Sonny Liston: the eternal mystery

James McHugh
21/07/2017 12:14pm

James McHugh ponders the mysterious life and death of tragic former world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston...

Returning to Las Vegas from St Louis on the night of 5 January 1971 after spending Christmas with her mother, Geraldine Liston was worried about her husband.

He had not been in contact for 12 days and she soon became suspicious when approaching the couple’s house. The front door was unlocked and several windows were open. As she went through the front door she noted that there was an awful smell - it wasn’t until she entered the main bedroom she discovered why.

Charles L. 'Sonny' Liston - one of the most feared and hard hitting heavyweight champions of all time - was lying at the foot of his bed.

He had been dead for six days.

There are various theories, statements and reports concerning exactly how Liston died. A Clark County coroner stated that he died from natural causes with lung congestion contributing towards his death.

Geraldine claimed that Sonny passed away due to heart failure, but no one was ever convinced by either verdict. What raised even further suspicion, and has always left a question mark over his death, was the fact that one of Liston’s arms displayed needle marks. Why would a man with a fear of needles have such marks on his arm?

Much of Sonny Liston's existence carried an air of mystery with it. Ranging from his age and place of birth (his date of birth shifted from 1929 to 1932 during his career) to the way in which he ended up losing his title to the young pretender, the then Cassius Clay in 1964.

Known for his toughness, intimidating presence and punching power Liston was a long avoided contender until 1962 when he finally became world heavyweight champion by knocking out Floyd Patterson in the first round.

Widely regarded as being unbeatable, Liston would go on to lose his title in 1964 to a young up and coming boxer who would soon change his name to Muhammad Ali.

Following the bout there were claims that Liston had been drinking heavily the night before but the reality was that Liston was simply undone by the speed, movement and counter punching ability of a young Ali.

Feared inside the ring, loathed outside it and with connections to the mob to boot, perhaps it was inevitable that Liston was destined to meet a sticky end.

Liston's connections in the underworld helped secure opponents during the early days of his professional career and his associates would often place large sums of money on Liston to win. As you can imagine this became a nice little money maker for them. As long as he was winning Liston was a useful asset.

Those of you who have seen The Godfather, Goodfellas or The Sopranos will know, however, that the mob tends to take an unfavourable view of you when you don’t do as they ask, or play by their rules. When this happens you become dispensable. Once you become dispensable, you better watch your back.

Some fighters were ordered by their management team or promoters to take a dive on occasions during this era. When you look at some of these cases and dig a bit deeper you usually find one root cause – 'the mob'.

One fight springs to mind when I say that. Cassius Clay fighting for the first time as Muhammad Ali, took one minute and 44 seconds to demolish Liston’s attempt to recapture his heavyweight title in Miami in May 1965. The history of boxing was changed by a punch the power of which few, even those at ringside, have ever agreed on. It was a defeat that effectively finished the career of Liston.

But was he truly hurt or did he take a dive?

In Liston’s earlier years he had scared people and knocked a few heads on behalf of John Vitale, a St Louis mob boss to whom he also acted as a chauffeur. During his rise towards international fame Liston was also managed by Frank 'Blinky' Palermo, a Philadelphia based associate of the notorious Frankie Carbo. This is the man who had organised the murder of the infamous Bugsy Siegel in 1947. The pair were later convicted of conspiracy and extortion in connection with their boxing activities and Palermo served seven years of a 25 year prison sentence before dying, aged 91 in 1996.

He left behind a notorious quote: “The trouble with boxing today is that legitimate businessmen are horning in on our game.”

Some believe that Liston's connections to the mob explain away the second Ali defeat. Others believe 'The Mob' lost patience with him when he allegedly refusal to throw a bout in 1970 against Chuck Wepner, the uncultured bruiser who later inspired the Rocky franchise.

Might the fact that Liston knew too much about the mob and their dealings provide a motive for him to be murdered?

After his death a widely publicised version of events claimed that Liston fell while preparing for bed and struck his head on a bench in his room. However a police sergeant named Gary Beckwith also discovered a quarter ounce of heroin and a syringe near Liston’s body. An autopsy also confirmed that Liston’s blood contained traces of codeine and morphine – common components when heroin is broken down.

Add this to what I mentioned earlier about needle marks being found on one of his arms and you can see why some believe Sonny was murdered, perhaps via an injection with a lethal dose of heroin?

You do not need a degree in criminology to conjure up a potential motive here. Sonny’s last bout before his death was against Wepner, Liston was victorious that night in New Jersey. The ring doctor stopped the fight after round nine due to Wepner having multiple cuts to his face.

Did Liston refuse to go down against Wepner, thus losing mob bosses a substantial amount of money? Did Liston put the wheels in motion that night for underworld bosses to take him out of the equation?

When you hear the word mobster or gangster you often envisage someone like Al Capone. Dressed impeccably and holding a tommy gun. This was one of the well-publicised weapons of choice used for executions, however, an alternative and not so well known method was an enforced overdose.

Is this what happened to Liston? Had the mob finally had enough of him?

Sadly we will never know the answer but one thing is for sure - nearly five decades on Sonny Liston’s death remains a mystery.