December 10, 1968

ON A WINTER’S night at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Joe Frazier, world heavyweight champion as recognised by the New York State Athletic Commission, defended his title against Oscar Bonavena. It was his second win over the Argentine, having beaten him over 10 rounds two years previously. In a heavyweight landscape without Muhammad Ali, Frazier was on his way to proving himself the best in the division.

Meanwhile, just over a hundred miles away in Baltimore, Maryland, there was another heavyweight in action. His win, by second round knockout, over Amos “Big Train” Lincoln, was the 11th straight stoppage win of his comeback. The heavyweight on the comeback trail was Sonny Liston.

When asked about the possibility of fighting the winner of the Frazier-Bonavena fight happening that same evening, Liston replied, “I’d get on a plane to Philadelphia tonight for the chance.”

What if Sonny had been in Philly that December evening, in the opposite corner to Frazier, instead of Bonavena?

Could Sonny Liston have become only the second man in history to regain the world heavyweight title? Without interference of the Mob and free from the butterfly wings and bee stings of Muhammad Ali, could Liston have been champion again?

Rewind to May 1965 when Liston famously lost the rematch to Ali in Lewiston, Maine. The stink caused that evening spread far and wide. By the following summer, both the new champion and the disgraced ex-champion would be fighting overseas in Europe, but for very different reasons.

Liston was an outcast, then more than ever. Of all the places to resurface after a year out of the ring, Sonny chose Sweden. The bad smell of his loss to Ali maybe dissipated over the Atlantic. In his return to the ring, a year on from the second defeat to Ali, Sonny stopped the 6ft 5ins southpaw Gerhard Zech in seven rounds in Stockholm. He followed this with a third-round stoppage over Amos Johnson a few weeks later in Gothenburg.

In his book, Liston & Ali: The Ugly Bear and the Boy Who Would Be King, author Bob Mee makes the point that all things being equal, the win over Johnson would have got Liston back in the world rankings. But in Sonny’s world, things were never equal. In the Ring Magazine rankings at the end of 1966, editor Nat Fleischer included Karl Mildenberger, who had drawn with Johnson, but there was no room for Sonny, who had crushed him. Mee quotes Fleischer as saying to Sonny, “Frankly, you are the forgotten man.” Routine stoppage wins over Dave Bailey and Elmer Rush followed in the spring of 1967 before Sonny would return to continue his campaign back in the US.

Around the same time, Joe Frazier was making rapid progress in his career as a fledgling professional. His first 10-rounder was against the wonderfully named Charley Polite in April. Weighing less than 200lbs, Frazier broke Charley’s jaw in the second round with a left hook. Polite was unable to continue with the injury. Joe would be facing less agreeable opponents by the end of the year.

Heavy rain in New York did not deter a crowd of over 9,000 from attending Madison Square Garden on September 21, 1966, to see Joe take on the aforementioned Bonavena for the first time. If Joe’s matchmaking had been cautious up to this point, this step was either brave or a miscalculation. Oscar’s trainer, Charley Goldman, knew about punchers, having trained Rocky Marciano; he claimed that Bonavena punched harder than the Rock. Frazier felt that power early; being floored twice in the second round and surviving the final minute of the round on shaky legs. One more knockdown and the fight would have been stopped. Frazier regrouped, however, and was the aggressor for most of the remainder of the fight, gaining a split decision victory.

Eddie Futch had by this time been brought in to work with Frazier and refine his skills. In his superb biography, Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier, Mark Kram Jnr quotes Futch as saying, “Against a taller opponent, Joe would walk straight in and get hit. He had to learn to punch out of a bob and weave.” It’s unlikely Eddie was thinking about Liston as a prospective opponent, but he knew there was work to do. If Sonny was watching, he would have seen that too.

Joe was back at the Garden in July ’67 to face the tough George Chuvalo; a man never knocked off his feet in 62 professional fights. A tough attritional battle was expected but brought to early conclusion by severe cuts and facial damage suffered by Chuvalo. He was stopped in the fourth round with his right eye closed and his face smeared with blood.

Kram Jnr noted that it was, “widely agreed upon in the wake of his destruction of Chuvalo that he [Frazier] was the hardest hitter in the heavyweight division”.

That may have been the case if you did not include a man who had been plying his trade in Sweden for the last 12 months. But now Sonny was back, even if it was convenient for some to ignore that fact.

On the night of March 4, 1968, 300 people protested in support of the exiled Muhammad Ali outside the newest incarnation of Madison Square Garden. Inside the arena, Joe Frazier was up against an old amateur rival, Buster Mathis. Buster was unbeaten in 23 fights, and outweighed Frazier by 39lbs. The winner would be declared world heavyweight champion by the New York State Athletic Commission and a handful of other states. By this time, Frazier was already ranked number one by [i]Ring magazine[i].

Mathis may have been able to get the better of Frazier in the amateurs, but the professional game was different. Frazier’s sustained pressure and body attack paid dividends over the longer duration. A left hook in the final minute of the 11th round closed the show. Mathis beat the count, but the fight was stopped. At least in certain states of America, Joe was now the heavyweight champion of the world.

Sonny, meanwhile, tried to get some career momentum. His third fight back in America in 1968 was the standout result of his comeback so far; a seventh-round stoppage of Henry Clark, who held wins over Eddie Machen and Leotis Martin. The fight was televised nationally across the US. Going into the fight, Clarke was ranked fifth by the WBA and ninth by The Ring. The judges gave Liston every round before the referee stepped in to rescue Clarke in the seventh. Clarke said after fight, “Joe Frazier or Jimmy Ellis wouldn’t last three or four rounds with Liston.”

The win over Clark got Sonny placed seventh in the Ring rankings. The result could not be ignored. Four more stoppage wins before the end of the year found him moved as high as three.

