MOST people would not consider getting punched in the face by Sonny Liston as an education. But that was the case for 20-year-old Joe Bugner in the tiny Bufano’s Gym and Pool Hall in Jersey City back in June 1970.
About 40 people crowded into the gym to watch Liston spar two rounds apiece with journeyman Charlie Polite and then the young Bugner. The British heavyweight was 26-2 at the time and sparring with the likes of Liston was the equivalent of a master’s degree for a young fighter. Bugner was still a baby in boxing terms and was stateside on an educational tour with his manager, Andy Smith.
Liston, by comparison, was at the other end of his fighting life. He was in Jersey City for a 10-round contest with local heavyweight, and former marine, Chuck Wepner. Known for good reason as the Bayonne Bleeder, Wepner’s record was 21-5-2. Cuts had been a factor in several of his losses.
Wepner was coming off two good wins and was looking at the Liston fight as a steppingstone to bigger paydays and bigger fights. Six months previously, Liston had suffered a brutal ninth round knockout defeat to Leotis Martin in Las Vegas. Up to that point, he had been on a decent run. Another defeat could signal the end of the road.
Liston was 49-4. We are, of course, referring to his record, but some people felt that might have been more like his age in years and months. Liston maintained he was 38 and if you challenged him on that you were calling his mother a liar. Not a smart move.
Sonny had been lured to Jersey City by the promise of a $13,000 guarantee. Wepner, meanwhile, was gambling. He would only get paid once the live gate exceeded $30,000 and Liston’s share had been deducted. Chuck was a popular guy with a day job as a liquor salesman. He would sell tickets on his daily rounds and was confident his fans would come out and support him. New Jersey had been starved of big fight action in recent years with the last big fight in the state having been when Joey Giardello took the world middleweight crown from Dick Tiger in Atlantic City in 1963.
Promoter Willie Gilzenberg hoped the card would be the start of a boxing renaissance in the area. A local syndicate claimed to have $40,000 ready for the winner of Liston-Wepner to face Jerry Quarry, possibly in Atlantic City. Business would be better for them if that winner was Wepner.
Liston arrived in town with three associates from Las Vegas. His new trainer was Vegas gym owner Johnny Tocco. Also with him were his friends Davey Pearl, a boxing referee, and Lem Banker, a Las Vegas gambler. Arrangements were made for Wepner to train at Bufano’s Gym each afternoon with Liston to follow. On the first day, Wepner made sure that he hung around long enough to be able to offer a “How you doing?” to Liston as their paths crossed. Sonny walked past him like he didn’t exist.
Liston did speak to reporters. There was a reason for the Martin loss.
“I had a touch of flu and couldn’t breathe too good.”
He had no intention of trying to get a licence to box in New York.
“I’m on my way down. To hell with New York. New York can’t do me any good.”
His hopes for this fight and the future of his career?
“I have to win and if I do I want to fight Jerry Quarry. I still believe I have the chance to win the title again. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get in that ring.”
Wepner was always a more talkative guy. If he won, he wanted to face “the guy I can make the most money with.” If he could avoid getting cut, he felt he could give any heavyweight a fight. He had respect for Liston but did not think he was the fighter that he used to be.
On the advice of cornerman Al Braverman, Wepner decided on a change of tactics in the final week of training. Thoughts of trying to press Liston early were dismissed. Sparring sessions were now based on boxing and moving; not an approach that came naturally for Wepner. He didn’t look impressive trying to adopt a different style.
“Sure, I looked horrible, but I’m not a gym fighter. I always look bad in training. You’ve got to remember that fights aren’t won in the gym. They’re won on the night in the ring. I know Sonny will be waiting for me to come to him and slug it out. But if I can make him wait and circle away and box him for a few rounds maybe I can tire him out and take advantage in the latter rounds. Liston was way ahead and won the first six rounds in his last fight but Martin just tired him out and then he caught Sonny with a good shot, and it was all over. That’s what my strategy will be.”
The former champion weighed in at 219lbs. Wepner came in at 228lbs and was four inches taller than Liston at 6ft 5ins. He would joke that he used to be 6ft 1in but taking too many uppercuts had added a few inches. The fight took place on Monday evening, June 29, at the Jersey City Armory in front of a crowd of 4,012 who had paid $37,600 at the gate. Wepner’s gamble left him with $3,900 before deductions. Taking the short end of the purse could still be a winning hand if the result of the fight went his way. The referee was Barney Felix. He had history as the third man in the ring with Liston. In Miami Beach, back in 1964, it had been Felix who had raised the then Cassius Clay’s hand in victory, ending Liston’s world title reign as Sonny sat on his stool complaining of a shoulder injury. Felix had that fight level on his scorecard at the time Liston quit.
Liston-Wepner turned out to be one of the most notorious bloodbaths in boxing history. Liston used his left hand to bludgeon Wepner into a bloody mess. Dave Anderson in the New York Times called the fight “a bloody sacrifice that evoked more sympathy for the loser than prestige for the winner.”
