When Sonny Liston became the world heavyweight boxing champ by knocking out Floyd Patterson in 1962, he hoped his criminal past and unsavory reputation could be put behind him. It was too late. At a time of growing racial unrest, he was cast in the public imagination as the angry, dangerous black man. Even the NAACP had asked "good guy" Floyd Patterson not to fight him. There was no ticker tape parade when he returned to his hometown of Philadelphia after the fight, just petty police harassment that ultimately drove him out of town. Still, nobody disputed his power in the ring, and virtually everyone expected him to easily dispatch a young upstart named Cassius Clay, soon to be renamed Muhammad Ali , who challenged him for the title in February 1964. Instead, after six rounds of pummeling, it was Liston who refused to leave his corner, ceding the championship to Cassius Clay and raising questions about whether the fight was fixed. Even more controversial was the rematch a year later, when Ali knocked out Liston with a "phantom punch" so fast that many thought Liston had taken a dive. Liston began a comeback in 1966, but he never got another shot at the title, and for the last months of his life he was jobless and nearly broke. He was found dead in his home on January 5, 1971, officially from heart failure, but reportedly from a heroin overdose.
Born to an Arkansas tenant farmer named Tobe Liston and his second wife, Helen, Charles L. Liston was one of twenty-five children. Other than that, little is definite about his birth, but he seems to have been born in a shack on the cotton plantation where his parents worked, a little outside Forrest City, in Arkansas, which did not at that time require birth certificates for those born at home. In later years, he gave his birth date as May 8, 1932, saying those who challenged this were calling his mother a liar. But she herself at various times gave January 8th or January 18th as his birthday, and many thought he was years older than he claimed. Even his name is a mystery. According to his mother, he was given the name by the midwife, and nobody remembered what the "L." stood for.
Birth of a Prison Boxer
What is fairly certain is that he had a difficult upbringing. Lost among his dozens of siblings, young Charles Liston worked beside them as soon as he was old enough, rarely attending school and never learning to read and write. Never close to his father, he once said, in a rare commentary on his childhood, "The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating." Eventually, he was sent to live with a stepbrother, and after his father's death, in 1946, he followed his mother to St. Louis.
Actually, young Charles simply showed up in St. Louis one night, thinking it was like the small towns he was used to, where anybody he met would be able to point him to the home of Helen Liston. A couple of policemen found him wandering around and took him to an all-night café where a friend of Helen's told him where she lived. The cops agreed to drive him there. It would be Liston's last friendly contact with the police. With his huge hands and menacing attitude, Charles Liston soon fell in with St. Louis' youth gangs, beginning with petty crimes and moving on to harder stuff. On January 15, 1950, he was sentenced to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City on two counts of armed robbery and two counts of larceny. It was there he found his calling.
The big man with the bad attitude soon caught the attention of Father Edward Schlattmann, the Catholic chaplain who doubled as the prison's athletic director. As he did with other prison brawlers, Fr. Schlattmann convinced Liston, who had somehow acquired the nickname "Sonny," to work out his aggression in the prison's boxing ring. After a few weeks, other inmates refused to get into the ring with Liston. Father Schlattmann's successor, Father Alois Stevens, told a Sport Illustrated reporter that Liston "was the most perfect specimen of manhood I had ever seen. Powerful arms, big shoulders. Pretty soon he was knocking out everybody in the gym. His hands were so large! I couldn't believe it. They always had trouble with his gloves, trouble getting them on when his hands were wrapped." Sonny's fists were some fifteen inches around, in sharp contrast to the foot or less claimed by the vast majority of heavyweight boxers.
From the Big House to the Big Time
With the help of Father Stevens, Liston came to the attention of boxing promoter Frank Mitchell and trainer Monroe Harrison, who secured his parole on October 30, 1952. In February 1953, they entered him in the open-and-novice heavyweight division of the amateur Golden Gloves tournament sponsored by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Liston swept the competition, going on to win the Midwestern Golden Gloves title, beating an Olympic heavyweight champion, and then the national title, becoming the Golden Gloves heavyweight champion in March. In June of that year, he defeated West German Herman Schreibauer to become the Golden Gloves world heavyweight champion. In five months, Sonny Liston had gone from unknown ex-con to amateur champion. Clearly, it was time to turn pro.
