Vegas: Sonny Liston
By Mike Casey
On those rare occasions when Sonny Liston beat Muhammad Ali in
their games of psychological warfare, the only people who laughed were the
acolytes who were too afraid not to. Certainly, nobody applauded Liston for
possessing a razor sharp mind and a slashing wit.
People generally like or dislike their villains straight up. They
don’t care for bad guys who punctuate their violence with bursts of black
humour. Sonny Liston was most definitely a villain in the eyes of most, and the
fairness of that classification continues to be a grand subject for late night
The die was cast early and the cement quickly hardened in the
harsher and more austere days of the fifties and sixties. The truth about Liston
was undoubtedly distasteful to most. It is fairly safe to assume that he wasn’t
the nicest of men. Look at his rap sheet. Look at the nasty and unconventional
ways in which he frequently supplemented his income. The most devout of
conspiracy theorists cannot seriously argue that all the ugly stories were
Where the truth ends and the fiction begins is another question
entirely. An over zealous cop is always going to give a famous felon a rough
ride and sprinkle some imaginative topping on a rather tedious cake. Liston
started it all and continued his walk on the wild side right up to his untimely
death. But his endlessly intriguing story was undoubtedly twisted, bloated and
hijacked by various individuals who yearned for their own sad little hour in the
sun. What we know for a fact is that Liston’s designated role was that of the
marauding and semi-mythical terror of the night that an insecure society both
fears and needs. We still want to know more about him. We want to know how he
truly lived and died. We dig for new, juicy details about the people he ran
with, the people he slugged as a mob enforcer and the true extent of his double
life as a faithful, tea-drinking husband and a womanising juicer.
Such is the hypocrisy of human nature. We have been rightly
taught to deplore and condemn the terrible deeds of Jack The Ripper. Yet more
than a hundred years on, we still long to know who he was and what he looked
like. Was he the powerful and evil force of our nightmares or just a meek and
inadequate little man who went mad? His famous London hunting ground, the seedy
and stinking little streets of Whitechapel with their swirling fogs and
blood-covered walls and opium dens, continue to hold us in the grip of their
Sonny Liston, whilst certainly being no Jack The Ripper, was an
appropriate substitute for his times. There always has to be a boogieman to keep
us on our toes and fire our humdrum lives with some dangerous excitement.
Depending on what you read and whom you believe, Liston and
Muhammad Ali had numerous little clashes on the way to their rivalry in the
ring. We remember Ali as the quick-witted dancing master even then, the brash
and super smart kid called Cassius Clay who ran cerebral rings around the
lumbering, mumbling Bear. It wasn’t always so. The story goes that Ali was never
faster on his feet than on the day he fled from a Las Vegas casino after Sonny
jokingly pulled out a gun and fired off a round of blanks at him.
There was also the time when Clay admitted to getting a fatherly
slap in the face from Liston. “He was running his mouth,” Sonny later explained
with his usual economy of words.
“Was it a hard slap?” a reporter asked.
“I didn’t have no gauge.”
Many moons ago, the erudite Dave Anderson wrote a fascinating
article on Liston and told of the time when Sonny was shooting dice and Clay
came along to bait him. Cassius started by grabbing a handful of Liston’s chips
and then got brave by snatching the dice. It was a step too far and the Bear
bit. Motioning Clay to a nearby corner, Liston roared, “Get the hell out of
here. Get out now or I’ll whip you right here.”
It is unclear whether the slap in the face accompanied this
little lecture or was part of another clash between the two men. In any event,
as Dave Anderson wrote, “Clay got out.”
Horseplay? Mr Anderson didn’t get that impression and revealed
what Clay later said of the incident: “That was the only time since I have known
Liston that he really scared me. People tell me how he was a cop fighter and
beat up tough thugs. I believe it now. That time I saw that streak in him.”
