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Ursa Major or Minor: Was it Jeffries or Liston? 

Publish Date: 03/27/2024
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

James Jackson Jeffries and Charles L. “Sonny” Liston; two great heavyweight champions whose pugilistic primes were separated by some sixty years. Each was considered nigh-invincible in his respective heyday, yet they had much more in common than their reputations. Both Jeffries and Liston stood a bit over six feet tall and weighed in the vicinity of 215 pounds. Oh yeah, and each had a famous ursine-related nickname. Big Jim’s nom de guerre was the California Grizzly, while Sonny’s name, given to him by Muhammad Ali, was simply the Bear (or the Big, Ugly Bear).

In addition, these bruisers had phenomenal strength. Legend (perhaps folklore) has it that Jeff pulled two gargantuan timbers from atop an unconscious friend who had been pinned under them at an oil well. When Jim and other workers tried to clear the timbers, it took eight men to move each one. As far as Liston went, he and a young George Foreman sparred and worked out together for a time. As author Paul Gallender relates, “After doing roadwork in Las Vegas in the late 1960s, referee  Davey Pearl put a wheelbarrow at the bottom of a ravine and filled it with rocks. Sonny moved it up  and back down three times, while George moved it up just once. ‘I’ll tell you something,’ Pearl [said],  ‘when it came to strength, Foreman was a kindergarten kid compared to Sonny.’ ”

Jeffries had some archaic training ideas, believing, for instance, that it was a good idea to dehydrate oneself during fight preparation. He desiccated his body multiple times during his various camps,  particularly when he got his weight down to 205 pounds for the first Fitzsimmons fight. Somehow it didn’t seem to affect him adversely, but one can’t help thinking that it would have against large modern dreadnoughts. With the Boilermaker (Jim’s other famous appellation) fully hydrated, he would probably go about 240 pounds or so, as he often weighed 220 or 225 by fight time.

Jim’s reach (“wingspan,” not the more useful “boxing reach,” or one arm measured from armpit to middle knuckle) was about 77 inches and his height was 6 feet, ½ inch. Sonny, at his peak, stood 6 feet  1 inch and claimed to possess a fingertip-to-fingertip reach of 84 inches. This is highly unlikely. As it turns out, Old Stoneface was evidently exaggerating, as Tyson Fury does with his own height (and in general). There are (allegedly) extant “tale-of-the-tape” measurements for Liston prior to him reaching the top of the heavyweight heap, that give his reach as from 78 to 80 inches, and the Nevada commission gave his reach for the Leotis Martin fight as 80½ inches. Still highly impressive, but not ludicrous. If Sonny’s reach was 84 inches, it places him a quantum leap above the next fighter listed on’s so-called Ape Index (see below). So, we can probably agree that Jeffries and  Liston were about the same size.

Now, in the interest of comparison, let’s describe the men’s boxing styles. They have often been classified as sluggers but in reality, wielded enough skill to arguably qualify as boxer-punchers. Sonny had been well-schooled by Willie Reddish, able to duck, block, jab, and put together intelligent combinations. Jeff was taught not only by legendary trainer Billy Delaney, but also by the great welter

and middleweight champion “Syracuse” Tommy Ryan. The latter was a renowned tutor of boxing skill and strategy, whose most famous protégé was Jeffries. Jim credited Tommy for teaching him the crouching style as well as jabbing and strategy. He also gave Ryan the nod for enabling him to capture the heavyweight championship from Bob Fitzsimmons, the Fighting Blacksmith, in 1899.

Jeffries, despite his size, was not an overly aggressive fighter. He would alternate between a crouch and a more upright stance, but often let his opponents lead, then countered them. He became especially adept at firing a short, powerful left jab to the head and body, and a right to the body that  was a real torso torpedo. His left was one as well. In fact, Jim was a natural southpaw, so his portside

was even more potent than his starboard.

The same was true of Liston, though he was not a converted southpaw. Sonny said he developed unusual strength and power in the left from his days in the cotton fields, when he held a heavy basket  in that hand all day while picking cotton bolls with his right. The Bear was somewhat more aggressive than Jeff (though not as much so as one might imagine by reputation) and probably rangier with the

jab. He only went as far as 12 rounds once, when Eddie Machen took him the distance in a losing effort. The Grizzly, on the other hand, went 20 rounds with “Sailor” Tom Sharkey in their first meeting, and 25 innings of living hell in their second. The rematch was held under intense lighting which brought temperatures in the ring to something like 100 degrees (Fahrenheit). It was perhaps the most grueling heavyweight tilt of all time, and Jim’s stamina cannot be questioned. He used that inhuman endurance to wear down and outlast his challengers.

It can be stated fairly that Jeffries never faced an adversary like Liston. The closest he came to it was likely against Gus Ruhlin and Fitzsimmons, which are pale comparisons (no pun intended).  Conversely, however, Sonny’s two bouts against a prime Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams perhaps give some idea how he (Liston) might have fared with Jeff. Sonny took the best howitzers Cleve could toss at him and stiffened his foe in the third and second frames, respectively. The defense of Williams was likely a bit more open than that of Jeffries, but it provides some point of comparison.

Both Jeffries and Liston had tried and true chins. While at their apex, they held up to the best shots from the hardest-punching beasts of their respective eras. Jim was essentially only cut in the second  Fitzsimmons contest. After Jeff starched Ruby Robert, the latter allegedly admitted to using lead foil,  or “tea lead” over his hands, which inflicted the damage to Jim’s face. Liston was said to have only been cut once, by the slashing punches of Muhammad Ali, and it wasn’t a very bad cut at that. Jeff and Sonny were also possessed of good speed for their size, especially Jim. The extant footage of him in training reveals this, as does the anecdotal and journalistic narrative of his career. Liston is finally  becoming known as one of the most underrated pugilists who ever lived, thanks to the writing of  authors such as Springs Toledo, Paul Gallender, and Nick Tosches.

So, the question seems to be this: Could Jim Jeffries survive the early rounds versus Sonny Liston?  If so, his chances of victory would increase dramatically. Against his most dangerous foes,  Jeffries did utilize his crouch more. From that stance, he would drive short, hard shots into Sonny’s ribs and midsection, taking the steam out of him. In my view, Liston either gets Jeff out of there in  the first half dozen stanzas, or Jim takes him into the deep water of the late rounds, where he sends him down to Davey Jones’ Locker.

I am not copping out when I say that I can’t quite make up my mind about how often each scenario occurs. Can you? Many might argue that Sonny gets the nod because he fought modern opponents,  but Jim dominated that first golden age of heavyweights, was instructed in technique by one of the all-time best (Tommy Ryan), and had unusual speed and athletic ability for someone who fought more  than a century ago. To some extent, a fistfight is a fistfight. I think a Jeffries-Liston clash is an intriguing one—one I would dearly have loved to have seen.


A Man Among Men by Kelly Richard Nicholson (2002)

Ultimate Tough Guy by Jim Carney Jr. (2009)

In the Ring With James J. Jeffries by Adam J. Pollack (2009)

Sonny Liston, the Champ Nobody Wanted by A. S. “Doc” Young (1963)

The Devil and Sonny Liston by Nick Tosches (2000)

Sonny Liston by Bob Steen (2008)

Sonny Liston by Paul Gallender (2012)

Jim Jeffries training footage compiled by boxing historian (and friend) Tracy Callis ReachArm-Span-in-History


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