As a result, history has unfairly overlooked how both men were among the best heavyweight champions of all time. First there was the burly, menacing Sonny Liston who wrote the book on how to terrify opponents before even getting into the ring. Years later, Evander Holyfield came along and clashed with many ring giants during his roller-coaster ride of a career. He used brilliant strategies and the Power of Jesus to win his battles.
There is a short list of heavyweights in history that would survive the power of Charles "Sonny" Liston. But is Evander Holyfield on that list? Is he the “real deal?” Let's discuss.
The Big Bear
Sonny got by using pure power and intimidation. His scary glare terrified opponents, and was a major influence on George Foreman and Mike Tyson who came after him.
Interestingly, Sonny had the same strategy for most of his fights. If you watch many of his knockouts, it was his long bulldozing jab that often got guys in trouble first. Sonny had arguably the hardest jab in heavyweight history. After smashing you with his jab, Sonny would club you death with his left hook or uppercut. Or both. Either way, fight over.
Sonny might look like some crude monster, but he was technically smart. He realized the importance of the left jab. He used it to set up many of his spectacular finishes. That huge jab was capable of a knockout all by itself. Most observers feel that Larry Holmes had the best heavyweight jab. I don't disagree, but you could certainly argue that Sonny also had the best jab, just in a different way. Because of his long reach and Sonny's fearless lunging, it was a hard punch to avoid. And if he landed flush, it would be the beginning of the end.
It's amazing how short people's memories are. Sonny looked to be indestructible. Unbeatable. Invincible. Even while heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson was blatantly ducking Liston, everyone knew Sonny was the best heavyweight around.
But, while Mike Tyson retained his scary mystique after his shock loss to Buster Douglas, Sonny's fearsome reputation suffered after the Ali losses. People don't remember that Sonny won all but one of his fights following the Ali rivalry. It's a shame that he wasn't given a title shot against Joe Frazier during the late 1960's.
The Real Deal
As you can see above, Evander came to fight! He wasn't the hardest puncher, but he made up for it with mental toughness and buckets of heart.
Compared to Sonny Liston, Evander Holyfield was more well-round heavyweight. “The Real Deal” got by using his ring smarts and courage. Evander could fight by slugging, boxing or countering. Sometimes he did all of them within one fight. Evander was a hard fighter to train for because you could never predict how he would fight on any given night.
George Foreman is one of the few heavyweights to fight both Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield. According to Big George, there are a few similarities. One of them is that both recovered really fast when hurt. George said there were times when he had both men shook, but just that fast they were hitting him back.
George also said that their punching power was similar but Evander hurt more and this makes sense. Ali threw blows from a distance and danced away from you as he punched. Evander would come forward, dip for leverage and throw hooks and uppercuts while in close. Hooks and uppercuts are the knockout punches.
I'll go in detail on this later, but one of the reasons why Evander defeated Mike Tyson is simple... he outfought him. There was a brief moment in the first round of their 1996 fight when Evander surprised Tyson by landing a string of three consecutive hard left hooks to the body and head. BANG! BANG! BANG! Tyson stopped right in his tracks and sneered as if to say, “So this is what fighting this bastard is gonna be like?!”
Watch the interaction below...
Rocky Marciano is often cited as the best-conditioned heavyweight champion of all time. He trained twice as hard as his opponents, which gave him an edge over them on fight night. By round 10, his opponents were often tired, but Marciano was only getting stronger.
The late trainer Lou Duva was great friends with Marciano, and when asked by Bert Sugar and ESPN's Brian Kenny if he knew anybody that trained as hard as Rocky, Lou quickly replied, “Holyfield. Evander worked and worked and worked and worked.” Duva trained Holyfield during his early years as a heavyweight.
Before we move on, let's take a look at Evander's cruiserweight career. In my opinion and the opinion of many other sports writers, Evander was the best cruiserweight of all time. His battles with Michael Dokes and Dwight Muhammad Qwai are exhausting, brilliant wars that you need to watch if you haven't seen them.
Evander cleaned out the entire cruiserweight division and became the undisputed crusierweight champion. Bored and undefeated, he moved up to the heavyweight ranks to challenge for the undisputed heavyweight championship, eventually winning it from Buster Douglas in 1990.