If you lived in the sixties, you know what that decade was like
and will be aware of the countless and curious contradictions that ran through
it. It was indeed a wonderful time of exploration and revolution, in which many
old cobwebs were thankfully blown away. Man went to the moon. People began to
think for themselves and rebel when they believed they had just cause to do so,
tired of being subjected to the steady drip-drip of cosy indoctrination.
But the old ways and the old superstitions took much longer to
shift than history would have us believe. They linger even now in quiet little
corners. The average, trite summation of the decade offers us inspiring film
clips of Neil Armstrong, President Kennedy, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, mini
skirts and the summer of love. But the dark side of the moon, that eternal
counter balance of a society in dangerous transition, harboured murder, mayhem
and mistrust. There were still a great many places a man didn’t want to visit if
he liked to wear his hair long. Black people were still likened to apes in ways
that were far from Darwinian. Cassius Clay won a gold medal in Rome but still
had to take a bronze medal seat in his local restaurant when he went home to
Louisville. The sixties really weren’t that different from the fifties when you
took a shovel and scraped away the thin top layer of enlightenment.
I paint this little picture merely to underline the uncertainty
that prevailed in the America of Sonny Liston’s time. It is hard even now to
explain the extent to which Liston’s bullish presence scared a ponderous
establishment that had finally been hustled and harried into dragging itself up
to date. Meaningful progress was being made at last on social, racial and civil
rights issues, but the lid couldn’t be allowed to blow off the pan in the
meantime and release the bubbling brew.
Martin Luther King was a big enough nuisance to establishment
hawks, but at least he was a man of peace. Liston, by contrast, didn’t give a
flying damn about upsetting anyone. After the quietness of Floyd Patterson,
Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott, after the phoney life of impossible
temperance imposed upon Joe Louis, Liston was pulling everyone back fifty years
and reminding them of a maverick called Jack Johnson.
One hell of a
In the short time that he dominated and terrorised the
heavyweight division with his formidable brand of thunder, Sonny Liston was one
hell of a fighter. You will never get too much of an argument on that simple
point. He was the premier heavyweight long before he officially wore the crown,
tearing through the ranks with a pole-like jab that was one of the best we have
ever seen and a tremendous punch in either fist. Not since Joe Louis had we seen
a situation where opponents were frightened into defeat before they left their
In gentler times when fighters ate simpler and more honest food,
Liston was a physical colossus at around 210lbs. The few giants that had
preceded him had been, for the most part, timid and reluctant warriors. Liston
possessed the gung-ho that the likes of Willard and Carnera so sorely lacked and
the talent that Max Baer so sorely wasted. Being a big man never inhibited
Sonny. He threw his weight around like a Grizzly barrelling towards the next
That simple but dramatic phrase, ‘one hell of a fighter’, keeps
coming up whenever one chews the fat about Liston. It was the choice of words of
boxing analyst Mike Hunnicut when he gave me his assessment of Sonny’s style and
“Liston was a tough fellow to out-punch and was certainly among
the top four or five heavyweights for power,” said Mike. “He could knock you out
with either hand and didn’t need a lot of room to do so. He had an excellent jab
and one-two combination. He was not fast of hand or body and often left his
right hanging in mid-air after a miss. Some less notoriously named heavyweights
might have beaten him. Sonny wasn’t that great in the later rounds, but I think
you’ve still got to put him in or around the top ten.
“Liston was sometimes too cautious in the ring. There were
definitely times when he seemed more nervous than he should have been. Perhaps
that was largely due to managerial and self-promoting expectations. Here was a
man so tough, so strong, so apparently impervious to punishment, that people
were led to think that even armour-piercing bullets couldn’t cut him down.
That’s a tough thing to live up to, because no fighter was ever that invincible.
“Sonny had his jaw fractured early in his career by Marty
Marshall and got decked by Marshall in their second fight. Like any other
fighter, Liston knew he could be hurt. Too often, he didn’t take some of the
chances he could have for fear of being decked. Even a flash knockdown would
have seriously dented his image of the indestructible beast.
