I always knew that these fantasy fights I stage would be popular. I didn’t know that they’d be this popular though. I get a ton of requests to stage bouts. “Dave, what about Pep/Duran?” Or, “How about Louis/Ali?” But THE bout I get asked to stage the most, is Sonny Liston vs Mike Tyson. There is just an absolute fascination with this one. Now, for me personally, I don’t have any doubt at all about how I think this one would have turned out; but many people do. I previously staged Hagler/Monzon and Marciano/Ali with Hagler and Marciano coming out with stoppage wins. Not surprisingly, the reaction was about 50/50 in terms of agreeing with my outcomes for both bouts. I have a feeling that the result of this one is going to stir a more visceral reaction from some. We’ll see.
Now, as these men fought in different eras, let me lay out the ground rules. For this to work, you have to accept that I need to use “poetic license” as I need to be able to transport one of the fighters into the other fighter’s generation and time. In this case, I have transported Sonny Liston to Mike Tyson’s heyday. For these things, I always pit the fighters against each other at their respective primes. So, as the reader, you need to imagine Sonny Liston as a contemporary of Mike’s; and you need to imagine that Sonny’s people are with him. Should be fun; let’s get to work. Oh, if your guy doesn’t win; sorry! Maybe the re-match!
Caesar’s Palace Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada, Saturday, September 9, 1989. In what is the most important and anticipated heavyweight title fight since Ali/Marciano, 23-year-old WBC and IBF World Heavyweight Champion, “Iron” Mike Tyson and 32-year-old WBA and The Ring magazine World Heavyweight Champion, “The Bear,” Sonny Liston are going to unify the title into one undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. In their combined 72 professional fights to this point, there is only one loss between them; Liston, in a disputed split decision to the American, Marty Marshall – a decision he has already avenged twice.
The outdoor arena is standing-room-only. It’s a pleasant night in Las Vegas. There’s a cool breeze refreshing the fans who are packed in like so many sardines in a can. The venue is awash in celebrities; Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Jerry Hall, Tom Cruise; there seem to be more stars in attendance than there are twinkling in the clear desert sky. Security is tight – and why wouldn’t it be? There’s enough jewelry draped over the necks and fingers of the attendees to give Fort Knox a run for its money in terms of net worth. Tickets have ranged all the way up to many thousands of dollars for ringside. Boxing might be a sport for the common man – but at these prices, ha! Not tonight.
The undercard is worthy of the event it is there to support. The fans have just finished witnessing an excellent tilt that saw Evander Holyfield stop Michael Dokes via 10th round TKO. Just before that, they took in an absolute barnburner between Daniel Zaragoza and Paul Banke; with a hotly disputed nod going to the Mexican. The fans seem to be split right down the middle for the main event. Tyson’s fans seem a bit younger and more vociferous. They are not leaving any doubt about who they’re there to support. Sonny’s fans seem as menacing as the fighter himself. They carry themselves with a sort of “We have not an iota of doubt that Sonny’s going to win this thing” confidence that is chilling to some.
These are the two most intimidating heavyweights of all time (with all due apologies and respect to the dour George Foreman). There is a viciousness to Tyson’s fighting and very personality that is nothing short of breathtaking. Liston is intimidating in a different way. His countenance is frightening. Even the shadow he casts on the walls of the stadium as he waits to walk to the ring, seems menacing. Certainly, the fans have never seen two such terrifying combatants in the same ring at the same time. There is genuine fear among many that one, or both of the boxers may literally not survive the fight.
The excitement continues to build and is approaching fever-pitch, when referee Mills Lane is seen entering the ring. The judges for the fight include the controversial Eugenia Williams, Dalby Shirley and Jerry Roth. The pushback that was expected because of the inclusion of Williams never materialized, because, as Sonny Liston put it in a pre-fight interview, “Doesn’t really matter who the judges are. This fight is never gonna go the distance.” Tyson, who has predicted he will stop Liston in 7 or less, shared the same sentiment. “Liston could have his own family sitting there; it ain’t gonna matter. I’m going to knock his ass out!”
