Sonny Liston – The Eric Esch of the 1950ies?

SONNY LISTON COMBINES TWO FEATURES that make him remarkable: He is slow like molasses ("Honey Liston", "Slomo Liston") and he is a cherry-picker (= he fought hand-picked opponents who would nearly guarantee a win). These two features justify a comparison to another cherry-picker: Eric Esch ("Butterbean").

If you ever want to see a heavyweight with a slower performance than Valuev then watch Sonny Liston. His arms (84") look freakishly long and disproportionate. Sometimes he throws them around like foreign bodies (similar to overlong pajama sleeves) and there is always an aura of uncoordination around Sonny Liston:

  • Wild swings
  • Missed punches
  • Telegraphed haymakers
  • Jabs that often fail to connect
  • Defense wide open (cannot use his arms to properly cover himself)
  • Not throwing a punch but stretching out the arm and then march forward

This makes him the opposite of Rocky Marciano who had freakishly tiny arms (67") but used them coordinatedly. A clash between Liston (who loved to outweigh his cruiser opponents) versus Rocky Marciano (a cruiser who had not much problems being outweighed) would be a highly interesting match-up.

Now, don't get me wrong: Sonny Liston's REFLEXES (= dodging punches) were OK. And Sonny Liston's jabbing (= his left hand) had some good moments, though it was usually rather slow and lacking the *snap* of Riddick Bowe or Wladimir Klitschko or Lennox Lewis or Joe Louis. Calling his jab "The best jab in the division" (as some nostalgists try to brainwash us) is merely fog talk. Just watch Sonny Liston vs cruiser Eddie Machen (= prime Sonny, 28 years, in the middle of his career) or Liston vs Patterson and how bad Sonny Liston's performance actually is. Liston's main jabbing asset was to be able to hook his jab (even if the opponent stood further away) because of his arm length.

Slomo Liston is so slow that a smart young guy (22yro) like Muhammad Ali could run away and clinch the whole fight (similarly to David Haye against Nikolay Valuev). When Liston fought Ali (1st fight) the judges were utterly confused who won the rounds (the runner or the roller) and they scored it 57-57, 56-58 and 58-56 (= draw) before Liston retired in his corner because of a deranged shoulder (from all the missed punches). Sonny is so slow that Clay/Ali's performance and reflexes look somewhat fast although objectively Clay/Ali wasn't the fastest either (and was nearly always hit at will by Sonny as soon as he was within reach): Just watch 35 seconds into round #4 how Clay gets hit by a Slomo jab.

Liston's lack of speed is comparable to Eric Esch's and that's quite remarkable since Sonny's weight was in the range of what-we-nowadays-call cruiserweight:

  • Sonny Liston started as a cruiser 198 lbs
  • his median[?] weight throughout his career was approximately around a 211 lbs
  • in 65% of his fights Sonny himself weighed 215 lbs or lower

Thus you would expect Sonny to be approximately as fast as modern cruisers and not as slow as 320+ lbs Valuev or 400+ lbs Eric Esch ("Butterbean") (objectively Sonny's average speed is slower than Butterbean's). Part of the reason for Sonny's slowness was that he probably lied about his age. He was possibly 13+ years older than Clay/Ali and therefore he was possibly Clay/Ali's second oldest opponent (after 48-yro Archie Moore).



The Eric & Sonny show (= The Liston-Esch syndrome)

There are 3 famous cherry-pickers (= guys whose records look impressive until you scrutinize their opponents): LaMar Clark, Eric Esch and Sonny Liston (with LaMar Clark being so bad, that I won't mention him again on this page).

Sonny's record at a glance:


  • bums[?]
  • guys who have been KO'ed before

Just like Eric Esch's opponents (aside from 1 exception in Eric's case).


You can also describe his career differently:

  • bums
  • cruisers
  • former cruisers

Just like Eric Esch's opponents (aside from 1 exception in Eric's case).


You can also describe his career differently:
Sonny Liston's opponents CONSIST WITHOUT EXCEPTION ONLY of

  • opponents he outweighed (88% of his wins)
  • opponents coming off a loss (or had a loss within 1 year prior to bout)
  • opponents who never KO'ed anyone in their entire career
  • and heavyweight featherfist Cleveland Williams

Just like Eric Esch's opponents (aside from 1 exception in Eric's case).


You can also describe his career differently:
Sonny Liston's opponents CONSIST WITHOUT EXCEPTION ONLY of

  • opponents he outweighed (88%)
  • featherfists or heavyweight featherfists (50% KO'ratio and less)

Just like Eric Esch's opponents.