“Nevertheless, of the champions who followed him, with the
obvious exception of Ali, I think only Evander Holyfield at his best would have
taken Sonny’s measure.”
Marty Marshall, whose fighting style was eccentric to say the
least, broke Sonny’s jaw in their 1954 fight by doing something very rare. He
made Liston laugh. Young Sonny, who had yet to perfect his killer stare, found
Marshall hilarious and couldn’t help but chuckle at Marty’s ring antics.
Liston told the story to Bob Burnes, who was sports editor of the
St Louis Globe-Democrat.
“I’m sort of standing there, wondering what this fellow’s going
to do next. All of a sudden he jumps up and down, lets out a whoop like a wild
man, and I get to laughing at him. I had my mouth wide open laughing when he
whomped me right on the jaw. It didn’t hurt much, but I couldn’t close my mouth.
“That happened about the third or fourth round, and I had to
fight him with my mouth open the rest of the way. After a while it got to
hurting pretty bad.”
A while ago, a large package was delivered to my home, containing
some great old clippings on Liston from early sixties issues of Sports
Illustrated and various now defunct boxing publications. They were sent to me
courtesy of Ted Luzzi, a good writer friend from San Diego and an avid Sonny
Liston fan. Tired of skimpy and sensationalist articles and formulaic ‘What if?’
features on Liston, Ted asked me if I would consider writing a big feature on
Sonny. “I won’t tell you how to write it,” he promised. “Just write it as you
will and tell me what you think of him.”
Well, as a man, Liston has always intrigued me and probably
always will do. But not passionately so. For all the times I have been to Las
Vegas, I have never visited his lonely grave. I have no great desire to uncover
some jewel of a lost tape on which he might be discussing the succulent details
of a piece of work with his famous ‘protector’ Frankie Carbo. We are talking
about the events of more than forty years ago. Liston the hoodlum has been done
to death and dusted to the point where the bare furniture is beginning to show
through the polish. Perhaps indeed there are some sticks of dynamite that were
never detonated. Perhaps there is nothing. The saddest aspect of that side of
Sonny’s life was that it took him out of his natural element as an
all-conquering destroyer and vastly shrank his status. To gangsters and
godfathers, he was just a handy slab of beef for cracking heads.
Liston the fighter is much more fascinating to me, because of how
he evolved over the span of three vividly contrasting chapters. There was the
stone killer that could not be beaten. There was the naked beast whose cloak of
invincibility was suddenly snatched away. Finally, there was the creaking old
gunfighter putting some final notches on his belt before biting the dust for
On his inexorable march to the championship, Liston went through
the heavyweights like the proverbial dose of salts. He twice dispatched
Cleveland Williams in titanic slugfests. Nino Valdes and Mike DeJohn were
crushed by Sonny. Zora Folley went out in three rounds and Roy Harris in one.
One would have to be pedantic to pick holes in a portfolio of that quality.
It is also a fact that Sonny’s best years as a fighter were
probably during this period of 1959-1961, when he was lurking in the backwaters
and feasting on the challengers that Floyd Patterson and canny manager Cus
D’Amato were studiously avoiding.
Liston was officially thirty by the time he got to Floyd, quite
probably older. Sonny’s age was always a constant source of fascination,
something else that got a little silly. The usual suspects were counting the
lines on the back of his neck and pegging him at anything between forty and
Did he take too long to win the prize and then get tired of the
grind, or did he just get arrogant? Liston was never the most conscientious of
trainers. He worked hard in the gym in short bursts when the motivation and the
hunger were driving him. But he never wanted to be there. He once spoke of the
sacrifices of the training camp, where 50 or 60 steaks packed in dry ice would
Steak constituted his one meal of the day and he would eat it
raw. “That’s why they have training camps,” he said. “They take away women and
feed you raw meat and this puts you in a fighting mood. It makes you angry and
brings up the evil inside you.”
But the bright lights were always too much of a temptation for
Liston. He was a heavy drinker and a skirt chaser who was quite clever at hiding
his secret life. Friends and colleagues insisted that alcohol made him sick.
