Posted by George Hanson., Jr Esq. on Sep 26, 2012
Exhuming the Bear – A book about Sonny Bear

Exhuming the Bear – A book about Sonny Bear

The Mouthpiece

Exhuming the Bear

By: George H. Hanson Jr., Esq.

Book Review

Author:     Paul Gallender
Published:       July 2012
Publisher:       Park Place Publications
Length:   246 pages
Price:         $25.95 hardcover

“I didn’t write this book about Sonny, I wrote it for him. No other fighter had ever been maligned and abused like him” stated the voice on the other end of my cellphone. I had just finished Paul Gallender’s masterpiece and was eager to talk to him. However, we had to cut our conversation short since it was almost 10 pm and he was driving back from Chicago in a rainstorm and I was ensconced in my hotel room in Lafayette, Louisiana taking a respite from my month-long project eager to go back in time. I would have to wait until tomorrow for continue our conversation.

It is somewhat inconceivable that a first-time author could write with such brilliance. But I was told that the Bible was written by inspired men and not by Jerusalem’s well-heeled journalists. A major publishing house could have commissioned Liston’s life story with a $10 million advance to a Pulitzer prize-winning author and it would have been impossible for them to produce this amazing piece of work!  Gallender wrote from somewhere deep inside his soul driven to right what is a catastrophe wrong—the vilification of a man who just wanted to pursue his profession and be left alone. This book is so well-written that there were times that I thought Liston was standing right next to me in my hotel room having a conversation. I asked, “Sonny, what are your thoughts on Floyd Patterson?” “No 185-pound motherfucker can beat me,” replied Liston.

Liston, like the mythical Phoenix rose from the ashes of poverty —a flimsy shack in Forrest City, Arkansas one of the 25 children sired by his father, Tobe Liston, over 44 years. While serving a five-year term for robbery at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City his pugilistic prowess was discovered by the prison chaplain and he was granted early release. Liston’s rise up the heavyweight ranks to the destruction of Floyd Patterson in capturing the title could not have been scripted. Turning professional in 1953 he compiled an impressive record of 33 wins – 1 loss –22 knockouts before separating Patterson from his senses and the title in one round on September 25, 1962.

There was a time when Charles Sonny Liston walked the planet and was without a doubt the baddest man on the planet. George Foreman and Mike Tyson pale in comparison to Liston who loomed larger than life. Sportswriters were afraid of him and the fighter was deferential to them. According to Gallender, “he was who he was and he wasn’t Floyd Patterson. Liston didn’t talk much and he trusted few people.”

Nobody embodied the pusillanimous news writer more than Larry Merchant—the wrinkled, ancient diminutive phallic symbol masquerading as a commentator more filled with hot air and rum than analysis— preening like a pre-teen peacock for HBO World Championship Boxing. As a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, Merchant’s hatred for Liston was well-documented.  “In a fair fight between good and evil, evil must win,” quipped the little windbag in response to Liston’s victory over Patterson. Merchant further suggested that “they use shredded warrants of arrest for confetti” in a celebratory parade for the new world heavyweight champion.

“Sonny was universally seen as the baddest, roughest, toughest man on the planet and outside of his inner circle of friends, that’s precisely what he wanted people to believe. He said he looked tough in the ring because he was trying to scare the other guy. At weigh-ins and during pre-fight instructions, Sonny’s glare would make most of his opponents seriously question their choice of occupations.”

“I thought Liston was the greatest fighter who ever lived, but obstacles prevented him from gaining the recognition. Everything about him has no basis in fact and nobody was going to say it,” stated Gallender.  Insightful and passionate the author went on to share, “nobody was going to restore his legacy—a lot of great writers, nobody did it —Sonny will get the recognition, finally somebody had his back!”

The late Raymond Munson, Liston’s personal assistant, was my friend. As an amateur fighter I spent countless hours talking to him and visiting his home—the one Liston bought him—in West Philadelphia to rummage through his scrapbook and photo albums which had numerous articles and pictures of Sonny.  Thus, the Liston I “knew” wasn’t the person portrayed by the media. The genteel giant ferociousness in the squared circle was only rivaled by his generosity. Liston couldn’t walk pass a homeless individual without reaching into his pocket and handing out its contents—dead Presidents.

Thirty-five years is a long time for one man to dedicate to one project. But the indefatigable author started his journey of exonerating Liston back in 1978. A non-profit fundraiser, Gallender had the daunting task of not only doing the research but also teaching himself how to write along the way. He began by visiting the Library of Congress and became engrossed in the records of the Congressional hearings that were conducted during Liston’s heyday regarding organized crime’s involvement in the sweet science. “I bungled my way along, never losing faith in Sonny’s abilities.”

There was so much that I already knew about Liston that was confirmed. However, that was overshadowed by all that I discovered through my 246-page journey back into time.  Gallender’s research and the Encyclopedia Britannica list Sonny’s birth as May 1917. Thus he was 36 years old when he joined the punch-for-pay ranks and 45 when he won the championship.  Mr. Munson told me that Liston was an old man when he fought Ali. However, I never knew that he was at the top of the hill and heading over it when he faced the Louisville Lip. Equally revealing, “Few people knew that Sonny made sure that there was a provision in every closed-circuit contract that segregation wasn’t going to be tolerated.” “I feel that the color of my people’s money is the same as anyone else’s,” stated Liston. “They should get the same seats, if not, I don’t want those places to have the fight.”

George Foreman idolized Sonny Liston and was 19 years old when they first sparred in 1968. The young pugilist was mesmerized by the aged pugilist’s punching prowess and offered “he was the only fighter who ever, ever, stopped me consistently in my tracks with one punch, backed me up like a sports car.” Hall of Fame trainer, Emanuel Steward mirrored Foreman’s comment—“Sonny was just such a really powerful wrecking machine, he had unbelievable punching power. I remember the fights he had with Cleveland Williams—oh my god!” “It’s a shame he wasn’t fighting big time in his prime,” Muhammad Ali once shared with light-heavyweight great Archie Moore.

It is irrefutable that Liston was treated unjustly bordering on inhumane by the media, law enforcement and the so-called boxing governing bodies. Bernard Hopkins, former middleweight and light-heavyweight champion, is revered and respected for leaving prison, becoming a model citizen and prize-fighter. Hopkins was given the second chance that evaded Liston.  “Reputations of fighters tend to improve after they die. It is payback time for all those who treated Sonny badly and are still around” indicated Gallender.  “He did come from nowhere to get where he was. He was a good husband and a good man, and that’s how I’d like the world to remember him,” said Geraldine Liston, Sonny’s wife prior to her passing in 2005.

“Paul Gallender introduces you to a man, who, while he wasn’t a saint, had a sense of fairness and depth of character that was acknowledged for the most part only by family, friends, and children of every race.”

It is without a doubt one of the best books that I have ever read!

Continue to support the sweet science, and remember, always carry your mouthpiece!

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About George Hanson., Jr Esq.

George Hanson., Jr Esq. has written 106 post in this blog.

Hailing from New Forest, Jamaica, Hanson started boxing as a teenager in Philadelphia under the tutelage of former welterweight contender, Dick Turner. He excelled, capturing four Pennsylvania State Amateur Championships—his last while a junior at Drexel University studying Accounting. According to most who have seen Hanson fight, “He is the best fighter never to have turned professional.”

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