Sympathy for the Devil: Rehabilitating Sonny Liston

Photo Credits: The Ring Magazine

The illiterate son of a sharecropper.

A thug in his youth and mob henchmen through his adult years.

Known as one of boxing’s preeminent boogeymen.

And the vanquished foe of Ali.

Fifty years after the suspicious passing of Sonny Liston there are still far more questions that remain than answers.

What is known beyond doubt is Liston was a complex man who lived a life of struggle few can imagine and for a moment he attained the success in life that few if anyone would have believed him capable.

As a boxer, he was a laborer of underrated craft an ability.

What is there to be found when we open this coldest of cases.

Is there a man inside the myth and rumors worth saving?

Sonny was one of those ‘bad negroes.’

Sonny Liston

Photo Credits: Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

No unequivocal date of Charles “Sonny” Liston's date of birth exists. However, research of contemporary census records identifies the most likely date to be on or about the 22nd of July 1930.

One of 13 children born to Helen Baskins and Tobe Liston. The 2nd youngest, Sonny was born on barren sharecroppers’ land in Johnson Township in Arkansas.

Liston endured brutal beatings from his father Tobe. Liston said of his father “The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating.”

Such was the maltreatment endured by Liston he fled to St. Louis, Missouri with the meager savings he had accumulated farming pecans. Liston rejoined his mother and some of the children in St. Louis. Liston would leave school barely out of the primary grades due in large part to the jeers of classmates mocking his illiteracy.

Listless and without prospects the street life pulled Liston into gang activity where he showed a propensity for violence – a reoccurring theme in Liston’s life. Liston led a crew of his own, specializing in robberies and muggings and acquired the nom de plume the “yellow shirt bandit” for his colorful attire. Liston’s limited luck ran out when he was caught and convicted of robbery in January 1950. He began serving his time in June of that year and served nearly two-and-a-half years.



While incarcerated Liston was befriended by Reverend Alois Stevens who turned Liston on to the sport of boxing.

Liston made for a quick study.

Whatever anger remained from his violent upbringing, whatever grudge Liston bore for living in an America fresh out of dreams for him to live he would exercise some of those demons in the ring and his opponents would be on the receiving end.

After a very brief but successful amateur career Liston turned pro in 1953 and made his debut knocking out Don Smith.

Liston at the time was employed as a debt collector and enforcer for one of the local syndicates associated with mobster Frankie Carbo and “Blinky” Palermo.Those underworld connections served him well early on, in part securing him a contract to fight professionally, at the time Liston supposedly said to his bosses "Whatever you tell me to do, I'll do."

Those words and those connections would create a reputation for Liston that would haunt him, trapping him in a corner that “The Big Bear” as he was nicknamed would not be able to get out of as a pro boxer or a man.

Liston, you see, was one of those “bad negroes.” The archetype that segregated white America used to stoke the race based fears of the white public.

Heavyweight Champion of the World

Sonny Liston. At 6’ 0.5” was an undersized heavyweight.

However, he had fists like cannon balls and shoulders like a stockade.

And a head hard enough to absorb both his opponents’ blows and the police man’s truncheon.

Liston also had an incogitable wing span – his reach was measured at 84.”

For perspective Wladimir Klitschko and Anthony Joshua both 6’6” have an 81” reach and 82” reach respectively. Tyson Fury has an 85” reach. Then again, he’s 6’9.”

That reach was one of the keys to Liston’s success as he had a phenomenal jab and several variations he liked to employ. His jab was like a power punch, he didn’t jump step into it as many do today he often would lean his upper body into it, dangerous for a fighter of comparable reach, not in Liston’s case. He used his jab to walk opponents into his powerful right hand and used his jab almost like a stiff arm to both blind opponents and as the tip of the spear to off balance them before landing the right hand again.

Sonny Liston also had a powerful left hook and it seems Liston may have been left handed though he used an orthodox stance.

In the mid to late 1950s Liston decimated the heavyweight division. Knocking out all but two opponents in his rigorous bid in 1958 for the title shot against then champion Floyd Patterson.

John F. Kennedy, a boxer at Harvard and avid boxing fan met with Patterson one on one as the story goes and advised Patterson not to grant Liston a title shot due to his unsavory reputation. The NAACP is alleged to have also advised Patterson to do the same through back channels.

Cus D’Amato Patterson’s trainer/manager vehemently refused to give Liston the shot on the pretense that Liston’s links to organized crime would sully the bout on top of tarnishing the sport generally. D’Amato apparently did not feel the same compunction given his reputation for consorting with racketeers himself and moreover had his own managers license suspended by the NY Athletic Commission following alleged impropriety in the title match between his fighter Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson.

Nevertheless, Liston was one of those “bad negroes.” It was imperative the title not fall into the wrong hands.

Patterson ultimately went behind D’Amato’s back and signed a contract to fight Liston.