Wife Geraldine, accustomed to a gentle husband who drank tea with his meals,
innocently defended him to the last.
Where was there to go for Liston after he destroyed Floyd
Patterson with such ridiculous ease? Sonny was immensely proud of being the
world champion and promised he would be a fighting monarch and a good ambassador
for the game. But his image as the invincible monster of boxing had bred the
belief within him that he could take his foot off the accelerator and still stay
miles ahead of the rest.
Why sweat in the gym and run for miles on freezing cold mornings
when he could knock out guys with an icy stare? Patterson, in two attempts, had
shared Liston’s company for just four minutes and fourteen seconds. Cassius
Clay, Sonny believed, wouldn’t last much longer. The few other contenders that
rated a shout had already felt the mighty swipe of the Bear’s paw.
When somebody suggested former champion, Ingemar Johansson,
Liston could not conceal his contempt. “Johansson should be arrested,” he
scoffed. He turned to manager Jack Nilon and said, “Hey, Jack, give me Johansson
for a birthday present!”
Then Sonny gave the game away when the conversation turned back
to the young Clay. “The only thing I’d have to do with Clay is a lot of roadwork
– because he’s gonna run like a thief.” Of Clay’s boast that he would take
Liston in six rounds, Sonny retorted, “By the time of the sixth round, I’ll be
halfway through the victory party.”
He truly believed this when he journeyed to Miami Beach to put
the Louisville Lip to sleep. In fairness, so did most others. By that time,
Sonny had been slopping through his training and partaking of the wrong kind of
supplements for some time. He gambled heavily too and was paying back debts
right to his dying day. The expectations and demands of his management team and
their dubious associates must have constantly weighed on his mind and nagged him
The first fight with Patterson didn’t just put Floyd to sleep. It
put Sonny into a dangerous slumber too. Las Vegas, the venue for the return
match, was the one place on earth where Liston was unlikely to knuckle down to
the serious business of running, punching and catching medicine balls with his
stomach. The crap tables got far more of his attention. The muscle on his big
body began to lose its hardness and his legs began to lose their strength as he
shunned heavy boots in favour of sneakers for some none too strenuous roadwork.
He sleepwalked to another decimation of Patterson and was still dozing against
Clay at the Miami Beach Convention Hall.
I have never believed that anything fishy was going on in that
first clash of the famous rivals. Liston trained poorly and he trained for two
or three rounds of action at the very most. He was badly caught out by a
brilliant young boxer who jerked a thumb at all the musty old textbooks and
re-shaped the technical grid. It is wrong to say that Ali was unique. Gene
Tunney was just as fast and probably cleverer. Muhammad’s great talent, apart
from his wonderful physical gifts, was to mix the best of the past masters and
produce his own funky hybrid. He laughed in the face of conventional teaching
and got away with it. And he had the mettle to match his mouth.
If Liston had one glaring weakness, it was an old school
inability to adapt to an evolving battleground and paint instinctively instead
of by numbers.
Sonny was desperate to recapture his past glory when the rematch
was set for Boston. He made a concerted effort to get back to his best physical
and mental shape, shaving pounds specifically from his hindquarter and legs for
greater speed. He weighed around 209lbs when Ali succumbed to a congenital
hernia condition and the fight was called off. The news devastated Sonny. He had
to wait for months and do it all again.
