In 1970, former heavyweight champion of the world Sonny Liston was discovered dead at his Las Vegas home by his wife and son. A coroner report came back stating he died of natural causes — many believe that the truth appeared to be much darker.
Sonny Liston lived in the bygone era of some of the greatest heavyweight fighters to ever grace the boxing circuit, the likes of Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Fraizer. This is a time when heavyweight boxers were giants that roamed the planet. Liston, unknowingly, had an integral part to play in the theatrics of heavyweight boxing — the ‘Pantomime villain’— being considered by many as boxing’s biggest thug.
Liston had a ring presence like no other, with a lengthy criminal background and menacing power, Liston had the allure to rattle opponents before even stepping through the ropes. Liston’s untimely end, however, did not reflect his career accomplishments because of the overwhelming conspiracy and ambiguity surrounding the heavyweight champion of the world’s mysterious and controversial demise.A tragic mystery journeying into its fifth decade, Sonny Liston’s death still has the boxing nation scratching their heads in disbelief, still searching for a sense of fostering closure.
No Answer from Sonny
It had been two weeks since Geraldine Liston had last spoken to her husband — and had decided to return home after visiting her mother over the Christmas period in St Louis. The journey home for Mrs Liston had not been pleasant, rushing 1,598 miles across the country to check on her non-responsive husband in Las Vegas.
It was late evening when Geraldine returned home, fighting her way through a stack of newspapers piled up at her door. His fiercely loyal wife discovered all the doors inside the house unlocked — Liston nowhere to be seen — Instead, she was pounded by a vile and unfamiliar smell that hung heavy in the seasonal air.
After following the odour upstairs, she found her husband lying dead at the foot of their marital bed where he had spent the loneliest of Christmases. Once the most feared boxer on the planet, Liston was at the end of the bed in nothing but his underwear. Sonny’s body was bloated — the heavyweight champ had been dead for six days. Liston’s wife was convinced that her beloved husband’s death was down to heart failure, but needle tracks in his arm suggested otherwise.
It is believed that Geraldine avoided calling the police for several hours, due to trying desperately to reach a doctor, with the naivety that Liston still had hope of a beating pulse. When medical aid finally arrived — the answer hit Mrs Liston harder in the face than any of her late husband’s punches could ever have — Charles “Sonny” Liston was dead. Why he died is still eluding the sport and fans alike.
Fighting his way out
Sonny Liston’s death is strangely fitting. This is a man who was shrouded in speculation, and most of his fights were either reportedly arranged by the mob or had other influences when a fight came to fruition. He was born in Arkansas during the Great Depression — to a dirt-poor sharecropper and his wife — the 24th of 25 children — he was already on the ropes inadvertently through birth. Arkansas had no legal requirement at the time for birth certificates, so Liston never received one. It is still argued how old he was when he died.
The young Liston’s upbringing was far from privileged — adopting a mantra off his father that if you’re old enough to eat at the table, then you’re old enough to work. So, from childhood, Liston worked the land while receiving regular beatings off his father. The beatings maimed Sonny, leaving scars permanently over the boxer’s back. In between working the fields and regular beatings — Sonny attended little to no schooling and was denied a formal education.
From Convict to Champ
Liston’s family moved to St. Louis, after years of hardship and poverty, yearning to carve out a better life and the city provided more than a dust-bowl of a farm. An illiterate African American with no formal education and no work or qualifications beyond farming, employment opportunities were few and far between for Liston.
The only tools young Liston had at his disposable were his two meat hooks and his imposing size and strength. Predictably, Liston’s head turned to crime to make ends meet. His first stretch in jail was down to first-degree robbery of two gas stations and a diner — which Liston and a companion both pleaded guilty — receiving 5 years in jail.
Prison would turn out to be the catalyst in Liston’s life. Prison provided three meals a day and regular exercise in the form of boxing for the Arkansas born boxer. He took to the sport immediately, showcasing his power and strength which marked him as a natural in the ring. Liston’s natural athleticism was channelled by Father Alois Stevens, a Catholic priest who ran the prison gym. Steven’s influence secured Liston’s early release and in 1953 the ex-con turned his prison boxing professional.
Unfortunately, Liston’s new-found freedom proved to be a double-edged sword — and it didn’t take long until Sonny was on the mob’s radar — which would ultimately go on to dominate his entire career and also be fundamentally the boxer’s one-way ticket to an early grave. The ex-heavyweight had little choice in the matter when the mob approached him, turning down a mob boss could be the undoing of a boxing career.
The crime families had a foothold in the boxing world and were highly influential when it came to generating blockbuster bouts. The mob’s attraction towards Liston’s career of his unrivalled power and formidable talent.
The mob are known for backing sure-things, and for fighter to be a worthwhile investment he needs to be able to win. Liston had no problem on the winning front, picking apart fighters with his brutish boxing technique while effectively terrifying opponents with a tribal, barbaric demeaner without planting leather on skin.
