From The Big House To The Big Time
With the help of Father Stevens, Liston came to the attention of boxing promoter Frank Mitchell and trainer Monroe Harrison, who secured his parole on October 30, 1952. In February 1953, they entered him in the open-and-novice heavyweight division of the amateur Golden Gloves tournament sponsored by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Liston swept the competition, going on to win the Midwestern Golden Gloves title, beating an Olympic heavyweight champion, and then the national title, becoming the Golden Gloves heavyweight champion in March. In June of that year, he defeated West German Herman Schreibauer to become the Golden Gloves world heavyweight champion. In five months, Sonny Liston had gone from unknown ex-con to amateur champion. Clearly, it was time to turn pro.
On September 2nd, he fought and won his first professional boxing match, knocking out Don Smith in thirty-three seconds, with the first punch of the first round. It was a spectacular beginning to a career that would take him to the top. Over the next few years, his menacing scowl and quick knockouts of his opponents would become legendary. By the end of 1961, with thirty-four wins in thirty-five fights, twenty-three of them by knockouts, Sonny Liston had established an unassailable reputation in the ring. Even his one loss, against Marty Marshall on September 7, 1953, showed the man's power and determination. Marshall caught Liston unawares in the fourth round with a punch that broke his jaw, but Sonny fought on, losing in a close decision after eight full rounds. Before long, the crowds were clamoring to give him a shot at taking the World Heavyweight Title from Floyd Patterson. Some were even calling him the uncrowned heavyweight champion.
But Liston was also cementing another reputation. His troubles with the police continued unabated. Between 1953 and 1958, when he left St. Louis for good, he was arrested fourteen times. To escape the constant harassment, he relocated to Philadelphia. By that time, Liston was being secretly managed by Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, two notorious mobsters who controlled big time boxing throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Both California and Pennsylvania suspended Liston's boxing license, and Liston himself had to appear before a Senate subcommittee investing organized crime's influence in professional boxing. For Floyd Patterson's manager, Cus D'Amato, who had spent years trying to clean up boxing's image and get the mob out, all this made him completely unacceptable as a challenger. But on December 4, 1961, Liston fought in the opening match in a pay-per-view double-header featuring Floyd Patterson in the main event. In less than two minutes, Liston had knocked out West German Albert Westphal, who remained unconscious longer than the fight had lasted. There was no denying it. Patterson was the only fighter left for Liston, and Liston was the only challenger left for Patterson. In March of 1962, Floyd Patterson overrode all the objections and signed a contract to fight Sonny Liston.