Arkansas-The Tragic Story of Sonny Liston
Boxing has been apart of the American sports scene since the 1700’s by way of England. It started by infiltrating the larger port towns before eventually working it’s way into the lexicon of America. Boxing starting as an illegal sport which saw it’s athletes arrested. Now it showcases some of the most talented combat sports athletes in the world. We will embark on a 50 part saga exploring the best boxers representing the United States. Some states will obviously have more athletes to choose from than others but the journey will be quite the ride. Let’s embark on the journey looking at an interesting fighter from each state.
Before we get going with our fourth entry, make sure to go back and check out the three states we have covered by clicking below.
We have made it to the fourth state in our 50 part series (covering in alphabetical order), Arkansas. The 29th state to join the union, Arkansas is ranked 33rd as far as population rank. The state is home to 2000 Sydney Olympic games light middleweight bronze medalist, Jermain Taylor, 1976 Montreal Olympic games heavyweight bronze medalist John Tate, and the first National Golden Gloves winner ever from Arkansas, Buddy Holderfield. Above all, there is one name both the most famous and infamous in Arkansas sports history, Charles “Sonny” Liston. Liston was born in the small town of Sand Slough, Arkansas. There are typically only two sentences when looking up information on the small town. The first is it’s located in St. Francis County, and the second is the town is home to boxing great Sonny Liston.
Troubled, Pre-Boxing Life
Being born into a family as the 24th of 25 kids to the father of a sharecropper in the South would have been a tough enough story to overcome. His mother was about 16 years old and his father was in his late 40’s. Young Liston was often on the receiving end of many beatings from his father. Liston is quoted as saying, “The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating.” In the Showtime documentary Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston, it was stated that Liston’s father would often tell him, “you will be my mule” and made young Liston walk the plow through the fields.
In 1946 Liston’s mother took a handful of his siblings to St. Louis, Missouri for better work opportunities. The young Sonny, probably around 13 to 16 years old, thrashed pecans to raise money. Tired of his father’s beatings and living the sharecropper life, Liston boarded a bus to St. Louis to find his mother. Problem was Liston had no clue where his mother was living . He did not have the slightest idea where to start once he touch downed in St. Louis. With a huge amount of pure luck, after a few days he was able to find his mother’s residence. Liston thought this would change his life for the better. He would come to learn, unfortunately, that his life would be full of turmoil from day one.
Running Amuck in St. Louis
Liston attempted to attend school but dropped out soon thereafter. Searching for employment, Liston took a job cleaning chickens for about $15 a week. Looking to make more money to make life easier, Liston turned to a life of crime. With a group of friends Liston began an armed robbery spree where the cops referred to Liston as the “yellow shirt bandit.” In 1950 Liston, along with two accomplices, were arrested for armed robbery of a diner and two gas stations. Liston received five years for each charge to run concurrent.
This would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. While incarcerated at the Missouri State Penitentiary, he would meet Father Alois Stevens. Father Stevens noticed Liston’s natural ability and encouraged the troubled Liston to take boxing serious. Thurman Wilson, a pro boxer brought in by Father Stevens, sparred a few rounds with Liston and instantly felt the power. Wilson is quoted as telling Father Stevens from the ring, “Better get me out of this ring. He is going to kill me!” George Jung, a renowned drug smuggler, once said of Liston, “he went to jail with a bachelor’s in brawling and came out with a doctorate in boxing.”
Beginnings of Amateur Career
After only serving two years on a 15 year sentence, Liston was paroled out with the help of mobster John Vitale. Vitale was at one point the ruling boss of the St. Louis crime family. File number 163-1275 of the FBI’s probe into Charles “Sonny” Liston discusses the alleged connection to Liston and the St. Louis mob boss. On October 31, 1952 Liston was released from prison and his amateur career soon began. Five months later on March 06, 1953 he captured the Chicago Golden Gloves by defeating 1952 Helsinki Olympic games gold medalist, Ed Sanders. Unfortunately, Sanders would pass away later the next year sparring with New England heavyweight champion Willie James. Next Liston would go on to defeat the New York Golden Gloves champion, Julius Griffin, to earn the Intercity Golden Gloves championship.
