Son of a Champion
Slowly but surely, the man we knew as Charles “Sonny” Liston is being demystified and Bill Wingate, I believe, will play a big part in that process…
As Sonny Liston waited in his dressing room before challenging Floyd Patterson on September 25, 1962, chances are he was thinking more about his five-day-old son, William, than he was about his opponent. Beating Floyd was just something he had to do. Children were what mattered most to Sonny.
In Philadelphia, Sonny was friends with Bill’s Uncle Kenneth and their driveways faced each other. They’d hang out together and shoot pool and drink. When Bill’s mother, Delores, came to visit her brother, Sonny was smitten. “They were very close,” said Bill. “My mother never married him, but we never wanted for anything, ever.”
At first, Bill didn’t know that Sonny was his dad. He thought of the huge, smiling man simply as “the guy with all the money in his pocket.” After awhile, Bill’s mother stopped hiding the fact that he was born out of wedlock. “When she explained it to me, it just went over my head,” said Bill.
Uncle Kenneth used to tell Bill that his daddy was the baddest man on the planet, which of course, was a major compliment. Young Bill thought it meant that Sonny was a bad man and that didn’t square with how he felt about him. Uncle Kenneth got a kick out of that and they constantly went round and round about it.
Bill had a fantastic childhood and he never wanted for anything, thanks in large part to his father. During one of Sonny’s visits to his former hometown, Bill fell through a window and cut his face. Sonny asked him what he wanted. At that moment an ice cream truck rolled down the street and Bill asked him to get everybody ice cream. “He bought all my friends on the street ice cream. There must have been 30 of them.” After that, lots of kids on Bill’s block looked forward to the next visit of “the guy with all the money in his pocket.”
When Sonny died, it wasn’t hurtful to him because he didn’t feel like he had lost somebody. Bill was only eight years old when his mother had to tell him Sonny wouldn’t be coming around anymore. “He won’t be coming around anymore?” he asked her. She said no and he said, “Well, I’m gonna go play”
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Bill Wingate is his father’s son in a lot of ways. For one thing, he has his father’s legendary fists. Bill’s ring size is 13 and though his hands aren’t quite as large as Sonny’s were, his forearms could pass for biceps. When Joe Frazier met Bill and went to shake his hand he said, “Yep, that’s him.”
Like his dad, Bill carries himself with respect and dignity. He has a soft spot in his heart for the underdog, and he loves children. “My dad loved kids like a fat kid loves cake,” say Bill. “I have my father’s heart.”
Bill also has his dad’s sense of humor. When Sonny was around people he liked, and people who liked him, he left them laughing. British promoter Mickey Duff was one of many people who said Liston was the funniest guy he ever hung around with. Bill may be even funnier than his dad and unlike Sonny, he’s comfortable on stage. My guess is that in a couple of years, he’ll be a big-time comedian.
Bill’s not a braggart or a boaster, nor was his father. But like his father, his strength used to get him into a lot of trouble. The Philadelphia Inquirer once named Bill Wingate as one of the city’s most feared bodyguards and bouncers. He was the leader of the city’s second largest gang at the time.
Bill once got charged with attempted murder when a guy he hit fell into a coma. After the guy came out of the coma he told the police he declined to press charges. “I was a complete knockout artist,” said Bill. He once hit former heavyweight contender Bert Cooper so hard with his right hand that the EMTs had to break three ammonia capsules under his nose before they could revive him. For the record, Cooper was shaking down people on the street and he made the mistake of throwing the first punch. Bill’s friend, Bobby Sweets, told him he had to stop hitting people. “You know who your father is,” said Sweets. “People can’t take this!”
It seems Bill was a much better all-around athlete than his father was, though in fairness to Sonny, he wasn’t into playing sports. Bill, on the other hand was Number One in the city in gymnastics in junior high, was an all-city basketball player, and the city’s second best swimmer.
A lot of old-timers would call Bill “Little Sonny.” He used to sit on a corner with a bunch of these guys and shoot the breeze. Many of them had been by Sonny’s side and they’d verify each others stories. “They lived the life with him,” said Bill. “I really didn’t toot my dad’s horn too much and I still don’t. I knew who I was. I just never walked in his shoes like Joe Frazier’s sons did. But I thank him for the life that he gave me.”
There was a moment in the mid-1990s when Bill felt an overwhelming connection to his father. He and his family were watching an HBO special on Sonny at the time. “Right at the end of the program, my dad turned to the camera and it felt like he was looking straight through me,” said Bill. “My daughter said, ‘Daddy, did you feel that?’ Silence came over the room and there was a smirk on my father’s face like he was telling me that everything is gonna be all right.”
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In August, Sonny Liston was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame. I was given the opportunity to introduce Bill and to say some kind words about his father. At that moment, I don’t know if Bill felt any prouder than I did.
“The award was well overdue and it was a privilege to be there for my father and to let people know that he just got a bad rap,” said Bill. “Oh my god, Roberto Duran almost broke my ribs, he squeezed me so tight. All the people just showed me love.” Those people included Tyson, Holyfield and Sugar Ray Leonard, just to name a few.
Hall of Fame Board Member, Tony Triem, told me Bill’s appearance made quite an impact on the attendees. Tony said people were still talking about him days after the event. Slowly but surely, the man we knew as Charles “Sonny” Liston is being demystified and Bill Wingate, I believe, will play a big part in that process.
A few hours before the induction ceremony, I took Bill to visit his father’s grave. It was a very emotional experience for my friend. “I never had a chance to say goodbye to him,” said Bill. “I told him I was doing things, that he had grandchildren and great grandchildren. I said I love you and I miss you, and I’ll see you on the other side when my number gets pulled. As I was walking away, it was like something was being pulled away from me, out of my spirit.” For the second time in his life, Bill felt an overwhelming connection to his father.
Bill Wingate is Sonny Liston’s son, and he’s damn proud of it.
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Paul Gallender is the author of Sonny Liston – The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights.
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