He was still trim and fit for the bizarre set-to in Lewiston, but
his ambition had seemed to evaporate with the discarded beef. Ali appeared to
physically dwarf him. Modern technology now shows us that Muhammad’s seemingly
invisible right hand chop to Liston’s jaw actually carried quite a kick, enough
to jerk Sonny’s head sideways. Was it forceful enough to flatten the man who
took the Sunday best of Cleveland Williams without flinching? I have never
believed so. What I do believe is that it was sufficiently jarring to make Sonny
consider his options when he hit the deck. Tough guys can take a whipping but
they cannot abide being humiliated. Liston must have known in his heart that he
would only get up to be a dancing bear in a muzzle all over again. But it was
still a shocking quittance that forever scarred his legacy. We are told to this
day that he went into the tank at the behest of his shadowy masters, which is
There was another hammer blow for Liston when he was dropped from
The Ring ratings by editor Nat Fleischer, who told him, “Frankly, you are the
forgotten man.” In 1965, The Ring’s order of merit was still largely recognised
as the only meaningful barometer of current form. Old Nat, for all his great
deeds, never missed a chance to haughtily remind all and sundry of its clout and
Liston’s expulsion always struck me as a cynical act of
self-importance on Fleischer’s part. Here was a man who had been cosy pals with
Jack Johnson and wouldn’t hear a word said against the gun-toting Stanley
Ketchel, whose own circle of friends and associates included the likes of Emmet
Dalton. To the best of my knowledge, Jake LaMotta wasn’t dropped from the
ratings on the basis of suspicion after going out like a lamb against Billy Fox.
Nor was Willie Pep for stinking the joint out in his melodramatic collapse
against Lulu Perez.
Liston plodded on. Frozen out and unable to get a license in most
parts of his homeland, he travelled to Sweden to knock out Germany’s Gerhard
Zech and begin the final and almost surreal chapter of his turbulent career.
In truth, Sonny was all but gone as a top fighter. He was being
carefully managed and sensibly matched, his handlers all too aware of the
cracked and fragile package they were shipping from one port to the next. Mac
Foster, the fast rising young ex-Marine, reportedly knocked Liston unconscious
in a sparring session.
Sonny rolled to a series of wins over modest opponents who were
mesmerised by his past reputation and melted at the mere sight of him. But the
game was nearly up.
Big Train To
The Big Crash
For all his aching joints and advancing years, Sonny Liston never
did lose his reputation as the great intimidator. When he walloped his
ex-sparring partner Amos (Big Train) Lincoln in two rounds at Baltimore, poor
Lincoln looked as frozen in the headlights as so many before him.
Then everything fell apart one terrible December night in Las
Vegas, when Philly puncher Leotis Martin kept banging back at Liston and finally
hit the jackpot in a tumultuous ninth round. Like one of his beloved old casinos
being dynamited, Sonny seemed to collapse in instalments from the final smashes
to the jaw, out to the world.
Even though he was old, even though he was running on empty,
there was something utterly shocking about the sudden execution. Ali had taunted
him, humiliated him and cruelly savaged his pride. But Muhammad had never truly
vanquished the Bear beyond all reasonable doubt. The belief had persisted that
nobody could knock Liston cold in the good old-fashioned way. It was 1969, more
than seven years since Sonny had become the king of all he surveyed.
There was a final act of defiance. In June 1970, Liston pounded
his way to a bloody ninth round victory over Chuck Wepner at the Jersey City
Armory, just six months before the Grim Reaper ducked between the ropes to take
Sonny’s body was badly decomposed as it rested against a smashed
bench in the master bedroom when Geraldine Liston returned home from a long trip
to make the grisly discovery. Believed to be heavily involved in the Vegas drug
culture before his demise, Liston’s body showed traces of morphine and codeine.
One of his arms revealed fresh needle marks. In terms of solid facts, that is
pretty much all we know. What we don’t know, we probably never will.
What we truly know for sure is that the curious appeal of Sonny
Liston will never fade away and die like his tired old body. We will always want
to know more about him. We will always wonder just how much greater he would
have been if he had stayed clean and trained with Marciano’s unyielding
Tom Petty once sang, “And he went down – swingin’! – like Sonny
Liston.” Others will drop Sonny’s name for decades to come. Rightly or wrongly,
it’s a cool thing to do. Just as skipping little girls in the East End of London
will continue to jump rope whilst chanting the oddly chilling little ditty: Jack
The Ripper’s dead/And lying on his bed/They cut this throat with Sunlight
soap/Jack The Ripper’s dead….
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