Hard Times, Good Times: Charles “Sonny” Liston

By Ted Sares on October 22, 2013
Hard Times, Good Times: Charles “Sonny” Liston
It’s not all that difficult to understand what Sonny Liston became and why he became it.

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.

Early Life

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.

Floyd Patterson

“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.

Civil Rights

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.

Cruelty

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.

Death

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.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Sonny Liston vs Bert Whitehurst (October 24, 1958) -XIII-



Sonny Liston vs Eddie Machen 1960



Sonny Liston vs Roy Harris 1960



Liston - Besmanoff



Sonny Liston vs Cleveland Williams (April 15, 1959) -XIII-



Sonny Liston vs Henry Clark (July 6, 1968) -XIII-



Sonny Liston vs Floyd Patterson I Sep. 25, 1962



Sonny Liston vs Floyd Patterson II



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  1. Ted 03:58pm, 10/28/2013

    Wow, thanks much Norman. Mil Gratzie Giorgio!

  2. nmarcus 02:46pm, 10/28/2013

    Ted: Another excellent piece from a master of the written word. Enjoyed it very much!
    Norm Marcus

  3. Giorgio 08:31am, 10/28/2013

    Ted, thanks for another masterpiece : an article with facts, excellent reporting but also with a sense of humanity that transpires throughout the whole article. And a lot of research is behind your work: thanks for putting it together in such a quality way
    Ciao amico
    Giorgio

  4. ted 11:50am, 10/25/2013

    thanks mike

  5. bikermike 05:37pm, 10/24/2013

    I loved the Heavyweight Champions of my time…..

    I heard Liston beat Patterson ..on my transistor radio….from the second floor of my parent’s house…....

    My Dad and I saw the second one on Television….(big thing in our area at that time),,,,it was bad..
    Liston was never going to get an Academy Award….for that one…..his cheque cleared before the fight started

  6. bikermike 05:24pm, 10/24/2013

    for a lotta years…Charles ‘Sonny ’ Liston was the tuffes motherfkr in the valley…..............lots of ‘contenders’ developed injuries…and would gladly paas on Liston..
    Liston kept getting these ‘vacations’...ie…jail time…and he was always officially out of the ratings…

    Once Liston learned how to behave ....he became THE HEAVY WEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WQRLD

  7. bikermike 05:07pm, 10/24/2013

    another one outta the park…..Ted…

    Sonny Liston was one of the pillars of Boxing…the HW contender..and then the HW Champion…

    In his time…he ...as a Professional Fighter…was what kept the gangster ridden ..and troubled Sport of Boxing..

    That first Cassius Clay thing..was .....well it was not a real way to end a HW Championship Fight…

    The second CLAY/ALI match with Liston was smelly .....real smelly

    Liston was a product of his time….

    I remember Liston doing his rope work ..to the song NIGHT TRAIN..on Ed Sullivan…

    I loved Charles…‘Sonny’ Liston

  8. Eric 01:00pm, 10/23/2013

    It was rumored that Frazier wanted no part of Liston, and you wonder if Liston was also avoided by young up and comers like Quarry, Bonavena, etc. No doubt that Liston still had enough in the tank to dismantle Jimmy Ellis in ‘68-‘69.

  9. NYIrish 09:41am, 10/23/2013

    Recall a characteristicly terse Sonny Liston quote when asked why he didn’t participate in any of the civil rights demonstrations that were going on in the 60s. “Cuz I don’t have no dog proof ass!”

  10. NYIrish 09:34am, 10/23/2013

    Tex, I bet that was at Hugh Benbows’ gym on Congress St. across from the Pink Pussycat.

  11. Ted 08:04am, 10/23/2013

    Well yes, he IS tougher than you but uglier, let me get back to you via email on that one.

    Actually, the Russians from that part of Russia all seem to look alike. High cheekbones with a bit of a slant to their eyes. Kostya was like that, no?

  12. Don from Prov 07:54am, 10/23/2013

    Nah, Provo and I can share a nickname are we are a lot alike: We both eat raw hearts and fish.  We both scream a lot by way of communicating.

    He is just a little tougher and a little uglier than I.

  13. Ted 07:43am, 10/23/2013

    Thanks cnorkusjr,

    The 60’s and Dallas were coming and so was bad juju

  14. cnorkusjr 07:31am, 10/23/2013

    Mentioning Kennedy and Liston in the 60’s shows the big polarization this country was at that time. Something you wouldnt think you would get with the Heavyweight Champ. Liston’s life was filled wth many sorrows, but boxing will do that to any black man at the time and history will show it over and over.
    Great reminisce,even better read. Thanks.

  15. Ted 07:19am, 10/23/2013

    Thanks John Coiley and Darrell. Big change was coming and it was not good change.

