“He Died The Day He Was Born”

By Blaine Hislop
Updated: November 10, 2004

Sonny Liston
Photo provided Corbis.com

The corpse was rolled over and lay face down on the metal slab. It was then that the coroner saw them: the copper-colored whipping welts, old and faint, like one might imagine to have been those of a driven slave.

– Nick Toshces, cultural historian and author, detailing what a Nevada coroner saw when performing an autopsy on the body of Former Heavyweight Champion of the World, Sonny Liston.

Liston was boxing’s answer to Robert Johnson: a black man who emerged out of nowhere, seemingly sprung full-grown from America’s unconscious, who sold his soul to Satan for supernatural skills (Liston hit harder than any man alive), exercised them for a brief, stunning moment, and then disappeared again.

– Jim Lewis of the Village Voice

He was the Devil.

– Muhammad Ali

Calgary, Canada—To this day, no one knows with certainty when he was born; to this very day, no one knows with the certainty the moment of his death. Thirty-three (and soon to be thirty-four) Januarys after that fateful night when his wife found his lifeless body in bed, thirty-nine years after the second of those two devastating, terrible losses to Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, we are no closer to solving the sad, dark, troubling riddle that is the life and death of Sonny Liston than we were then. To put it another way, if Ali’s life was – and is – a more or less open book, then Liston’s life is a dark and ominous tome that reveals little and conceals much. What follows is what we know.

The exact date of Liston’s birth is shrouded in mystery. Some say – as his birth certificate does – that he was born May 8, 1932; Others say he was born in 1925. All of us can agree that he was born in Arkansas, the scion of an extraordinarily brutal sharecropper. As a child, Liston was routinely beaten and whipped by his Old Man; as he grew into adolescence, he began to visit this sort of suffering upon others. At thirteen, sick of being flogged and over-worked, he fled to St. Louis to be with his birth mother. But the scars – seen and unseen – of his childhood would follow him to St. Louis and throughout his life.

In St. Louis, Liston’s reputation as an awesomely destructive thug began to take shape. From what accounts have been passed down to us, he ran with a bad crowd; his overburdened mother could do little for him. Not long after arriving in St. Louis, he was convicted of armed robbery and went to prison, not getting out until Halloween Night of 1952. It was in prison that Liston, with the enthusiastic encouragement of a Catholic priest, began to box. Boxing, as it turned out, would be both a means of escape from the ugly streets of east St. Louis – and a path to further imprisonment at the hands of the mafia.

It is unclear precisely when (and why) Liston first fell in with the mob; it may have occurred while he was in prison and establishing himself as a top boxing prospect. It may have come somewhat later, when Liston, by the end of the 1950s, was undeniably the foremost challenger to the heavyweight championship belt being paraded about by the likes of Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johannson. As for ‘why’ he aligned himself with them, perhaps it came about because Sonny, exposed to little but graphic violence in his youth, was too easily seduced by those who used it as an implement for material gain; perhaps it was because men like Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo offered him help and opportunity at a time when Liston particularly needed it and Sonny, unused to anyone doing anything for him, rewarded their patronage with his services as a leg-breaker and cash-cow. Whatever the case may be, the evidence that Sonny Liston was linked with the mob was more or less indisputable by the dawn of the 1960s, and it would profoundly affect the rest of Liston’s life and career.

On the evening of September 25, 1962, Sonny Liston (and Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo) finally got his – and their – shot at the Heavyweight Championship of the World held by amiable Floyd Patterson. Although terrified by the destructive, two-fisted Liston, Floyd had finally caved into public pressure and put his belt on the line in a heavyweight title tilt at Chicago’s Comiskey park that would soon enough become legendary for its one-sided viciousness. Hopelessly outgunned and thoroughly intimidated, Patterson was knocked out inside of one round and boxing had its most feared – and disliked – heavyweight champion of the modern era.