The ringside medic, Dr. Reginald Farrar, signalled the end after the ninth round despite protests from Wepner and Braverman. The Bayonne Bleeder lived up to his nickname sustaining six separate cuts to his face that later required in the region of 70 stitches. He was floored by a body shot in the fifth round which, ironically, was only one of two rounds that Felix scored for Wepner.
Wepner later acknowledged that after the eighth round, when Felix asked him how many fingers he was holding up, he was only able to give the correct answer after Braverman discreetly tapped him three times on the shoulder. Believing Wepner could see, Felix let the fight continue.
Writing in the New York Daily News, Phil Pepe was critical of the officials handling the fight. Surely anywhere other than Wepner’s home state of New Jersey, the fight would have been stopped sooner. Pepe wrote that the fight was, “such a disgrace that the state’s next fight should not be in an armory, it should be in an abattoir.” He also wondered how those employed to protect a fighter could have “stood by and watched this game, decent, but unequipped fighter take a merciless beating from the mean ex-champ.”
Incompetence or something worse? Pepe felt the New Jersey commission had questions to answer.
“Why did Dr. Farrar wait until the eighth to visit the ring? Reportedly, the doctor started up to the ring after the third and sixth and, reportedly, both times he was headed off by New Jersey Commissioner Abe Greene.”
Liston paid tribute to Wepner’s bravery.
“He’s got a lot of guts. I don’t think anyone I’ve ever fought took that kind of punishment. They should have stopped it sooner. I wouldn’t want anybody to do that to me. I felt I was way out in front. He never hurt me, and I wasn’t trying for a knockout.”
Throughout the fight, Liston scored at will with his left hand but used his right sparingly, his reasoning being that he had not been in the best condition.
“When a car has only got a half tank of gas, you don’t run it at full speed.”
As for his future plans?
“I’d like Frazier. I’d like to fight Quarry too. But I do know that I don’t have any intention of quitting. Frazier’s made to order.”
Wepner continued to dispute the stoppage.
“I’m a notorious bleeder. The referee had no reason to stop the fight. He did it because the blood scared him. But the cuts were nicks. I was stronger than him and I could see okay. He (Felix) never let me fight inside and that was the only way I could counter Sonny’s jab. The referee definitely impeded me and ruined my fight plan by always calling break.”
Abe Greene, chairman of the New Jersey State Athletic Commission announced that Braverman would be called in for a hearing to answer for his actions in the ring after the fight. Felix alleged that Braverman had threatened him if he stopped the fight which had only one more round to go. Braverman countered that Felix had told him, “I’ll take a gun and shoot you in the head.”
Braverman went on to say, “I thought that I was the only one to hear Felix say that, but Chuck told me he heard it too. But what men say when they’re steaming doesn’t bother me and it shouldn’t bother him (Felix) either. But if there is any flak, I’ve got a lot to tell the commission.”
Sonny Liston was soon checking out of the Chateau Renaissance Hotel in North Bergen to head back to Las Vegas. He told reporters that he had no option but to carry on fighting.
“Only money I make is from fighting. Nobody’s offered me nothing. I got a little something in the bank, but that’s like a brush fire. You know, if you’ve got a brush fire and you don’t keep adding brush to it, it’s going to burn out.”
Of course, Sonny never got the Frazier fight, or even the $40,000 Quarry fight. Six months after beating Chuck Wepner, Liston was dead. The official verdict on Liston’s death was natural causes, but many still feel he was murdered.
Was the Wepner fight on the level? Was Liston’s death in any way connected? There are several unanswered questions that throw doubt on the validity of the contest. Was it Liston’s concern over his own conditioning that caused him to barely throw his right hand? Or was he trying to avoid knocking Wepner out? Is it true that the ringside doctor was prevented from getting to the ring earlier in the contest by commission officials? What was it that Braverman was threatening to make public in the event of pressure from the commission?
In his book Sonny Liston: The Real Story Behind The Ali-Liston Fights, author Paul Gallender alleges that Wepner entered the ring, “thinking Liston was going to take a dive and ended up almost getting beaten to death.” He goes on to say that Sonny, “had been told to lose the fight, but one dive was enough for him.”
Both Gallender and Nick Tosches, author of another Liston biography, Night Train, recall a story told by Johnny Tocco about an incident in a Jersey City coffee shop prior to the fight. According to Tocco, Liston was called over to speak to two guys who came in. Sonny said he would be right back but was gone for hours. Tocco saw one of the men the next day, who proceeded to tell Tocco not to be too disappointed if Liston were to lose the fight as Wepner was a very popular fighter in that area. Tocco then spoke to Liston and asked him if anything was going on that he should know about, but Sonny dismissed it with, “Aw, go to sleep. I’m going to knock this guy out.”
At one point, Wepner had been managed by Gary Garafola alongside Braverman. Garafola had also managed Jersey City light-heavyweight Frankie De Paula. In May 1970, De Paula was shot and died four months later. Garafola was tried for the murder but acquitted.
There was another incident of interest in Sonny’s locker room immediately after the fight. Gallender tells how New Jersey mob boss, John DiGilio and his four bodyguards were waiting for Sonny when he got out of the shower. The mobster threw an envelope containing $7,000 at Sonny’s chest, scattering money as it fell to the floor. “The next time we see you, you’re dead,” said DiGilio as he left.
