World Heavyweight Champion: 1959-1960
Ingemar Johansson’s star flickered briefly at the top level. He had three world title fights in the space of two years – all against Floyd Patterson – winning once and losing twice. Thereafter he chose to shuffle off the biggest stage, with a lot of money in his pocket and his looks and faculties intact.
The 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki was the launchpad for Johansson’s professional career, just as it was for Patterson. However, the Swede joined the professional ranks in spite of his performance at the Games, not because of it. He was disqualified from the tournament for ‘not giving of his best’ against a giant of a man named Eddie Sanders. Like the Olympic judges, Patterson noted how cautious and defensive Johansson was. He was a counterpuncher by instinct; he liked to draw his opponents onto him and hit them with his right, which he called ‘Thor’s Hammer’. Sanders didn’t want to play ball on that occasion, however, and Johansson had no opportunity of unleashing his biggest weapon.
Patterson was not overly impressed. When the two men met for the world crown seven years later, he would underestimate his man badly.
In the interim period, Johansson made steady if unspectacular progress. He had a perfect record from his 21 fights, and 13 of his opponents had failed to go the distance. His manager carefully imported heavyweights to provide stepping stones for his man. It was his 22nd straight win, in September 1958, that made the boxing world sit up and take notice. His victim was Eddie Machen, who was rated second to Patterson at the time. The fact that Machen lasted less than a round meant that Johansson’s stock rose dramatically. He now had Patterson in his sights, while the champion finally had a worthy opponent. Patterson was stung by the criticisms about the quality of his previous opponents. He believed his fifth defence would gain him the approval and credibility that he craved.
Johansson fools media
The two met in New York, on 26 June 1959. Johansson arrived with a glamorous girlfriend in tow, and didn’t appear to take training too seriously. He put his faith in ‘Thor’s Hammer’. The fans were sceptical, and so was Patterson. There was plenty of kidology going on, though. For while Johansson looked and acted the part of the playboy, he knuckled down and put in the necessary work when he was out of the media spotlight.
Patterson later said that he trained hard for the fight, but didn’t have his usual edginess going into it. He admitted not having the highest regard or respect for his opponent. That view didn’t change after the first two rounds. In that time Johansson flicked his left out something like 200 times. Patterson said these punches were simply annoying; he never felt any of them. As others had done before him, Patterson was becoming frustrated that Johansson wasn’t making much of a fight of it.
Johansson had thrown a half-power right in the first round. Understandably, Patterson wasn’t overly impressed. He later realised that the Swede had just been testing the water, waiting for the right moment to unleash the real thing.
Thor’s hammer unleashed
Going into the third round, Patterson decided to move in Johansson again kept working his left, and that was where the champion concentrated his attention. He convinced himself that the right was either over-hyped or even nonexistent. Within a few seconds he discovered that ‘Thor’s Hammer’ was no illusion. Johansson put Patterson down seven times before the round – and the fight – was over.
The two men met again 51 weeks later. In the interim period Johansson had enjoyed his new status as world champion. He had been in jovial mood on the Ed Sullivan Show just after his victory. In January 1960, he returned to the States to receive the Sportsman of the Year award. He was constantly interviewed, regularly quoted. He never tired of telling how Patterson hadn’t known what hit him. The implication was clear: Johansson was confident that the second fight would go the same way as the first.
Patterson had other ideas. He was seething at the manner of his defeat. He realised that he had taken Johansson too lightly, just as the new champion was now underestimating him. Eschewing his wife Sandra’s exhortations to call it a day, Patterson counted the hours until he could step back into the ring with the man who had robbed him of the title.
Gothenburg, Sweden September 22 1932
Height: 6» 1’
World Heavyweight Champion: 1959-1960 Olympic silver medal 1952 (awarded in 1982)
Won 17 (17 Kos) Lost 2
World Heavyweight Champion: 1962-1964
Legend has it that Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston was a brute of a man, a bully and a thug. There is more than a degree of truth in this. Liston was so fearsomely intimidating that many an opponent was beaten before a punch was thrown. The icy stare was indeed extremely scary.