Liston continued his amateur journey competing in the United States National Championships in Boston. He defeated Lou Graff before losing to Jimmy McCarter. Liston actually later employed McCarter as a sparring partner. McCarter did have a brief professional career of his own, spanning 19 bouts. In June 1953 Liston represented USA as one of ten St. Louis Golden Glove winners to compete against Europe in an International Golden Gloves championship. Liston knocked out the West German Hermann Schreibauer in Kiel Auditorium. Three months later, Liston would finally make his professional debut.
Early Professional Days
After a short, yet dominating amateur career, it was time for Liston to turn pro. With his troubled past and mob ties, the only backing Liston could get to turn pro was from the mob. FBI files state mobster John Vitale, who previously helped Liston to get out on parole, and other mobsters owned Liston’s professional contract with Vitale owning 12 percent. His debut came against Don Smith, where Liston won via first round knockout. Liston would march along to a 7-0 record against rather respectable competition.
His first loss came in that next bout against Marty Marshall, who broke Liston’s jaw early in the bout. Marshall would go on to win the eight round split decision. The two met again two more times with Liston dominating both competitions. After the trilogy concluded with Marshall on March 6, 1956, Liston would face heavy legal issues in St. Louis, costing him years on his career, and almost his life.
Leaving St. Louis for Philadelphia
On May 05, 1956 a patrolman by the name of Thomas Mellow noticed around 10:50pm there was a Harris Taxi parked in an alley near Liston’s home at the time of 4454 St. Louis Ave. The author of The Devil and Sonny Liston goes on to explain the incident. Three other people were sitting on the porch with Liston. Due to the taxi being parked in the alley and the lights on, the officer told Willie Patterson, who was a friend of Liston and claimed the taxi was his, he could get a ticket if he did not move the vehicle. According to Mellow’s account, Liston came off the porch and stated, “You can’t give him no ticket.”
After getting his ticket-book and flashlight to see the vehicle’s city tag, he claims Liston bear-huged him from the front and lifted him clear off the ground. Liston wrestled away Mellow’s .38 caliber handgun and placed it to Mellow’s head. At this point Mellow claims Liston either hit him over the left eye with the gun or his fist. The gash required seven stitches to close. He also broke his left knee either from the fall or someone stomping on it.
Liston’s Account of Incident
Liston’s story obviously differed with him claiming after giving Patterson a hard time about the parking of his taxi, he began to use racial slurs toward Liston and unholstered his firearm. Liston refused to give a statement on the matter claiming to have never seen the officer before in his life. The firearm was recovered at the residence of Alcora Jones, Liston’s sister. She stated Liston came to her residence and left a package in the bottom of a wooden clothes chest in the bedroom. Geraldine, Liston’s fiance at the time and later wife, gave her side of the story which resembled that of Mellow’s. Liston served a brief time in the St. Louis workhouse. This would mark the end of Liston’s time in St. Louis. Liston claims a police officer put a gun to his head and threatened him to leave town.
By 1959 the majority of Liston’s contract was owned by Blinky Palermo and mafia soldier of the Lucchese crime family, Frankie Carbo. The pair quickly got Liston out of St. Louis and relocated to Philadelphia. Carbo would actually go on to become one of boxing’s most prominent boxing promoters. After a two year layoff from the ring and a new home, Liston returned to the ring for the run of his career.
