December 30, 1970 – When Heavyweight Great Sonny Liston Met His End (probably)

12/30/2022 - By James Slater - Comments

No matter how many years go by, it seems the death of heavyweight king Sonny Liston never becomes a topic that is off limits due to the subject being boring or tiresome. Nor does the passage of time give us any clear and absolute answers about what exactly happened inside Sonny’s Las Vegas apartment that week in late December 1970/early January 1971. It was, most experts think, on this day in December of 1970 when Liston died (the exact date of Liston’s death, as with his date of birth, a mystery.

What we know for sure is this: 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, officially 38 years old, was found slumped up against his bed. The police were called, and the investigation, such as it was (a good few people say the police didn’t take too close a look at what had happened, merely content to state how there had been no foul play) began.

And here we are, 52 years later, not knowing, never knowing, what really happened to Sonny.

Indeed, to this day there are various tales of how Liston met his end. Some say it was a heart attack, other 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. But the fact is, Liston remains a figure of fascination all these years later.

Again, nobody knows for certain when Sonny was born, 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 1963, Liston never lost a single fight, while only five men were able to go the distance with him during this run.

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, while Sonny had not trained in any way strenuously for the fight with the big-mouthed hype job. 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. Ask one expert, if there really is such a person, and he will convince you the fights were legit, ask another, and you will be convinced Sonny went into the tank.

Liston eventually ended up in Las Vegas, by now in his late 30s officially, but more likely closer to 50. 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? You know the next line – it reads as follows:

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 in awe. Possessing a punishing left jab, some say the finest in heavyweight history, Liston also had brutal KO power, a granite chin, an incredible reach of 84 inches, and good speed of both hand and foot. For a time, Liston really did look invincible.

Today, Liston’s grave site 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. World Heavyweight champion September 25, 1962 to February 25, 1964.