Sonny Liston

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Name: Sonny Liston
Birth Name: Charles L. Liston
Hometown: Saint Louis, Missouri, USA
Birthplace: Johnson Township, Arkansas, USA
Died: 1970-12-30 (Age:40)
Stance: Orthodox
Height: 185cm
Reach: 213cm
Referee: Record
Pro Boxer: Record
Amateur Boxer: Record

Mysteries Surrounding Birth

There is no official record of Sonny Liston's birth. He was born on a farm in Arkansas, a state which did not require mandatory birth certificates until 1965. Liston told sportswriter Jerry Izenberg that his date of birth was carved on a tree, but it was chopped down.

When Liston was arrested for robbery in 1950, he gave his age as 22. When he filed for a birth certificate for legal reasons in 1953, he said his date of birth as May 8, 1932. And when he testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1960, he said he was born in 1933.

Liston's mother said he was born on January 8, 1932. She said the date was recorded in a family Bible, but the Bible was lost somewhere along the way. Sometimes she said the date was January 18. "I know he was born in January," she recalled. "It was cold in January." Liston biographer Nick Tosches found that a sibling’s birth was registered as January 8th and supposed that she mixed them up. Other times she said Sonny was born between 1929 and 1930. She also said she thought he was born in 1927. Boxing writer Springs Toledo believes she confused the year of his birth with the birth year of another sibling, which was 1927. Another time, she said she believed his birthday was July 22.

When the records from the 1930 United States Census were released in 2002—access to personally identifiable information from census records is restricted for 72 years—Liston's name was absent. Ten years later, when the 1940 Census records became available, Charles L. Liston was listed on the Liston family card. His age was listed as 10.

Based on the census information and statements from Liston's mother, Springs Toledo believes Liston may have been born on July 22, 1930.

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 in the mid-1940s.

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 for boxing was discovered by a Catholic priest. Through the actions of the priest, Liston was paroled early and began a career in boxing.

Liston's amateur career spanned less than a year. He captured the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions on March 6, 1953, with a victory over 1952 Olympic gold medalist Ed Sanders, and then won the Intercity Golden Gloves Championship on March 26, 1953, with a win against Julius Griffin.

1953 Amateur Highlights

  • St. Louis Golden Gloves
  • Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions
  • Intercity Golden Gloves Championship (Chicago, IL)
  • National AAU Tournament (Boston, MA)

International Golden Gloves (St. Louis, MO)
Jun 23 Herman Schreibauer TKO 1

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

Liston returned to the ring in 1958, embarking on an rigorous campaign 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 (TKO 3 and TKO 2). Only two opponents were able to last the distance: Bert Whitehurst twice in 1958 (he barely survived the second fight, getting knocked through the ropes in the final seconds of the bout) and Eddie Machen in 1960. Both adopted ultra-cautious tactics, and Liston won comfortably on points.

World Heavyweight Champion

After years of pressure, Patterson finally defied his manager, Cus D'Amato, and signed to fight Liston. The fight took place 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.

In the early 1960s, 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 consistently taunted him, even leaving bear traps outside of Liston's house. They fought 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. Midway through the first round, Liston threw a left jab and Ali went over it with a fast right, knocking the former champion down. Many in attendance felt the punch was innocuous. The fight quickly descended into chaos. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott, a former World Heavyweight Champion himself, had a hard time getting Ali to go to a neutral corner—Ali initially stood over his fallen opponent, gesturing and yelling at him, "Get up and fight, sucker!"—and Walcott never picked up the count from the knockdown timekeeper.

After Liston arose, Walcott wiped off his gloves and then left the fighters to go over to Nat Fleischer, founder and editor of The Ring, who was shouting at Walcott from ringside, telling him that Liston had been down for more than ten seconds. Walcott then rushed back to the fighters, who had resumed boxing, and 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 over a year. He made a comeback in 1966, winning four consecutive bouts in Sweden, which were promoted by former World Heavyweight Champion Ingemar Johansson. He won fourteen consecutive bouts against relatively obscure opposition before suffering a knockout loss against Leotis Martin on December 6, 1969. Liston dropped Martin in the fourth round and was leading on all three scorecards when he was put down for the count by a vicious right hand from. It 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 TKO after Wepner was unable to continue after round nine due to heavy cuts.

Mysteries Surrounding Death

Following the win over Wepner, Liston was going to face Canadian champion George Chuvalo, but the fight never happened. “When I signed to fight him (in December 1970) he’d been dead for a week," Chuvalo stated years later. "He passed away after I’d sent a telegram to the promoter, agreeing terms to the fight at the Montreal Forum. A day or so later a news report flashes up saying former heavyweight champion of the world Sonny Liston found dead at his Las Vegas home. I’d actually signed a contract to face a dead man.”

Liston was found dead by his wife, Geraldine, in their Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971. On returning home from a two-week trip, Geraldine had smelled a foul odor emanating from the main bedroom and on entering saw Sonny slumped up against the bed, a broken foot bench on the floor. Authorities theorized that he was undressing for bed when he fell over backward with such force that he broke the rail of the bench. Geraldine called Sonny's attorney and his doctor but didn't notify the police until two to three hours later.

Sergeant Dennis Caputo of the Clark County Sheriff’s Department was one of the first officers on the scene. Caputo found a quarter-ounce of heroin in a balloon in the kitchen and a half-ounce of marijuana in Liston's pants pocket, but no syringes or needles. Some found it suspicious that authorities could not locate any drug paraphernalia that Liston presumably would have needed to inject the fatal dose, such as a spoon to cook the heroin or a tourniquet to wrap around his arm. However, former Las Vegas police sergeant Gary Beckwith said, "It wasn't uncommon for family members in these cases to go through and tidy save family embarrassment."

Following an investigation, Las Vegas police concluded that there were no signs of foul play and declared Liston's death a heroin overdose. “It was common knowledge that Sonny was a heroin addict,” said Caputo. “The whole department knew about it.” The date of death listed on his death certificate is December 30, 1970, which police estimated by judging the number of milk bottles and newspapers at the front door.

Coroner Mark Herman said traces of heroin byproducts were found in Liston’s system, but not in amounts large enough to have caused his death. Also, scar tissue, possibly from needle marks, was found in the left bend of Liston's elbow. The toxicology report said his body was too decomposed for the tests to be conclusive. Officially, Liston died of lung congestion and heart failure. Lisnon had been hospitalized in early December, complaining of chest pains.

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

Sonny Liston is interred in Paradise Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas, Nevada. His headstone bears the simple epitaph: "A Man."

Historical Rankings


External Links

  • Grave site: [1]
  • Internet Movie Database: [2]
  • Cyber Boxing Zone article: "The Menacing Black Bear" [3]
  • ESPN article: "Liston was trouble in and out of ring" [4]
  • article: "The Mysterious Birth of Sonny Liston" [5]
  • article: "Exhuming the Bear" [6]
  • article: "A Birthday for Sonny Liston" [7]
  • article: "The Death of Sonny Liston" [8]
  • Nick Tosches biography: The Devil and Sonny Liston [9]
  • Wikipedia biography

Published References

  • A.S. Young, Sonny Liston: The Champ Nobody Wanted (1963).
  • Robert L. Burnes, "Heavyweight with a Past" Saturday Evening Post, 13 August 1960, pp. 56-58.
  • Joe Flaherty, "A Right to the Jaw-That's Black Power" Esquire, March 1969, pp. 112-14.
  • Bruce Jay Friedman, "Requiem for a Heavy" Esquire, Aug. 1971, pp. 55-57.
  • Luckett 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