The (Bumpy) Road to the Championship
After obtaining the new management setup by Carpo, Liston when on a demolishing run, destroying everyone put in front of him. He finally returned to action in January 1958 where he knocked out Billy Hunter in the second round inside Chicago Stadium. Liston reeled off nine in a row leading up to his meeting with another vicious, hard hitting opponent who was running out of options to meet in the ring, Cleveland Williams. Two of The Ring magazine’s top 50 greatest punchers of all time were destined to meet and finally did so in April 1959. Liston dominated Williams for three rounds before knocking him out. Many consider this one of Liston’s best showings of his career. Liston won the next three bouts before facing Williams in a rematch in Houston, Texas in March 1960, five years before The Beatles would perform in the same arena.
The Williams Re-Match and Build Up to the Title Fight
A jam packed crowd of 10,000 filled the Sam Houston Arena in Houston for the Liston/Williams rematch. At the time of the matchup, Liston was ranked number two and Williams number ten in the world. Liston would make even faster work of Williams in the re-match, ending the bout via TKO in the second round. Williams would go on to win 80 bouts in his career. He even earned a title bout with Muhammad Ali in the Astrodome. Liston continued his dominance going 5-0 in his next handful of bouts following the Williams knockout. Four of those five bouts ended in knockout. There was nothing left for Liston to conquer, except the world championship. Earning the bout contract would prove harder than winning the championship.
Floyd Patterson and the Debacle Leadup
The hardest part of the Liston/Patterson title fight was actually getting the fight made. Patterson’s handlers, comprised by trainer Cus D’Amato, refused Patterson to compete against Liston sighting his links to organized crime and “shady handling.” After becoming the number one contender in 1960, Liston was arrested two more times earning himself a suspension in 1961 by the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission, which was honored by all commissions.
In addition to not doing anything to help out his own character issues, the NAACP and president John F. Kennedy himself urged Patterson to not take the Liston fight. The claim was his organized crime ties would do damage to the title. The bigger issue at hand was no one was prepared for a world champion like Liston. A man who was like a villain instead of a hero. Even former lineal heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey spoke out against the contest.
Finally Getting the Shot
After enough negative press and feelings about having a shot at the champion, a frustrated Liston hired all new management in a hope of appeasing the likes of D’Amato. Liston began to use what many championships of the past used as a storyline, a race battle. Though Patterson and Liston were of the same race, Liston often referred to Patterson as fighting only white opponents and was thus drawing the color line similar to that which faced champions of the day, like Jack Johnson.
The big bout was finally signed to occur September 26, 1962 in Chicago at Comiskey Park. Though entering as the challenger, Liston entered the contest as the betting favorite. After 126 seconds, those odds would come to fruition. Liston landed a huge right uppercut that stunned Patterson. He followed that up with a series of punches ending in a big left hook. Patterson hit the mat and was unable to beat referee Frank Sikora’s ten count. Sonny Liston had fulfilled his dream and was now the world heavyweight champion of the world. At the time it was the third fastest knockout in world heavyweight title fight history.
“Unwelcomed” Return to Philly and the Rematch
For the first time in his life, Liston expected to return home (now Philadelphia) to a hero’s welcome at the airport. Upon arrival though he was only greeted by the faces of reporters he despised over the past several years. Larry Merchant, known as an HBO boxing commentator for almost 25 years, was at the time of Liston’s bout was a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Merchant made the remark confetti could used at the ticker-tape parade and the confetti could be made of old arrest warrants. Bringing his arrest ways to Philly from St. Louis, he was just as despised by the public in his new town. Liston decided it was time to move yet again and relocated to Denver, Colorado. He infamously stated, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia.”
In order for Sonny Liston to get his initial title shot, a contract stipulation was inputted stating Patterson would be granted a rematch within one year should he lose the title. After several reschedulings due to a Liston knee injury and Patterson have a benign tumor removed from his hand, the bout took place on July 22, 1963 at the Convention Center in Las Vegas. The 7,816 fans on hand were in for just as bad a beating as the first bout. Patterson was dropped to the floor three times in the first round and could not beat referee Harold Krause’s ten count, similar to the first bout. Patterson only made it four more seconds, lasting to the 2:10 mark of round one. With Patterson absolutely dismantled, only one name remained on Liston’s hit-list, a man considered by many as the greatest heavyweight of all time.