Just as the judges are seated, the lights dim and a huge spotlight throws a beam of near starlight on the recesses of the arena, where the dressing-rooms lie. The fighters are, at long last, about to enter. James Brown – dressed with the flamboyance that only James can pull off – is in the ring belting out “I Feel Good” and the fans on that side of the arena begin screaming at top volume as their man, Sonny Liston, begins his walk to the ring. Sonny is an old-school guy; not much fanfare. He walks to the ring with his gloves on the shoulders of his manager, Eddie Polino. Eddie’s brother, Joe, is Sonny’s cut man and his trainers, Willie Reddish and Johnny Tocco, round out his entourage. Sonny’s in a simple white robe, hood covering a white towel that’s draped over his head. The back of the robe simply says “Sonny Liston” – no more, no less. He is pouring sweat and is clearly well warmed up as he reaches the ring and climbs onto the apron. Even at a distance, Liston is a hulking, brooding presence.
James Brown leaves the ring and now there is piped in music, blasting over the P.A. system. It’s the crossover funk hit, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden and Whitehead. The music is upbeat and the message is clear. Mike is here to fight and no-one, but no-one is going to stop him. Mike is also an old soul despite his tender years. Not much fanfare, he is dressed in all black, boots, (no socks), shorts, a short robe; everything is black. His chief trainer, Kevin Rooney, walks by his side. His seconds, Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright, walk with a nervous energy, just behind their charge. Tyson’s fans can see the muscles rippling across his massive shoulders and their warrior seems as wide as he is tall. He is a frightening specimen; one cannot help but wonder why in the world anyone – even Sonny Liston – would willingly fight this man. He is magnificent!
Tyson climbs into the ring. Tonight, he is fighting out of the red corner. Doesn’t matter to Mike; he’s not superstitious. Besides, he wins no matter what corner he comes out of. The bell sounds and the ring announcer, the ever-bronzed Michael Buffer, seizes the mic. “And now fight fans, on behalf of all the fans in attendance and to the millions watching around the world, Caesar’s Palace and Don King Promotions are proud to bring you 12 rounds or less for the undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the world! Ladies and gentlemen, Let’s get ready to rummmmbbbllle!!!” Liston is introduced first, “Ladies and gentleman! Introducing the principles. First, fighting out of the blue corner; this gentleman comes in at a fit and ready 212 lbs. He boasts a professional record of 36 victories with only 1 defeat; 30 of those victories by way of knockout; fighting out of Chicago, Illinois, ladies and gentlemen, the WBA Heavyweight Champion of the World, Sonnnnnyyyy Liston! Liston!” The crowd roars its appreciation.
Buffer looks to his left and begins again, “And now, fighting out of the red corner; ladies and gentlemen, he hails from Brooklyn, New York. He tipped the scales at 225 lbs. His record; an outstanding one of 35 wins, no losses, no draws, with 32 big knockouts. He is the WBC and IBF undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, “Iron” Miiiiikkkke Tyson! Tyson!” By this point, the crowd is losing its collective mind. It’s time. Referee Mills Lane calls the boxers to the middle of the ring. The first thing everyone notices is the height difference. Liston is officially listed at only 6’ 1”, but he seems to tower over the 5’ 10” Tyson. The other thing that seems odd is the size of Liston’s gloves and hands. They are HUGE! His hands look like a couple of hams attached to his forearms. They are nose to nose in the center of the ring as Lane reminds them of the rules and gives them their last instructions. The boxers angrily push at each other and Lane admonishes them right away. He’s a no-nonsense guy; “Hey! Enough of that!” he shouts. Lane separates the two men. He realizes he may be in for a long night. Neither of these men is famed for adhering to the Marquis de Queensbury rules. The fighters go back to their corners. The bell rings. At last! It’s on!
