Introduction: “Sonny Liston — In A New Light”

By Robert Ecksel on March 4, 2017
Introduction: “Sonny Liston — In A New Light”
In his heyday Sonny was formidable, a larger than life if somewhat inscrutable presence.

Liston was dogged by a miasma of sadness, unmitigated and beyond resolution, of tragedies past, and of tragedies to come…

Sonny Liston is in many ways the heavyweight champion time has forgotten. In his heyday he was formidable, a larger than life if somewhat inscrutable presence. His baleful glare could send men scurrying in the opposite direction. But along with his gift of intimidation, a characteristic one of his boosters, Mike Tyson, wholeheartedly embraced, was a miasma of sadness, unmitigated and beyond resolution, of tragedies past, and of tragedies to come.

Liston had advocates when he ruled the roost, he was after all heavyweight champion of the world, but there were naysayers even then, just as there are naysayers now, who insist that he was overrated, despite having lost only four of 54 fights, with 38 of wins coming by knockout, in a career that spanned 16 years.

One person who continues to advocate for Sonny Liston is the writer Paul Gallender. His first book on Liston, Sonny Liston — The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights, published in 2012, gives a more judicious portrait of Liston than is the norm, focusing on his wretched childhood, his alienation, his mistreatment by the press and the Nation of Islam, and of course the two iconic fights with Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali that in effect sealed his fate as far as history was concerned.

Gallender’s second book on Liston, Sonny Liston — In A New Light, is now available on Amazon. In a New Light is part biography and part metaphysical treatise, a somewhat unusual combination, especially as concerns boxing, and attempts to eradicate the pariah status that dogged Sonny from the cradle to the grave.

Paul Gallender’s introduction to the book is as follows…

Muhammad Ali was pushing sixty when I saw him on the Today Show. Matt Lauer asked Ali what he considered to be his greatest accomplishment in or out of the ring. “Beating Sonny Liston,” was the response. Surprised by the answer, Matt asked the question again, putting more emphasis on the out of the ring part. “Beating Sonny Liston,” Ali said, as matter-of-factly as he did the first time.

No one should have been surprised by Ali’s answer, because no great fighter was ever more highly regarded by other great fighters than Heavyweight Champion of the World, Charles “Sonny” Liston. Moments after Sonny lost his title, Joe Louis stated that Cassius Clay had “just beaten the greatest heavyweight champion in history.” Archie Moore described Sonny as “something extraordinary with a pair of Everlast gloves.” George Foreman sparred with his aging idol shortly before Sonny died. “There wasn’t anything missing from Sonny Liston,” said George. “He had the whole package.”

Gilbert Rogin’s characterization of Liston as “the nearest piece of talent to Godzilla” was the way most boxing people felt about Sonny before and while he was champion. Angelo Dundee said Liston stood over the division like “a colossus.” When Louis said, “Nobody’s gonna beat Liston ’cept old age,” there was no reason to think otherwise.

“The second Patterson fight was supposed to be the death knell of boxing because Sonny Liston was unbeatable,” said Fred Brooks, whose company provided the fight’s closed-circuit telecast. Jim Murray compared that uncomfortable reality to waking up on Christmas Day and finding a live bat under your tree. A baleful, black ex-convict whose career was guided by organized crime, seemed likely to hold the title for as long as he wanted. Calls for the abolition of boxing were voiced all over the country. And then the impossible happened.

Sonny took the biggest fall in the history of sports. It began when he lost his title to Ali, at the time a talented self-promoter known more for his mouth than his fighting ability. When Liston was forced to throw their rematch 15 months later, he became a pariah in the sport he once ruled.

Less than three years after winning the heavyweight title, Sonny was barred from fighting anywhere in the United States. Five-and-a-half years after the second Ali fight, Geraldine Liston returned home to Las Vegas and found her husband’s decomposing body. Today, Liston is little more than a footnote to Ali’s career and it’s all because of that fight.

The photos of Liston lying on the canvas looking up at Ali have defined him for more than half a century. “That Lewiston (Maine) picture has always bothered me,” Sonny’s niece Helen Long told me. “The memory of him should not be of him lying on the canvas like that.” It shouldn’t be, but it is.

