On a cold January morning in 1971, Geraldine Liston found the bloated corpse of her husband lying at the foot of their bed.
Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston had not been heard from for two weeks, prompting Geraldine to return their home in Las Vegas. Upon arrival at the residence, she found newspapers and bottles of milk clustered outside the front door.
The door was unlocked and the house was in complete darkness, but it was the stench which proved to be the most unsettling aspect.
Sonny Liston struck fear into heavyweight fighters around the world
“I thought he must have cooked and left something on the stove,” she explained in a rare interview – years later.
As she followed the smell upstairs, she found her husband on the floor of their bedroom wearing only his underwear.
His body was bloated – perhaps having sat there for weeks – while dried blood caked his nostrils. The couple’s seven-year-old son was led downstairs by Geraldine and was told to wait there.
This is the tragic story of Sonny Liston – one of the most feared heavyweight champions in history, who inspired one generation of fighters and terrified another.
Geraldine Liston found her husband’s body in their Las Vegas residence
If Liston’s death was contentious, perhaps it would explain why his life was equally hard to understand.
He never had a birth certificate, so no one knew exactly how old he was. What was known was the fact he was the 24th of 25 children from a household so poor he was sent to work at the age of eight.
As a child, he was regularly beaten and school did not provide much of an escape. “We hardly had enough food to keep from starving, no shoes, only a few clothes, and nobody to help us escape from the horrible life we lived,” he would later say. “We grew up like heathens.”
The youngster was teased for being completely illiterate and, when his family relocated from Arkansas to St Louis, he subsequently turned his back on education and sought to make a life from crime.
“The trouble with boxing today is that legitimate businessmen are honing in on our game”, was the uttering of Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo, Liston’s manager in his early years
He had genuine disdain for the law and would vent his frustrations on unsuspecting police officers who dared to try and control him.
“He started a fight with a cop, beat the cop senseless, snatched his gun, picked him up and dumped him in an alley,” recounts Jonathan Aig in Muhammad Ali: A Life. “[He] then walked away smiling, wearing the cop’s hat.”
Liston was convicted of armed robbery in his early twenties and sent to Missouri State Penitentiary, unaware this would prove to be a blessing in disguise.
His two-year stretch allowed him to showcase his brute physicality and strength and he caught the eye of Father Alois Stevens, a Catholic priest who also ran the prison gym. “He was the most perfect specimen of manhood I had ever seen,” Stevens later told Sports Illustrated. “Powerful arms, big shoulders. Pretty soon he was knocking out everybody in the gym. His hands were so large! I couldn’t believe it.”
Liston was a powerful man, with a hulking frame and huge hands
In 1953, Liston was freed on parole and made the decision to go professional. However, no one wanted to fight this absolute savage who would render opponents unconscious for fun.
“When he comes out of jail, because he is such a muscular figure, such a powerful figure, people don’t really want to fight him,” says Rob Steen, who wrote a biography of the boxer. “In order to get the kind of fights that he needs to progress as a boxer he needs ‘heavyweight representation’, shall we say.”
This is where the mob would go on to play a crucial role in Liston’s entire life, making sure their man managed to get fights. After all, even Muhammad Ali once said: “Of all the men I fought in boxing, Sonny Liston was the scariest.”
The mob set up fights for Liston, helping the hulking figure get fights he could never have dreamt of. But it came at both a financial and physical cost for the slugger, who Steen describes as ‘the last great investment the mob made in boxing.’
WHAT THE WORLD'S BEST SAID ABOUT SONNY LISTON
- “I have no knowledge of it. It couldn’t have been me. It must have been somebody who looked like me, possibly my brother. You’re sure I was hit? I thought I might have blacked out.” Floyd Patterson on being hit by Liston
- “Sparring with Sonny Liston is the most dangerous thing that I ever did in my entire life…nobody, other than Sonny Liston in sparring, stood and punched it out with me with any success, he was the only man I ever faced who could force me backwards.” George Foreman
- “He was as mean as they come and as tough as they come. Apparently, Ali talked smack to him and Liston slapped him right across the face.” Mike Tyson
- “A man like that, shouldn’t be fought; he should be hunted.” American newspapers before Patterson fight
Mobsters were drawn to the physicality and dark aura Liston carried about him. His left jab was one of the most concussive punches ever seen in boxing and his ability to break a man down before the first bell was legendary.
The media played this as though Liston was the antithesis to ‘White America’ and he began to find himself ostracised.
Before he faced Floyd Patterson in their world heavyweight title fight, President John F. Kennedy urged the champion to avoid facing the mob-controlled fighter and implored Patterson to find someone to fight with ‘better character’.
