The Death of Sonny Liston

By Paul Gallender on September 9, 2013
The Death of Sonny Liston
Everyone who knew Sonny Liston would tell you that he absolutely hated needles.

Harold Conrad talked to someone in the sheriff’s department who told him Sonny was a bad nigger who got what was coming to him…

Chances are you’d like to know how Sonny Liston died. I don’t. I addressed the issue in my biography of Liston because I had to, not because I had any great desire to uncover that particular truth. After all, aside from satisfying someone’s morbid curiosity, what’s to be gained by it? That being said, for those who haven’t read my book, let me give you a condensed version of what I’ve learned over the years.

Sonny’s wife, Geraldine, and their son, Danny, flew from Las Vegas to St. Louis on December 24, 1970. Geraldine’s father was not well and she decided to spend the holidays back home with her family. The relationship between Gerry and Sonny had reached a low point, due mostly to the fact that the former champ’s life was spiraling out of control.

Knowing that his fighting days were coming to an end, Sonny was exploring other money-making opportunities, some legal and some not. In the days after Christmas, he worked on his 1971 appointment calendar with his close friend Davey Pearl. He also drove to Los Angeles for a dinner meeting with his booking agent to discuss possible guest appearances on several television programs.

In the early morning hours of December 29, Liston called his old Teamster pal, Barney Baker, in Chicago. “He was gonna come in to see me,” Baker told me. “He said, ‘Barney, be at the airport because from there I got to go someplace. I got 20 big ones for you.’” Baker said Liston felt he owed him something from their days in St. Louis. Barney went to the airport but Sonny didn’t show up.

Sonny also called his sparring partner Gary Bates and told him that Geraldine was away for the holidays and invited him over. Bates went to the Liston home with a cocktail waitress from Circus Circus. He knocked on the door a couple of times, but nobody answered.

In 2007, Bates was at a construction site when the security guard noticed some boxing equipment in the front seat of his pickup. When Gary said he had sparred with Sonny Liston in his younger days, the small, elderly black man told him Sonny had asked him to score some heroin for the two white junkie hookers who were at his house on the day he died.

Mildred Stevenson was the housekeeper for both the Listons and sports handicapper Lem Banker. On December 31, she went to clean Sonny’s home and used her key to gain entrance. Mildred found Sonny dead in his bedroom, called Lem to give him the news, then locked the door and left.

Trainer Johnny Tocco threw a New Year’s party at his gym for fighters and other boxing people, and Sonny told him he’d be there. When Sonny didn’t show, Tocco said he called his house at midnight and again at 2 a.m. He knew Geraldine was out of town and was concerned when Sonny didn’t answer the phone.

On January 1, Geraldine called Tocco. She hadn’t heard from her husband in three days and was worried. A few years before he died, Tocco told his good friend, Tony Davi, that he went to Sonny’s house and found the door locked and his car in the driveway. Tocco called the police, and they broke into the house. Tocco said that the living room furniture was in disarray but the house did not yet smell of death. He said they found Sonny lying on his bed with a needle sticking out of his arm. Johnny left the house before the police did. “Johnny wasn’t a braggart,” Davi told me. “He told me in the strictest confidence, but it was like he wanted to get it off his chest.”

If Tocco’s story were true, it would mean that the Las Vegas police and the Clark County sheriff’s department put Liston’s house back in order after Tocco left. Why they would have done it is anybody’s guess.

A lot of officers knew Sonny was dead before Geraldine returned home on January 5, but they chose to let him rot. Gerry found her husband’s badly decomposed body and called his attorney and his doctor. She notified the police two to three hours later.

Sergeant Dennis Caputo of the Clark County Sheriff’s Department was one of the first officers on the scene. “It was colder than shit outside and the smell in the house was horrendous,” he told me. The milk bottles and newspapers by the front door indicated that Sonny had been dead about a week. Caputo found a quarter-ounce of heroin in the kitchen and a small bag of marijuana, but no syringes or needles. “It was common knowledge that Sonny was a heroin addict,” said Caputo. “The whole department knew about it.” A few freshly dug holes in the backyard flower beds caused several officers to think that somebody must have been looking for something.

Caputo believes Sonny died of natural causes. “He was in a peaceful position and there were no signs of a struggle.” He said the house was immaculate and there was absolutely nothing that would indicate foul play. Caputo has always been saddened by the public’s preoccupation with Liston’s death. After his appearance in an HBO special on Liston in 2000, Dennis got so many calls from people wanting to interview him that he stopped returning their calls.

The decomposition of Sonny’s body was so advanced that the coroner had quite a problem getting his corpse into a body bag, down the stairs, and out of the house. His body came close to splitting when they moved it.