Tyson comes straight at Liston, bobbing and weaving as he gets to what he thinks is just outside Sonny’s range. But he’s immediately struck in the nose by a Liston jab! Tyson is surprised by Liston’s length. He thought he was out of harm’s way and can’t quite believe that Liston reached him with his jab while he was so far away. Mike is undeterred, of course, and ducks under a couple more jabs before landing a good right to Liston’s ribs. Sonny pivots to his right and leans back as Tyson whistles a left hand just past his nose. Sonny lands a hard jab that backs Tyson back a step; then he lands two more to the top of Tyson’s head. Sonny throws a hard right cross and catches Tyson on his left shoulder as Mike rolls out of the way. Tyson roars back at Sonny. He crouches very low and hits Liston with a terrific uppercut on the jaw. Liston takes his first backwards step. This is a sizzling round and the fans are already on their feet. Tyson is now holding his gloves higher in a sort of peek-a-boo style, in an effort to fend off Liston’s piston-like jab. But Liston has an enormous 11” reach advantage. Tyson cannot figure out how to get inside without having his head taken off by that jab. Tyson charges straight at Liston. Mike has the much, much faster hands and throws a blistering 3-punch combination that hurts Sonny. Mike thinks he has Liston’s full attention now and tried to rake him with a big right hand, only to have Sonny beat him to the punch and land a right cross of his own. The bell rings! What an incredible display of power and ability by both fighters!
Toss-up Round: 10 – 10
(In the corners, both trainers are admonishing their fighters. Rooney is telling Tyson that he must keep his gloves up in the peek-a-boo defense. “Mike, Mike…you got hit too many times. Keep your hands up!” Over in Liston’s corner, Polino is imploring him not to trade shots in close with Tyson, “Sonny, that guy is a fireplug. He’s powerful and hits like a horse. Don’t trade – not yet, anyway. Use your jab. Blind him with it and bring the right behind it!”) The bell rings; the seconds exit.
Both men figure they’ve won a measure of respect from each other, but Tyson feels he is too fast for Liston. Tyson is now bobbing and weaving like mad; gloves held high in front of him. Mike throws a jab. It falls well short but it was never intended to land; it was intended to surprise – and it did. Liston brushes away the jab with his left hand almost imperiously, but that leaves him open for just a split second. Tyson ducks low and comes straight up with a sledgehammer right uppercut. This time Sonny is off-balance and the punch is extremely hard. Liston is down. He lands on the canvas, seat of his pants first. He’s dazed but not in bad shape. He’s up at “5”. Lane checks with Sonny and motions him to take a step forward. Liston does so with no problem and Lane waves time in. Tyson tries to pounce on Sonny but Sonny still has his wits about him. He uses his long arms to grab Tyson and pirouette him around, then clinch. But Sonny doesn’t just “clinch” in the traditional sense. Sonny is wrestling Tyson around and really roughing him up against the ropes. Liston rakes the laces of his gloves over Mike’s face then unloads a huge right hand of his own. Tyson’s knees buckle. Liston hits him with a left hook to the jaw and Mike sags against the ropes. Lane steps in and gives Tyson a standing 8-count. Tyson is visibly annoyed by this. He is screaming “I’m fine” at Lane. Liston has left the neutral corner early and Lane tells him to get back. He doesn’t. The bell sounds but Tyson is so furious, he doesn’t hear it and hits Sonny after the bell. All hell is breaking loose here as the seconds pour into the ring. Fans came to see a fight but a war has broken out!
Toss-up Round: 10 – 10
(For both corners, this is not the fight they wanted, but it is the fight they expected. It’s now clear that this fight is going to come down to the better chin. It’s never easy to know what to say to your fighter between rounds – especially if he’s fighting for his life – but both corners realize now that what each of their fighters had said before the fight was true; there wasn’t going to be any need for the judges.)
As the round begins, Liston’s demeanor has shifted somewhat. He seems much calmer than he was in the first couple of rounds. Liston is the older man by some 9 years and seems to be calling on that additional maturity as a man to help him deal with this firestorm of a boxer in front of him. Having tasted Mike’s power, Sonny knows he must keep Mike off of him. Instead of engaging with Tyson as willingly as he did in the first 2 rounds, Liston is once again intent on establishing distance. He flicks out his jab, repeatedly picking off the ever-bobbing and weaving Tyson. Tyson is somewhat like a far more powerful version of Floyd Patterson; tremendous hand speed, excellent footwork, but with true knockout power. But Tyson’s biggest weapon has always been his ability to intimidate his opponents and in this case, that’s not working. Liston doesn’t seem fazed by him in the least. Mike realizes he’s in very deep water here and needs to rely on everything his late trainer, the great Cus D’Amato, ever taught him. Mike stays low and begins to work the body of Liston. Tyson lands a hellacious right hook to the liver that causes Liston to gasp. He immediately follows it up with a short, sharp uppercut that catches Liston on the side of his jaw. Tyson does well when he’s in close so Sonny pushes Tyson away from him as hard as he can in an effort to create distance. Mike is having more success this round though. He is so low that his elbows seem like they are scraping the canvas. Sonny is punching down at his man; usually an advantage, but not if your opponent is so far away that you only reach him at fullest extension. Mike ducks under another two jabs and rips hard shots to the ribcage of the WBA champion. The bell rings.