On the 25th of September 1962 Patterson’s weak chin was smashed by a series of punches and a final left hook from hades ended the one-sided affair in the very first round. Liston’s victory is still one of the quickest in Heavyweight title match history.

The rematch clause Patterson inserted stipulated that Liston would have to fight Patterson again within a year should he win.

Roughly 10 months later Liston did so on the 22nd of July 1963 and Patterson lasted only 4 seconds more. Patterson was dropped three times in round one, enroute to being finished in that opening round.

Ali – The NOI – The Mob


Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston

Some 17 Months later 19-0 Cassius Clay, The Louisville Lip had secured a title shot against the champion, Sonny Liston, the man Clay called “The big, ugly, bear.” And while Ali entertained the crowd and assembled reporters with rhymes and banter the surly, gruff Liston gave only curt answers with all the ease and comfort of a man gargling broken glass.

He hated Clay. Hated his smile. Hated his charm. Clay continually roasted Liston whenever he had the opportunity. Though Liston was a 7:1 favorite Clay endeared himself to fan and sports writer alike.

February 25th, 1964 Clay weathered the early storm and what many believed to be shady tactics from Liston’s cut man Joe Pollino to blind Clay, the younger faster Clay boxed beautifully wearing down the Champion, stopping Liston two rounds quicker than he predicted when Liston quit on his stool at the end of the 6th round.

Three months to the day later, the 25th of May 1965 the rematch took place – Anchor Punch, Phantom Punch, fix, it’s all been said and written before. Regardless the aftermath of the fight was swallowed up by chaos and controversy. Oddly though prior to the rematch it was Liston who now found himself cast as the role of ‘fan favorite.’

Following Clay’s massive upset of Liston, Cassius Clay embraced the Black Nationalist philosophy of the Nation of Islam (NOI) forging strong bonds with controversial lieutenant Malcolm X as well as founder Elijah Muhammad and was christened Muhammad Ali.

At that moment America was being ripped apart by race riots from coast to coast, the violence of the Vietnam War was beamed into households across the country, stunned Americans watched the best and brightest of the generation blown to smithereens over some vague notion of foreign aggression, a sitting president had been assassinated and minorities were agitating for equal rights.

Muhammad Ali was at the forefront of that movement and was a potent symbol of African American resistance.

Now it was Ali who was “one of those bad negroes” the most insidious aspect of racism is ‘stay in your placeism’ and Ali was a highly visible violation of that institution.

Liston by contrast was unsympathetic to the civil rights movement. Though he had frequent run ins with police and did not hesitate to fight them if one on one Liston was quoted once about his absence from the black civil rights movement saying dismissively “I ain’t got no dog-proof ass” referencing one of the more inhuman tactics used by law enforcement to disperse peacefully protesting crowds of African Americans.

In some respects both Ali and Liston turned to sort of nihilism about their circumstances. Ali wanted to disrupt the current status quo by turning the tables over completely while Liston had no passion for the civil rights movement having never been embraced by it and certainly no affection for white authority he was simply a survivor.



Sonny Liston

Sonny Liston had escaped the squalor of his childhood and the abuse of his father. Liston survived – in fact thrived in the streets where the one rule was win at all costs and had dominated the heavyweight division for nearly a decade.

And Liston survived Ali.

Though Liston’s career as a marquee boxer was all but over after Ali/Liston II he continued to fight on going, 16-1 with 13 stoppages. Liston also continued to hustle on the streets and work as a mob enforcer. The nearly illiterate Liston was ‘carved up’ by his underworld handlers they took majority of his purses even as an ascendant champion moreover the suggestion that Liston threw the Ali rematch just cemented in the minds of the public what a crooked, bent human being and sportsman Liston was.

Liston could never be like transcendent WW II hero Joe Louis or civil rights icon Ali.

Liston had long since given himself over to a different path. Liston numbed himself with booze and a chronic heroin addiction. By all accounts Liston doted on his wife Geraldine whom he married in 1950 and his adopted daughter though Liston allegedly fathered seven children outside the marriage. 

Liston died of an apparent heroin overdose. Suspicion swirled around his death. One popular theory suggests the mob and Las Vegas PD conspired to murder Liston, leaving the hypodermic needle in his arm and his corpse for Geraldine to find after being left to rot for several days. The truth will likely never be known.

The most poignant story for me that best encapsulates the sad tale of Sonny Liston is this: Liston had been living in in Philadelphia at the time he had beaten Floyd Paterson to become heavyweight champion of the world. Friends had promised Liston he’d be greeted at the airport by a throng of fans and journalists. However, when Liston stepped off the plane, there was barely a soul, just a small handful of sports writers and public relations staff.

Liston had been largely. Snubbed. As always. Liston was scorned for his victory.

It has been said and I agree that Liston was the champ nobody wanted.

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