On September 2nd, he fought and won his first professional boxing match, knocking out Don Smith in thirty-three seconds, with the first punch of the first round. It was a spectacular beginning to a career that would take him to the top. Over the next few years, his menacing scowl and quick knockouts of his opponents would become legendary. By the end of 1961, with thirty-four wins in thirty-five fights, twenty-three of them by knockouts, Sonny Liston had established an unassailable reputation in the ring. Even his one loss, against Marty Marshall on September 7, 1953, showed the man's power and determination. Marshall caught Liston unawares in the fourth round with a punch that broke his jaw, but Sonny fought on, losing in a close decision after eight full rounds. Before long, the crowds were clamoring to give him a shot at taking the World Heavyweight Title from Floyd Patterson. Some were even calling him the uncrowned heavyweight champion.
|1932||Born May 8 in Forrest City, Arkansas (birth date according to one official document signed by Liston; other dates and birthplaces given variously by Liston, his mother, and other sources)|
|1946||Leaves his father to go live with his mother in St. Louis|
|1950||Sentenced to Missouri State Penitentiary, Jefferson City, for armed robbery and larceny; begins boxing in prison under tutelage of athletic director Father Edward Schlattmann|
|1952||Paroled from prison|
|1953||Enters professional boxing, knocking out Don Smith in first round|
|1957||Sentenced to nine months in St. Louis workhouse for assaulting a police officer; released August 1957|
|1957||Marries Geraldine Clark|
|1958||Signs contract with Joseph "Pep" Barone, associate of alleged mobsters Frankie Carbo and "Blinky" Palermo|
|1962||Defeats Floyd Patterson to win heavyweight title|
|1964||Loses heavyweight title to Cassius Clay|
|1965||Loses rematch to Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) after so-called "Phantom Punch"|
|1966||Defeats Gerhard Zach in Stockholm, Sweden, as start of comeback|
|1967||With Geraldine, adopts three-year-old son, Daniel|
|1970||Wins technical knockout in his last fight, against Chuck Wepner|
|1971||Discovered dead on January 5 by Geraldine and Daniel in their Las Vegas home. Official date of death put as December 30. Lung congestion and heart failure ruled as official cause of death|
But Liston was also cementing another reputation. His troubles with the police continued unabated. Between 1953 and 1958, when he left St. Louis for good, he was arrested fourteen times. To escape the constant harassment, he relocated to Philadelphia. By that time, Liston was being secretly managed by Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, two notorious mobsters who controlled big time boxing throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Both California and Pennsylvania suspended Liston's boxing license, and Liston himself had to appear before a Senate subcommittee investing organized crime's influence in professional boxing. For Floyd Patterson's manager, Cus D'Amato, who had spent years trying to clean up boxing's image and get the mob out, all this made him completely unacceptable as a challenger. But on December 4, 1961, Liston fought in the opening match in a pay-per-view double-header featuring Floyd Patterson in the main event. In less than two minutes, Liston had knocked out West German Albert Westphal, who remained unconscious longer than the fight had lasted. There was no denying it. Patterson was the only fighter left for Liston, and Liston was the only challenger left for Patterson. In March of 1962, Floyd Patterson overrode all the objections and signed a contract to fight Sonny Liston.
The Champ Nobody Wanted
A grand debate on the morality of letting Liston vie for the championship erupted in the media. Sportswriters emphasized his criminal background as much as his brutal reputation in the ring. New York Herald-Tribune columnist Red Smith asked simply, "Should a man with a record of violent crime be given a chance to become a champion of the world?" Many felt boxing's reputation was on the line. Others worried about the reputation of black America. NAACP president Percy Sutton said that erudite, soft-spoken Floyd Patterson "represents us better than Liston ever could or would." Years later, in "In This Corner…!" 42 World Champions Tell Their Stories, Patterson described the terrible pressure he was under, when civil rights leaders, including President Kennedy himself, made it clear to Patterson that they needed him to win, as if a loss would doom the civil rights movement itself.
But in the ring none of that mattered. On September 25, 1962, Sonny Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson in two minutes, six seconds. For the first time in history, a world heavyweight champion had been knocked out in the first round. Heavyweight belt in hand, Sonny Liston thought that at last his turn would come for a little respect, or even affection. He hoped for a ticker tape parade when he flew back to his adopted hometown of Philadelphia. Instead, when he stepped off the plane, all he found were his usual tormentors, a few reporters, a few cops. As his friend Jack McKinney told Sports Illustrated reporter William Nack, "What happened in Philadelphia that day was a turning point in his life. He was still the bad guy. He was the personification of evil. And that's the way it was going to remain. He was devastated." Soon after, he moved to Denver.
On July 22 the following year, Liston beat Patterson again, this time in two minutes, twenty-three seconds. The new champ seemed invincible, and a few days later Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, "The central fact … is that the world of sport now realizes it has gotten Charles (Sonny) Liston to keep. It is like finding a live bat on a string under your Christmas tree." But that night there was already a hint of the champ's coming fall. In the confusion after the knockout, while the crowd actually booed the triumphant Liston, a young boxer named Cassius Clay rushed the stage, making a beeline for the microphone and launching into his "I am the greatest" speech and daring Liston to take him on.
