Today marks 50 years since heavyweight king Charles “Sonny” Liston died. Officially aged 38, Liston died, officially, on December 30th of 1970 in his Las Vegas apartment. However, the exact date Liston passed away on is unknown, as is the cause of death a mystery. Liston’s wife, Geraldine, came back from a Christmas trip away to find her husband dead, his body already in an advanced state of decomposition husband, this on January 5th, 1971.
Liston was found slumped up against his bed. To this day there are various tales of how Liston met his end. Some say it was a heart attack, others says Sonny, addicted to drugs, overdosed, either accidentally or on purpose. While the most popular theory says Liston was murdered by the mob. A good number of books have been written on the subject, some of them excellent, others not so well written. But the fact is, Liston remains a figure of fascination all these years later.
No-one knows for certain when Sonny was born – some say 1929, others suggest a later date – but for a relatively short time, Liston was a truly magnificent fighting machine. His prime years being 1958 to 1963, Liston was looked at as all but unbeatable. Good fighters like Cleveland Williams, Nino Valdes, Roy Harris, Zora Folley, Eddie Machen, and Floyd Patterson were beaten by Liston, with all but Machen being crushed. During the years 1955 to 1964, Liston never lost a fight.
By the time he had won the world title, this by annihilating Patterson, Sonny was an “old” man, perhaps as old as 33 or more. Certainly, by the time he was upset in shocking fashion by the 22-year-old Cassius Clay in February of ’64, Liston was way past his best. Of course, the two losing fights Liston had with Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali, are the subject of much debate and controversy; the pair of fights proving almost as mysterious as Liston’s death.
Some say, without a single shred of doubt, that both fights were fixed, with Sonny losing as per a prearranged agreement. While others say, with just as much certainty, that Liston was beaten fair and square in both fights. This is an argument that may never come to an end.
Liston ended up in Las Vegas, by now in his late 30s officially, but more likely in his early or even mid-forties. Liston was still fighting quite regularly at this time (seven fights in 1968, all wins, four fights in 1969, three wins and a KO loss to Leotis Martin, and one fight in 1970, a bloody win over Chuck Wepner), yet stories say he was also both taking and dealing drugs along The Strip. Maybe Liston did get in way over his head with the mob and maybe they did do away with him. We will never know.
But Liston remains a popular fighter, not just a figure of enduring mystery. Fight fans continue to watch Liston’s devastating ring displays, often with awe. Possessing a punishing left jab, some say the finest in heavyweight history, Liston also had brutal power, a granite chin, an incredible reach of 84 inches, and good speed of both hand and foot. For a time, he really did look invincible. In fact, were it not for the emergence of the man who would go on to become the greatest heavyweight in history, Sonny Liston may well have reigned for many, many years.
Today, Liston’s gravesite in Vegas attracts a good number of visitors each year. These fans come to pay their respects to Liston. As it says on the marker on his grave, he was “A Man.”
Charles “Sonny” Liston: 1930 to 1970. Heavyweight champion 1962 to 1964. Final ring record: 50-4(39).