For the next fifteen months, Liston’s imposing presence darkened the heavens of the heavyweight division. Zora Folley, Cleveland Williams (twice a KO loser at the hands of Liston), Eddie Machen, Mike DeJohn, and Nino Valdez all had better things to do than to challenge for Liston’s crown. As a result, Patterson – a sacrificial lamb if ever there was one in boxing – took up the Liston challenge and met Sonny in July of ’63 in Las Vegas. Few onlookers anticipated Patterson giving Liston any trouble, and they were not disappointed: Floyd, deeply scarred from his traumatic beating in the first fight, was once more battered into submission within a round. For Patterson, this fight marked something of an end: He would never again hold even a piece of the heavyweight championship of the world. For Sonny, however, this brutal second conquest of Patterson seemed to affirm that the present – and the foreseeable future – of the heavyweight division belonged to him as he had once belonged to his father and as he now belonged to Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo.

“You will find catastrophe in the most unlikely places” anon.

On February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Florida, Liston put his heavyweight belt on the line against a kid named Cassius Clay. “Gaseous Cassius” had been clamouring for a title shot against Liston for months, and now the moment of truth had finally arrived. No one, or almost no one, gave the upstart a chance. Joe Louis predicted that Liston would maim the kid; others at ringside expected the canvas to run red with Clay’s gore within a round or two. Even Clay’s own management group expressed public concern with their youthful charge’s decision to take on “the bear” at a time when “the bear” had filled the hearts of every other heavyweight in the land with dread. But a funny thing was happening: Challenger and Champion began to confuse their assigned roles.

As the fight approached, Clay was a loquacious as ever. Like Patterson, he was understandably afraid of Liston; but, unlike Floyd, he used his fear as a spur to fortify and prepare himself – not as a reason to quit. Training harder than ever before, working on his craft as never before, Clay began to metamorphose from a talented, affable amateur into a polished and magnificent professional fighter. Sonny, his mind perhaps elsewhere (and perhaps more than a little afraid of the loud-mouthed kid who refused to genuflect every time Liston was present) did not train with anything approaching the same single-minded commitment; as a result, when the two fighters climbed into the ring that night, only one of them was ready to be the heavyweight champion of the world – and it wasn’t Charles “Sonny” Liston.

One February 25, 1964, another of the great mysteries of Sonny Liston’s life – right up there with the murkiness surrounding his date of birth or the true nature and extent of his relationship with the Mob – unfolded. With his hero, Joe Louis, watching from ringside, Liston was mercilessly exposed in an upset that reverberates to this very day. Only months earlier, in brutalizing Floyd Patterson, Sonny had been apparently unassailable; now he looked like nothing so much as a forlorn geriatric combating a force for which he had no answer. Watching a tape of that fight many years later, Bill Cayton announced that this bout was the birth of Ali; it was also, for all intents and purposes, the death of the fighter formerly known as Sonny Liston. Indeed, when a battered and possibly injured Liston quit before the start of the seventh round, he bequeathed unto Ali not only his heavyweight championship of the world, but also a significant chunk of his own fighting soul.

He would never get either back.

Immediately after the fight, the rumours began. Liston threw the bout, some said, because his mob associates were calling in a favour. In other words, some conjectured that Sonny’s business partners in the Mafia had seen the Vegas betting line for the fight and saw an opportunity to make millions by throwing mob money behind Clay while simultaneously ordering Liston to take a dive (these rumours have never been substantiated). Others, knowing how imperiously Liston had beaten up on the heavyweight division for most of the past decade, suggested instead that Sonny folded because he simply couldn’t handle the in-ring crisis created by the youngster’s inspired performance. Whatever it was, there was sufficient controversy swirling around the unexpected outcome to make a rematch between the two men inevitable.

For various political reasons, the anticipated bout didn’t occur until May 25, 1965. And when it finally did take place, it was not held in New York or Chicago or Miami, but in the otherwise somnolent, nondescript town of Lewiston, Maine. For more than a year, people in the boxing world wondered what had really led to the events of February 25, 1964; Lewiston, Maine, it was felt, would be the proving ground for both the old and the new champion.

