Revisiting the Heartbreak of Sonny Liston
By Robert Ecksel on November 25, 2019
Liston was a "bad nigger," whereas Patterson was the "good negro." (photo: Neil Leifer)
“Someday they’ll write a blues song just for fighters. It’ll be for slow guitar, soft trumpet, and a bell.”—Sonny Liston
Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston, written and directed by Simon George and based on Shaun Assael’s The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights, recently premiered on Showtime and explores in depth the heartbreaking life and death of former heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston.
The documentary humanizes a fighter many considered a monster begging to be cut down to size. Liston’s story is unique in its particulars, but it echoes the early lives of scores of fighters who fought their way to the top, always against insurmountable odds, only to have it end tragically, albeit in Sonny’s case under mysterious circumstances.
The 24th of 25 children who were raised in abject poverty in Jim Crow America, specifically in Forrest City, Arkansas, by a sharecropper and his long-suffering wife, Liston was subjected to abuse from the start. Beatings, canings, whippings, even being yoked to the family's plow after the family’s prior beast of burden, a mule, had died, his childhood from hell imprinted itself on Liston in ways he could not shake, and which few would let him forget.
Despite declaring him “the greatest heavyweight who ever lived,” a questionable assertion at best, even before the opening credits, the documentary is, generally speaking, an excellent piece of work. Relying on archival film and photographs, unobtrusive reenactments, and interviews with sportswriters, university professors, and Mike Tyson, as well as less credible commentators like a “self-professed former fight fixer” and an allegedly rogue cop, Pariah succeeds in not only bringing the late Sonny Liston to life in an evenhanded manner, but in grounding that life in an historical context in which an oppressed minority forces a country to address, however reluctantly, with the racism institutionalized at the nation’s founding.
A man who could not read nor write anything but his own name, Liston, after moving to St. Louis at the age of 13 to join his mother, gravitated to a life of petty crime that escalated into more serious offenses. It wasn’t that Liston, as a poverty-stricken young black man, was more prone to criminality than a poverty-stricken young white man in similar circumstances. But with opportunities for advancement scarce to nonexistent, there were, and regrettably still are, few tastes of the ostensible good life without venturing into lawlessness.
Liston’s rap sheet was long. In 1950 he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to five years in Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery. His story might have ended then and there, either because of embitterment or a hostile prisoner’s shank, were it not for the prison chaplain, Father Alois Stevens, who persuaded Liston to join the boxing program. The brutality he had experienced as a child and embodied as a teenager had found what it had lacked; namely a socially acceptable medium with a message which Sonny heard loud and clear, as the buzzards overhead took notice.
Organized crime took to boxing the way a shark takes to water. They recognized Liston’s potential while he was still in prison, where he fought professionals as part of his training regimen. When he was paroled after two years, he turned pro in 1953 and was already mobbed up, which facilitated rather than deterred his rise. He was not yet the formidable machine bent on destruction we know today, but he was natural at breaking men from the start.
Less than a decade into his pro career, after beating the likes of first-rate fighters like Cleveland Williams (twice), Roy Harris, Zora Folley, and Eddie Machen, on his way to amassing a 33-1 record by the end of 1961, Liston was ranked the number one contender to face the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, Floyd Patterson.
All that stood in his way was public sentiment.
Patterson also had a troubled past, but his demons were no match for the man he became. Articulate and attractive, even while protected by his manager and trainer Cus D’Amato, he was adored by the NAACP, civil rights activists, Jackie Robinson, and Jack and Bobby Kennedy as a symbol of African-American advancement, unlike “America’s worst nightmare,” Sonny Liston.
However complicated life might be, oversimplification is the ruse of first and last resort when it comes to riling the public. One newspaperman wrote of Liston, “A man like that, he shouldn’t be fought; he should be hunted.” Others described Liston as a “bad nigger,” whereas Patterson was the “good negro.” Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American author James Baldwin countered their reductionism by writing, “The press has really maligned Liston very cruelly, I think. He is far from stupid; is not, in fact, stupid at all. On the contrary, he reminded me of big, black men I have known who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to conceal the fact that they weren’t hard.”
Pariah echoes that opinion, but nobody believed good Patterson could defeat big bad Sonny Liston. D’Amato thought fighting Liston was a huge mistake. So did JFK. They felt the loss would disrupt the status quo while impeding racial advancement, failing to take into account a young, undefeated, mouthy fighter from Louisville, Kentucky, named Cassius Clay, who would raise disruption to a whole new level.
Whatever his shortcomings in the ring, Patterson was an honorable man. “I feel he has every right to fight for the championship,” he said about Liston, “despite his unfortunate background.” Going into their first fight, at Comiskey Park in Chicago on November 25, 1962, Liston had a 13-inch reach advantage and outweighed Patterson by 25 pounds. Floyd was doomed from the start. The fight ended at 2:06 of the first round. Larry Merchant, writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, years before his stint at HBO and anti-Liston from the start, wrote, “Emily Post would probably recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti we can use torn-up arrest warrants.” Their second fight, at the Las Vegas Convention Center 10 months later, lasted four seconds longer than the first.
Liston had reached the summit. There was nowhere to go but down. The respect he thought was his due was not forthcoming. He was no more accepted as champion than he was as challenger, and seven months later Sonny was dethroned by Cassius Clay (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali), controversially, after he quit on his stool at the end of the sixth round. A more controversial rematch followed 15 months later. It ended in the first round after Ali landed his so-called “phantom punch.” Both bouts were denounced as a fix.
That was it for Sonny Liston, figuratively if not literally. He would continue to fight, against increasingly lesser opposition, and his end would come five years after the second loss to Ali, when he was found dead in his Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971, under mysterious circumstances, which is where Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston both begins and ends.
When Liston’s bloated corpse was discovered by his wife Geraldine, there were needle marks on his arm, despite his well-known aversion to needles. The Las Vegas police allegedly found marijuana and heroin at the scene, but no syringes. The medical examiner reportedly discovered trace amounts of junk in his system, but wrote that he died of “natural causes,” and the cops ended their investigation.
There are dozens of anecdotes, theories and rumors about Sonny’s death, and dozens more about who murdered him, assuming it was murder, and not an accidental overdose that did him in. Liston’s turbulent history, his mob ties, the many enemies he made over the years, as well as the gamblers he may or may not have stiffed by failing to go into the soup against Chuck Wepner in his final fight, provided as many suspects as reasons for him to be silenced and why. The documentary addresses these hypotheses with a thoroughness that gives lie to pat explanations, yet Pariah reaches no definitive conclusions, just as there were none at the time of his death, nor a half century later.
Liston was larger than life, and now that Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston has aired, his hovering spirit is larger than death.
In the final analysis, with no easy answers forthcoming, it might be as the boxing promoter Harold Conrad, who knew Sonny personally, foretold:
“He died the day before he was born.”