Tyson: 10 – 9
Tyson knows he enjoyed some success in that round. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Mike begins the round much as he ended the last one; staying so low that Liston can’t really hit him. Waiting for Liston’s punches to sail harmlessly over his head, then attacking that body. There’s a purplish splotch starting to form on Sonny’s ribs as he eats hook after hook to the body. Sonny pushes Tyson away again, but Tyson’s hands are so fast! Mike hits Sonny with a stiff right cross as he falls away from him. Liston must do something different here. Tyson is starting to look like he might just make this an early night for everyone. Tyson comes at Liston again but this time Liston puts his right hand on the left side of Tyson’s neck and left shoulder and sort of holds him there as he fires left hand after left hand at Mike. Liston doesn’t care what he hits; head, arm, elbow; anything will do. Liston is determined to make this a brawl. Tyson is the more skilled of the two and much, much faster. Sonny has realized this and is now dialed into a “seek and destroy” mindset. He hits Tyson with a tremendous left hand to the jaw and dazes him badly. Tyson grabs at the ropes but Mills lane slaps his glove off of them. Another brutal left hand explodes off of Tyson’s chin and his knees buckle! Liston moves in but Tyson connects with a desperation right hand that straightens Sonny right up. Now Liston staggers. Once again, the crowd rises as one! Both men have thrown caution to the wind here and a barrage of fists fly; some landing, some missing; all thrown with bad intentions. Tyson lands yet another uppercut and Liston’s mouthguard flies out of his mouth. Liston fires back with a left hand and draws blood above Tyson’s right eye. Oh my God! This is incredible! How is either man still standing? “DING!” End of the best round of the fight – and that’s saying something!
Liston: 10 – 9
(Kevin Rooney half drags Mike back to the corner. His cut man, Matt Baranski, works feverishly to stop the bleeding. “It’s not too bad, Mike,” he lies. Rooney says to Mike, “That’s it, Mike! That’s your best round. You hurt him bad. He’s shook and he’s tired. Gimme more of the same; but Mike, don’t get careless!” Over in Liston’s corner, there is real worry. Liston is having trouble catching his breath. He is clearly the more tired of the 2 men. 32 isn’t old, but in boxing, it sure isn’t young either; especially when you’re up against a 23-year-old dynamo. Polino is pleading with Liston, “Sonny, you CANNOT let this guy inside. And for the love of Pete, stay away from that uppercut. Do not stand in front of him!”)
Liston comes out in his usual menacing, lumbering fashion. Tyson is far from scared of him though, and greets Sonny with an adept side-step to his right, followed by two big shots to the liver and spleen. Liston paws at Tyson with his left but Mike is out of there in the blink of an eye. Mike backs away and Liston makes a mistake and follows him. As “Big” George Foreman is so fond of saying, “Never follow a puncher!” Tyson stops his back-pedaling so abruptly that Sonny almost stumbles into him. “Iron” Mike throws a dazzling 1 -2 combo to Sonny’s head then ducks under Sonny’s right hook to dig a wicked left to Liston’s body. Liston walks through two more shots to bully Mike into the ropes. Liston sticks his left glove under Tyson’s chin and sort of pins him and semi-lifts him to his toes, then drops a big right hand off of Tyson’s forehead. Mike is having none of this though. Mike traps Sonny’s left hand against his own body and twists. The torque on Liston’s arm causes him to groan in pain. Tyson is trying to break Liston’s arm! Mills Lane is doing his best to keep it clean but he’s a very small man and he has two supremely pissed off giants in the ring with him. He brushes Tyson’s arm off of Liston and yells at Mike, “Mikey, cut the shit! Stop!” Mike is distracted for just a split-second by Lane’s admonishment and Sonny takes the opportunity to hit Tyson low. Tyson crouches over and howls. Now Lane is pushing Sonny against the ropes. “None of that, Sonny!” Lane signals to the timekeeper to stop time. He grabs both fighters by their gloves and drags them to him. It looks a little funny to see this small man scolding these two behemoths towering over him but Lane is recognized as the best ref in the business for a reason. He exudes authority! It’s easy to imagine him in his prior career in law enforcement. “Gentlemen, you’re both going to stop these shenanigans or points are going to start to come off. I won’t hesitate. Now, box clean!” He lets them go and is rewarded for his efforts by simultaneous low blows from each fighter. The bell rings. 5th stanza is in the books.
