Sonny Liston

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Charles "Sonny" Liston
Class of 1991
Modern Category
Hall of Fame bio:click
World Boxing Hall of Fame Inductee

Name: Sonny Liston
Birth Name: Charles L. Liston
Born: 1930-07-22
Birthplace: Johnson Township, Arkansas, USA
Died: 1970-12-30 (Age:40)
Hometown: Saint Louis, Missouri, USA
Stance: Orthodox
Height: 6′ 1″   /   185cm
Reach: 84″   /   213cm
Boxing Record: click
Refereeing Record: click

Managers: Jack Nilon, Joe (Pep) Barone, Eddie Polino, George Katz, Frank Mitchell, Dick Sadler
Trainers: Willie Reddish, Dick Sadler, Johnny Tocco
Cut Men: Joe Polino, Milt Bailey
Sonny Liston Gallery

Mysteries Surrounding Birth

Charles "Sonny" Liston claimed that his birth date was May 8, 1932. This date is, in all likelihood, inaccurate. His exact birth date is unclear. We know that he was born in rural Arkansas, one of eleven children of his biological mother, Helen Baskin, and purportedly the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children sired by his father, Tobe Liston. His early arrest records give his date of birth as 1927 or 1928, but those dates are now confirmed as inaccurate. Birth records released by the National Archives for the Bureau of the Census for 1930 for Forrest City, Arkansas, where Liston was born, list Liston's parents, three sisters and three brothers, but NOT Charles (Sonny). His youngest brother, Curtis, was listed as six months old on those census documents filed in early 1930. Since Liston could only have been born in mid 1930 or afterwards, much of the controversy surrounding his age has been eliminated. Liston could not have been older than 33 when he fought Muhammad Ali for the first time on February 26, 1964, and he could not have been older than 40 years old when he died.

The 1940 U.S. census lists one "Charles L" residing in the Liston household in Smith Township, Cross County, Arkansas. His age is given as ten. According to Springs Toledo, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and the International Boxing Research Organization, that number probably indicates that he was in his "tenth year." To wit: his older brother Curtis was born in October 1929 but was listed at "eleven," though he was ten. Curtis's birth date tells us that Sonny's birth date was at least nine months later. The truth continues to evade the historians. Toledo holds that July 22, 1930 is a possible birth date and provides evidence to that end.

Early Life and Amateur Career

Liston's childhood was one of poverty, pain, and illiteracy. Brutal and frequent beatings from his father caused Liston to pursue his mother to St. Louis at age 13.

In St. Louis, Liston was in frequent trouble with the law. After many minor arrests, Liston was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to prison. During his stay, his talent was discovered by a Catholic priest. Through the actions of the Priest, Liston was paroled early and began a career in boxing.

In a brief amateur career, spanning less than a year, Liston captured the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions on March 6, 1953, with a victory over 1952 Olympic gold medalist Ed Sanders, and the Intercity Golden Gloves' Championship by decision over Julius Griffin.

Preceded by:
Ed Sanders
Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions
Heavyweight Champion

Succeeded by:
Garvin Sawyer
Preceded by:
Norvel Lee
Intercity Golden Gloves
Heavyweight Champion

Succeeded by:
Len Kanthal

Early Professional Career

Liston began his professional career with a first-round knockout of Don Smith and built up a nine fight winning streak against mainly unremarkable opposition. He made his debut on national television against Johnny Summerlin, winning a decision after eight rounds. He was handed his first defeat by awkward journeyman Marty Marshall on September 7, 1954. While laughing at his opponent's unorthodox ring tactics, Liston was caught by a Marshall right hand and suffered a broken jaw, but still lasted the distance, losing on an eighth-round split decision. He met Marshall again seven months later, on April 21, 1955, and won by a sixth-round TKO after flooring Marshall four times. Liston won their rubber match on March 6, 1956 by a lopsided ten-round unanimous decision to extend his record to 14-1. However, a few months later he was sentenced to nine months imprisonment for assaulting a police officer and banned from boxing for the whole of 1957.

Heavyweight Contender

Following his release from prison, Liston embarked on an rigorous campaign starting in 1958 which would see him level the entire heavyweight division and become the only logical contender to champion Floyd Patterson's crown. But it would be four years before Liston finally earned a shot at the title, with Patterson's handlers citing Liston's links to organized crime as a reason to avoid the match-up. Liston knocked out some of the best heavyweights of the late 1950s and early 1960s: Nino Valdes (KO 3), Wayne Bethea (TKO 1), Zora Folley (KO 3), Mike DeJohn (TKO 6), Roy Harris (TKO 1), Albert Westphal (KO 1), and the hard-punching Cleveland Williams twice in classic slugfests (TKO3 and TKO2). The only opponents to last the distance were Eddie Machen and Bert Whitehurst (the latter managed the feat twice, but was knocked through the ropes in the final ten seconds of their second bout), although both adopted ultra-cautious tactics and Liston won comfortably on points. Finally, after years of pressure, Patterson defied his manager, Cus D'Amato, and signed to fight Liston.