When Muhammad Ali died in June, Time’s celebration of The Greatest featured two photos of Sonny on his back in their second fight. The first photo was spread across two pages in the middle of the magazine. Neil Leifer’s famous photo was on the last page, accompanied by a short article entitled, “The Swagger of a Lion — The story behind the photo that helped define a champion’s image.” According to Leifer, the picture became iconic “because people want to remember Ali this way.”

That photograph is what passes for Sonny’s legacy and that fight defines his champion’s image a lot more than it defines Ali’s. Muhammad wasn’t proud of that fight because he knew Sonny threw it. He screamed at Liston to get up, called him a yellow bum and said nobody would believe this. Ali told his corner men “he laid down.” Given the consequences facing him if he didn’t lay down, Sonny had no choice but to lose.

More so than athletes in other sports, fighters have spent much of their lives trying to overcome their pasts. People can’t change their histories but they can try to rise above them. Ali was given that opportunity but Liston wasn’t. He wasn’t a saint, but he certainly wasn’t without worth.

Sonny’s good friend Emile Griffith said it best. “There always was a cloud hanging over Sonny Liston,” offered Griffith. That cloud is about to lift in a way that I could never have imagined.


                                                                  * * *

Everything I’m about to tell you is the truth.

For my first 64 years, I thought everything that happened to us was random and arbitrary. With good luck, one could do just about anything, but if you were plagued with bad luck, you might not survive the first such occurrence. I thought a light went on when you were born, and that light went out when you died. I never believed in God, an afterlife, reincarnation, heaven or hell. I didn’t rule out the possibility that I might be wrong but I wasn’t the slightest bit curious about any of these things.

I finished writing Sonny Liston — The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights in late January, 2012. I spoke with Josie Roase for the first time on February 16 of that year. Josie is a medium and countless people consulted her before I ever met her. She didn’t know she was looking for a spiritual connection via the Internet but she was nudged in my direction by her Guides. I was living in Chicago and Josie was in Denver.

Josie had never heard of Sonny Liston before we met. I wasn’t trying to impress her when I told her about my book, but I did want to share with her what I consider to be my life’s work. She was polite but not impressed. She had always considered boxing to be a terrible and brutal sport. Josie expressed that the only thing she liked about boxing was the song “Eye of the Tiger” from the movie Rocky.

During my first phone conversation with Josie, I asked if she knew of the Mother Cabrini Shrine outside of Denver. I learned of the shrine from a 1964 Sports Illustrated article by Mark Kram. In it, Kram described how Sonny would do his roadwork for the Ali rematch near the shrine and end his run by jogging up the 350 stairs to the top and washing the feet of the huge statue of Jesus. “Yes,” said Josie. “Mother Cabrini is a dear friend of mine.” We spoke for five hours that first night, and five hours the night after.

Nineteen days of phone conversations with Josie revealed a remarkable synchronicity between us. Our connection seemed natural and familiar and I flew to Denver to meet her. When Josie met me at the airport, it was apparent that our relationship would not be a romantic one. Our connection hadn’t diminished but what we had was a brother-sister kind of energy. We decided to get to know more about each other because we were already such dear friends.

On my second day in Denver, Josie took me to the shrine so I could experience it for myself. I relished the opportunity to walk in Sonny’s footsteps, as it were, but climbing is not one of my strengths. Sure enough, after about twenty-five stairs I began to feel winded and my legs started to tire. As I continued to climb, those symptoms disappeared and I was shocked at how easily I walked up the snow-covered steps. When I reached the summit, I wasn’t winded and my legs felt fine.

I didn’t know what to make of it. In retrospect, it may have been Sonny’s way of welcoming me to a city where he once hoped to spend the rest of his life, or to the journey he was about to take me on. Two days later, Sonny reached out to Josie from the afterlife and that’s when my fundamental beliefs about life and death changed.

On March 10, 2012, without precedence, the Spirit of Sonny Liston took Josie’s hand into his and introduced himself by name. She told me what he was saying to her. As I began to transcribe Sonny’s words I realized that he was deliberately providing Josie with several specific, personal details of his life that I could verify as true. He gave her six such details in the first few minutes of connecting with her.