  • Sonny Liston never faced a single power puncher (70%+ KO'ratio) (just like Eric Esch)
  • Sonny Liston never faced a single good natural heavy (just like Eric Esch)
  • Median[?] KO'ratio of opponent: 25% (just like Eric Esch)


The problem with Liston is not that he himself was bad. The problem is that he seems to have cherry-picked his opponents just like Eric Esch.



Sonny Liston's heavyweight record. Where does Sonny Liston rank?

Sonny Liston's record against cruiser opponents (= sub-200) is not that bad. But since Sonny Liston is seriously called a "heavyweight" we have to compare his real[?] heavyweight record 200+ lbs with that of Eric Esch:

The opponents with the best real heavyweight record Sonny has faced were:

Sonny Liston's top real heavyweight win opponentsTheir heavyweight record (whole career, 200×2, aside)KO'ratio (200×2)
·Gerhard Zech18-641% (heavyweight featherfist)
·Nino Valdes16-540% (heavyweight featherfist)
·Cleveland Williams29-950% (heavyweight featherfist)
·Chuck Wepner22-1029% (heavyweight featherfist)
·Mike DeJohn14-436% (heavyweight featherfist)

Fistic Statistic [#393.1]


Let's compare it to Eric Esch's 5 top win opponents

Butterbean's top heavyweight wins opponentsTheir heavyweight record (whole career, 200×2, aside)KO'ratio (200×2)
·Peter McNeeley41-663% (OK puncher)
·George Linberger26-862% (OK puncher)
·Russell Chasteen19-844% (heavyweight featherfist)
·Enrique Ruiz16-360% (OK puncher)
·Jason Farley11-353% (somewhat featherfisty puncher)

Fistic Statistic [#393.2]


More comparisons

NameHeightRecord (200×2)base30Fair KO'ratioMedian WinOpponentSumRecord of all WinsOpponents (at bout, 200×2)SumRecord200x2 of all WinOpponents (at bout, 200×2)How many opponents were natural cruisers or below?Longest KO'streak
Sonny Liston6'0.5"24-230-372%198 lbs569-238133-6294%11
Eric Esch6'0"72-830-366%225 lbs460-425342-29139%11

Fistic Statistic [#393.3]

Note: SumRecord200x2 is the record of Liston's/Esch's opponent in 200×2 fights = the real heavyweight experience that the opponents of Liston/Esch had at the time of the bout.
The height of Eric Esch is given as 5'11.5" at Boxrec but displayed on TV sometimes as 6'0" and  sometimes as 5'11".


NameRecordWithout doublesRecord (200×2)Without doubles (200×2)Without bums and without doublesWithout bums and without doubles (200×2)
·Sonny Liston50-442-324-223-18-23-1
·Eric Esch   77-866-772-861-74-24-2

Fistic Statistic [#393.4]

As you can see Eric Esch

  • fought more opponents than Sonny Liston
  • fought heavier opponents than Liston (both 1. at fight night, 2. on the average, 3. by their lowest weight in their careers)
  • fought guys with more combined heavyweight (200×2) experience than Liston
  • but whose opponents had more losses (200×2) than Liston's

Please note that Eric Esch's KO'power is actually higher because nearly all of his losses and non-KO wins came in 4-rounders. Had the fights lasted longer than 4 rounds I am sure he had scored more KOs.



Mob's champion

Sonny Liston was an ex-convict (the so called "Yellow shirt bandit") with connections to the mob and the drug scene. It is consensus that he either died by a drug overdose or was murdered by the mob. Thus there will always be a shadow

  • over the achievements of Liston (because many of his fights may have been fixed)
  • over the achievement of boxers who beat Liston (as his drug and alcohol abuse may have contributed to his losses)

Sonny Liston's greatest achievement was to become (what-they-called-then) "heavyweight world champion" by beating cruiser Floyd Patterson 189 lbs and then losing it approximately 1 year later to Cassius Clay (aka Cassius X aka Muhammad Ali) by retiring on the stool (RTD). Floyd Patterson at the time of the bout (and later in his whole career) had not a single real heavyweight fight: He started at 160+ lbs and his median winning weight was 178 lbs (= barely a cruiser). The fight against Liston was Patterson's highest being-outweighed fight (by 24 lbs) at that time and he had no business in the ring with a real heavyweight. The fight ended as the 3rd fastest KO of all time. Their 2nd encounter lasted 4 seconds longer. I have only little doubt that Eric Esch could have KO'ed Patterson, too.