Two points ought to be made in mitigation of the man. Firstly, his family and close friends told a very different story. They spoke of a much warmer person, someone who was a considerate husband, good with children and polite to the elderly. In fact, he was quite the gentle giant – as long as he didn’t feel threatened or pressurised. Secondly, if Liston was brutal – and at times he certainly was – it should be remembered that he was brutalised by his upbringing.
He was born into a poor farming family in Arkansas in the early 1930s. There is some doubt about the exact year, though 1932 is often quoted. What is certain is that he was the 24th of the 25 children his father had by two wives. Liston senior was a violent man, and Sonny suffered some terrible beatings as he was growing up. At the age of 13 he ran away to St Louis, and was drawn into a world where you had to be streetwise and tough in order to survive. It was petty crime at first, but it was only a matter of time before things escalated and Liston landed himself in jail. The inevitable happened at the age of 18, when he was given five years for armed robbery.
Liston was saved from almost certain self-destruction by the attentions of Father Alois Stevens, a priest in charge of the prison sporting programme. He encouraged Liston to take up boxing, and his protege was soon showing a remarkable aptitude for knocking over his opponents, this time in a more structured environment.
Laughter causes broken jaw
With Stevens’s help he was released early and put into the care of people who would develop his boxing career and keep him on the straight and narrow. He progressed through the amateur ranks at a dizzying speed. In 1953 he won the Golden Gloves to become the USA’s amateur heavyweight champion. He then turned professional, and the victories kept coming. His only reverse came in 1954, against a man named Marty Marshall. Marshall liked to clown around in the ring, and it is said that Liston was so amused that he became slack-jawed. Marshall seized his chance and broke Liston’s jaw. Liston boxed on with the injury for several rounds, but Marshall got the decision. Liston vowed never to show humour in the ring again.
By 1960, he was the undisputed number one challenger for the heavyweight crown. He had beaten the likes of Zora
Folley and Cleveland Williams, men whom Floyd Patterson had been accused of avoiding. Finally, Patterson agreed to the match. He craved acceptance and respect as a worthy champion. Perhaps he thought his lightning speed and superior technique would get the better of Liston’s raw power and clubbing fists. If so, few agreed. Incredibly, when the two met in Chicago in September 1962, the challenger found himself a 7-1 on favourite to take the title.
Patterson beaten twice in four minutes
The bookmakers’ odds were vindicated barely two minutes into the fight. Patterson was finally nailed with a left hook, and he beat a hasty retreat from the venue under heavy disguise. In July 1963, Patterson came back for more, and that’s exactly what he got. Liston took four seconds longer this time, but the result was just the same.
Patterson was still not done for. He continued to be involved in title fights as late as 1968, but he would be a contender, not a champion. The more immediate concern was that he hadn’t managed to do what almost everyone across the social and political spectrum wanted: beat Liston in the ring. Even the leaders of the black movement were horrified; they didn’t relish the prospect of having an illiterate ex-convict with links to mobsters as a role model.
No hero’s welcome
Liston thought the title would change public opinion. He wanted to put the past behind him and be a worthy champion. He soon learned that people saw him as a leopard who was incapable of changing his spots. When he arrived home in Philadelphia as the new champion, he expected a hero’s welcome. Nobody came.
Unlike the general populace, boxing aficionados judged Liston solely on his performances. They weren’t interested in whether he was the kind of person you would invite to tea or like to have as a neighbour. They studied his destructive punching and near-perfect record and acclaimed him as one of the all-time greats.
His next opponent was a brash young upstart by the name of Cassius Clay. The 1960 Olympic light-heavyweight champion lost no time in telling the world that he was the greatest and the prettiest. There wasn’t much doubt that he was prettier than the champion, but nobody gave him a prayer against Liston in the ring. Liston thought this Fancy Dan ‘ought to be locked up for impersonating a fighter’. Clay might have been young and quick, but Liston planned to nail him and it would be sooner rather than later. He expected a short fight and trained accordingly. It was a huge mistake.
Born: St. Francis, Arkansas USA May 8 1932
Died: December 1970
Height: 6’ 1’ Weight: 218lbs
World H eavyweight Champion: 1962-1964
Won50(39KOs) Lost 4