It has been written many times how Sonny Liston’s life was one big mystery. Nobody knows for sure when Liston was born, and no-one knows for sure when he died – or how. But what we do know is this, Liston had some terrible start in life, with a sad, tragic ending to his time on this planet to follow.
One of 25 children (!), Liston’s father, a nasty and violent-tempered failure of a cotton farmer, used to beat Liston the hardest. Tobe Liston took a particular dislike to Charles (Liston later going by Sonny, his name of preference) for some reason, showing him no love whatsoever according to the various documentaries and books that are available on Liston.
Soon growing tired of his miserable existence in Arkansas, Liston ran away, joining his mother in St. Louis. When there, the illiterate Liston fell into a life of crime. The jail house beckoned. But whilst in jail, Sonny at last got a break. A kindly priest saw his enormous physical gifts and helped turn Liston into the great fighter we all look back at with wonder today. Liston was a natural fighter. With massive hands (too big for regular gloves the story goes), a pulverizing jab and right hand and left hook, Sonny also had incredible toughness.
How great he could have become had he managed to stay out of jail upon his initial release we will never know; the Liston of the late 1950s looked to be quite unbeatable. Liston was back in jail in 1956, unable to fight again until 1958. How much better might he have become had he not lost those two years? By 1959, perhaps already as old as 31 or 32 (some historians feel Liston was actually born in 1927 or ’28), Liston was the top contender. But would he get a shot?
Eventually, as we know, the decent Floyd Patterson refused to duck Liston any longer and he gave Sonny a shot. Less than three minutes into the fight of 1962 Liston was heavyweight king. And he seemed set for a long reign. But age had caught up with Liston; certainly by 1964 it had. Perhaps aged almost 37 by the time he met a cocksure, blindingly fast 22 year old named Cassius Clay, Liston was badly beaten. To this day the insistence that the fight, and it’s rematch, was fixed remains.
Five years later, Liston was living in Las Vegas, perhaps addicted to drugs, soon to die. Was he murdered in late 1970? Did Liston commit suicide? Was it simply natural causes? We will never know.
But for a short while, Charles Sonny Liston was the best fighter on the planet. He could have achieved so much more had he got the breaks. Today, Liston would be “celebrating” his 88th birthday. Maybe.