“Of all the men I fought in boxing, Sonny Liston was the scariest,” Muhammed Ali would later say.
Finishing his career with a record of 50 wins and 4 losses with 39 knockouts — Liston should have been written into boxing record greats — but with his assorted past always in his shadow it was not to be.
Brutish Boxing Prevails
Liston’s spine-chilling reputation would later be a crutch he would utilise to strike the fear into men he faced in the ring, and he exploited this with a run of wins in the late 50s and early 60s. Liston was never a fan favourite — with the press not taking to him — primarily focusing on his shady past rather than his exploits in the ring. Liston was cast aside, treated as an outsider and punished for his past criminal activities.
Sonny started to accumulate victories while searching for an elusive title shot. His mob ties denied him a shot at Floyd Patterson’s heavyweight championship belt, but a friendly push by JFK propelled Patterson’s patriotism and the good American in him couldn’t refuse and Liston got his deserved shot.
Floyd’s patriotism would be his undoing as Liston demolished him and again in a rematch a year later. America’s fears had become reality, the man they ridiculed and judged had in his hands the most prestigious title in sports. The dislike for Liston became even more apparent when he returned home to Philadelphia — expecting a home town welcome — to find that nobody had turned up to lay down a red carpet.
His moment of triumph had turned into a devastating moment of reality, the heavyweight champion of the world was America’s public enemy. After all the adversity Liston had overcome, he couldn’t run away from his assorted past — from farm to famous — from beatings to boxing’s best.
Meeting Muhammed Ali
Liston is best known for his two fights with Muhammed Ali, this was a fight which catapulted Ali from Clay to Champion. The dethroning of Sonny Liston would create an everlasting memory of his boxing career and cast a shadow over every other previous achievement.
The defending champion was the overwhelming favourite, but a 22-year-old Ali — filled to the brim with confidence — surprised the world when Liston spat his gumshield to the canvas and failed to come out in the 7th round. Muhammed Ali had stripped Liston of the accomplishment he had fought his way out of poverty and prison to achieve, the champ was fairly bested by a younger, better boxer.
It wasn’t until Liston lost his title in 1964 — that his status as the most feared man on the planet had started to desert him. The rematch with Ali was what would be the most damaging to Liston’s career. Just 104 seconds into the fight, Liston hit the canvas from an alleged innocuous punch that few people saw. It was coined as the phantom punch and as Liston rolled and crawled around the floor, the fight was viewed as rigged by the globe.
Whatever the truth may be about the rematch, the public took no prisoners and dragged Sonny’s already tarnished reputation even deeper into the mud. Again, Liston had been embarrassed on boxing’s biggest stage and had accusations following him. Liston was set the perfect stage to revert to his old ways, moving to Las Vegas to pick up from where he left off — a mafia puppet.
The Bear is Back in the Woods
Despite the former heavyweight champion of the world’s status, he was hopeful he could resurrect his career. Liston went on a run of 14 victories before being knocked out in an emphatic fashion by Leotis Martin. This was the end of Sonny’s career and he had been sucked into the boxing world and spat out penniless. The Arkansas born brawler was stranded in no-man’s land, and was forced to a life of crime, once again.
As an illiterate at the mercy of the mob, most of Liston’s purse was taken from him. Liston always needed to fight to earn a living. But Liston’s career ended before it really begun and he had to find another way to put food on the table.
It’s not called Sin City for the disreputable and unwholesome atmosphere alone, it has a deeper and darker world than what most think. Sonny Liston was plunged back to square one, running errands, working for loan sharks doing drug dealers’ biddings. Liston spent occasionally some time on the red carpet, signing autographs at casino events and the odd handshakes. He still was a name, even if it was to cut the odd ribbon — he utilised his star status to earn every penny he could.
Liston would become another character when nightfall fell over the city, cruising across the west-side of the city in a pink Cadillac, selling drugs, drinking and consorting with dubious characters and mob king-pins. The boxer was moving in dangerous circles. Some say his death was inevitable — that he had been a victim of circumstance.
Liston’s Controversial Death
Liston’s death was as sad as his beginnings in life — leaving the way he came in — alone and persecuted. His seedy personal life points towards mob involvement, but the nature of his death was quiet, unbloodied and overcast with speculation. There was little to no incentive to murder Liston — but again — his past ties suggested that this was highly possible. So, what of the needle marks on Liston’s arms and the heroin he kept in his domicile? Some believe he overdosed through personal use and others believe an enforced overdose by the mob ended Liston.
Whatever theory, Liston was perhaps a victim of time and circumstance. He was a street thug who rose through the boxing ranks — to ultimately claim the crown for himself. Surrounded and plagued by organised crime, Liston had no way out. Sonny Liston’s death has haunted boxing and historians of the sport will go 12 rounds on how the powerful, talented Liston met his end.