It’s the end of the line for Sonny Liston, he’s 37 and taking on Leotis Martin in Las Vegas on December 6, 1969. Liston is hoping for one last title shot – Jimmy Ellis currently holds the WBA title.
ESPN Classic recently showed this battle, here are some observations:
Liston is applauded as he’s announced to the crowd. This is surprising as Liston always seemed to be portrayed as a hoodlum and a troubled man. (As is the case with several of the famous heavyweight fighters I’ve known, they’re often very misunderstood and their public images are quite different than their real personas.) Liston stands only 6 – 1/2 feet tall and weighs in at 218. He looks strong and confident.
Leotis Martin, from Philadelphia, is the world’s number three-rated heavyweight with a record of 30-5. Today he’d probably be called a bum for those five losses, one of which was a TKO 9 loss to Jimmy Ellis in 1967. But in the first round he shows very good skills, boxing tall and showing a desire to win. He looks comparable to just about any of the top ten heavyweights of today.
Liston is hunting Martin down, using a great jab. But he’s employing very little head movement.
Howard Cosell is the TV commentator. He relays to the viewing audience what he hears at ringisde: “Sammy Davis is yelling, ‘I’m late Sonny! Let’s end it now!”
Cosell shouts himself in one of the early rounds: “Oh, there it is! Liston’s left hook! It was overdue. (The left hook drops Leotis on his butt.) There it was – off the right – the first left hook of the fight. Down he went.” Martin fought back off the ropes and lasted the final 20 seconds. He didn’t appear very hurt.
These are very good heavyweights. But not vastly technically superior to our current heavyweights, as so many experts tend to mislead you to believe.
Leotis Martin is back in the fight, jabbing accurately. He’s on his bicycle and constantly moving to his left.
In the later rounds, Liston is looking tired. Cosmetically, he looks in top shape, but at 37, it must be next to impossible for a heavyweight body to achieve that once reachable supreme level of conditioning. Examples of Lewis, Louis, Johnson, Ali come to mind. Liston, who was smiling earlier in the fight, is now showing major signs of fatigue. And he’s bleeding from the nose. Cosell: “It reminds me of that night in Miami Beach when Liston tasted his own blood.”
Martin also has two swelled eyes.
Round 9: Cosell: “That cut (on Liston’s nose) is a brutal, ugly sight. He’s virtually snorting blood.” Suddenly Martin lands a brutal right and Liston falls heavily, face first. “He is KNOCKED OUT! That happened with startling suddenness. Martin came in with the left, and then the right…They have not yet revived Liston…You see Liston as they struggle to revive him.”
The official time is 2:09 of the 9th. Liston’s corner and the doctors rolled Sonny over to his back, but still Liston stays down, even as they administer no small amount of smelling salts. He stays horizontal there for minutes…it’s like the funeral of the career of a once-great heavyweight champion. It is the kind of sad, conclusive knockout where you know a wonderfully successful and distinguished career is over. Eerily, it looks somewhat like Roy Jones KO loss to Glen Johnson.
Cosell to Martin: “Congratulations on a compelling, crushing knockout victory.”
Cosell to Liston, moments later: “You were winning – then the knockout came.”
Liston, in suprisingly good spirits, answers Cosell: “Yes it did.”
Cosell: “What happened?”
Liston: “If I knew that maybe it wouldn’t happen.” He even smiled.
Cosell: “Will you continue your career? Or is it over?
Liston: “Well, it’s hard to say.”
Cosell: “It’ll be hard to go up the trail again.”
Liston: “Yes, it would be. I’ll have to see.”
Actually, seven months later Liston did fight again – a bloody 10th round TKO win over Chuck Wepner on June 29th in Jersey City, NJ. But then months later on December 30, Liston passed away mysteriously at his home in Las Vegas. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Martin’s career after that fateful December evening was almost as unlucky. Leotis never got the chance to build on his greatest victory because a retina injury from Liston forced his retirement.
As for Liston, you wonder how his career would have evolved had he not been so controlled and exploited by organized crime.
Topics: Bum, Espn, Espn Classic, Forgotten Classic, Heavyweight Fighters, Hoodlum, Howard Cosell, Jab, Jimmy Ellis, Leotis Martin, Public Images, Ropes, Sammy Davis, Sonny Liston, Tko, Top Ten Heavyweights, Troubled Man, Tv Commentator, Viewing Audience, Wba Title