The Heavyweight Bookshelf: Sonny Liston

“He the devil,” Muhammad Ali said to Mark Kram in 1984, pointing to a picture of Sonny Liston. Though he held two victories over Sonny in two tries, Ali always regarded Liston with awe. And he wasn’t alone.

Sonny Liston occupies a unique place in the heavyweight pantheon. The great champions are regarded as great by consensus, with a general awareness about who the key figures are in the story, both in the ring and out. Heavyweight history has had a fortuitous way of doling out the most talent and the most social significance to the same men, so that the tally of “who’s best” closely tracks with “who’s most important.”

With Sonny Liston, the model breaks down. He is not one of the major heavyweight champions, at least not in the way that I describe in The Boxing Kings: those who hold "a defining place in our culture.” I award that designation to just seven champions: John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson. And yet, Liston—who grew up hungry and abused in rural Arkansas, who did prison time for robbery and spent the rest of his life linked to mobsters and shadowed by police—did matter to a world beyond the ring. He mattered to James Baldwin, and to Norman Mailer; he mattered, negatively, to the leaders of the American civil rights movement, who saw him as a nightmare representative of American blacks at a crucial point in the fight for legal equality; he mattered, lord knows, to several big-city police forces; and he has mattered, in the nearly half-century since his death, to historians and critics, who see his life as epitomizing the despair of the black underclass experience and, some say, the unbreakable gravitational power of American racism. And while Liston’s championship reign lasted less than two years and ended in ignominy with his controversial loss to Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali in 1964, followed by an even more disastrous defeat in the rematch the following year, he was by any serious reckoning among the most formidable men ever to hold the crown. He was fated to be a champion on the margins of the great narrative, a side corridor off the main hallway—but what a corridor. As Mark Knopfler put it in his powerhouse tribute song, Liston was “the king they cast aside.”

And he may be the heavyweight champion worst served by biographers, since in death he possesses a singular capacity to stimulate writers’ tough-guy fantasies and fondness for conspiracy theories.

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The only biography of Liston to appear when he was champion was A.S. Young’s sympathetic Sonny Liston: The Champ Nobody WantedThe subtitle, later borrowed for a Liston documentary, captures how America, and the boxing world, felt about Liston in the early 1960s. As Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray wrote, accepting the ex-con Liston as heavyweight champion was like waking up and “finding a live bat on a string under your Christmas tree.” When Liston won the title, Larry Merchant, then a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, envisioning a ticker tape parade, wrote that “for confetti, we can use shredded warrants of arrest.”

Soon such judgments would seem retrograde. Much changed in American culture between 1970, when Liston died, and 2000, when Nick Tosches’s The Devil and Sonny Liston (later retitled Night Train) appeared. Outlaw figures were all the rage; virtuous good guys were increasingly regarded as simplistic or worse. Always a strain in American culture, the antihero now became more and more of a main line, in part because of the collapse of institutional credibility in the United States and the cultural and social changes ushered in by the 1960s. Thus, Sonny Liston, black man, ex-felon, bad-ass, having lived a life of mystery and having exited the world no less mysteriously, became a figure of fascination, and Tosches, in his book, is certainly fascinated—unduly so, since the book’s good qualities (it is deeply researched and, at its best, eloquent) are overshadowed by its author’s hard-boiled posturing and self-indulgent style. (“Fuck this shit—adjournment for dick in the midst of this ever more precipitous and perplexing narrative. Let’s talk cock. Let’s talk all sorts of shit.”) Liston was objectified, in his own day, by unsympathetic reporters as black thug, but Tosches's treatment, at times, objectifies him as black stud. The book is as much about its writer as its subject.