Joe Louis vs Ezzard Charles &
Sonny Liston vs Floyd Patterson

It's interesting that (nearly exactly to the day) 12 years before (1950) there was a world title fight in a similar constellation:
Joe Louis vs Ezzard Charles.

Joe Louis 218 lbs (who was older and heavier, just like Liston) fought against cruiser Ezzard Charles 184 lbs (who started his career at 150+ lbs, i.e. even lower than Floyd Patterson).

But, my gosh, how much higher the quality was. Compared to the Louis/Charles match the Sonny/Floyd encounter was a low point in boxing. If you ask me personally I'd rather watch 10 Eric Esch fights than 1 Sonny Liston fight. Yes, I find him that bad.

It seems that also other people recognized this low for what it was and neither accepted Liston as a world champion nor wanted Liston to stay at the top for long (There is even a BBC documentary called "The champion nobody wanted"). When Ali fought Liston (1965) the crowd consisted of only 2000+ people.

"Liston, however, was not a popular champion. After his knockout of Patterson, Liston practiced the speech he was going to give when the crowds greeted him at the airport in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia. However Liston was disappointed that on his return there was no one there except for airline workers, a few reporters and photographers and a handful of public relations staff."

(WikiPedia) Sonny Liston




End Words

It's up to you to decide who is worse, Sonny or Eric, but personally I think that Liston has the better record than Eric Esch (despite of my sensational article title), because he fought a few opponents with good cruiser records and good light-heavyweight records.

Sonny Liston - The Eric Esch of the 1950ies?, 3.4 out of 5 based on 18 ratings
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Comments (18)

  • John L. says:
    [ip2username: Rinu Vavy]
    #149 John L. (2011-04-20th)

    This is the dumbest f*cking sh*t I've ever read.

    EVERY SINGLE piece of info on this is completely wrong. What assh*le wrote this sh*t?

    Sonny would knock you dumb ass out.

    Oh and by the way, how the heck did you not include Floyd Patteron (twice in under 3 mins!) in Liston's best opponents?

    Comparing Esch and Liston is a goddamn insult to Sonny's legacy.

    f*ck YOU!

    • Admin says:
      [ip2username: Suva Mywo]
      #197 Admin (2011-04-28th)
      Sonny would knock you dumb ass out.

      And Eric Esch yours.

      Oh and by the way, how the heck did you not include Floyd Patteron

      I _DID_ mention Patterson.

  • The Hell? says:
    [ip2username: Zuja Tydo]
    #392 The Hell? (2011-06-08th)

    A professional website wouldn't allow complete bull to be placed on it…. :-|

  • Bruce Crichton says:
    [ip2username: Peli Suga]
    #4316 Bruce Crichton (2012-09-14th)

    More myth-making about Sonny Liston from a writer known for his perpetuation of myths such as Joe Frazier being a big puncher and having a good chin:

    Apparently Liston would be competitive agains Foreman, Lewis and the Klitschkos and could intimidate them because he intimidated the cruiserweight Floyd Patterson and Chuck Wepner.

    Let's scratch our chins and consider why Chuck Wepner, a decidedly average fighter known for his tendency to cut easily would find Sonny Liston intimidating.


    • Admin says:
      [ip2username: Suva Mywo]
      #4318 Admin (2012-09-14th)

      Liston going down in the first round against Ali is obviously a greater achievement than anything Lewis has done. From that link:

      I would say after Joe Louis, is Liston, and a tier below them are Lennox Lewis along with Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. And in all fairness, Lennox Lewis was a good boxer, but he could be forced to fight with his back to the ropes

      I have nothing against ancient boxers, but glorifying ancient boxers and at the same time dissing modern boxers, is exactly this terrible attitude that got me starting this blog.

      • Bruce Crichton says:
        [ip2username: Ruwa Vyto]
        #4335 Bruce Crichton (2012-09-15th)

        You're not kidding.

        I've seen the build-up to the first Ali – Liston fight and you can see the big bully Liston quaking as he realizes what a big man his opponent really is. (I say this because Ali was a big heavyweight by 60's standards'.

        The idea that Liston would be able to intimidate Lewis or the K brothers is an inversion of what would happen. Since all 3 men are big effective heavyweights, it would be Liston who'd be terrified.

        Incidentally, I have Archie Moore and other boxing experts on tape noting that Liston couldn't cut off the ring to save his life against an Ali who couldn't see as he had liniment in his eyes. The tape was made in about 1991 so we can see how much revisionism has taken place since then.

  • Bruce Crichton says:
    [ip2username: Nary More]
    #4678 Bruce Crichton (2012-09-20th)

    Try not to laugh too hard at this book. Needless to say, I won't be buying it.