Evander would fight to the death if he had to. There was no quit in him, which is one of the reasons why he didn't retire until he was 51. The man loved to fight. Joe Frazier said in his autobiography that Evander was his favorite heavyweight of the modern era because he loved to break down much bigger men and had a natural love for fighting.
I can't say the same about Liston. He never came from behind to win a fight he was losing. He quit on his stool against Ali, and decided to lay there and get counted out in his rematch against The Greatest.
In his next to last fight, Sonny was suddenly knocked out by Leotis Martin. Because it's Liston, I question if it's a legit knockout or not. The punch definitely hurt him, but could he have got up? Maybe.
Then again, Liston was famously controlled by the mob. Maybe he was told to take dives against Ali and Martin? Whether he was legitimately knocked out by those guys or was instructed to lose by the mob, either way is bad for his legacy.
Evander initially went berserk when Tyson bit him, but watch his reaction once he regained his composure. He didn't resort to cheating or quitting. Despite the pain, he continued to fight Tyson during that wild third round.
How would Sonny Liston react if Mike Tyson bit him? Given his reactions to losing the first fight to Ali (quitting) and the rematch (again quitting) I think a terrified Sonny would want nothing more to do with Tyson.
Both men had reputations for occasionally being dirty fighters, so it would not surprise me if anyone was blinded or headbutted in this fight.
Muhammad Ali was famously blinded during the 5th round against Liston in 1964. Now, being in the ring with Sonny is a scary enough thought, but to fight him without vision? Muhammad Ali was some man. He deserves all-time great status for this action alone.
You could argue that Ali being blinded was an innocent mistake. However, two previous fighters who were also fighting well against Sonny Liston (Zora Folley and Eddie Machen) both complained about something getting in their eyes. Unlike Ali, they couldn't turn things around and wound up losing.
Is it a coincidence that every guy who was on the verge of upsetting Liston suddenly got blinded during the fight? I seriously doubt it.
Evander had reputations for headbutting his opponents. In this writer's opinion, not all of them were on purpose.
If you closely watch “The Bite Fight” with Tyson, you'll see that Evander dips for leverage before unloading his punches. From his crouch, he'd spring upward and throw his blows with full force. Tyson fought like a bull, always charging forward. The result was a clashing of heads.
But this wasn't always the case. In their first fight in 1999, Holyfield deliberately charged into Lennox Lewis with his head. He also tackled him to the ground at one point.
On commentary, George Foreman called him out for these dirty tactics. Larry Merchant defended Holyfield's blatant cheating by saying, “He's a rough fighter because it's a rough game.”
Foreman's reply? “You'd never see Joe Louis resorting to all of this.”
Larry Merchant's comment was just another example of Holyfield unfairly getting away with these shenanigans because people liked him. I don't like that. Just because he is a Bible-toting man healed by the Power of Jesus doesn't mean we should ignore his wrongdoings.
Styles Make Fights
Stylistically, Evander should give a brawler like Liston some problems, though this doesn't automatically mean he'll win.
Evander fought like a modern Ezzard Charles – a clever counter-puncher who could go toe to toe when necessary. Evander often knocked guys down by striking when they were off balance as they missed a punch. He could pull this off with either hand.
This tactic is exactly how he won his first heavyweight championship from Buster Douglas. He used another counter-punch to floor Mike Tyson in their first battle. Tyson lunged in and was caught square with a left hook to the chin.
Holyfield should be favored on paper due to their distinctive styles, but Holyfield's biggest strength was also his biggest flaw - his heart. What happens if Sonny hits Evander after the bell? Evander would surely want payback and duke it out with the "big bear" in the next round and put himself in peril.
Holyfield has a granite chin. He withstood absolute bombs from Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Bert Cooper, Ray Mercer and others. With the exception of Bowe, none of these men knocked him out, and the Bowe loss had more to due with Holyfield being sick and weak due to Hepatitis A. You could argue that Evander was at his best against the sluggers.
But in a fierce shoot-out war, Liston would inevitably win. He was just too powerful.
Could Evander get around that heavy Sonny Liston jab? I would say yes. Holyfield didn't have the gazelle speed of Muhammad Ali, but his mobility was enough to keep him out of danger. Lennox Lewis had a long 84-inch reach and telephone pole jab just like Liston. In their rematch, Holyfield neutralized his jab by jabbing him in the body. Lewis didn't like that and opted to slug it out. I'm sure Liston would do the same, so the Liston jab wouldn't be a factor for long.