Tosches adds that it was Paul Venti, the knockdown timekeeper for the fight who was witness to the incident. Venti alleged that Sonny responded to the money with “No, no, no. I came here with a deal to get 15,000.” It was then made clear to Liston that was all he was getting.
“No, that’s all we can give you. We’re losing money on this whole thing. If you don’t take it, then go home with nothing.”
Liston took the money and left.
In April 1988, DiGilio was acquitted of racketeering charges. Shortly after his trial ended, his wife Ellen reported him missing. A month later, DiGilio’s body was discovered floating in a bag on the Hackensack River near Carlstadt, New Jersey. He had five bullet wounds to the head. This was a world where the wrong decisions could have fatal consequences.
What was the $7,000 for? Liston’s purse was reportedly $13,000 and given by the promoter to Davey Pearl. On the flight home, Sonny took the $13,000 from a brown envelope. He counted out $10,000, which he gave to Banker, to cover a bet he had lost several weeks earlier when Jerry Quarry beat Mac Foster. The other $3,000 was for Tocco and Pearl.
The Wepner fight was Liston’s only contest in 1970 and he had admitted needing to fight as a source of income, and yet by the time he stepped off the plane back in Vegas his entire purse was gone.
Dale Cline was a mob hitman who had once been on the FBI most wanted list. Later in his life, he told his son he had been present when Liston was given the fatal dose of heroin that killed him. He alleged that the hit had been ordered by John DiGilio. Cline alleged that Liston was supposed to throw the fight with Wepner and his refusal to do so had cost DiGilio a great deal of money. This was his payback.
As for Wepner, he was back in the ring just three months later. Of all places, he turned up in London to face Joe Bugner. With the experience of his lessons from Liston under his belt, the young Bugner pumped his left jab into the American visitor’s face. True to form, Chuck started bleeding and the fight was stopped after three rounds.
Charles Farrell was at one time a boxing manager and business partner of Floyd Patterson. He knew both Braverman and Tocco and wrote a fascinating autobiography, (Low)life: A Memoir Of Jazz, Fight-Fixing, And The Mob. Farrell told Boxing News that Liston went into the Wepner fight intending to lose.
“Al Braverman, prior to being Chuck Wepner’s manager, was Liston’s handler and that was under orders from Frankie Carbo, so he was as close to Liston as you could get. Nobody would have known better than Al Braverman that Chuck Wepner could never have beaten Sonny Liston. Braverman was a died in the wool boxing guy and he was a businessman. What they were interested in doing with Chuck Wepner was building him up as a possible contender for Ali. All of this is about making money, that’s really the bottom line, and that’s the way you need to see boxing.”
“Why would Al Braverman have chosen Sonny Liston as an opponent for Chuck Wepner? It makes no sense at all. It’s something he never would have done, unless he knew beforehand what the result of the fight was going to be.”
“What wound up happening is Liston did not really know how to throw a fight. He didn’t do it very well. What the public saw Liston do was conspicuously throw the second Ali fight, which looked horrible. I mean, nobody believed it. Ali didn’t believe it. So, Sonny was trying to figure out a way to lose, and he couldn’t do it. Meanwhile Wepner, who if you hit him with a jab, busts right open, is increasingly getting cut, and cut, and cut, it’s becoming a disaster. Sonny is pulling his punches and he’s punching slowly and he’s using everything he can think of to not win the fight, but there’s nothing he can do about Wepner’s skin.”
Farrell’s story offers a reason Liston’s infrequent use of his right hand during the contest.
“He was certainly trying to not knock him out. Liston was extraordinarily talented, and he really only had one way to fight and that’s what he did. Losing a fixed fight is not that easy to do, you have to be skilled at it, and he was inexperienced at it. He’d had one disastrous attempt at it (the second Ali fight) and one successful attempt at it (the first Ali fight). So, he couldn’t do it. Obviously, a lot of gangsters spent a lot of money betting on Chuck Wepner at good odds to win that fight. So, they lost a lot of money when Sonny won.”
So, does Farrell believe Liston not throwing the fight cost him his life?
“Unlike the Ali fights, where I was told explicitly by Al Braverman that the fights were fixed, who fixed them and how they were fixed, I can’t tell you absolutely that the Wepner fight was what got Sonny killed. But what Al Braverman said to me about that fight was, ‘Sonny really fucked it up’. I said to him, ‘Well, you know, he didn’t last too long’, and he said, ‘No, he didn’t last too long’. That’s what I know. There’s a lot of speculation about other ways Sonny might have died. It’s possible. I think he died because he cost a lot of people a lot of money and they were done with him. He was of no value to anyone at that point. He was an expendable person. That’s what I think happened.”
On January 5, 1971, Sonny Liston’s decomposing body was found in his home. His wife, Geraldine had been away visiting family for several days. At Sonny’s funeral, Geraldine stood and cried out, “Can you tell me what happened to you, Sonny?”
More than half a century later, we are still waiting for an answer.