  16. Eric 05:16pm, 10/22/2013

    Liston always gave the impression of being a pretty big man. He was such a fantastic physical specimen that it was hard to believe he was a modest 6’1” and about 212-214lbs at his peak fighting weight. There is always talk about the size of Liston’s fists/hands. Remember how all the old “rasslin” announcers always wanted Andre the Giant to show the size of his hands. Don’t think Liston’s mitts were quite as large as Andre’s, but then again Andre was about a foot taller and much heavier. I remember a photo of Sonny shaking hands with a young Jerry Quarry, and Quarry’s hands looked like they belonged to a 12 year old stamp collector next to Liston’s.

  17. Darrell 03:48pm, 10/22/2013

    Good read & a fascinating peek at a time on the cusp of change.

    I read somewhere he very rarely let his guard down for anyone….little children were one exception. Got to have some amount of admiration for the guy for all the reasons pointed out by Irish Frankie…..

  18. Ted 03:23pm, 10/22/2013

    Thanks very much Prov. Now that Provodnikov is here and about, we may need to get you a new nickname.

  19. Don from Prov 01:14pm, 10/22/2013

    he was a beast with a longer reach….

  20. Don from Prov 01:13pm, 10/22/2013

    This is a good article, Ted—well written.


    I was, am, and will be a Liston fan.
    I appreciate that he survived all that he did and was still a person with an undeniable good side to him: He had little reason to have that good side.
    And in the ring, he was a beast.  May I add that he was a beast with a longer reach than Wlad Kilt who he would have deep knocked into sleepy time   :)

  21. Monte Cox 12:59pm, 10/22/2013

    Irregardless of how he was thought of in his time he gets respect from the boxing historians. I consider Sonny a top 5 all time heavyweight, certainly he is in the top 10 and when I see other people’s lists I can’t help but thinking Sonny would flatten the lot of them. He could box and punch and was a beast in the ring.

  22. chuck h. 11:06am, 10/22/2013

    Phila. Daily News boxing writer, Jack McKinney, told of one day at a Philly gym a brother of Liston showed up and Sonny was upset to see him. He asked him ‘what are you doing here CHARLES ?’  After which he completely ignored him and gave him the cold shoulder until CHARLES left the gym. Was there two siblings named CHARLES in Liston’s family and could this have something to do with the cloudy facts pertaining to his birth date ?
    People I knew said a smiling Sonny was affable and friendly at many union affairs he attended around the city Phila.).
    C.H.

  23. john coiley 10:57am, 10/22/2013

    THANK YOU, Ted for this insightful bearing of the man that was Sonny Liston. Scary.

  24. kid vegas 10:05am, 10/22/2013

    Ted, your sense of history is as sharp as a tack. You must have a great memory to be able to convey the climate of a particular time. Maybe it’s some kind of sensors that pick up things and store them away for future use, but you take on the late 50s and early 60s was as sharp as anyjing I have ever read. “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.” is a tour de force. One of your more insightful articles and one that made me sympathize with this man.

  25. Tex Hassler 09:59am, 10/22/2013

    When I met Liston in a boxing gym in Houston in about 1968 or 1969 he took time to talk to me and was very friendly. He had a good side most people seem to over look.  Liston destroyed almost all the contenders before he became champion and Jack Dempsey did the same when he was coming up the ranks. GREAT ARTICLE!

  26. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:58am, 10/22/2013

    Ted Sares-Simply great no BS writing. He was no angel….he was a man with serious faults and weaknesses…...which reminds me…he wasn’t a pimp….he wasn’t a drug dealer….he was Geraldine’s husband to the end…oh yea….he was the Heavyweight Champion of the whole wide world.

  27. Ted 09:52am, 10/22/2013

    Thanks Big Walter. Sorry to hear about what happened in Sparks yesterday.

  28. Ted 09:51am, 10/22/2013

    On of the things I have liked so much about boxing is that you can identify with a boxer and even fantasize that you are him in the ring. Maybe the opponent is a hated boss or some other nogoodnick, but the thing is for a brief period of time, you are SOMEBODY who is beating the crap out of someone you dislike. I think Sonny provided that outlet for many a fam. He sure did for me but so did a lot of others.

  29. BIG WALTER 09:47am, 10/22/2013

    My kind of article. I still see where this guy is buried. I pass his gravesite just about every day. A gem of an article that I read from the beginning to the end.

  30. Ted 09:47am, 10/22/2013

    Yes, he said fuck it, indeed.


    Thanks, Dan

  31. Dan Cuoco 09:43am, 10/22/2013

    Ted, terrfic article detailing liston’s troubled past. What a movie this would make. If memory serves me correctly, wasn’t Liston’s feelings hurt when he arrived in Phialdelphia after winning the title hoping to see a crowd honoring him. Instead, he was shunned and finally said ____ it!

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