Joe’s first defence of the title was against Manuel Ramos on June 24, 1968, at the Garden. A wild first round had commentator, Don Dunphy, comparing it to Dempsey-Firpo. Frazier was wobbled, but staggered Ramos towards the end of the round. In the second, Frazier finished the job, flooring Ramos twice. Dunphy was right on the button when he described Frazier’s left hook as, “a thing of fistic beauty.”

Frazier’s December ring appointment was the rematch with Bonavena. A foul-filled encounter; Joe won handily on points to keep his title. If there was a time for Liston to get his crack at Frazier, this was it. But it was not to be.

The July 1968 Ring cover story was Sonny and political obstacles in his path. As far back as 1962 the New York commission had, “found his history full of facts and happenings which tended to make him persona non grata.” That was their view then and as far as they were concerned nothing had changed. If he was to apply for a licence again, it would be denied. Not having a New York licence had not ultimately prevented Sonny from getting his shot at Patterson several years previously, or his return match against Ali, but with Frazier having close links with New York and Madison Square Garden it would be a major obstacle now.

Sonny fought four times in 1969, knowing he would never get a shot. In the fourth of those outings, he was beaten by Leotis Martin. He was winning on points before being knocked out by a right hand in the ninth round. Sonny was ranked fifth by the WBA going into the fight. Dick Sadler, Sonny’s trainer remarked, “Maybe Sonny Liston will get a title shot now that we lost today… because we sure couldn’t get one while we were winning.”

Liston fought once more; a bloody stoppage win over Chuck Wepner in June 1970. Six months later he was dead.

But what if they had met in December ’68? Frazier was rapidly approaching his peak, which would culminate in March ’71 with his defeat of Ali in the Fight Of The Century. Liston was past his peak but had enough left to brush aside most heavyweights and was on a roll. It was the classic crossroads fight.

‘Frazier would murder him’

Mark Kram Jnr has no doubt about the outcome

“To begin with, there is no chance Joe’s connections would have ever seriously considered making a fight with Sonny. Yank Durham and Eddie Futch had carefully mapped out Joe’s future and that would not have included an opponent who, while up in age and far slower than he had been during prime, still packed a punch and could derail Joe’s upward momentum toward big money. Joe would have had nothing to gain and everything to lose by climbing into the ring with Liston. I would also add that Joe’s management was very conscious of the wholesome image Joe presented. I think Sonny’s relationship with organized crime would have disqualified him as an opponent.

“That said – and this is just me – if Joe would have faced Liston instead of Bonavena in December, 1968, I think Frazier would have murdered him. Even though Joe was still not finished product, he was even then a high-energy, high-volume puncher who would’ve have swarmed Liston and disposed of him in an early knockout. Remember what George Chuvalo observed after fighting Frazier? It was as if Frazier were hitting him with four hands. “Everything moves, his head, his shoulders, his body and his legs,” George said. Bonavena gave Frazier trouble because he was so awkward. But Joe would have been a handful for Liston, who a year later was knocked out by another Philadelphia heavyweight, Leotis Martin. Notwithstanding Liston’s win streak, I think he was just about finished.”

‘The last thing to go is the punch’

Mike Silver explores a matchup between Sonny and Joe

“What an intriguing question. The very fact we are unsure of the outcome says a lot about Liston that even though he is nearly 40 years old, and six years past his prime (1959-62), it is not easily answered. The last thing to leave a fighter is his punch, and Sonny’s punching power, his strength, and that incredible pile driver left jab were still formidable weapons. But would they be enough to defeat a prime Joe Frazier? During his comeback (1966-70) Sonny was shown to be slower and easier to hit than in his prime. He would have to hurt Joe early and get him out of there before the fourth or fifth round.

“The longer the bout went the harder it would be for Sonny to sustain the busy pace set by Frazier who would not give him a moment’s respite. As for Joe, he would have to neutralize that pile driver left jab of Liston by bobbing and weaving past it and put Sonny on the defensive more than he is used to. I give Sonny a puncher’s chance but at that stage of his career I don’t think he could overcome Frazier’s youth, speed, and talent.

“Joe would either stop Liston in a late round or, more likely, win the decision. If matched during their respective primes I would make Liston the favourite to stop Frazier, maybe not as dramatically as Foreman did, but eventually the result would be the same.”   

‘Peak-for-peak, Frazier wouldn’t see round three’

Springs Toledo believes Liston would always be bad news for Frazier

“I don’t think that Yank Durham would have let Frazier near Liston, especially in 1968, when Liston was burgeoning one last time. Durham was in Leotis Martin’s corner when he put Liston to sleep in ’69, but Martin was a very different fighter than Frazier, and Liston reportedly told Foreman in the dressing room that he’d had the flu. I doubt Durham would’ve let Frazier near Liston even after Martin KO’d him, that’s how bad Frazier matched-up with something like Liston. Liston himself knew he’d never get the fight and made no secret of how easy he’d demolish Frazier. ‘Like shooting fish in a barrel,’ he said.

“Liston turned 38 in 1968, he was an alcoholic and there is evidence that he was a drug addict as well. Even so, he was training again, and he was trying again. Frazier always trained and always tried but was simply not designed to handle big, strong punchers who could move him backwards to stunt his surges. Foreman proved it, twice. Liston was physically stronger than Foreman. Liston’s punching power was near Foreman’s as well, except that Liston was more accurate with his shots and had a wider array of them.

“Frazier has the hope of a Hail Mary hook, but I see Liston walking him down, timing his weaves, and knocking him off-balance with that telephone-pole jab of his. Peak-for-peak, Frazier wouldn’t see round three. But given Frazier’s grit and determination and Liston’s dissipation, I’d venture to say that Frazier would go six rounds, none competitive, before he’s rescued in round seven.”