Sonny told Josie the names William, his son, and Delores, his son’s mother. He talked about having to associate with two people named Frank. “When you lay down with pigs you end up smelling like them,” said Sonny. Frankie Carbo and Frank “Blinky” Palermo were the two mobsters who ran boxing for their bosses in organized crime. The mob abused Sonny very badly and he died at their hands. Sonny spoke of his alcoholism in detail, a subject that was not generally known while he was alive. He also told Josie he was a lot smarter than people thought, an observation that several people are on record as having said.

Josie and I immediately knew she couldn’t read any part of my manuscript so the authenticity of her communications with Sonny would not be compromised. She had already told me she prefers not to know the person before she does what she refers to as a “reading” for them. This evidently applied to people both alive and dead, I thought. This was all new to me.

Josie spoke for Sonny many times over the next several months, conversations which contained many statements about his life that I could verify. When she asked if I knew a Louis Stevenson, I realized Sonny was referring to Father Alois Stevens, a prison chaplain he became close to in the early 1950’s. For some reason, Sonny always mispronounced the priest’s name as Stevenson, as he did when testifying at a U.S. Senate Committee hearing in late 1960. Sonny mispronounced a lot of words and names so it’s likely he would have pronounced Alois as either Louis or Louis with an A in front of it.

Sonny told Josie of problems with one of his fingers and his knees, both of which I knew about. He gave her the names of two cities that had great meaning in his career: Allentown, Pennsylvania, which was home to his manager, Pep Barone, and Bayonne, New Jersey, the site of Sonny’s final professional fight where his refusal to lie down again may have sealed his fate.

Josie told me that Sonny really loved Jackie. It was the second time that Sonny had mentioned the name Jackie but I had no knowledge of who he was talking about. Two days later I came across that 1964 Sports Illustrated article by Mark Kram. In it, Sonny’s friend and physical therapist, Stan Zimmering, said he would talk with Sonny for a couple of hours on their walks. Kram was surprised because Sonny was a man of few words. When Kram asked Zimmering what they talked about, Stan said, “He talks about his dog, Jackie.” Jackie was a dark German Shepherd that people remembered seeing chained outside Sonny’s training headquarters in Denver. The Listons reluctantly found Jackie a new home when he kept chewing up their redwood fence. Sonny once told Josie that some of the ideas I get are because he puts them in my mind. Finding this article at that particular time may have been one instance of that.

Sonny brought up The Hole, which was the name of the place in Jefferson City Prison where inmates could fight without interference from the guards. At the very moment Josie phoned me about this, I was writing a scene for a screenplay that took place in The Hole. He revealed to Josie how he used to verbally spar with people, how painful his childhood was, and the feelings he had toward the police and the press. I was familiar with all those things. He talked about creating a Sonny Liston breakfast sandwich, something his friend Henry “Champ” Winston told me about just before I finished writing my book. Sonny had the breakfast sandwich idea before Jimmy Dean did.

Sonny made several references to indicate why he had to throw the second fight with Muhammad Ali and how that tortured him. His words supported what I already knew, that his wife and child were being held against their will and his compliance with the fight-fixers was necessary to keep his family safe. He also said he was much older than people thought, a premise I supported with more than a page of information in my biography.

Sonny spoke of his mighty fists, and mighty they were. I devoted nineteen lines of text to his 15½-inch fists which I called the epicenter of boxing. He talked of his ability to withstand physical punishment, his menacing demeanor, the reason why he became a boxer, his sense of humor, his generosity with those less fortunate than himself, and his realizations that people were never going to give him the proverbial second chance that athletes and prominent people are always given. There are several instances of these things in my book.

In a very tender moment, Sonny conveyed the following to Josie: “Most everything they said about me was true except I did love. I loved my wife. I loved all my kids. I loved life as best I could except life didn’t seem to love me in return.”

Examples of how life didn’t embrace Sonny are too numerous to mention here. Instead, I’ll focus on the way Sonny was treated immediately after winning the most prestigious individual title in sports. “If the public allows me the chance to let bygones be bygones, I’ll be a worthy champ,” said Sonny. “If they’ll accept me, I’ll prove it to them.” He didn’t have to wait long to realize that acceptance would never be his. Newsweek’s terse two-sentence review of the fight referred to Sonny as “a hulking ex-convict.” Red Smith wrote: “If Floyd Patterson were a cop, Sonny Liston would be in the cooler again.” In Liston’s hometown of Philadelphia, Larry Merchant wrote: “So, in a fair fight between good and evil, evil must win.”