Black Americans did not support Liston – despite growing racial tensions at the time – while white Americans distanced themselves from him because of his connections to organised crime.
Liston would often demolish opponents inside the first round
Liston had 22-oz custom-made Everlast gloves, though they barely saved his sparring partners from being knocked out daily
“He’s arrogant, surly, mean, rude and altogether frightening,” the famed New York Times columnist Arthur Daley wrote. “He’s the last man anyone would want to meet in a dark alley.” Reporters often used thinly-veiled racist terms – ‘gorilla’ and ‘beast’ – in their descriptions of him.
The public and the press did not like the outsider, but his opponents began to fear him. His destruction of Patterson in two minutes and six seconds to take the title in 1962 reaffirmed what the world already knew; Liston was the real deal in the ring.
When he returned home from Philadelphia, he hoped a crowd would be there to greet him after such an emphatic victory over a heavyweight legend.
His reputation amongst fighters only began to grow, however. British boxing legend Henry Cooper talked up facing Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay as he was known), but said if Liston beat him he would not take the fight.
Cooper’s manager, Jim Wicks, said: ‘We don’t even want to meet Liston walking down the same street.’
Floyd Patterson was America’s sweetheart when he was violently stopped in one round
The fight was won before the first bell with this death glare
Sonny Liston knocks out Floyd Patterson to become heavyweight world champion in September 1962
Liston’s aura began to wane when he faced Clay himself in 1964, suffering a huge upset defeat to the 22-year-old as he failed to answer the bell for the seventh round. Their rematch a year later would go down in boxing infamy.
In 1965, they locked horns once again in the tiny town of Lewiston, Maine. After just 104 seconds, Ali (as he was known now) threw an innocuous punch which many spectators on television or in the arena even saw.
The ‘phantom punch’ as it is now known, enraged Ali as he stood over the stricken Liston on the canvas and screamed in his face: “You’re supposed to be so bad! Nobody will believe this!”
Muhammad Ali glares over his fallen foe in what has become an iconic picture
Liston was embarrassed on boxing’s biggest stage; allegations of corruption and throwing the fight shrouded his every move. Even Geraldine had her suspicions, later admitting: “I think Sonny gave that second fight away. I don’t know whether he was paid [but] that’s my belief, and I told him.’”
Liston hit his lowest point and returned to work for the mob as a loan shark and enforcer in Las Vegas.
Despite being virtually penniless after the gangsters took their cut and with criminality effectively running his life, he tried desperately to make a comeback.
Between 1966 and 1969, he won 14 successive fights as he sought to reclaim the world heavyweight title, but was then viciously knocked out by his former sparring partner, Leotis Martin, to extinguish any lingering hopes of hitting the big time again.
Liston poses for a picture with London’s notorious Kray twins
His segregated lifestyle in Vegas proved what an ambiguous character he was; moving in dangerous circles in his conspicuous pink Cadillac and hanging out with reprobates and drug dealers, whilst also spending time with his family in Paradise Palms.
The former world champion ran into an old mob associate, Moe Dalitz, and jokingly made a fist to him.
Dalitz turned to Liston and said: ‘If you hit me, you’d better kill me, because if you don’t, I’ll make one telephone call and you’ll be dead in 24 hours.”
Perhaps it was a premonition, as within months he was found dead.
Chuck Wepner was stopped in convincing fashion by the slugger in 1970
Liston’s death posed many more questions than answers; for instance, why did Geraldine call the family lawyer long before calling an ambulance?
Reports in needle marks being found in his arms supported the evidence of small doses of heroin accompanying the vodka and marijuana also found on Liston’s person. But the former heavyweight champion was terrified of needles.
In 1989, his former trainer, Johnny Tocco, told the Washington Post: “He wouldn’t even go to a doctor for a check-up, for fear some doctor would want to stick a needle in him.”
The toxicology report concluded there was some heroin and codeine in his system, but not enough to kill a man – certainly not a heavyweight champion.
The stone at Liston’s grave simply reads ‘A Man’
There are some who speculated it was a mob hit. Liston may have been ordered to throw his last fight, in 1970 against Chuck Wepner, only to go and score an incredible knockout.
Others suggested he knew too much about the criminal underbelly, with a heroin overdose forced upon him.
The official line was a heart attack had killed him, with many pointing to a car accident he had suffered weeks before as a means of getting vast quantities of pain killers legitimately into his system.
Whatever happened, the world is never likely to know. But darkness seems like it will always shroud the career of Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston.