The Champ Nobody Wanted
A grand debate on the morality of letting Liston vie for the championship erupted in the media. Sportswriters emphasized his criminal background as much as his brutal reputation in the ring. New York Herald-Tribune columnist Red Smith asked simply, "Should a man with a record of violent crime be given a chance to become a champion of the world?" Many felt boxing's reputation was on the line. Others worried about the reputation of black America. NAACP president Percy Sutton said that erudite, soft-spoken Floyd Patterson "represents us better than Liston ever could or would." Years later, in "In This Corner…!" 42 World Champions Tell Their Stories, Patterson described the terrible pressure he was under, when civil rights leaders, including President Kennedy himself, made it clear to Patterson that they needed him to win, as if a loss would doom the civil rights movement itself.
But in the ring none of that mattered. On September 25, 1962, Sonny Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson in two minutes, six seconds. For the first time in history, a world heavyweight champion had been knocked out in the first round. Heavyweight belt in hand, Sonny Liston thought that at last his turn would come for a little respect, or even affection. He hoped for a ticker tape parade when he flew back to his adopted hometown of Philadelphia. Instead, when he stepped off the plane, all he found were his usual tormentors, a few reporters, a few cops. As his friend Jack McKinney told Sports Illustrated reporter William Nack, "What happened in Philadelphia that day was a turning point in his life. He was still the bad guy. He was the personification of evil. And that's the way it was going to remain. He was devastated." Soon after, he moved to Denver.
On July 22 the following year, Liston beat Patterson again, this time in two minutes, twenty-three seconds. The new champ seemed invincible, and a few days later Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, "The central fact … is that the world of sport now realizes it has gotten Charles (Sonny) Liston to keep. It is like finding a live bat on a string under your Christmas tree." But that night there was already a hint of the champ's coming fall. In the confusion after the knockout, while the crowd actually booed the triumphant Liston, a young boxer named Cassius Clay rushed the stage, making a beeline for the microphone and launching into his "I am the greatest" speech and daring Liston to take him on.