The Sticky End: Did Sonny Liston’s failure to throw the Chuck Wepner fight cost him his life?

Most individuals would not consider being punched in the face by Sonny Liston as an educational experience. However, this was the case for 20-year-old Joe Bugner in June 1970 at Bufano’s Gym and Pool Hall in Jersey City. Approximately 40 people gathered to watch Liston spar two rounds with journeyman Charlie Polite before facing Bugner. Bugner, a British heavyweight, had a record of 26-2 and viewed sparring with Liston as a valuable learning opportunity. On the other hand, Liston was nearing the end of his fighting career and was in Jersey City for a 10-round contest with local heavyweight Chuck Wepner. Wepner, known as the Bayonne Bleeder, saw this fight as a steppingstone to bigger opportunities. Liston had previously suffered a knockout defeat, which had raised doubts about his future in the sport. Despite his impressive 49-4 record, some speculated that Liston’s age was catching up to him. Liston had been promised a $13,000 guarantee to fight Wepner, who would only be paid if the live gate exceeded $30,000. Both fighters had their hopes and ambitions for this match, with Wepner aiming to face the opponent that would provide the greatest financial gain. Leading up to the fight, Wepner adjusted his training tactics and focused on boxing and moving rather than relying on his usual slugger style. Despite not looking impressive during training, Wepner believed he could tire out Liston and secure a victory in the later rounds, similar to how Leotis Martin defeated Liston six months prior. The fight eventually took place at the Jersey City Armory, with over 4,000 spectators attending. Liston dominated the match and severely battered Wepner, causing multiple cuts and eventually prompting the referee to stop the fight after the ninth round. Wepner sustained around 70 stitches to address his numerous facial injuries. Some criticized the fight’s handling, questioning why it had not been stopped sooner given the severity of Wepner’s injuries. Despite the brutal punishment, Wepner’s bravery was commended by Liston, who acknowledged that Wepner had taken an incredible amount of punishment throughout the fight. Liston emphasized that he was not trying to knock Wepner out and that he felt he was ahead throughout the match.

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