Has there ever been a more mysterious, fascinating, totally misunderstood and ultimately doomed heavyweight champion than Charles Sonny Liston? No. Not even close.
As has been written many times over – and we all hope the new documentary ‘Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston,’ which will air tonight on Showtime, gives us more – Liston’s date of birth is a mystery, as is his exact date of death. And when it comes to just how the big sleep came to perhaps the most underrated and most underappreciated heavyweight king of the ring, well, this subject has inspired a multitude of theories.
An intimidating former jail bird, Liston, Sonny to those who knew him, was looking for all the world like a fighter capable of sitting on the heavyweight throne for as long as he so pleased. This was back in 1962/63, and many people feared Liston, or his unsavory image to be more exact, and he was no celebrated puncher. Certainly not in the way Sonny and his pulverizing fists would have been welcomed into the home of just about any civilized boxing fan today.
Getting on for 60 years ago, Liston starched champion Floyd Patterson in one quick round. Liston repeated the job in a similar amount of time the following year, yet he was no satisfied champion. Much has been written of how Sonny, when touching down in Philly and expecting a parade of fans turned out in his honour as heavyweight champion, was crushed by the complete lack of a reception. Talk about no respect, or a great fighter feeling he had none.
How might Liston’s life have turned out differently had he got the attention, respect – redemption – his winning the biggest prize in sports should have received? We will never know. But there are other unanswerable questions:
Did Liston throw his first fight with Ali? The rematch? Both fights? Was Liston murdered, and if so, whodunnit?
All these years later and these questions, about Liston’s life, his career and his death, still puzzle us as much as they fascinate us.
But how great might Liston have been, or become? And why didn’t the general public fall in love with him the way they did with, say, a Mike Tyson? (product of the times to be sure, but surely there is more to it than that)
Not only was Sonny a destroyer inside the ring, the rematch win over Patterson being his 34th career win, all but seven coming inside the distance, but Liston was also seen as a bad guy out of it. Having served time in jail, having known mob handlers and being all but illiterate, Sonny was not a champion the general public of the early 1960s was willing to warm to. And how Liston was hurt by the neglect. Indicative of how the times were so severely against Liston is the fact that beloved President John.F Kennedy had spoken to Patterson at The White House, encouraging him to beat Liston. Who knows how JFK felt after seeing Floyd crushed for a second time.
But those who hated, disliked or had no time for Liston needn’t have worried. In his next fight after beating Patterson in the needless rematch, Liston was beaten himself; and all but finished as a top class heavyweight. Today, we all know who was waiting in the wings to “shake up the world,” but back in the summer of 1963, absolutely no heavyweight seemed up to the task of taking Liston’s belt. The soon-to-be Muhammad Ali was about to be born. And how much has Ali and his life and career been documented? Now, tonight, it’s Sonny’s turn.
Let’s hope Liston is given justice. For once.