Geraldine insisted on an autopsy. The Coroner found traces of heroin byproducts in Liston’s system, but not in amounts large enough to have caused his death. The toxicology report said his body was too decomposed for the tests to be conclusive. Officially, Sonny died of natural causes.

The police never investigated Liston’s death as a homicide. “What pisses me off is that nobody seemed to care,” said publicist Harold Conrad. He had talked to someone in the sheriff’s department who told him Sonny was a bad nigger who got what was coming to him.

There are four ways Liston could have died: from natural causes, an accidental drug overdose, by murder or by suicide. Let’s take suicide off the table because no one who knew Sonny would even entertain that possibility. Most of Sonny’s friends felt he was murdered, and they still think so.

Conrad and others believed that Sonny was deeply involved as a bill collector in a loan-sharking ring in Las Vegas. When he tried to muscle in for a bigger share of the action, Conrad surmised that his employers got him very drunk, took him home, and stuck him with a needle.

Lem Banker insists that Sonny was murdered by drug dealers with whom he’d become involved. Both he and Johnny Tocco were told by police that Sonny had been seen at a house that would be the target of a drug raid. “Sheriff [Ralph] Lamb told me, ‘Tell your pal Sonny to stay away from the West Side because we’re going to bust the drug dealers’,” said Banker. Lem later learned that the police told Liston the same thing to his face. He apparently was at the dealers’ house shortly before they got busted. Because of that, the dealers may have thought Sonny ratted on them and they shot him with a hot dose as retribution.

The third rumor, shared by many boxing people, was that the mob promised Sonny some money to throw the second Ali fight but they never paid him. As the years passed and Sonny’s financial situation worsened, he got angry and told the mob he’d go public with the story unless they gave him the money. That, of course, would have been a very bad idea.

Finally, there are people who think that Sonny was supposed to take a dive when he fought Chuck Wepner six months earlier, and killing him was payback for his failure to do so.

The common thread in all four murder rumors was that if a needle delivered the fatal dose, it wasn’t self-inflicted. Everyone who knew Sonny Liston would tell you that he absolutely hated needles. If he was doing heroin, he wouldn’t have been injecting it.

“He had a deadly fear of needles and he had too much pride in his strength,” said Davey Pearl. “There was nothing Sonny feared more than a needle. I know!” said Liston’s Philadelphia dentist, Dr. Nick Ragni. “He was afraid of needles,” echoed Father Edward Murphy. “He would do everything to avoid taking shots.” According to Sonny’s trainer, Willie Reddish, Liston cancelled a planned tour to Africa in 1963 because he refused to get the required inoculations.

Casino executive Ash Resnick told me he heard that Liston’s death was due to an overdose, and that somebody had given it to him. Geraldine said if Sonny was killed, she didn’t know who would have done it. The idea that Sonny was on junk was the most ridiculous thing she ever heard, and when journalist Bruce Jay Friedman brought it up, she just laughed and laughed. “He had high blood pressure and he had been out drinking in late December,” said Geraldine. “As far as I’m concerned, he had a heart attack. Case closed.”

All of Sonny’s friends scoffed at the idea that he was injecting drugs. Lem Banker, Davey Pearl, Johnny Tocco, Willie Reddish, Jack McKinney, and Father Murphy were adamant about it, as was Joe Louis. “If heroin was in his veins, somebody other than Liston shot it in,” said Joe. “Sonny never dealt with heroin.” After Liston died, several of his West Philadelphia friends called local reporters to express their outrage about the drug rumors.

Only one name has been publicly linked to Liston’s death. In a 1989 Sports Illustrated article, William Nack wrote that some police in Las Vegas believed that Ash Resnick had ordered the hit on Sonny. The rumor, which surfaced a year after Resnick died, was repeated in books by Nick Tosches and Bob Mee, and in an HBO documentary on Liston. The Resnick family has always considered the rumor to be preposterous, as does boxing promoter Bob Arum. “Ash would not kill anybody,” said Arum. Unfortunately, there’s nothing the Resnicks can do about it because legally, it’s not a crime to slander a dead person.

I’ve heard rumors linking Sonny’s death to other people who are still alive and far more famous and powerful than Ash was. But rumors are as valuable as Monopoly money. Of course, thinking that Liston was murdered makes for a great, unsolved conspiracy and the world loves conspiracy theories.

I don’t know how Sonny died. As far as I’m concerned, Sonny suffered a heart attack and died where he fell, at the foot of his bed. He had been hospitalized in early December, complaining of chest pains. Given the tough life he had lived, Sonny’s 50-something-year-old heart may have just given out on him.

Many people believe it was inevitable that Liston’s life would end badly. Any chance of it ending well evaporated in the Ali rematch when Sonny took the dive that saved his family but destroyed his legacy. As Lem Banker put it, Sonny’s past never let go of him. It still hasn’t.

