“I think Sonny gave that second fight away [to Muhammad Ali]. I swear. He said, ‘No, you win and you lose.’ I said, ‘In the first round?’ ” says Liston’s widow Geraldine on ESPN Classic’s SportsCentury series.
A brute inside the ring, Sonny Liston also was a brute outside it, condemned to a life of trouble. Born Charles, he was called Sonny. He was a man of mystery. No one is sure when he was born. No one is sure when — or even how — he died. More pressing to boxing fans is the questionable ways in which he lost two heavyweight title fights to Muhammad Ali, who was known in the first as Cassius Clay.
Each fight had its own set of ambiguities. The first, held in Miami Beach, provoked cries that Liston went into the tank when he didn’t come out for the seventh round. The second, held in a small town in Maine, was even more questionable, as Liston was knocked out in the first. Many openly wondered whether the fights were fixed.
What can be said with certainty is Liston was one of the most imposing figures to lace on boxing gloves. “In the ring, Sonny was a killing machine,” said Johnny Tocco, one of Liston’s trainers.
The 6-foot-1½, 215-pounder used his 14-inch fists to make his mark, sometimes at inappropriate times. Along with a 50-4 ring record that included 39 knockouts, he had 19 arrests. He pleaded guilty and served separate stretches for armed robbery and assaulting a police officer.
Liston had ties to organized crime. In 1952, after serving two years in prison, he was paroled to a team of boxing handlers with ties to John Vitale, a St. Louis underworld figure. Six years later, Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, top Mafia figures in the Northeast, became the majority owner of Liston’s contract. Carbo was later indicted on conspiracy, multiple counts of undercover management of prizefighters and unlicensed matchmaking. Liston fought 12 fights under their control.
In 1960, the man who never learned to read testified before a Senate subcommittee probing underworld control of boxing.
When Liston beat the popular Floyd Patterson in 1962 to become heavyweight champion, he was perceived as an indomitable — if evil — force.
Liston believed his birth date was May 8, 1932, but he was never sure and that led to speculation he was actually a few years older. The 24th of 25 children fathered by Tobey or Tobe Liston (one of 10 with his wife Helen), Sonny came into the world in a tenant’s shack 17 miles northwest of Forrest City, Ark. “I had nothing when I was a kid but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother and a father who didn’t care about any of us,” he said. “We grew up with few clothes, no shoes, little to eat. My father worked me hard and whupped me hard.”
Helen left her husband and moved to St. Louis in 1946. Sonny ran away from home to join her. Unable to read or write, the burly teenager attempted to make a living on the streets of St. Louis. In 1950, he and two others were arrested for armed robbery of two gas stations and a diner. Pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree robbery and two charges of larceny, he was sentenced to five years on each charge to run concurrently.
While at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, he started boxing. On Oct. 30, 1952, he was released on parole and he turned professional the following September. His first pro fight lasted 33 seconds: Liston leveled Don Smith with his first punch.
Liston was a marked man in St. Louis, where police were known to stop him on sight, sometimes without cause. On May 5, 1956, he erupted. When a cop confronted him and a friend about a cab parked near Liston’s home, he assaulted the officer, breaking his knee and gashing his face, and took his gun. Liston received nine months in the city workhouse.
After his release, Liston had another altercation with a cop — this time he left an officer headfirst in a trash can. A police sergeant put out the word that Liston should leave town or else. Sonny heeded the ultimatum, and went to Philadelphia. His managers sold his contract to a group headed by Carbo and Palermo. While Liston began working into shape with hopes for a heavyweight title shot, he also continued his anti-social behavior. Two more arrests — for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and another for impersonating a cop — led to Liston being suspended by the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission on July 14, 1961. The suspension was honored in all states.
Liston’s license was reinstated three months later. In December he knocked out fourth-ranked Albert Westphal to position himself for a shot at the champ, Patterson. Despite protests by the NAACP, which wanted Patterson to avoid fighting Liston, whose reputation as a thug was deemed detrimental to the civil rights movement, the fight took place on Sept. 25, 1962 in Chicago. It lasted only two minutes, six seconds.
But Liston found a chilly reception waiting in his adopted hometown. “A celebration for Philadelphia’s first heavyweight champ is now in order,” Philadelphia Daily News sports editor Larry Merchant wrote. “Emily Post would probably recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti we can use shredded warrants of arrest.”
The rematch with Patterson took place in Las Vegas on July 22, 1963, several months after Liston and his wife Geraldine relocated from Philadelphia to Denver; Liston said he was tired of the police harassment. Liston again knocked out Patterson in the first round.
His second title defense didn’t go as smoothly. Convinced that a brash kid named Cassius Clay was no threat, Liston hardly trained for their Feb. 25, 1964 bout. The boxing world was stunned when Liston didn’t come out for Round 7. While there were cries that Liston threw the fight, the 7-1 favorite cited a shoulder injury as the reason he couldn’t continue.
Their rematch took place on May 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine, and this time there was even more sentiment that the fight was fixed. Ali floored Liston with a short chopping right to the head in the first round. Liston fell, rolled over, climbed to his knees, and then fell again.
Referee Jersey Joe Walcott never counted to 10, but while trying to get Ali into a neutral corner, at least 17 seconds passed. When Liston finally rose, the fight resumed. However, when Walcott was told by a journalist how long Liston was down, he raised Ali’s hand in victory.
Nearly four decades later, it hasn’t been resolved if Ali actually landed the punch — “the phantom punch” as it’s often referred to — that floored Liston. One of Liston’s assistant trainers later said Liston threw the fight for fear of being murdered by Black Muslims.
While Liston publicly denied taking a dive, Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram said that years later Liston told him, “That guy [Ali] was crazy. I didn’t want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn’t hit.”
After taking a year sabbatical from the ring, he returned with four fights in 10 months in Sweden. In 1967, he came back to the U.S. and ran his winning streak to 14. But his hopes for another title shot were dashed when Leotis Martin knocked him out in late 1969. Six months later, Liston KO’d out Chuck Wepner in his last fight.
On Jan. 5, 1971, Liston’s body was discovered by Geraldine, who had been away visiting family, in their Las Vegas home. Coroners determined he had died at least a week earlier. The cause of death remains a mystery.
Officially, Liston died of heart failure and lung congestion, but needle marks found in his arm suggest he may have died of a heroin overdose. Some believe mobsters murdered him. At least one acquaintance suggested Liston was involved in a loan-sharking ring and was demanding a bigger stake.
“Ultimately, the true cause of Sonny Liston’s death was the mystery in him,” Nick Tosches wrote in “The Devil and Sonny Liston.” “He rode a fast dark train from nowhere, and it dumped him from that falling-off place at the end of the line.”