Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) are three fighters who define their own little era, for it is difficult to speak of Patterson without mentioning Liston, or of Liston without mentioning Clay. Many associate Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali with the time of Frazier, Foreman and Norton, but like Mike Tyson, Clay arrived on the scene early and before the rest of his own “generation,” starting his career by cleaning out the older fighters of Patterson’s and Liston’s time.
The three men fought many of the same contenders in an era that was rich with talent, and so the period beginning with Floyd Patterson winning the crown in 1956 to Ali’s being stripped of it in 1967 was one of the liveliest eras in heavyweight history.
1. Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali: Ali started his career-long practice of fighting everybody worth fighting in the early-to-mid 1960s. Before winning the title, he over-powered the great Archie Moore and defeated the redoubtable Doug Jones. Ali scored one of the great upsets in sports history by first making the much-feared Sonny Liston quit on his stool, and then knocking him out in the rematch. He out-boxed and stopped Floyd Patterson, pounded out a points victory over uber-tough George Chuvalo, beat Briton Henry Cooper twice, humiliated Ernie Terrell, and knocked out Zora Folley. Only a few contenders from the era escaped a confrontation with the withering speed, grace and power of the youthful Louisville Lip.
2. Sonny Liston: For those who discount Liston as a great heavyweight, think on this. Many think this rangy, 6-foot, 215 lbs. man was the most powerful heavyweight who ever lived. George Foreman based his own brooding, hard-hitting style on Liston. The guy knocked out Cleveland Williams twice, stopped Zora Folley, out-pointed skilled boxer Eddie Machen, and tossed Floyd Patterson around like a rag doll. Simply put, to beat Liston you needed to be fast, able to take a punch, and hit with enough authority to keep the big guy wary. No one in the era had the right blend of elements to tame Liston except Clay.
3. Ernie Terell: Most people remember Ernie Terrell as the boxer who Ali taunted with “what’s my name sucka!?” as he was mercilessly beaten. Standing 6’6″, Terrell was in reality a rangy, skinny heavyweight and one of the best fighters of the latter part of this era. He went 1-1 with Cleveland Williams, and unlike Ali, Terrell met Williams before he was shot and lost a kidney. Doug Jones, Eddie Machen, George Chuvalo and light heavyweight legend Bob Foster were among his other victims.
4. Floyd Patterson: Like Clay, Patterson was another early bloomer. When he won the title, Floyd Patterson was the youngest man ever to have done so. When he beat Archie Moore to accomplish this feat, Moore was actually the bigger man, outweighing Patterson by half a dozen pounds. His reign as champion wasn’t much to speak of, as it was dominated by his trilogy with Ingo Johansson (who never did much after that) and his two crushing defeats at the hands of Liston. It was after losing the title for good that Patterson bloomed due to his efforts to win it back. He beat Machen, Chuvalo and Cooper, but lost to Ali.
5. Cleveland Williams: Like Terrell, Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams is often remembered in connection with the whipping he received at the hands of Muhammad Ali. Ali’s win over Williams is often cited as Ali’s best-ever performance, which is an utter travesty when one realizes that Williams was just a shadow of himself by then. In November 1964, Williams was shot by a policeman and lost a kidney. Prior to that, he was a 6’3″ punching machine that slugged toe-to-toe with Sonny Liston twice, earned a draw with Eddie Machen, and scored a knockout over Ernie Terrell. When the two met in a rematch, Terrell beat Williams, but only on a narrow Split Decision. “Big Cat” was a tough customer who saw his career cut short. If Williams had not been shot and enjoyed a longer stretch of good health, I would pick him to beat some more of the era’s contenders, including good odds against Floyd Patterson or a rubber match with Terrell. As it is, he enters the Top 5 of the era at #5.
Honorable Mentions: Eddie Machen, Zora Folley, George Chuvalo, Archie Moore, Doug Jones, Ingo Johansson.