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Remembering Leotis Martin who KOed Sonny Liston 50 Years Ago Today

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  • Remembering Leotis Martin who KOed Sonny Liston 50 Years Ago Today

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    By Arne K. Lang

    On Dec. 6, 1969, 50 years ago today, former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston fought former sparring partner Leotis Martin on the stage of the showroom of the newly built International Hotel in Las Vegas, a property that subsequently took the name Las Vegas Hilton and is called the Westgate today. The Sunday afternoon fight was televised by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” with Howard Cosell behind the mic. The match was slated for 12 rounds. The victor would be recognized as the heavyweight champion of the newly formed North American Boxing Federation.

    Leotis Martin, who resided in Philadelphia, was a former national Golden Gloves and national AAU middleweight champion. As a pro, he was 30-5 with 18 knockouts. But he was given scant chance of defeating Sonny Liston (49-3, 38 KOs) who had won 14 in a row, 13 inside the distance, since his second defeat to Muhammad Ali. Although Liston had defeated no one of note during this run, he had yet re-established himself in the public mind as one of the hardest hitting punchers ever.

    Martin had several other things working against him. He was a small heavyweight. Liston, who came in at 220, would out-weigh him by 21 pounds. And he wasn’t a full-time boxer. In Philadelphia, he was a machinist for the Budd Company, one of America’s leading manufacturers of metal components for automobiles and railroad cars.

    Martin had helped Liston train for his matches with Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali. When a big name fighter is matched against a former sparring partner, there is always the suspicion that a gentleman’s agreement is in effect.

    Liston vs Martin played out somewhat like the recent fight between Deontay Wilder and Luis Ortiz although it lasted two rounds longer.

    After eight frames, Liston was ahead by two points on one of the scorecards and by three points on the others on Nevada’s “five-point-must” system. A flash knockdown of Martin in round four contributed to the imbalance.

    Martin could sense that Liston was tiring, but it wasn’t apparent to those in the audience – reportedly 1,800 paid – and that made the drama that was about to unfold all the more dramatic.

    In round nine, Leotis landed three unanswered combinations, one right after the other. The third was the classic one-two: left to the body, right to the jaw. Sonny Liston pitched forward, landing face first to the canvas, dead to the world. The ref counted “10” over his prone body. “He could have counted to 300,” said Review-Journal ringside reporter Jimmy Cox.

    Nevada’s ringside physician, Dr. Donald Romeo, came equipped with capsules of ammonia. The first one that he broke and waved under Sonny’s nose had no effect. The second capsule brought Liston out of his slumber.

    Sonny Liston was reportedly 39 years old, but was widely considered to be somewhat older than his listed age. The brutal manner in which he succumbed to Leotis Martin seemingly indicated that he had reached the end of the line, but he wasn’t done quite yet. Six months later, at the Armory in Jersey City, he butchered Chuck Wepner, the “Bayonne Bleeder,” in a fight stopped by the ring doctor after nine rounds.

    That would prove to be his final fight. On Jan. 5, 1971, Sonny’s wife Geraldine returned to their home in Las Vegas from a 12-day holiday trip to St. Louis, her hometown, and found her husband dead in their bedroom. Rigor mortis had already set in. The coroner’s report said Liston died from congestive heart failure, but that didn’t explain what brought on the coronary and there’s strong circumstantial evidence that he was a victim of foul play.

    Leotis Martin’s triumph elevated him to #1 in the heavyweight rankings of the WBA, the sport’s paramount sanctioning body. A fight with fellow Philadelphian Smokin’ Joe Frazier was his likely reward. But it wasn’t to be.

    Martin emerged from his fight with Liston with a detached retina. Back in those days, retinal detachment surgery was a hit-and-miss proposition. The most famous boxer to have his retina repaired mid-career was Sugar Ray Leonard, but that didn’t happen until 1982 and it was a far more complicated procedure than what it is nowadays. Three ophthalmic surgeons attended Sugar Ray during his two-hour operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

    Leotis Martin basically had no choice but to retire. His signature win would be the final fight of his career.

    Martin returned to Philadelphia and to his job in the foundry and lived out his days quietly in the city’s racially diverse Mount Airy neighborhood. In November of 1995 he passed away after suffering a stroke brought on by diabetes and hypertension. He was 56 years old.

    By the way, Tim Dahlberg was one of the ringside reporters. This was his first prizefight. In time he would travel the globe as the National Sports Columnist for the Associated Press and he’s still going strong today.

    Reminiscing about his first prizefight with Las Vegas sports columnist Ron Kantowski, Dahlberg recalled that there was a young heavyweight on the Liston-Martin undercard that looked pretty good.

    The kid’s name was George Foreman.

    Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel

  • #2
    I guess it was kinda like Lewis-Tyson. The knockout anyway.

    Comment


    • #3
      Good read. I saw the fight live and was a shocked as anyone else, yet I saw Leotis fight in person many times before and knew he was a sharp crafty fighter. My buddy Jimmy Ellis cut up his lip in the W.B.A. tournament and won on a TKO, but Leotis was a deadly and a sneaky combination puncher. He beat a guy I trained with in our Newark gym, Curtis Bruce in Philly. Leotis fought the toughest guys around. He beat Billy Daniels, hard punching Lee Carr the Pan American Games champion, he stopped Karl Mildenberger, he beat Thad Spencer and vicious punching Al "Blue" Lewis, and sadly in a fight I saw he stopped Sonny Banks who sadly died from the injuries. Banks floored then Cassius Clay in MSG, the night I met Ali and stayed close pals until the end. Leotis Martin was always dangerous and was always a hard road to go with anyone who fought him.

      Comment


      • Kid Blast
        Kid Blast commented
        Editing a comment
        I believe Leotis fought in the St. Louis or maybe it was the Chicago GG along with my friend Wilbur McClure way back in the day. Wilbur told me that Martin could have gone on to be a champion had it not been for the eye injury.
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