    "A couple of other things: NO ONE ever hit harder than Sonny Liston and NO ONE was harder to hurt. And, in my humble opinion, Ali and Liston stand head and shoulders above any heavyweights who ever lived. The gap between them and everyone else is huge."

    • Admin says:
      [ip2username: Suva Mywo]
      #4729 Admin (2012-09-21st)

      Jeezes. They live in a past time paradise.

      Had Soviet boxers been allowed to box all of Ali's, Frazier's, Liston's, Foreman's records would look very differently.

      • Bruce Crichton says:
        [ip2username: Geti Wusa]
        #4742 Bruce Crichton (2012-09-21st)

        I believe Foreman won the olympic gold against a Russian.

        Actually, Foreman is well ahead of Sonny Liston in my eyes. His first title match was against Joe Frazier who had a very good chin against cruiserweights and he nearly killed him. By comparison, Floyd Patterson did not have a good chin, even against cruiserweights.

        I saw your post on that item and added some comments of my own under the handle Jethro's Flute.

        I might have bought the book just to find out about some of Liston's life as it is so shrouded in mystery but I won't waste my cash.

        One final thing, just the other week, British magazine Boxing News reported that Liston had an older brother who was confirmed to have been born in 1931 and that the oldest he could really have been was to have been born late in 1931 himself, as opposed to his official date of 1932.

        • Admin says:
          [ip2username: Suva Mywo]
          #4746 Admin (2012-09-21st)
          I believe Foreman won the olympic gold against a Russian.

          Foreman won Gold against a Soviet (Jonas Cepulis, 6'1", 203 lbs), who himself never won an international title, nor even a Soviet championship.

          Actually, Foreman is well ahead of Sonny Liston in my eyes.

          Yes, Foreman is indeed waaaay ahead of Liston. In fact Foreman is Ali's biggest win.

          I might have bought the book just to find out about some of Liston's life as it is so shrouded in mystery but I won't waste my cash.

          Yes, I have nothing against books about fights or books about boxers. Boxing history is totally fine with me. Books about the life outside of the ring are totally fine and appreciated. The comment that I left on that site is not about the author or the book but about some of the commentators.

          One final thing, just the other week, British magazine Boxing News reported that Liston had an older brother who was confirmed to have been born in 1931 and that the oldest he could really have been was to have been born late in 1931 himself, as opposed to his official date of 1932.

          This is actually one of the things that I don't understand in this book.

          Boxrec has Liston's birthdate listed as 1930-07-22, before they had him listed as 1932-05-08 (this is the date he himself claimed). His mother claimed it was either 1932-01-08 or 1932-01-18.
          If you go by his own birthday claims he was 31 years old when he fought Ali. And he was 33 if 1930 is correct. So I was astonished to read on that page, that the books claims he was around 45 which would make him an additional 12 years older. I find this hard to believe. Now granted, Liston had 24(!) Siblings thus birthdates were hard to remember and I read somewhere that they had them carved onto a tree, which somebody chopped and hence the dates were forgotten.

          But 45? That seems too far off. On the other hand, he looked like it in the fight.

          • Honza says:
            [ip2username: Dibu Waby]
            #5246 Honza (2012-10-31st)

            I personally think that Sonny was born in 1928. That was also one of his possible birthdays.

  • Tommo says:
    [ip2username: Rajy Pole]
    #5554 Tommo (2013-03-17th)

    Hard to believe that in every forum I've read almost all predict a prime Liston KOing or atleast defeating all modern heavyweights. Just watching him box for a single round let alone intuition alone must tell you that he would not be competitive today, let alone a champion. I think people from certain eras will try prop up the fighters of their day against not only hard facts and stats, but against common sense as well.

  • Tommo says:
    [ip2username: Loze Xivu]
    #6388 Tommo (2013-07-28th)

    My time on Boxing News 24 forum otherwise known as East Side Boxing has been a very disturbing experience for me.

    You should see how overrated this guy is by the delusional nuthuggers on that board, particularly the classic!

    They actually rate him in their top 10 lists of all time h2h! As high as 3 or 4! Over guys like Lewis, Klitschko's and Tyson and Holy and Bowe and even Holmes and ALL of their opponents!

    They consider him a superb boxer puncher and completely disregard the fact his opponents were bums and cruisers!

    Of course they need to pump him up because without this win of Prime Ali's being solid, Prime Ali has no legacy at this time. They even consider Floyd Patterson a "decent opponent" for Liston AND for Ali!

    I've never seen such rubbish! Liston is a ridiculous figure compared to today and would favour 75% of modern opponents to beat him, 25% to completely destroy him!

