Floyd Patterson boxing

Floyd Patterson And Sonny Liston: The Good Negro Vs. The Bad Nigger

In today’s sports environment, fans and athletes have a warped sense of what it means to be hated. It seems all too often that even the rough and tumble characters who enlist in the most aggressive sports out there, like football, boxing or mixed martial arts, are crying victim after a few hard questions from the press or some untoward tweets from faceless members of the twitterverse. These athletes and fans have no sense of perspective.

In the long history of boxing, perhaps even in the entire history of sports, no champion has ever been hated more than Sonny Liston. Liston was hated by the rich, the poor, whites and blacks, the press, and even a president of the United States.

Born in 1932, the 24th child of his father’s 25, Liston knew little but backbreaking labor on an Arkansas farm until he mustered up the courage at 13 to run away from his father’s daily beatings. Once in St. Louis, Liston quickly embarked on a life of crime that eventually landed him a five-year sentence in the Missouri State Penitentiary. It would be one of his nearly 20 arrests.

He found boxing and eventually was released into the care of mob-associated characters who would not only continue to groom his pugilistic talents inside the ring, but also use his ability outside of it to break up striking unions and to keep anyone in line whom the mob fingered.

Liston was a hulk. With an intimidating 6'1'' frame, a 15.5-inch fist and a left jab that sparring partners said felt like running into a telephone pole, he quickly rose through the boxing ranks.

He was a knockout artist from the start. Because of his heavy hands, he had to have Everlast make him special 22-ounce gloves (much larger the 16-ounce gloves most pros use to train) to spar with. Even then, some sparring partners were forced to wear chest protectors because too much of Liston’s power would still come through the gigantic gloves.

In most eras, knockouts alone are enough to garner the praise of pundits and the adoration of fans. Not so for Liston. It didn’t matter that by 1962, Liston had proved time and again that he was the best heavyweight alive, that he’d knocked out 13 of his last 14 opponents, seven of them within the first three rounds. The fans and media would never let go of his troubled past with law or the fact that he’d never learned to read or write. To them, he was nothing more than “the king of the beasts.”

"A man like that, he shouldn’t be fought; he should be hunted,” the newspapers said. He didn’t deserve, despite his incredible boxing record, an opportunity to fight for greatest prize in sports, the heavyweight title.

The champion, Floyd Patterson, could not have been more different from Liston. He was an Olympic gold medalist and the youngest man to ever wear the heavyweight crown. Instead of being reared by the mob as Liston had been, Patterson had been brought through the boxing ranks by Cus D’Amato, a legendary and revered trainer.

Where Liston would scowl at interviews and keep his responses to monosyllables, Patterson would flash his toothy smile and speak with a charm that earned him the designation of a gentleman. Liston was hard, and Patterson was soft. Liston was ugly, and Patterson was pretty. Liston was the wild Mandingo let loose on civilized society, a “bad nigger,” while Patterson was a socially acceptable dignified black man, a “good negro.” It was not just the white media that created and bought in to these images of Liston and Patterson. Far from it.

While Jack Johnson and later Muhammad Ali would experience great hatred from several pockets of society, they at least counted on strong support from some parts of the black community. Liston never enjoyed the same. To social-climbing blacks and even civil rights activists — ever conscious of the image high-profile blacks portrayed to the world — Liston represented the wrong version of blackness for an age when change seemed so possible — change threatened, however, by the unsavory image of Liston. Legendary civil rights activist Percy Sutton — a Tuskegee Airman, Malcolm X’s attorney and then president of NAACP — summarized the feeling of many black people in 1962 when the fight between Liston and Patterson was coming together: “[Patterson] represents us better than Liston ever could or would.”

Liston was a pariah. That alone might have been enough to derail a match-up between the best heavyweight (Liston) and the crowned champion (Patterson). If nothing else, however, Patterson believed in fairness. He’d watched Liston destroy all comers and thought he deserved a shot at the title.