The Fall and Decline
In February 1964, Liston finally gave the loud-mouthed young boxer a shot at the title. When Cassius Clay stepped into the ring, he was counted out by virtually everyone. Instead, after six rounds, the two boxers stood even in points. Then Sonny Liston refused to leave his corner for the seventh round, claiming a shoulder injury. The champ had conceded defeat to the upstart, and many people wanted to know why. Liston's manager, Jack Nilon, said the injury had occurred during training before the fight, but nobody had heard anything about it before. Liston himself claimed the injury occurred in the first round of the fight. A few days later, speculation deepened when it came out that Inter-Continental Promotions, in which Nilon and Liston had a major stake, had signed a $50,000 contract in October 1963 securing the rights to promote Cassius Clay's next fight after the Liston-Clay fight, a contract that had just become much more valuable. Suspicious officials even withheld the fight purse until a doctor confirmed that Liston's left shoulder had indeed been injured.
Still, questions remained, but they were nothing compared to the storm that would erupt after the rematch on May 25, 1965, held in the Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston, Maine, after other venues rejected the idea of hosting the tarnished ex-champ. Even as the challenger, Liston was favored 8-5 against the champion, now renamed Muhammad Ali. But what happened defied all the odds. Liston went down in the first round, after Ali threw an overhand right that seemed to barely graze his head. The punch would go down in boxing lore as the "Phantom Punch."
A Mysterious Death
Sonny Liston never again got a shot at the title, but he never quite retired from the ring either. He won eleven straight fights by knockout, mostly in Europe, through 1968. In his last fight, against Chuck Wepner in June of 1970, he won a 10th round technical knockout. At the time of this last fight, Liston claimed to be 38, but many think he was closer to 50.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1953||Golden Gloves world heavyweight champion|
|1953||In his first professional boxing match, knocks out Dan Smith in first round|
|1953-61||Wins 34 of 35 matches, 23 by knockouts|
|1954||Defeats Michigan state heavyweight champion John Summerlin|
|1962-64||World Heavyweight Boxing Champion|
|1966||Defeats Gerhard Zech in first match of comeback attempt|
|1968-69||Wins 12 of 13 matches|
|1970||Defeats Chuck Wepner in final boxing match of his career|
As in birth, mystery surrounds Sonny Liston's death. On January 5, 1971, Geraldine Liston returned from a trip to St. Louis to find her husband dead in their Las Vegas home. The coroner's report was inconclusive, but strongly implied heart failure, although traces of heroin were found in his blood. Some thought the ex-champ, jobless and nearly broke, had killed himself. Others thought an accidental overdose had carried him off. Still others, of course, concluded that the mob had decided it was time for Sonny Liston to take another dive, permanently.
A "Phantom Punch"
When Sonny Liston went down in the first round of his rematch with Muhammad Ali, fans were amazed—and angry. In The Devil and Sonny Liston Nick Tosches wrote: "One thing is certain: in that rematch … when Sonny lay down in the first, he showed less acting ability than in the episode of Love American Style in which he later bizarrely appeared. That fight was not merely a fix … it was a flaunted fix." Tosches suggested the Mob was tired of its tarnished champ and saw more lucrative possibilities with Ali. Others suggested that Nation of Islam figures threatened Liston's life if he didn't throw the fight. But not all saw a fix. Sports Illustrated ran a frame-by-frame analysis of the fight on June 7, 1965, concluding that Ali had in fact knocked out Liston. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: "What happened? I'll tell you what happened. Sonny Liston got the hell beat out of him is what happened … an old man groping his way into a speedy, insolent, reckless kid." Decades later, sportswriter Allen Barra agreed, concluding in The New York Times that "Murray's shot seems right on target, but it's hard to knock out a myth."
Sonny Liston's death, at an indeterminate age, of an undetermined cause, may seem a fitting end for a controversial fighter with such shadowy connections. Even more fitting may be a comment he once made to an interviewer: "Ever since I was born, I've been fighting for my life." Sonny Liston lived and died a fighter, and in the words of the simple epitaph over his grave: "A Man."
Tosches, Nick. The Devil and Sonny Liston. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2000.
Barra, Allen. "Sonny Liston: He Never Knew What Hit Him." New York Times (May 21, 2000)
Hochman, Stan. "Few Come Away Unscarred in New Book on Sonny Liston." Knight Ridder/Tribune New Service (May 26, 2000): K3039.
Hoffer, Richard. "A Lot More Than Lip Service …" Sports Illustrated (November 29, 1999): 86.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "A Hazy Start, a Dark End, a Champion in Between." New York Times (April 10, 2000): B6.
Lipsyte, Robert. "Decades Pass, and What's New Under the Sun?" New York Times (February 25, 1994): B10.
Nack, William. "O Unlucky Man: Fortune never smiled on Sonny Liston, even when he was champ."Sports Illustrated (February 4, 1991): 66.
"This Week in Black History." Jet (September 27, 1999): 19.
Sketch by Robert Winters