The Sad Life of Sonny Liston
By Michael McCarthy
Perhaps the most iconic sports photograph of all-time is the Neil Leifer image captured during the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in 1965.
The famous photo depicts an irate Ali standing over the fallen Liston in the first round of that controversial bout. The eye is naturally immediately drawn to the charismatic Ali, the most iconic sports figure of all time. But what of the man who shares the frame with Ali, what about Sonny Liston?
Charles “Sonny” Liston was born in a place called Sand Slough, Arkansas. Now to say Liston put Sand Slough on the map would be an exaggeration. The place is so remote and sparsely populated it remains something of an anomaly today. For example, the Wikipedia page for Sand Slough contains just one sentence, “Sand Slough is a small community in St. Francis County, Arkansas, notable for being the birthplace of boxing heavyweight champion Sonny Liston”.
It was in this remote outpost of the United States that Liston was born in 1932, apparently. I say apparently as an actual date (or year) of birth for Sonny Liston has never been established. In rural Arkansas during the depression, a poor family had bigger things to worry about than the accuracy of a birth certificate.
Born into poverty and the 12th of 13 children born to Tobe and Helen Liston (and the 24th of 25 children fathered by Tobe in total), Sonny did not enjoy a privileged upbringing. His father adopted a mantra that if you’re old enough to eat at the table, you’re old enough to work. And so from childhood, Liston worked the land. Unfortunately, this would rarely be enough for Tobe Liston who would regularly beat his children.
Such was the brutal nature of the beatings Sonny endured, that his back remained permanently scarred. In between working the fields and regular beatings, Sonny had little time left over for schooling. He received little or no formal education.
In 1946, his mother could no longer stand the poverty and abuse and left the family behind. Sonny, then aged between 14 and 16 years, soon followed and wound up in the city of St. Louis. As an illiterate African-American with no qualifications or work experience beyond farming, employment opportunities were non-existent for Sonny in the city.
The only tools he had at his disposal were his two fists and his imposing size and strength. Unsurprisingly, Liston turned to crime to survive. He carried out a series of robberies and muggings and ended up being sentenced to 5 years in prison.
Prison would prove to be a turning point in his life. In prison, Liston would receive three meals a day and regular physical exercise in the form of the prison boxing programme. He took to the sport immediately where his power and strength marked him as a natural. In fact, his excellence in the ring and the influence of Father Stevens, who ran the boxing programme, were instrumental in securing Liston early release in 1952.
Upon his release, the organized crime bosses who were still highly influential in the boxing world, took a keen interest in the promising ex-con heavyweight. Mobster John Vitale became Liston’s manager. He also took Sonny into his personal employ. Liston was used as a mob enforcer and debt collector. Physically imposing and an accomplished fighter, Liston was a natural when it came to extracting money from people.
As difficult as it is to defend Liston’s time as a mob enforcer, he really had little choice in the matter. Turning down an offer from a mob boss was a risky move and working for Vitale allowed Liston to continue his boxing career. It is likely that without the backing of a wealthy manager like Vitale, Liston would once again have been forced to resort to street crime and would most likely have ended up back in prison.
However, association with the mob was a double-edged sword. While it may have been beneficial to launching his professional boxing career, it created problems for him outside the ring and also placed a ceiling on how far he could progress in the sport of boxing. Liston had frequent run-ins with the law. The combination of regular police harassment and Sonny’s short fuse led to a number of violent confrontations with police officers. He would eventually be run out of St. Louis by a police ultimatum.
Liston was transferred from Vitale’s stable in St. Louis to Philadelphia where he would be managed by mob combo Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo. It was in Philadelphia that his pro career really took off. Sonny began to accumulate knockout victories. However, a title shot proved elusive. Not only was he a feared fighter, his association with mobsters led many to call on the champion, Floyd Patterson, to refuse Liston a shot at the title. Bizarrely, it took an inadvertent assist from JFK to get Liston his much deserved shot.