Sonny has given me several pieces of advice and encouraged me to be more open to experiencing him and the Spirit World in general. One of the personal messages Josie conveyed from Sonny provided me with the most memorable experience of my life. On March 19, 2012, Sonny showed Josie the number 7 and told her to make sure that she told me about it. As far as I knew, the number held no significance for Sonny, nor was it prominent in his boxing career. Then, on May 3, Sonny again mentioned lucky number 7. “Remember that, and you can tell Jon about it,” he told Josie to tell me.

The next day, I went to my cousin Jon Sorkin’s house to say goodbye to him and his family. As we stood in his driveway, the approaching rainstorm had given the suburban Chicago sky an eerie and almost iridescent quality. I was thinking about the drive into the city when Jon looked up and said, “Look, Paul, there’s a perfectly formed 7 in the clouds right above us.” A printing press could not have produced a more perfect 7 than the one Jon and I saw in the clouds that day.

Unlike Josie, I don’t have the ability to connect worlds and communicate with those who have passed on. So why me? How did I manage to hitch a ride on this amazing journey with these two remarkable souls? Josie had provided many people with proof of the afterlife long before she knew me. The difference is the sheer number of verifiable facts that she received from Sonny. It had taken me more than thirty years to discover the details of Sonny’s life that he was telling Josie, many of which never made it into Sonny’s biography. Today I can verify the authenticity of more than 60 pieces of information that came from Sonny through Josie. Many of these details are so esoteric and little known that I’m probably the only person who knows all of them. That’s not the only link between the three of us, nor is it the most important one.

I was drawn to Sonny for much more than just an appreciation of his enormous boxing talent. That alone would not produce the connectedness I have felt with Sonny for most of my adult life. He unexpectedly told Josie of three past life connections she and I shared. The three of us knew each other in one of those, but Josie’s connections with Sonny go deeper than mine.

All of my verifications will appear in Josie’s forthcoming book, Sonny Liston Today — The Spirit Behind the Man — From the Afterlife. She has written it at Sonny’s request. The point of his reaching out to her wasn’t to set the record straight about who he was. Setting the record straight about his life and career is my priority, not Sonny’s. He provided Josie with verifiable facts as a means of showing us where he is now and what he learned from his most recent lifetime. I would describe it as a glimpse into eternity and a blueprint for how we can prepare ourselves for the transition back into the Light.

Sonny may seem the least likely person to deliver God’s message that redemption, healing and growth take place in the afterlife, but perhaps the opposite is true. Redemption, healing, and growth were not things that Sonny experienced in life, but they were things he greatly desired. The fact that he is one of God’s messengers should make all of us question our assumptions about life and death.

Josie has given me permission to print four pieces of Sonny’s writings which appear as a separate section following his biography. The Immense Release describes what Sonny experienced at the moment he passed from this lifetime. My Shadow lays bare many of the fears and insecurities he carried with him throughout his life. Sonny Shares Powerful Messages reveals the wisdom he has acquired over the course of several lifetimes. In A Posthumous Autobiography, Sonny has rewritten the first three pages of my biography in his own words. I should point out that every word in both editions of my biography is based solely on my research and is therefore independent of his communications to Josie. 

I got an opportunity to see Muhammad Ali in a Las Vegas Hotel in 1992. He spoke softly but clearly back then. I realized that his mind was fine but he was trapped in a body that no longer worked the way it should. He was surrounded by more than 100 adoring fans as he signed his name on Nation of Islam brochures.

“You might be the Greatest, but Sonny Liston was the best,” I told him. Ali looked up at me and kept on signing. I was clearly a minority of one in the crowd. A couple of minutes later I said, “Sonny’s coming back, Champ. Sonny’s coming back.” I was referring to my biography, and the effect I hoped it would have on people’s perceptions of Sonny, but Ali didn’t know that. He smiled warmly, looked up again, and with a sparkle in his eyes said, “With Jesus.” I thought he was being funny. As it turned out, Muhammad Ali was right.

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