Tyson: 10 – 9 (close round; probably 10 – 10 on a lot of cards)
(Johnny Tocco doesn’t usually say much to Sonny during fights, preferring to let Eddie take the lead; but not this time. Johnny pushes Eddie out of the way and gets right in Sonny’s face. “Sonny, you wann’a be champion, right?” Sonny, bemused, looks at his second and nods in the affirmative. “Well, it sure as hell doesn’t look like it to me. Sonny, you’ve got like a foot on this kid. USE IT! With that jab of yours, this guy shouldn’t even be getting close to you. Here’s the problem, Charles, he’s so short, he just keeps ducking under you. But that’s because you’re aiming your jab at his head. Aim it at his chest, cuz basically, that’s where you’re gonna find his noggin! Trust me, Sonny! Trust me!”
Over in Tyson’s corner, Rooney is feeling cautiously optimistic. Rooney believes that Tyson wins a brawl against anyone and he feels that Liston is tiring. “Mike, Mike, listen to me…he’s tired and you’re frustrating him. Keep up the pressure. Stick your nose on his chest. Don’t move from that spot. Clinch if he tries to push you off. Don’t let him breathe! Work from there. Body shot, body shot, head!” Tyson looks around Rooney’s shoulder to see Liston, because to him, that guy he’s fighting doesn’t seem tired at all. “Seconds out!” Bell rings!
It’s clear to all that Mike Tyson is a much better boxer technically than is Sonny Liston. But it’s equally clear that Liston is an experienced and tough as nails pro who seems to be able to figure out solutions to every problem. As they meet in the center of the ring, Liston fires off his jab, but this time, Tyson’s head snaps back twice! Sonny is mindful of Tocco’s advice. He is aiming his jab at Mike’s chest and banging it off of his head. Liston’s jab is no “range-finder.” It’s designed to hurt you. He has actually stopped opponents with that jab in the past. Mike is stunned. He has never been hit that hard by a jab! Tyson ducks again, and again is nailed with a hard jab. Liston’s huge mitts are blinding Mike too. He doesn’t see the following right. It crashes against the left side of his jaw. Tyson is hurt! He’s seeing stars. Mike parries another of Sonny’s lefts and throws a sledgehammer right to Liston’s neck. They face each other square on and land simultaneous left hands, followed by a stiff right each. The fans are losing their minds. The brutality is exquisite. Sonny’s right eye is closing rapidly. Tyson has a hematoma forming above his left eyebrow. Blood is flowing from the mouths and noses of both men. Sonny backs away to catch his breath but Tyson is on him like a tiger on its prey. Left, right, left right…Tyson is going for the kill! Sonny is trapped in the corner by this bull of a man. But Sonny isn’t Sonny for nothing. Liston wraps his long, long arms around Mike’s neck and pulls him hard towards him, stepping to his left as he does so. Tyson is off balance and stumbles into the ropes. Liston fires off a straight left to the right side of Mike’s face as he staggers by. Tyson pivots off his left leg and twists himself into a big left hook that lands on Liston’s solar-plexus. Sonny is winded. He thinks about taking a knee, but instead fires off another left cross of his own. The fight is now a precursor to what Ron Lyle and George Foreman will deliver to the fans in a few years’ time. As Howard Cosell would later say, “Utterly devoid of boxing skill.” This has become real-life, rock ‘em, sock ‘em robots. Finally, the bell rings to call a halt to a torrid 6th round. Both men stagger back to their corners.