On a visit to the White House, Floyd Patterson – who was considered much more socially acceptable – spoke with Kennedy about a fight with Liston. When the president encouraged Patterson to fight and beat Liston, the good American in Patterson could not refuse. Patterson’s patriotism would prove to be his undoing as Liston destroyed him in their title fight and again in the rematch. America’s worst fear had come true. The man they most feared now held the most prestigious title in sports.
Winning the title gave us another glimpse at the sadness behind Liston’s fearsome image. The heavyweight championship of the world was the pinnacle of sporting achievement. Champions were treated as kings in their home town. Sonny too would have his homecoming. Arriving home by plane with the heavyweight title, Liston had his best suit on, waiting to be presented, triumphant, to the people of Philadelphia.
Liston had come from the depths of poverty in Sand Slough, overcome the daily beatings, faced prison and overcome every obstacle put in his way to claim the title. And as he stepped off the plane in Philadelphia, he suddenly realized nobody had turned up to welcome him home. His moment of triumph would turn to one of crushing realization that he would always be the bad guy in the eyes of the public, that no matter what he did, he could not shake his past.
That incident coupled with his constant negative portrayal by newspapers fueled bitterness in Liston. Already shy and a man of few words – traits not helped by his illiteracy – Liston became more and more withdrawn. He often refused to give more than single word answers to the few questions he would listen to.
This unfortunately created a vicious cycle. Sports writers hated Liston because he said nothing to write about, as a result they increasingly portrayed him in a negative light, which in turn fuelled Liston’s suspicions and only made him more reticent.
Of course Liston is best known for his two fights with Muhammad Ali. Those two defeats would create the lasting memory of his boxing career and forever cast a shadow over his legacy. In the first fight, Liston came to the ring over confident and out of shape, as well as being hampered by a shoulder injury.
Although expected to win comfortably, by the 6th round the champion was a spent force. When Liston failed to answer the bell for the 7th round, Ali was proclaimed as the new champion. There is some suggestion that Liston’s failure to come out for the 7th round was due to his shoulder injury but others put it down to lack of heart and conditioning. Whichever narrative you chose to believe, it does not reflect well on Sonny. For a champion to go out on his stool like that was almost unheard of.
However, the more damaging criticism of Liston centres on his performance in the rematch. This fight would go down as one of the most infamous in boxing history. A short right hook in the first round dropped Liston to the canvas and saw him sprawled on his back. The manner in which he rolled onto his back, recovered to one knee, before collapsing back to the canvas still looks highly suspicious.
Most people believe that Liston took a dive or at least chose not to beat the count. This widespread belief saw him further vilified. It is difficult to defend the notion of a title contender throwing a fight, if that is indeed what happened, but once again the circumstances surrounding the fight cast a softer light on Liston’s behaviour.
The build up to the rematch was filled with a level of tension not seen since Jack Johnson fought the “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries in 1910. On the one side was Sonny Liston with his criminal past and mob affiliations while on the other side was Muhammed Ali. The Ali of 1965 was a far cry from the much loved icon we know today.
Back then his association with the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammed meant Ali was a controversial and unpopular political figure. Three months before the fight, Malcolm X had been assassinated by the Nation of Islam. There were rumours that followers of Malcolm X were planning to assassinate Ali as revenge.
There were also rumours of a Nation of Islam plot to assassinate Sonny. The tiny arena was more than half full of security, police and FBI agents such was the level of security concern surrounding the fight.
Sonny Liston was not a political man. He was a fighter. He stepped into the ring, he fought, he usually won, and then he went home. He did not want any part of the political tensions surrounding the fight. He would legitimately have felt his life may be in danger, either directly or that he could be collateral damage in some plot to assassinate Ali. Added to this was Liston’s growing belief that Ali was genuinely insane.
Liston had already won the heavyweight title once and received no acclaim or glory for doing so. If anything, the increased attention it brought was a negative for someone like Sonny. In the first round he gets hit with a legitimate punch that causes him to stumble forward onto the canvas.
At that point, given the real danger surrounding the fight and the fact that even if he won he was not likely to be accepted, it is not a massive leap to suggest he may have thought to himself, “I might as well stay down”. And if so, can you really blame him?
