December 1963: When Sonny Liston Dressed Up As Santa Claus, And Most Of America Didn’t Like It

Happy Christmas from Sonny Liston.

Sonny Liston had a most amazing face, and with it, “Old Stoneface” had a natural, even unavoidable ability to omit a chilling stare that, anyone who saw it would not soon forget. Even today, some 50 years after his death and almost 60 years since he ruled as world heavyweight champion, Liston’s visage is instantly recognisable; even to people who were not even born when Sonny was king. Liston and his various talents were unforgettable, in a number of ways…. his icy, chilling look, his reputation, the mysterious element to his life and death, his brutal, some say unmatched proficiency as a fighter. And his grossly underrated sense of humour.

Liston, however, is sadly best remembered for his two losing fight with Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. But there was of course so much more to Charles Liston. As we are all getting ready for Christmas here in 2021, it’s fascinating to look back on Liston’s controversial decision, or agreement, to dress up as Santa Claus for a most prominent magazine cover in December of 1963. Liston’s appearance as Santa, which graced the cover of Esquire, caused plenty of attention, even outrage.

The story goes how Liston, who was “training” for his second title defence, this against the cocksure Clay (who had appeared on the cover of Esquire himself), was met inside the Thunderbird Hotel, where the heavyweight king was coerced into agreeing to don the fat, jolly man getup. Liston, who loved kids, never attempted even the faintest attempt at a smile as he looked dead centre into the camera, the red and white Santa hat perched atop his head. There was, however, an inner photo, for anyone who bothered to read the article from that issue, where Sonny beamed with genuine affection as he cuddled up to a young child.

But the cover image did some damage. There was anger over the way Liston, a black man playing one of the most joyously celebrated white men in (mythical) history, drove a massive wedge through the ongoing civil rights movement; with a number of African-Americans who were passionately fighting injustice believing Liston’s appearance as Santa had gone a massive way towards compromising their cause. While white America didn’t appreciate Liston’s getup at all. Amazingly, when we look back now, unable to comprehend what all the fuss was about, it’s worth remembering how Esquire lost a reported $750,000 in advertisement money, with a number of agencies removing their adverts from the pages of the publication due to the backlash that followed Sonny’s black Santa impersonation.

Cassius Clay explained the anger and displeasure white America felt: “That’s the last black motherf****r America wants to see coming down their chimney!” the future king said.

Liston, as we know, lost to Clay/Ali a couple of months after his gig as Santa, and the Esquire cover was overshadowed, even forgotten. But it wasn’t really forgotten. Even today, there is something – call it weird, call it funny, call it cool – about Liston’s appearance as Father Christmas. During his fame, Liston was preserved forever in some iconic photos, yet the image of Sonny from the days leading up to Christmas in 1963 might just be the most iconic.

(note: a pristine issue of Esquire, December 1963 is worth a pretty penny today)