The seeds of the Tosches treatment may be contained in Village Voice columnist Joe Flaherty’s celebrated obituary for Liston, published a generation earlier, shortly after Sonny’s death. Flaherty was one of those blunt-talking, wisecracking New York newspaper writers familiar with a working-class milieu who have now pretty much vanished from the trade. “Amen to Sonny” has its moments—writing of the now-deceased fighter, Flaherty opines that “even in his present condition, Liston would be 8 to 5 over Patterson”—but it’s overheated, as when Flaherty suggests that Sonny's keen wit exemplified “the lowdown logic of every hustler who knows the cosmic truth that a bullet from a gun on the end of a pimp’s silk suit travels faster and deadlier than the best left hook ever honed in a gym.” You can almost hear the film noir voiceover.

Paul Gallender's 2012 biography, Sonny Liston—the Real Story of the Ali-Liston Fights, is the product, he says, of 35 years of research. Rich with detail but devoid of objectivity, the book reads as an impassioned posthumous defense exhibit for Liston, whom Gallender sees as wronged by history, as boxer and man. Chronicling a life that remains contentious on key particulars—from the date of Liston's birth to what really happened in his second fight against Muhammad Ali, in 1965—Gallender usually opts for the most dramatic explanations, which also happen to put Liston in the best light. Thus, he argues that Liston was probably born in 1917 or 1919, much earlier than the 1932 official date, an approximation adopted for official purposes. This would have made Liston 43 or 45 when he won the title and over 50 when he fought for the final time. It's true that Liston was widely assumed to be much older than his official age, but Gallender bases his conclusion on one speculative anecdote and two secondary sources, one of which, at least online, now uses the 1932 date. Springs Toledo’s deduction that Sonny was probably born in 1930 is much more persuasive because he draws from the most credible authority available: U.S. Census reports from 1930 and 1940. Toledo’s work offers the best evidence for Sonny’s likely age, which, if correct, turns out to be pretty close to what the fighter claimed.

The 1965 Ali-Liston rematch in Lewiston, Maine, is an event steeped in rumor and hearsay, and Gallender piles on some more. His version has the Black Muslims, perhaps in cahoots with the mob, kidnapping Liston’s family and threatening to kill them unless he took a dive against Ali. That the Muslims may have tried to intimidate Liston before the fight is eminently plausible, even likely; some accounts have them visiting his training camp to lay down a warning, and they were perfectly capable of hostage-taking (and murder) as well. But conjecture about the Lewiston fight could easily fill an e-book. None of it has been substantiated. Liston himself gave different answers when asked about the fight. Liston's wife Geraldine lived until 2005 and spoke in several documentaries about Sonny but never even hinted at a kidnapping plot.

Gallender's biography is a labor of love reflecting a profound personal commitment, but his over-identification with Liston makes him an unreliable authority, to say the least. (After the book was published, Gallender began claiming that Sonny was communicating from the afterlife through a medium named Josie. He updated his biography with new material containing Sonny’s messages from the spirit world.)

Among Liston biographies, that leaves Rob Steen’s Sonny Liston: His Life, Strife, and the Phantom Punch, sometimes titled Sonny Boy. Steen’s book, published in 2003, has some inaccuracies regarding boxing history, but otherwise the story is told straightforwardly, with a minimum of Tosches-style showboating. It reads well, and Steen has done some digging. If you had to read one biography of Liston, I’d recommend Steen’s. 

Liston's story is better told in books in which he is not the main, or sole, subject. David Remnick’s King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero is an irresistible read, but its best parts, in my view, are its opening sections concerning not Ali, but Liston and Floyd Patterson—two black heavyweights who, along with Ali, represented wholly distinct responses to the civil rights movement of their time. In a short space, Remnick gives you the Liston saga, replete with telling details. Liston said that the food in the Missouri State Penitentiary was the best he had ever eaten; not long after his release, in 1954, inmates rioted over bad conditions—including the food. After Liston was paroled, a friend brought him a chicken dinner, but Liston just stared at the plate. When the friend asked him why he wouldn’t eat it, Liston said, “I don’t know how.”