The fight itself, as it turned out, was not a fight at all. Much of the American public, outraged at Ali’s association with the Black Muslims (a sect far more feared by mainstream white Americans at the time than even Palermo, Carbo and their ilk), may have preferred a Liston triumph; but in the ring, Sonny – like all fighters – was alone. In the fifteen months since he first became Champion, Ali had become an even more imposing physical specimen than he had been at the time of Ali-Liston I; the much older Liston, on the other hand, was saddled with physical attributes that could only diminish. In effect, in the months and then weeks that preceded the most vital fight of his career, Liston was growing weaker while Ali, the young cynosure, was only growing stronger. The fight’s outcome was pre-ordained – and Sonny knew it as well as anyone.

Midway through round one, Ali caught a sluggish, almost despondent, Liston with a sharp counter-right and Sonny toppled to the canvas. He tried to get up, fell a second time and, in one of the more bizarre episodes in championship history, was counted out by over-matched referee “Jersey” Joe Walcott. In the most important fight of his career, Sonny Liston had been blown out.

After this fight, a conflagration descended upon Liston. Inundated with allegations that he had taken a dive, he publicly – and emotionally – denied any such thing. Once again, the penumbrous mob figures lurking about in Liston’s background were cited as reason for his collapse; many sportswriters, stunned by what they had witnessed, lamented the fight’s outcome as a sort of deathknell for a heavyweight division already reeling from Ali’s widespread unpopularity. Through it all, more questions than answers piled up and Liston’s deeply ambiguous legacy entered a sort of historical purgatory.

Liston’s fall now began in earnest; in truth, his life had always been a race against the darkness into which he had been flung as a small child, and now that darkness had found him and had embraced him inescapably. After Ali-Liston II, Sonny tried to make a comeback, but it never went anywhere. After losing to Leotis Martin in December of 1969 in what was really a title elimination bout, Liston’s career was more or less finished; that which had given his life meaning and purpose, riches and access, was irretrievably gone.

Nightfall for a Night train.

After retiring from boxing in 1970, Liston gave over whatever was left of himself to his inner demons. For a long time he had been a notoriously heavy drinker; now the drinking increased. In addition, Liston’s difficulties with substance abuse grew steadily worse; in fact, rumours began to circulate that Sonny was now hooked on heroin (even though he was petrified of needles). By December of 1970, Charles “Sonny” Liston was at a point of no return. Sometime in the final days of the final month of 1970, Liston went over the edge, apparently overdosed on drugs while his wife visited family for the holidays, and died. Whether or not he was pushed over the edge by others, of course (like his mob associates), has never been resolved. What we do know with certainty is that, whatever traumatic events comprised the final moments of Sonny Liston’s time on earth, they linked together in posterity to became one more mystery – piled high atop all of the other mysteries of his life – that eclipsed the man and the memory of the man. He was born into darkness, consorted with darkness (Carbo, Palermo), and he was finally done in – either by his own or by somebody else’s – darkness (or maybe both). Sonny Liston, the abused child, the fearsome heavyweight, the unhappy “young old man”, was a child of the night who found solace only in the eternal night of the grave.

What could he have been if only the fates had been kinder?

To say that Charles Liston had been a slave would be to render cheap metaphor of the life of a man. And yet those scars on his back were as nothing to deeper scars, the kind that no coroner could ever see, scars of a darkness far less imaginable than those from any lash. Charles Liston, the most formidable of men, the most unconquerable of heavyweight boxers, had been enslaved by the forces of that darkness: enslaved, conquered, and killed by them. Born with dead man’s eyes, he had passed from the darkness of those scars on his back to the darkness of the criminal underworld, to a darkness beyond, a darkness whose final form was the last thing his eyes ever saw.

Nick Tosches, The Devil and Sonny Liston

Blaine Hislop is a syndicated boxing columnist from Calvary, Canada who is featured on BragginRights.com and other internet site in the United States and Canada