Why you should care
Because every narrative features villains, and their stories are often just as compelling as celebrated heroes.
The tale of Charles “Sonny” Liston is far more complex than that of just an intimidating ex-con who broke legs for the mob on his way to seizing boxing’s heavyweight title. “His story,” says boxing writer and historian Springs Toledo, is “almost Shakespearean.”
As the story goes, Liston was so reviled that in January 1962 President Kennedy asked the then-heavyweight champ, Floyd Patterson, to refuse Liston, the No. 1 challenger who had been waiting upward of two years, a title shot because of his recognized ties to organized crime. During this intense era of the civil rights movement, black leaders also feared that if the perceived henchman defeated Patterson —the more polished and humble African-American champ — it could set race relations back even further.
But face him he did, and Patterson actually entered the ring that September as the underdog, with many expecting “The Big Bear” Liston to simply overwhelm the champ with his unmatched power and 25-pound advantage. And indeed Liston did, knocking out Patterson two minutes into the fight. “There are still people to this day who say [Liston’s] jab was the greatest and most menacing of all heavyweight destroyer-type jabs,” longtime boxing commentator Jim Lampley tells OZY. In a mandatory rematch the following year, Liston duplicated the feat, this time knocking Patterson to the canvas three times for another first-round KO.
You could tell that [his] was not an easy life, and he wore the scars.
Jim Lampley, boxing commentator
Defending his title did little to ingratiate the man known as the “Yellow Shirt Bandit,” who a decade earlier had been sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary for robbery, to the masses. “Some of the things in his past would give one pause,” explains Toledo, author of The Gods of War: Boxing Essays. “He had a history of violence” that included holdups, street muggings and even assaulting police. Whether because of his reputation as a mafia enforcer or in response to the scowl he wore in the ring, Liston was booed by the Las Vegas crowd before and after the Patterson rematch. At the post-fight presser, Liston acknowledged, “The public is not with me. I know it. But they’ll have to swing along until somebody comes to beat me.”
Liston had no known birth record (best guesses point to July 1930) and was one of around two dozen children of a failed Arkansas sharecropper. Illiterate and raised mostly without his mother, he quickly fell in with the wrong crowd, hardening his outlook and setting him on a vicious path. “He had a scary aura,” explains Lampley, “but there was sadness too. You could tell that [his] was not an easy life, and he wore the scars.”
Literally. His alcoholic father beat him, leaving marks so deep that spectators at his matches decades later could still see the welts from repeated whippings. Liston would discover his own penchant for alcohol, which only fueled an aggression that made him as feared in the ring as on the streets as he moved around the country from the Deep South to St. Louis, Philadelphia to Denver, landing finally in Las Vegas.
heavyweight crown a mere 18 months before Muhammad Ali usurped it in a stunning six-round victory in 1964. But make no mistake, Liston was more than a brute puncher with a mean streak. He was a skilled tactician inside the ropes and blessed with unrivaled size and strength for the time. Following a title-fight rematch with Ali in May ’65 — the infamous “Phantom Punch” bout in which Liston is thought to have taken a dive to appease the gambling underworld and that produced one of the more iconic photos in sports history
The official cause of death was lung congestion and heart failure. While there was a needle mark on his arm, it’s unclear whether it was because he had blood drawn during a recent trip to the doctor or due to something else — perhaps drugs. (The autopsy noted
Buried beneath a Vegas headstone with an epitaph that baldly reads “A Man,” Sonny Liston lives on in mystery and legend, a known criminal goon, but without question one of the most imposing boxers to ever strap on gloves.