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Bob Mee’s Ali and ListonThe Boy Who Would Be King and the Ugly Bear is an excellent book that tells the story of both men and their fights through heavy immersion in the newspaper accounts of the era, thus surfacing lots of quotes you may not have heard before. (Rocky Marciano, at ringside in Miami for the first fight, after Liston has quit on his stool: “What the hell is this? What did they do?”) Not given to mythologizing, Mee doesn’t buy many of the stories that have grown up around these events. His judicious treatment is a model of clear-headedness.

Rob Sneddon is clear-headed, too, in his fine 2015 book, The Phantom Punch: The Story Behind Boxing’s Most Controversial Fight, which doubles as a forensic analysis of the events in Lewiston and a good boxing yarn about how the obscure Maine city came to host a heavyweight title fight. It’s engagingly written and richly researched from local sources. Sneddon doesn’t rule out foul-play possibilities—you can’t rule them out—and he acknowledges the bad karma that surrounded the event and the many competing explanations for what really happened, but in the absence of evidence for the various conspiracies, he’s left with a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction judgment: “No one could have planned a mess like that.” I agree with that assessment, at least until some hard evidence surfaces. For the time being, I’ll continue to see Lewiston not as a diabolical plot but as a product of time, circumstance, and human character—three ingredients more than sufficient to make any event incomprehensible.

Shaun Assael’s The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Murder, and Heavyweights attempts to resolve the many questions regarding Liston’s death. Traces of heroin were found in his system, but his needle-punctured, badly decomposed body, found days after he died, didn't allow for definitive analysis. Conspiracy theories persist to this day that he was murdered as part of a drug hit, a mob vendetta, or any number of other scenarios. The simplest conclusion remains that he accidentally overdosed, though the effects of a car accident, after which he experienced chest discomfort, may also have played a role. I have not read Assael’s book, which appeared just as I was finishing my own. From what I can glean, it is a deep dive into the gambling and criminal subculture of Vegas, the milieu that Liston inhabited when he died, and offers more possibilities for where the truth might lie. But despite its come-hither title, the book does not—and cannot—close the case. At this late date, that task is probably impossible.

Like most heavyweight champions, Liston figures in a host of other books. The vast Ali literature alone will keep anyone looking for Liston information busy. And any book that focuses on boxing and organized crime—like, say, Kevin Mitchell’s Jacobs Beach—is sure to feature the Liston story.

And yet, for all the books, the best single thing written about Liston is a magazine article. If all you ever read is William Nack’s 1991 Sports Illustrated story, “O Unlucky Man,” you won’t be deprivedNack, who died earlier this year, made a career out of crafting elegant, literary, and compulsively readable profiles for SI, not just of boxers, though often enough of boxers. His Liston feature has all the lyrical Nack hallmarks, as when he describes Liston’s “upper arms like picnic roasts” and notes that even most blacks were horrified when he won the title, “as if he were climbing the Empire State Building with Fay Wray in his hands.”

If Nack takes the laurel for best Liston story, James Baldwin wins best Liston sentence. Baldwin disliked boxing, but he was sent to cover the first Liston-Floyd Patterson fight in 1962 by Nugget, a men’s magazine of the era, and his essay, “The Fight,” shows keen insight into both men. Meeting with Liston, the great intimidator, Baldwin finds him not fearsome but melancholy, and he captures Sonny in words that could do, in a pinch, as a one-sentence biography of this ill-fated fighter: “He is inarticulate in the way we all are when more has happened to us than we know how to express; and inarticulate in a particularly Negro way—he has a long tale to tell which no one wants to hear.”

The loneliness of that sentence! That’s what Sonny Liston’s life was most deeply about, it seems to me, along with isolation, cruelty, and incomprehension. Throw in perseverance and violence and self-destructiveness, too. But it’s a story, first and foremost, of a lonely man. And if we look at Sonny Liston not as some mythical figure but simply as “a man”—as his gravestone starkly instructs us to do—that’s what we’re bound to see.

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