“One day they’re going to write a blues song about fighters. It'll just be for slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell." ~ Sonny Liston
Johnny Tocco’s Gym, Las Vegas, 1968. “All aboard… the Night Train” screams James Brown from a radio in the corner of the room. In the centre of the ring, a menacing shadow bounces along to the rhythm with a skipping rope as the Godfather of Soul continues.
The boxer, who brought an aura of invincibility and fear to the ring that would make ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson cower, had just fought, and won, on American television for the first time in seven years. Severely lacking in self-esteem, he’d been on a lifelong journey to find acceptance and now, against all odds, he was within touching distance of maybe finally receiving it.
A reporter asks the boxer if he has what it takes to beat the up and coming Joe Frazier. “It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel,” he replies confidently.
Sadly, that boxer never would reach the top again. Heroin, the mafia and a string of hangers-on already had an iron-clad grip on his destiny. Within three years he would be dead, his bloated corpse remaining undiscovered for around a week before being discovered on 5 January 1971. An unceremonious end to one of boxing’s greatest warriors.
Nobody knows when he was born, not even the man himself. His death was similarly ambiguous. The ballad of Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston played out like a Shakespearean tragedy from beginning to end.
The 24th of 25 children, born into a sharecropping family in Arkansas, Sonny Liston’s actual date of birth remains unknown but 8 May 1932 is the date Liston believed to be close enough and one he’d stick with for official purposes throughout his career.
Liston was beaten savagely day in and day out by his father, Tobe, growing up and the blistering welts would remain etched onto his wide frame until the day he died.
“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 once said. “We grew up with few clothes, no shoes, little to eat. My father worked me hard and whupped me hard…”
When his mother left his father for Missouri in 1946, Liston ran away from home in a desperate bid to find her. Illiterate and with no money, Liston was forced to make a living on the streets of St Louis and thus began a life of crime that would become a mainstay throughout his life.
It would be in St Louis that the long tentacles of organised crime would get their hooks into Liston, employing the young brute as a professional leg breaker to anyone who dared cross the mob.
In 1950, he was arrested for the armed robbery of two gas stations and a diner and pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree robbery and two charges of larceny, and was sentenced to five years on each charge to run concurrently.
It was in prison that Liston would finally find the first authoritative figure to ever show any kindness towards him, when a Catholic priest took him under his wing and gave him his first taste of boxing.
After a successful amateur career, which spawned a Golden Gloves triumph where no opponent lasted three minutes, and with a professional career in prizefighting blossoming, he moved to Philadelphia with an eye on the heavyweight world title.
While Floyd Patterson and Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson were trading the title back and forth with one another at the top, Liston was decimating his way through the rest of the division’s ranks.
His most valuable asset was a left jab from hell, a piston-like punch that rendered many who stood before him unconscious and it can easily be ranked alongside the jabs of Larry Holmes and Wladimir Klitschko as the division’s very best.
He would finally win the world title in 1962 against Floyd Patterson, a fight that lasted a mere two minutes and eight seconds. A rematch would last just four seconds more.
Liston was finally on the verge of gaining the respect he’d wanted his entire life. He proved he was more than an illiterate thug, he was ready to become a champion the whole of America could be proud of.
After winning the title, expecting a welcoming parade when he touched down in Philadelphia, as close to a hometown as he had at the time, Liston had written a speech for the crowd he was assured would be there. In a heart-breaking twist, he was greeted only by a handful of reporters.
Writer Jack McKinney said, "I watched Sonny. His eyes swept the whole scene... You could feel the deflation, see the look of hurt in his eyes. He had been deliberately snubbed. Philadelphia wanted nothing to do with him."
Liston would lose the title in his next fight against a young Muhammad Ali, then named Cassius Clay, in the first of two fights that would sadly define his career to many.
Whether it was the manner of defeat, the reputed involvement of the mob when he was stopped by the infamous ‘Phantom Punch’ or the fact he, the scariest fighter on the planet, was effectively neutered by the cockiness and brashness of his opponent, these are the fights that we most associate with one of the most brilliant fighters to grace the heavyweight division.
He deserved so much more.
On 5 January 1971, Liston’s wife, Geraldine, after returning from two weeks away, found her husband's rotting corpse at the foot of their bed in their Vegas home. His death is still mired in controversy, some believe it was merely Liston’s heroin addiction gone horribly wrong, others believe it was an elaborate mafioso hit - regardless of how and who, it was a dreadful conclusion to the life of a man who just wanted respect.
In Nick Tosches’ Liston biography Night Train, the writer quotes one man who knew the former champion, “Liston died the day he was born.” A damning but accurate assessment of the champion’s life.
He’ll never go down as the greatest heavyweight of all time but it’s imperative he should at least be remembered for what he was; an exceptional fighter in the ring and an entirely misunderstood figure out of it.
Liston was buried in Palace Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas, and his grave simply reads “A Man”.
This article first appeared in The Sportsman on 08/05/20