World Heavyweight Champion

Liston and Patterson finally met in the ring on September 25, 1962 in Chicago, Illinois. Once the bell rang, it soon became clear that Patterson lacked the strength and power to keep Liston away. Liston pinned Patterson on the ropes in the first round and felled the champion with a series of blows to the head. Patterson was unable to beat the count, and the bout was over at 2:05 of the opening stanza. Liston was the new World Heavyweight Champion. They had a rematch on July 22, 1963, and Patterson was able to last just four seconds longer. Liston won by a knockout at 2:09 of the first round.

At around the same time, a brash and talented young heavyweight named Cassius Clay emerged onto the boxing scene. In his bid to earn a title shot, Clay christened Liston a "big, ugly bear" and left bear traps outside his house. The bout took place on February 15, 1964. Despite Liston entering the ring as an 8-1 favorite, the quick and agile Clay proved an elusive target. Liston struggled to land clean blows, while Clay scored with quick combinations. After six rounds, it was all over. Liston, claiming an injured shoulder, failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, handing Clay the championship.

The rematch between Liston and Clay (by then known as Muhammad Ali) took place on May 25, 1965. It is among the most controversial bouts in boxing history. Less than two minutes into the fight, Liston was felled by a right hand thrown by Ali as he was moving backwards, a punch many felt was innocuous. The referee, former World Heavyweight Champion Jersey Joe Walcott, ushered Ali to a neutral corner but failed to pick up the count from the timekeeper. Liston got up and Walcott told the fighters to continue boxing. At that point, Nat Fleischer, founder of The Ring, shouted to Walcott from ringside that Liston had been down for more than ten seconds, and Walcott stopped the fight, awarding Ali a first-round knockout victory. The so-called "phantom punch" (named the Anchor punch by Ali) remains controversial to this day, with rumors persisting that Liston took a dive, under pressure from either the mob or the Black Muslims.

Post Championship

Following the bout with Ali, Liston remained inactive for the rest of 1965. He made a comeback in 1966, winning four consecutive bouts in Sweden, which were promoted by Ingemar Johansson. He won fourteen consecutive bouts against relatively obscure opposition before suffering the only noncontroversial knockout loss of his career when he was knocked out by a vicious right hand from Leotis Martin, a bout in which Liston was leading on all three scorecards. That would prove to be the penultimate fight of Liston's career. His final bout came against future heavyweight title challenger Chuck Wepner on June 29, 1970: Liston won by a tenth-round TKO after Wepner was unable to continue due to heavy cuts.

Mysteries Surrounding Death

On January 5, 1971, Liston's body was discovered by his wife, Geraldine, who had been away visiting family, in their Las Vegas home. Coroners determined he had died on December 30, 1970.

Liston had needle tracks in his arms, and heroin was present in his system. His wife and numerous friends, including referee Davey Pearl and trainer Johnny Tocco, claimed he was deathly afraid of needles and could not have been a drug addict. Some believe mobsters murdered him by forcibly giving him a lethal overdose. At least one acquaintance suggested Liston was involved in a loan-sharking ring and was demanding a bigger stake.

Officially, Liston died of heart failure and lung congestion. The medical examiner ruled "death by natural causes" and no further investigation was conducted.

His funeral was attended by many of boxing's dignitaries, including former World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, who was a pall-bearer.

"Ultimately, the true cause of Sonny Liston's death was the mystery in him," Nick Tosches wrote in The Devil and Sonny Liston. "He rode a fast dark train from nowhere, and it dumped him from that falling-off place at the end of the line."

Historical Rankings


  • Liston appeared on the The Ed Sullivan Show and showcased his jump-roping skills. He also made an appearance on The Jack Benny Program.
  • Liston was in the audience (seated next to Joe Louis), and introduced, during The Beatles' second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which came from Miami Beach, Florida on February 16, 1964.
  • Liston forayed into a career in acting. He appeared in the movies Moonfire, Head, and Harlow (1965). He also appeared on the TV series Love, American Style.
  • Liston appeared in a television commercial for Braniff International Airways with acclaimed new age artist Andy Warhol.

External Links

Published References

  1. A. S. Young, Sonny Liston: The Champ Nobody Wanted (1963).
  2. R. Burnes, "Heavyweight with a Past" Saturday Evening Post, 13 August 1960, pp. 56-58.
  3. J. Flaherty, "A Right to the Jaw-That's Black Power" Esquire, March 1969, pp. 112-14.
  4. B. J. Friedman, "Requeim for a Heavy" Esquire, Aug. 1971, ppg. 55-57.
  5. L. V. Davis, "Sonny Liston"; in American National Biography, pp. 733-34. (1999).

Preceded by:
Floyd Patterson
WBA Heavyweight Champion
NYSAC World Heavyweight Champion

1962 Sep 25 – 1964 Feb 25
Succeeded by:
Cassius Clay
Preceded by:
Inaugural Champion
WBC Heavyweight Champion
1963 Feb 14 – 1964 Feb 25
Succeeded by:
Cassius Clay