny Liston.
The Chicago fight was a two-minute disaster for Floyd. Liston had a pile-driving jab, a great left hook, a strong right, and outstanding boxing skills. Sports writers of the time were convinced that he was unbeatable.
It happened twice of course, Liston beating Patterson. And both times it took not even a single round. Ten months after the Chicago fight, on 22 July 1963 Sonny Liston met Floyd Patterson in a rematch, at Las Vegas Convention Centre, Nevada. This time, the fight lasted only two minutes and ten seconds, a mere four seconds longer than the first.
"Floyd can't beat Sonny at anything but a spelling bee," wrote Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times. "Liston could probably knock him out via smoke signals, and Floyd will probably get woozy if Liston just drove past his house in Scarsdale. You knew the fight was over as soon as you saw Floyd had forgotten a sledge hammer."
Nineteen months later however, on 25 February 1964, Liston too met his match, throwing in the towel between the seventh and eighth rounds against brash young challenger Cassius Clay.