    I don't like Wlad nuthuggers either but these fans make me absoulutely disgusted.

    Prime Ali fought nobody, NOBODY of great quality in the 60's!

    • Tommo says:
      [ip2username: Loze Xivu]
      #6422 Tommo (2013-07-31st)

      Bruce Crichton;

      I seen your link. I have to agree that Liston did not look confident going up against Ali and his efforts were nothing less than pathetic. I see absolutely no "fearsomeness" about Liston that scum on the other sites are trying to push. Sure he might stare down and terrify his cruiser opponents like Patterson but so what? Patterson was a dead man as soon as he took that fight, as was Spinks when he fought Tyson!

      The fights I've seen of Liston, he had very rudimentary skills and slow as a wet wig. Getting flogged so easily by a virtual CW in Ali is proof how sh*t Liston really is, considering how limited Ali.

      Another of the "theories" I have had to put up with is that Liston (hold on to your hats) HIT HARDER THAN FOREMAN AND THE MODERN PUNCHERS AND PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE! A sick joke!

      I can't imagine Sonny posing any punch threat to any decent HW opponent. By comparison Ross Puritty should be an ATG! lol

  • Will says:
    [ip2username: Xuma Ryxo]
    #7837 Will (2015-02-24th)

    Butterbean would have the edge easily here….as stated Liston never fought a power puncher and Bean has…I also commented on youtube stating butterbean would k.o 90% of the 70's.the only thing I have to disagree about here is Beans speed,he is deceptively pretty quick and not just for a 280 pounder.Reading the other comments it seems most everyone is angry however its not a popularity contest,i agree for the most part what was said.Remamber also in the 30's/40's a FAt Tony gallento at 5'9 230 dropped Louis…….Bean would crush Gallento!

  • David says:
    [ip2username: Rode Lilu]
    #7900 David (2015-06-21st)

    Trying to say Sonny Liston was slow and throws wild punches just by watching the Ali-Liston fight is unfair. Liston was angry, had not been training properly and was injured going in to that fight. Sonny liston had been taking cortisol injections for bursitis in both his shoulders before the fight in the hope the injury would not get worse, or go away. As the fight neared the injury was made a lot more severe. Sonny Liston tried to postpone the fight, but was refused. Sonny Liston injured his left shoulder worse in the first round and hand to resort soon after to slapping and prodding with it. At the end of the sixth round even though Sonny Liston wanted to go on his corner refused to let him go in to the third round. His purse was withheld after the fight until proof was given of a shoulder injury. 10 x-rays were given showing the severe injury in his left shoulder, that the doctor told him to rest for four months. Even with this injury the score cards were even at the end of the fight, and Sonny Liston landed more punches than Ali. The second fight was clearly a dive, and Liston was banned from boxing in the states for two years after the fight.
    Calling Sonny Listons opponents bums is completely untrue. He fought the best opponents around in the 1950s. Clevland Williams 43-2 with 35 KO which is a 78% KO rate,(so you lied about him never facing a power puncher) so unlike what you said Liston did face a power puncher, and he would of faced a lot more if they were around to fight him. Zora Folly 51-3 and 29KO'sbwho had never been KO'd before, even though you lied and said he only faced people who had been KO'd before. Eddie Machen 34-2 with 19 KO's. Floyd Patterson 38-2 who was offered money to fight Sonny Liston in 1958, but Cus prevented the fight, because he knew what would happen; during Floyd's reign as champion Sonny Liston fought the dangerous opponents that Floyd was scared to take on, which I think makes Liston the real champion in all, but name at that time.
    Sonny Liston has a really Heavyweight record of a impressive 24-2 losses with 21KO's and 1 of those losses was because of a injury where he was arguably ahead in the fight, and the other loss was because he clearly throw the fight. The other thing I have noticed is the heavier his opponents the more likely Liston is to KO him. I haven't worked out the % because I can't find every fighter he fought a weight. Liston clearly had a far harder time KO'ing lighter opponents than heavier ones. I have him KO'ing 100% of opponents over 215 pounds, but using your figures the rate is 84%.
    Also if Liston was to fight Butterbean he would have access to modern nutrition, and modern training methods like weight training and plyometrics. If they were going to fight on a level playing field Sonny Liston would have access to these training methods, and who knows how strong and powerful a guy as naturaly big and powerful Sonny Liston was, could become with these advanced training methods.
    All in all Sonny Liston fought the best of his time until the unfortunate events of the Ali fights, and he has achieved far more during his career than Butterbean ever did.

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