The Opposite Spectrums of the Heavyweight Scale: Liston and Clay/Ali
Two more different boxers in history could not be paired to meet than that of Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali.) Liston, often a man of little to no words and when they were spoken, words not soft on the hear was next scheduled to fight Ali, a 22-year old at the time who was brash, and never at a loss of words. Just two years prior, Ali won the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympic games. Never one to be short of a prediction, Ali claimed Liston would go out in the eighth round while Liston predicted two. “Round eight to prove I’m great!” Ali shouted.
Always one for mind games, Ali bought and painted “Sonny Liston will go in eight” across a bus. The buss even made a late night visit to Liston’s residence where Ali and others laid on the horn and repeatedly shouted insults his way. The two would finally enter the ring on February 25, 1964 in Ali’s current city of residence at the time, Miami. At the pre-fight press conference Ali stated, “He’s too ugly to be the world’s champ! The world’s champ should be pretty like me!” The Ring magazine’s 1964 Fight of the Year would not disappoint.
A fight so huge it was on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s March 9, 1964 issue, which was the first issue released after the fight. Though a huge underdog Ali would walk away the world champion after Liston was unable to answer the bell to start the seventh round. The judges were split though looking at the scorecards through six complete rounds. Controversy arose in the fourth round after Ali begged cornerman Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves. Ali could not see and had no intentions of returning to the battle. Stories differ on the substance that got into Ali’s eyes. The Nation of Islam believe Dundee sabotaged his own fighter while others believe a substance was placed on a Liston cut which inadvertently got into Ali’s eyes.
Eddie Machen, a heavyweight who lost to Liston in 1960, believes the substance was an intentional setup by Liston and his men claiming the same was done to him in their 1960 bout.
Regardless, Ali was able to dance around for round five and compose himself leading to the sixth round. After out-landing Liston 25 to 8, Sonny Liston was unable to answer the bell for the seventh siting a shoulder injury. St. Francis Hospital doctors and Doctor Alexander Robbins concluded Liston tore a shoulder muscle. The Miami Beach Boxing Commission even held Liston’s purse believing a fix could be in the work. The funds were released when they received medial documents of Liston’s injury.
The Rematch and the “Phantom Punch”
Only 2,434 fans were on hand to witness the rematch on May 25, 1965 inside the Central Maine Civic Center in Lewiston, Maine of all places. Setting the mark for the lowest attended heavyweight title fight ever, the rising fear of an assassination against Ali was ever present. The FBI provided a 12-man 24 hour security detail of the champion. The fear arose from the assassination of Malcolm X which occurred only a few months prior. Shunning Malcolm X at the heading of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam feared Ali would be a target of retaliation by Malcolm supporters.
The bout itself only lasted 2:12 seconds, two seconds longer than Patterson lasted with Liston. The bout produced one of sports’ most iconic images, the image of Ali standing over Liston with his right arm crossed over his body, look of intensity on his face. Former heavyweight champion, Jersey Joe Walcott, was the third man in the ring for the contest and called the KO of Liston. The bout yet again graced the cover of Sports Illustrated (June 07, 1965 issue.)
After Liston threw a left jab, Ali came over the top with a right that dropped Liston. Walcott did not takeover the count from time keeper Francis McDonough and started his own count. Liston returned to his feet and continued boxing with Ali. McDonough and The Ring editor Nat Fleischer flagged down Walcott and told him Liston did not beat the ten count and needed to stop the bout. Oddly, Walcott stopped the two from boxing and declared Ali the winner via knockout.