Of course suspicion surrounded the ending of the fight. Liston, once again, found himself vilified and ridiculed. His boxing career would never recover and the two defeats against Ali would forever define his legacy in the ring. Unfortunately for Sonny, he would not be able to ride off into the sunset as a wealthy former champion.
As an illiterate at the mercy of the mob, much of Liston’s earnings from his career were taken from him. He would need to fight on to earn a living. But he would not do so for very long. In January 1971, his wife returned home after spending a few days with her mother. She discovered the decaying remains of the former champion in his bedroom. He had been dead for almost a week.
In some ways his life came full circle, the uncertainty that surrounded his birth also surrounded his death. The official date of death, December 30th 1970, was simply an estimate. The cause of death too is unsatisfactorily explained. The police investigation concluded it was a heroin overdose.
But those who knew Sonny speak about his fear of needles and find it hard to believe the man they knew and spent so much time with was secretly harbouring a heroin addiction. The coroner found it difficult to come to a conclusion due to the time that had elapsed between Sonny’s death and the discovery of his corpse. His blood work indicated traces of heroin but eventually the coroner decided on natural causes – lung congestion and heart failure.
Still the rumours remain. There are many who claim Sonny was the victim of a mob hit. Greg Swaim, author of the (as yet unpublished) book “Warjac: Most Wanted”, claims his father – mob hitman James John Warjac – admitted to his involvement in the murder of Sonny Liston by enforced heroin overdose. This was apparently a popular method of execution used by mob hitmen at the time as it could easily be made to look like an accidental overdose.
Why would the mob want Sonny dead? Pick your favourite reason. Some say he knew too much, specifically that they were afraid he would publicly come clean about the Ali fight. There are claims that he had refused to throw his final fight, a TKO victory over Chuck Wepner, and was murdered as a result.
Others indicate that he had become involved with drug dealers and loan sharks. The only certainty is that Sonny was connected to a variety of unsavoury, underworld characters who would not hesitate to have someone killed. The sad truth is we will never really know what happened to Sonny Liston in his final hours.
In looking back on Sonny’s life there is no getting around the facts that he was a thug, a criminal and a violent man. But he was also a product of his environment. Born into a world of discrimination, segregation, poverty and with his complete lack of education, Sonny did what he could to survive.
There were few alternative routes to success or survival available to him. Can he really be blamed for taking the route he took? Those who were closest to him and knew him best speak of a caring and sensitive man who loved his wife and their adopted child. They paint a picture very different from that of the violent thug who was simply a tool for mob bosses. They speak more of a fun-loving teddy bear rather than the conventional image of the menacing “big brown bear”.
The image of Liston learning to write his own name so that he could sign autographs for children is one that doesn’t align with the general perception of the man and one that highlights the sadder side of his life. Here was a man who was regarded as the toughest, meanest man on the planet and yet he was reduced to the role of a school child by his lack of education.
The fact that he asked his wife to teach him speaks to the insecurity he felt. On the one hand he needed to maintain the tough guy public persona but on the other, he didn’t want to refuse any child asking for his autograph.
Perhaps ultimately Sonny was a victim of his time. He was street thug who rose to the realm of heavyweight king, a powerfully built African-American who was feared for his ferocious punching power and menacing in-ring personality. Remind you of anyone? Mike Tyson of the 1980’s was often compared to Liston.
The street criminal background and terrifying punching power intimidated opponents and the public alike. However, unlike Liston, Tyson was born into a time of less racial discrimination and social upheaval. The mob influence on boxing had long since evaporated. He also benefitted from increased media exposure which allowed people to see the man behind the mean street thug.
Despite a rape conviction and the infamous ear-biting incident, Tyson is now a much loved, softly-spoken and good humoured public figure. With Tyson we got to meet Bruce Banner, with Sonny we only ever met the Hulk. Would our perception of Liston be different had he been born twenty years later?
There are many adjectives and descriptors used when speaking about Sonny Liston but his gravestone bears a simple epitaph that is a reminder of the one most often forgotten.