Liston: 10 – 9 (another very close round that could go either way)
There comes a time in every long fight when there is no more the corner can do in terms of advice. All the seconds can do is try to put their man back together again in 60 seconds. Plenty of “end swell”, pressure on cuts, water, massage, breathing instructions. But with a fight like this, both corners have realized that it has come down to the cliché “who wants it more?” These men will decide this as men. They will ask no quarter – and give none. The corners of both men understand that they are enjoying the privilege of seconding two true gladiators. They are in the presence of greatness. The bell sounds. The seventh round begins.
The two men look weary and wary at the same time. The respect they have won from each other will have to wait because for now, it is masked with hate! Tyson, tired of eating that powerful jab from Liston, once again has his hands in the peek-a-boo defense. He bobs and weaves as Liston approaches. This time, Liston’s jabs are hitting only Mike’s gloves. Mike lets Sonny hit the gloves with two, then three jabs, before he gets inside of Sonny’s forearms and pops him with a lead uppercut. It’s a dangerous punch to throw but, in this case, it’s effective. Sonny is no position to defend it and finds his head snapped back by the shot. Mike takes advantage of this to dig two more body blows into what is left of Liston’s tortured ribcage. Sonny bends over from the force of the blows and is greeted by yet another uppercut, followed up but a Tyson 1 – 2. Tyson has landed 5 power shots in a row! But Liston can take a shot with the best of them. He’s stunned, but not dazed. Sonny clinches and allows his head to clear. Mills Lane separates the two men. Liston snaps out his long jab again. Tyson’s head snaps back. Mike moves to his right, negating the power of Liston’s long, long right hand. Sonny has power in both hands though and shakes Mike up with a big left hook to the chin. Mike backs into the ropes but boomerangs off of them back to the middle of the ring. Mike raises his hands again; gloves high in front of his face. Sonny decides to try something slightly different. He closes the distance between them just slightly. Mike can’t reach him with the jab but Sonny’s jab would be about 6” past Mike’s head were he to throw it now. But Sonny’s not looking to jab; he’s looking to hook. Sonny throws a tremendous right hook around Mike’s high-held gloves. The punch is perfect! Tyson staggers back. He’s hurt badly. Liston presses his advantage. As Tyson stumbles into the ropes, his left arm gets caught between the middle and top rope. Sonny sees this and hits Mike with a huge right hook. As Tyson starts to fall, Sonny delivers a big left that bounces off the top of Mike’s head. Tyson’s knees give way. Mike pitches face-first onto the canvas. Tyson is down! Liston stands over him and Lane has to forcibly push Sonny towards the neutral corner. Referee Mills Lane heads back to Tyson, picking up the count from official timekeeper, Stanley Hall. As Lane reaches “6”, he realizes that Tyson hasn’t so much as flinched. Mike Tyson is out cold. Lane waves the fight off and motions for the medics to get into the ring. The fight is over. Charles “Sonny” Liston has knocked out “Iron” Mike Tyson at 1:32 of the 7th round to become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World!
There is bedlam in the arena. The fans of both men realize that they have witnessed something both eloquent and brutal. One fan would later comment that he thinks he held his breath for the entire bout. Sonny is collapsed on his ring stool, too exhausted to celebrate his victory. Tyson has been helped back to his corner and has come around. Thankfully – and somewhat miraculously – Mike is okay. Don King is doing the interviews as neither man is up to it. He moves the cigar around in his mouth and cannot seem to get anything out of his mug but the word, “re-match!” One thing hasn’t changed here; King is still the one who is going to get paid like no-one else. After about ten minutes, Liston wearily stands up and lifts his hands into the air. Tyson is on his ferret in his corner. Sonny makes his way over to Mike and lifts Mike’s hands into the air in a gesture of respect and sportsmanship. He leans over to Mike and whispers in his ear, “Man, I never want to fight you again!” With that the two men and their entourages exit the ring. The most brutal heavyweight fight ever witnessed has come to a fitting end!
So, there you have it folks; my take on how I think a Liston/Tyson fight might have played out. In my mind, I have Sonny winning 8 out of 10 if they fought that often. Mike may have been the faster and more skilled, but Mike relied too much on intimidation; and in Charles “Sonny” Liston, “Iron” Mike Tyson would have found the ultimate intimidator. Hope you enjoyed. Mike fans…yeah, bring it on. I’m ready for ya’, lol!