Post Fight and Callings for a Fix
To this day, over 55 years since the bout, many question if the fix was in on Liston/Ali II. Even former world champion and undefeated heavyweight Rocky Marciano, thought there was a fix. That was until he saw the tape the next day. He stated, “I didn’t think it was a powerful punch when I saw the fight from ringside,” Marciano said. “Now (after seeing video) I think Clay, seeing the opening, snapped the punch the last six inches.” Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated Liston told him, “That guy (Ali) was crazy. I didn’t want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn’t hit.” Merchant, who criticized Liston even after defeating Patterson for the title claimed he saw the punch connect claiming it to be a very quick right hand that did the damage.
A 1995 HBO documentary showed former FBI agent William F. Roemer Jr stated, “We learned that there very definitely had been a fix in that fight.” He said Bernie Glickman, a boxing manager from Chicago with mob ties, claimed that while he was conversing with Liston and his wife before the fight, Liston’s wife told the ex-champion that as long as he had to lose the fight, he should go down early to avoid any chance of getting hurt.”
Future Earnings Theory
Some theories insist Liston threw the bout at the behesting of the mafia either because he owed money or to win large on bets. Another belief explored in the book The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights, is Liston was approached with an offer to a piece of Ali’s future contracts. Many believe this is why Liston seemed to be a proponent of the Ali/Frazier bout, under the assumption he would make a large payday himself.
Rounding Out His Career and Unexplained Death
Sonny Liston was definitely on the down turn of his career. He finished out with 16 bouts but an impressive 15-1 record. The former champion’s storied career came to an end defeating Chuck Wepner via ninth round TKO on June 29, 1970. Wepner wold go on to eventually earn a title shot against Ali in 1975 and was also an inspiration for the movie Rocky. But for Liston, just because his boxing career rollercoaster ride was over, did not mean the rollercoaster ride of his life was over. Well it would soon be unfortunately over.
An Unknown Death to Match an Unknown Birth
The secret to Liston’s mysterious death lays at the Garden of Peace lot A 20-2 at Davis Memorial Park in Las Vegas. This is the resting site of one Sonny Liston. Returning home from a two week trip on January 05, 1971 Liston’s wife, Geraldine, entered the home to a foul odor and found her husband deceased slumped over in the bedroom, obviously not all that recent. Shocking to most, Geraldine called Liston’s doctor and attorney first, waiting nearly three hours before notifying local law enforcement.
The police considered his death a “heroine overdose” claiming every officer on the force knew of Liston’s addition. Due to the serve decomposition of the body, the toxicology report was inconclusive. A sheriff’s deputy located a balloon of heroine in the residence and a half ounce of marijuana. The odd thing to many is the belief Geraldine or his attorney would have made a sweep through the residence to clear any incriminating or embarrassing evidence that could appear. This led many to assume the evidence was planted.
A problem to the “heroine overdose” theory is Liston’s well documented fear of needles. His trainer Willie Reddish remembered a 1963 tour of Africa being cancelled because Liston refused to take the required shots. His dentist, a referee friend, and even a priest all had their own personal stories connecting Liston to his fear of needles. Could his death have been mob related? Could it have been related to Earl Cage? Earl Cage was a cocaine dealer and hair stylist busted at his residence during a raid. Only Liston was not arrested leading Cage to strongly believe Liston gave him up. Above most, the Cage theory seems to have the most backers.
For a man with books written on his life and death, an article like this is only a top of the iceberg. It’s point is to give you a basic background on the man that is Sonny Liston. In conclusion, everyone is encouraged to do their own research and develop their own theory on the death of Liston as the rabbit hole goes deeper and deeper the more you dig. The stories involving the Clay/Ali bouts are very interesting as well. The next state in our Boxing Across the Nation series will highlight the state of California.
I am a life-long MMA fan who has been a fan since UFC 1. I was born in Illinois but raised in South Louisiana, home of many great mixed martial artists. I started martial arts at the age of 4 and continued into my adult years where I served nearly 10 years in law enforcement. I feel my job is to convey the stories of the MMA fighters we enjoy to watch and share their stories with the world.
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