Hard Times, Good Times: Charles “Sonny” Liston
Floyd Patterson was pleasant to reporters, a conformist, devout, and politically correct. “Liston was an illiterate brute and a thug…”
“A guy who knew Sonny once said, ‘I think he died the day he was born.’”—From “The Devil and Sonny Liston” by Nick Tosches
“The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating.”—Sonny Liston
“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?’”—Geraldine Liston, Sonny’s widow.
It seems everyone has written about this very complex person and just about every account I‘ve read is compelling. Here is my short take.
Sonny Liston (50-4, 39 KOs) was and is a writer’s dream; he was what the nourish gangster-ridden fight game was all about. He encompassed it all: mafia connection, race relations, narcotics, gambling, Teamster head-knocking, police brutality, boxing—and the surly Liston was in the middle. But when one examines his early life and then traces some of his later malfeasance reflected by his long rap sheet through his second fight with Ali in Maine, it’s not all that difficult to understand what he became and why he became it. What’s amazing is that he was able to reach the pinnacle of his vocation despite the odds that seemed stacked against him. In this connection, I have never joined the “bash Sonny” bandwagon, maybe because I could admire someone who would not bend to an overload of criticism and someone who would not bend to sanctimonious authority.
Criminal acts are frequently traced to a troubled childhood. In the case of this abused son of a sharecropper, nothing could be truer. The following is taken from: “Liston was trouble in and out of ring,” by Mike Puma, Special to ESPN.com, Oct. 16, 2005:
“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. [He was] the 24th of 25 children fathered by Tobey or Tobe Liston…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. It would not be his first serious run-in with the law nor would it be his last incarceration.”
While at the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1952 for robbery, Liston learned to box under the tutelage of a Catholic priest. After a successful amateur career, he turned pro (his first fight lasted 33 seconds as Liston leveled Don Smith with his first punch).
St. Louis, however, clearly was not a good place for Sonny as he continued his anti-social behavior, often being stopped on sight and braced by police. Finally, and heeding police warnings, he headed to Philadelphia where he began working himself into shape with hopes for a heavyweight title shot.
“The conduit from the ‘50s carries cheerful optimism. John Fitzgerald Kennedy asks not what your country can do for you – he asks what you can do for your country. It’s inspiring. Jackie sets the example in class. Fear of nuclear war comes to a head with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Soviets back down. ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ JFK at the helm equals comfort and security. Everyone is proud to be an American. Dallas makes it all a bad joke. Dallas destroys Camelot and justifies cynicism. No more peering through rose-colored glasses.”—From “Reelin’ in the Years: Boxing and More”
While Floyd Patterson and Ingmar Johansson engaged in what would become a memorable piece of boxing history, Sonny Liston went about methodically destroying his opposition. In just his sixth fight, he beat the very talented Johnny Summerlin and then repeated it two months later. After an SD loss to Marty Marshall (which he soon avenged with a TKO), he began his path of destruction in earnest. With a menacing aura affirmed by brutal and devastating victories, he worked his way to becoming a dominant heavyweight fighter.
But Liston, because of his past, had become fair game for many writers and judgmental moralists who always launched their attacks from a safe distance. Bad guy Liston was portrayed as the perfect foil for good guy Patterson. Patterson was the champion of the times—pleasant to reporters, a conformist, devout, and politically correct. “Liston was an illiterate brute and a thug.” Patterson was liked by the press for being cooperative, polite, and accommodating. Perhaps the press subconsciously liked him because he “knew his place.”
Liston, on the other hand, spoke his mind. Words like surly, suspicious, brazen, non-apologetic, semiliterate, bad, mean, dark, and thuggish were used when describing Sonny.
There also existed a mutual amiability between Patterson and Martin Luther King, and possibly a symbolic link between Patterson and the early civil rights movements as racism underwent subtle changes for the better (though callous cruelty and unfairness were still commonplace). Liston, however, was seen by many as”that black that all respectable blacks wanted to keep out of sight.” In short, Sonny was portrayed as everyone’s stereotypical nightmare that, unlike Patterson, did not fit in with civil rights and its attendant hope. The contrast was stark; it was unmatchable.
But what the moralists may have been missing back then was that while it was more a time of laid-back innocence, it also was a time mixed with less visible portions of pent-up fear and loathing. Many things had a dark and edgy quality that was both palpable and even to some extent admired by those who were less naïve and sick of conforming. In that respect, the street-smart Liston was in sync with the times and many could relate to a man who had to earn his respect the hard way. The innocence, of course, was soon replaced with the grim reality, turbulence and cynicism that manifested itself through the next decade and created still another contrast—this time between Ali and Liston.
A British sportswriter cruelly said about Liston: “Sometimes he takes so long to answer a question, and has so much difficulty in finding the word he wants to use, that it’s rather like a long-distance telephone call in a foreign language.”—“King of the World” by David Remnick, December 15, 1998
One particularly incident has always stayed with me. Despite protests by the NAACP, who felt that Sonny was a thug and that his reputation was detrimental to the civil rights movement, he went ahead with his first fight with “good guy” Floyd Patterson—an event that was more a morality play than an athletic contest. The fight took place in 1962 in Chicago and lasted a little over two minutes with Sonny winning by a KO. When he returned to Philadelphia, his adopted hometown, there were few people to greet him at the airport and this cut him to the bone.
Larry Merchant, Philadelphia Daily News sports editor at the time, wrote: “A celebration for Philadelphia’s first heavyweight champ is now in order…Emily Post would probably recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti we can use shredded warrants of arrest.” Even back then, the diminutive Merchant’s penchant for caustic and mean-spitted comments was alive and well.
Shredded warrants or not, no one could controvert Liston’s achievements in the ring after he paid his debts to society. Along his fistic journey, Sonny beat Bert Whitehurst, Zora Folley, Eddie Machen, Roy Harris, Willi Besmanoff, Cleveland Williams, Henry Clark, Nino Valdes, and, of course, heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson twice. After his two losses to Ali (at least one of which remains highly controversial), he would go on to win fifteen of his last sixteen fights over a period of four years.
Much later, on January 5, 1971, his partially decomposed and semi-nude body was found by his wife, Geraldine, in his Las Vegas home. Coroners suggested Liston might have been dead for as long as a week. The determined cause of death was heart failure and lung congestion, though suspicions and speculations remain.
While Sonny may have been viewed by many as evil incarnate; others saw him as someone who would not bend down to the conforming, if not quasi-oppressive climate of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Charles L. “Sonny” Liston was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991, quite an accomplishment for someone who had such a beginning; quite an accomplishment for the 24th of 25 children who could not read or write.