What about Sonny's left hook? During clinches, Holyfield leaned his head on Tyson's left shoulder to avoid his uppercut while at the same time smothering his left arm, restricting Tyson from utilizing his left hook. Holyfield also did this against Mercer, and no doubt he'd do it successfully against Liston too.
Later in his career, Evander won the WBA title in a fight with John Ruiz, becoming the first man to win the heavyweight championship four times.
Sonny Liston only held the heavyweight championship from 1962 to 1964, but everyone knows he should have been given a crack at the title much sooner. Despite Floyd Patterson clutching the belt and blatantly ducking Liston for five years, Sonny Liston was dominating the heavyweight scene.
If you're comparing legacies between Holyfield and Liston, Liston looks better as far as win-loss ratios go. He adjusted to his declining skills much better than Holyfield did, evidenced by him winning 15 out of 16 out his fights after being embarrassed by Muhammad Ali. Not only that, but he won 12 by knockout. Aging or not, he was still a legitimate threat to anyone that fought him. That power was still there.
Evander picked up more championship wins and fought much better competition than Liston overall. He got some huge wins, but fought way too long and picked up some unnecessary losses that hurt his record.
Evander twice beat Tyson, who was the monster of his era. Sonny, however, lost twice to Ali, who was the biggest name he shared the ring with. Sonny was more consistent overall, but Evander was an overachiever with much more championship success, both at heavyweight and crusierweight.
It's really apples and oranges to compare. It depends on how you evaluate greatness.
But if I had to rank them I'd rank Sonny above Evander but not by much. Head to head Sonny had more success and lost fights less often than Holyfield did. Liston only lost four times. Marty Marshall broke Liston's jaw, a fight that Sonny understandably lost. Sonny's last loss was to Leotis Martin as an old fighter. Sonny's only huge losses were to Ali. I can forgive that.
Before I start, remember that Evander is famous for standing up to bullies. He thrived on standing up to bigger men and surprising them. Sonny is just that kind of bully. There would be no fear from Holyfield.
Ring The Bell!!!!!
Ultimately, it depends on which Evander we put in the ring with Liston. The 1990 version of Evander that swiftly defeated Buster Douglas would get blown away by a peak Sonny Liston. At 28 years old and 208 pounds, Evander was too small. He had great experience as a cruiserweight, but Dokes and Qwai are like puppies compared to Liston. Besides, if Evander was hurt so bad by Bert Cooper, I'm sure Sonny would have damn near killed him.
But what about the older Evander from 1997? To me, this was the best Holyfield. He had bulked up tremendously, gained much more experience by this time, and could find a way to beat almost anybody. His best performance as a heavyweight in my opinion was his 1997 WBA/IBF Heavyweight Championship fight with Michael Moorer.
Evander never looked better on that night. He never punched harder and maintained his punch accuracy. He floored Moorer 5 times, and outsmarted him consistently once he figured out Moorer's fight patterns.
Even more impressive is that this was a clean win. No headbutts, no football tackles, nothing illegal. On that night, Evander combined the ring smarts of Ali and the vicious attack of Jack Dempsey. Perfect.
Now this version of Evander would give Sonny a fight!!
Liston would make himself vulnerable by lunging with that long powerful left hook of his, leaving himself open to counter-punches, which is what Holyfield excelled at. It would be the phantom punch scenario all over again.
Sonny may temporarily hurt Evander a time or two, but Evander had the chin to recover fast and the wits to fight back or clinch to survive. Knowing that the left hook, jab and right uppercut were his most powerful blows, Evander would neutralize them using angles and clinches just as he did against Tyson.
I see Evander discouraging Liston throughout the fight with his mobility and combinations of hooks and uppercuts to the body and head. Evander also had much better stamina than Liston, hurting the Big Bear's chances if the fight went the distance. Sonny didn't necessarily fade during the later rounds, but he gradually became less effective the longer the fight went.
Eventually a frustrated Liston gets dropped by a perfectly timed counter-punch, and refuses to get up.
Evander Holyfield Wins By 9th Round TKO