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  1. Chris 06:32pm, 11/17/2014

    The life of Sonny Liston was truly sad and tragic. I always sensed a sadness in his eyes. When I read about his impoverished upbringing and then how his boxing career was manipulated by unsavory forces, I couldn’t help but sympathize. Sonny was a hell of a fighter, and even as a child watching the films of the Lewistown fight, I could see how pathetically obvious was the tank job.  Think about how Liston dominated the heavyweight division in the late 1950s and early 60s, and then realize that he was probably over forty years old at the time.

  2. Paul Gallender 08:36am, 09/16/2013

    You might want to try to not sound so condescending. For one thing, it’s not warranted. Actually, I think you missed the intent of the article I wrote in its entirety.
    I never thought that Zora took a dive against Ali because there was no reason for anyone to ask him to do it. Zora was old and his best years were well behind him. The Folley of the late ‘50s might have given a prime Ali a good fight and even Ali mentioned that. If I had my book in front of me I’d give you that source.

    Why do you think Zora would have been told to take a dive, and would it have been the Muslims who told him to do it?

    The second Ali-Liston fight was fixed; the first wasn’t. And does anybody out there really think that Ali legitimately knocked Sonny down in Lewiston?

  3. peter 06:13pm, 09/15/2013

    I never heard of Folley taking a dive, but the film of the fight and Folley’s bizarre actions might support that theory. Film of the two Ali-Liston fights also seem to support of theory of fixed fights.

  4. Mike Silver 07:23pm, 09/11/2013

    The Folley fight was the only one where Ali did not trash talk his opponent-isn’t that strange?-didn’t even give poor Folley a nickname. I saw Folley train for the fight in the basement of the Garden. He looked depressed and uninspired, like he knew how it was supposed to go. Even his handlers looked depressed. My theory is Ali knew Folley had orders to lay down so he agreed not to embarrass the old guy. Folley knew how to fight Ali—jabs to the stomach, slip the right counters—his experience was massive—but….he had to dive.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:43am, 09/11/2013

    Paul Gallender-Here’s as brief recap of master boxer Folley’s effort against Ali….one/ two miss… two miss….one/ two miss… two miss….one/ two oops! I hit Ali!....over and over and over again except for the hitting part. Then when Ali landed those perfunctory double rights eerily reminiscent of the phantom punch in Lewiston it was down and out(motionless) only to miraculously spring to life and to his feet to beat the count…the last time springing to life and literally cartwheeling across the ring in a “valiant” effort to beat the count and go on. The point is this….there’s a lot more mystery connected with the Ali era than the circumstances of Sonny’s death.

  6. Paul Gallender 08:12pm, 09/10/2013

    Sure wish I had, Ted. He loved kids and young people. No doubt about that. And they loved him back. Damn, I wish I had introduced myself to him in LA in 1968! Nevertheless, Sonny and I are good friends.

  7. Tex Hassler 03:55pm, 09/10/2013

    My only meeting with Sonny was in Houston at a downtown boxing gym. It was a good meeting and Liston was very kind. Liston’s death will always be a mystery.

    Liston was my boyhood hero.  My meeting him meant a lot to me.

  8. Ted the Bull 03:42pm, 09/10/2013

    Jason has the beat

  9. Jason 03:40pm, 09/10/2013

    This was a great read. I like to from authors who actually do their homework and know the subject. So tired of reading cut and paste jobs. That’s what wiki is for.

    Great job Paul and thanks.

  10. Paul Gallender 02:45pm, 09/10/2013

    Like I said, Magoon. I don’t know how Sonny died. And I don’t know if there was a needle in his arm at any time. If Mildred Stevenson, the housekeeper, had given Lem Banker more details we might have more to go on, but she didn’t. The best heavyweights of the early ‘60’s died unfortunate deaths, to be sure.
    As to Folley not putting up much of a fight against Ali, he was an old fighter. I’m just glad that he and Cleveland Williams were able to finally get a title shot and most likely the one and only good payday of their careers when they fought Ali. Had Ali fought the Folley and Big Cat of ‘59 and ‘60, I suspect neither fight would have been an easy one. And, just for the record, I have no interest in investigating unsolved homicides.

  11. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 12:25pm, 09/10/2013

    Paul Gallender-I’ll tell something else that’s interesting and that is how a highly skilled tactician like Folley literally teed up his chin for Ali….which reminds me…how about an article about Howie Steindler’s and Vic Weiss’s unsolved homicides after more than 35 long years.

  12. Magoon 02:35am, 09/10/2013

    Very interesting (though I think Zora Folley’s death is even more so). But if Liston died because of natural causes, who stuck the needle in his arm - and why?