Patterson told his political idol, John F. Kennedy, exactly that when the two met on January 12, 1962, at the White House. Patterson was there as a representative of the Big Brother program that Kennedy wanted to spotlight. Kennedy, who’d boxed at Harvard — all men who wore the crimson color back then were obligated to box — was an avid sports fan. Kennedy tried to discourage Patterson from fighting Liston for much the same reasons civil rights leaders didn’t want the fight to happen: Liston was the wrong type of black man to get a shot. Implicit in Kennedy’s caution and anyone else who didn’t want the fight to happen was the fear of possibly having a man like Liston actually win the heavyweight crown.

It was a well-founded fear. Liston possessed arguably the hardest left jab in boxing history. Even in his last fight, Liston showed that he possessed freakish punching power.

Chuck Wepner, who fought great heavyweights like Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, said no one ever hit him harder than Liston. Wepner once said getting hit by him was like getting hit with a baseball bat. He wasn’t exaggerating, as he walked out of that fight with a broken nose, a broken cheek bone and 72 stitches! Added to that power was an unusual reach of 84 inches. To put that in perspective, Liston’s reach exceeded that of Ali and Wladimir Klitschko, and is only half an inch shorter than that of Jon Jones.

Why would a manager or trainer want to put his fighter in against a man like that? And in fact, Patterson's trainer/mentor, Cus D’Amato, wanted to avoid the fight exactly for those reasons. Not to mention that Patterson had a poet’s delicate chin.

Regardless, the fight was eventually made, and the fears of countless millions were realized dramatically and expeditiously. It only took Liston two minutes and six seconds to demolish Patterson.

Winning the title did nothing for Liston’s image. When he flew home to Philadelphia, he hoped for adoring fans. All he could see on the tarmac waiting for him as the plane door opened was endless empty pavement. There were no reporters. No fans. And certainly no envoys from City Hall. It's no wonder that Liston moved to Denver shortly thereafter, saying, "I'd rather be a lamppost in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia."

A rematch with the felled champion did no better for Liston’s image and approval. He knocked out Patterson in two minutes and 10 seconds the second time around, but Liston might as well have been fighting a street urchin, because the praise of a champion was still denied to him.

Two years before he had won the heavyweight title, Liston had been in Texas, fighting Roy Harris. Liston took Harris down in only one round. It had taken Patterson 12 to do the same. It was yet another fight that proved Liston deserved a title shot.

That same night, Liston woke up from a boozy sleep to the sound of creaking leather boots walking up behind him and then the click of a gun. As he told one reporter, his exchange with the man holding the gun went like this:

“Don’t turn aroun’, nigger.”

“What you want, man? I got a couple hundred. That what you want?”

“You made a fool out of Roy in there tonight. Oh, you’re a bad nigger, aren’t you?”

“Just a fight, man. Me or him. No more ’n that.”

“I got one bullet in this here Colt. I’m gonna pull this trigger till you tell me to stop.”

“I aint’ done nothin’. You crazy.”

“I stop when you tell me you’re a no-good, yeller nigger.”

“Shee-it, git lost. You ain’t got no bullets in there.”

Then the man pulled the trigger. Click.

“Now, just say you’re a no-good, yeller nigger.”

“Fuck you.”

The man pulled the trigger again. Click.

“You scared, nigger? Let’s –"

“Wait. I’m a no-good nigger.”

“A yeller nigger. Say it.”

“Yeah, a yeller one.”

Liston said that he had “heard that creak [of the boots] ever since.”

He added, “Folks are violent. It got to be torture for me, bein’ public. Like bein’ the only chicken in a bag full of cats.”

For Liston, being born in such a turbulent time, unequipped with the tools to defend his image the way his fists could defend him in the ring, the great tragedy was not only that he lived life the victim of so much persecution, but that the persecution really was inescapable.

4 Replies to “Floyd Patterson And Sonny Liston: The Good Negro Vs. The Bad Nigger”

  1. That was a great profile of possibly the most under-appreciated heavyweight champion of our times (right there with Larry Holmes). Excellent piece of writing that touched too briefly on the racism that kept Sonny Liston from being given his due. He had the misfortune of being sandwiched in between two charismatic and eloquent heavyweight champions (Patterson & Clay/Ali). Keep these articles coming

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