Sonny Liston was a ferocious fighter, the heavyweight champion of the world and the man Cassius Clay beat to win the title for the first time, igniting his own legend. And yet, outside of boxing, Liston was a haunted man, initiated early into a life of crime and decimated by drugs when his boxing career faltered.
His untimely end was long thought to be accidental and self-inflicted, courtesy of a heroin-filled needle in his arm. Now the book “The Murder of Sonny Liston” by Shaun Assael wonders if another might have pushed the fatal plunger.
Liston was born in Forrest City, Ark., possibly in the early 1930s — the day and year are unknown — the 24th child of a “miserable miscreant” sharecropper father. He wound up in St. Louis as a teen and began robbing restaurants and gas stations. He landed in prison, learned to box and rose through the sport quickly.
When Liston became the top challenger to champ Floyd Patterson by 1960, it was a national scandal, as Congress debated whether Liston — whose criminal record included breaking a cop’s leg in 1956 — was civilized enough to get into a boxing ring and beat another man to a pulp.
Testifying before a Senate committee on the matter, Liston said he had no education, was forced to work from a young age to help feed his father’s 25 children and could sign his name but not write his own address.
He also was asked about mob-connected promoters he dealt with, and said, “I wouldn’t pass judgment on no one. I haven’t been perfect myself.”
The controversy became a flashpoint. Baseball’s Jackie Robinson said he wished Liston’s record were better but that he deserved the title shot, while President John Kennedy “urged Patterson to find [an opponent] with a better ‘character.’ ”
Liston got his title shot in 1962, winning the belt in the first heavyweight title fight ever decided in the first round. Patterson got a rematch a year later and lost again by first-round knockout.
While training for the rematch in Las Vegas, according to Assael, Liston met a well-connected bookie named Ash Resnick, who made himself Liston’s personal concierge, “offering Sonny everything from fine clothes to consorts,” and became part of his inner circle.
One of Resnick’s best friends was boxing legend Joe Louis, who would, in time, become close with Liston. According to the FBI, Resnick used Louis as a “bodyguard companion” — an enforcer — on collection calls.
Clay was Liston’s next challenger. A gambler associate of Resnick’s later told the FBI that Resnick advised him a few days before the fight that Liston would win in the second round but then called a few hours before the bout saying to forget the advice. Liston lost the title to Clay, and the associate told the FBI, “Resnick knew that Liston was going to lose.”
Clay, now known as Muhammad Ali, won the 1965 rematch by knockout. But the winning punch looked to many like it barely made contact, and Joe Louis Jr., sitting ringside for the fight with his father, later said he and his dad were “perplexed” that Liston received no medical care after the punch. To many, the whole situation screamed “fix.”
According to Assael, a theory emerged that Resnick, on Liston’s behalf, made a deal with the Nation of Islam, which was connected to Ali, to have Liston take a dive in exchange for a percentage of Ali’s future earnings.
Nothing was ever proven, but Nevada state assemblyman Gene Collins told Assael that in 1970, as Ali prepared to fight Joe Frazier, Liston told him and others that “he had a portion of Ali’s contract,” and that Liston “got more and more animated as they talked about the size of Ali’s paycheck.” Another friend of Liston’s said something similar, claiming that Liston said “he’d have money for the rest of his life.”
As for his own career, while Liston went on to fight many scrappers and has-beens, he never returned to his former glory as a boxer.
By the late ’60s, according to Assael, Liston was using heroin and had become an enforcer for a drug dealer named Robert Chudnick, whose own celebrity made him as surprising a dealer as Liston was a collector.
SOURCE: Larry Getlen
New York Post