Pariah: The Lives and Death of Sonny Liston

By Tom Donelson / Author, Member Boxing Writers Association of America / Contributor to dmboxing.com since 2008

Showtime special on Sonny Liston, Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston, reveals the various controversy and conspiracy theories surrounding Liston career and death.  Liston, like Joe Frazier, George Foreman and even Larry Holmes were overshadowed by Muhammad Ali and his talent has often been ignored and never truly appreciated.   He was not just a powerful puncher or brawler, but he had good boxing skills to go with that awesome power. 

The problem with Liston is that the truth about his life often overshadowed his skills in the boxing ring and often led to various conspiracy stories.  There is no doubt of his connection to organized crime and his rise to prominence occurred during the time in which Mob controlled boxing and he did work for the mob as an enforcer outside the ring.

During the 50’s, mob control of the boxing became part of congressional investigation and Liston connection to the mob became part of the hearing.  This did two things.  It first delayed his shot at a title as Cus D’Amato had a good reason to keep Liston from fighting Patterson despite Liston defeating top contenders. The second thing is that reinforce Liston as a villain.

As the 1950’s ended and the 60’s begin, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, challenging the racism existed and the documentary made it clear that many in the Civil Rights movement didn’t want Liston as a representative of their movement, a man perceived as a thug by much of American. Floyd Patterson was the polite gentleman who many viewed as a role model plus he was the heavyweight champion.

Floyd Patterson decided that he had to give Liston a chance for the title while many around him knew Patterson couldn’t beat Liston.  Liston knocked Patterson out in one round and follow up that victory with another first round knockout of Patterson.  It is here where the documentary goes in interesting directions with various conspiracy theories like the Ali-Liston fights were fixed.  One individual who is listed as expert on fight fixing made the case of the first fight between Ali-Liston was fixed but anyone who saw the fight and most of those interviewed agreed with me, this was Ali beating up Liston.  Ali pounded Liston, open up a cut under his eye and one individual observed, Liston may even laced his gloves with compound designed to burn Ali’s eye and blind him.  Throughout the fifth round, Ali moved around the ring nearly blind, but Liston failed to finish him.  At the end of the round, Ali’s eyesight returned and nailed Liston with a combination.  In the sixth round, Ali nailed Liston with powerful combinations.  Liston did not come out for the seventh round as he merely had enough.  The indestructible Liston ended the fight on his stool.  Ali won the second fight with a first round knockout.  I agree with Mike Tyson view that you can get knock out by the punch you don’t see.  There is not doubt that the right hand, for years called the phantom punch nailed Liston and Liston didn’t see the punch.  I remember an amateur kick boxing match I fought in.  It was a tough fight with both of us nailing each other with kicks and punches but the in the final round, I hit my opponent with a punch that caught him off guard and send him down  It wasn’t the hardest punch of the fight but it hit my opponent perfectly. (He got back up to finish the fight, but it showed me that a punch no matter how hard landing in the right place can send another fighter down.)  Liston with his contact with the mob lend itself to many conspiracy theories and why would the mob give up the heavyweight title, especially since the fighter who won it was beyond their control.

After the second fight, Liston career was pretty much over even though he would continue to fight. He was never a true contender after that and the only time that he would even been remotely liked as a fighter was the second Ali fight as more Americans feared the recent Nation of Islam convert Ali than Liston.  He found himself back at the bottom of the contender ring.  The reason is that his past reputation hurt him and other fighters like Jerry Quarry and Joe Frazier became the new contenders.  Liston would fought sixteen more fights winning 15 of them. All of his victories but one by knock out but the one fight that ended his chance any shot at a title was his loss to Leotis Martin.

Liston was hoping for one more shot and in 1969, Ali was stripped of his title when he refused to enter the United States Army so there was opportunity for one more shot at the title.  A win over Leotis Martin could have put him in the position for another title and he knocked Martin down in the fourth and was winning on points before Martin stopped him in the ninth round. 

His last fight was a battering of Wepner and in the documentary, it was stated that he was supposed to take a dive against Chuck Wepner, but Wepner wasn’t called the Bayonne Bleeder for nothing as a Liston piston like jab open up a cut. If there was a fix, it would have been difficult to throw a fight when the guy you are fighting bleeding all over and the fight was stopped over Wepner cuts. Again I don’t buy this conspiracy theory.

Drug overdoes was listed as one reason for Liston’s death and while he officially listed as dying as result of an overdose, the one conspiracy theory that I can buy is that Liston was murdered and didn’t die from an overdose.   The one theory is the Mob decided to punish him for money lost in the Wepner fight (even though I don’t buy that the fight was fixed.  Why fix a fight with Wepner whose reputation was bleeding during the nation anthem) but he did hang out with many unsavory characters in Las Vegas and got into to the drug scene including pushing so it is more realistic that he was murdered by one of those characters who he dealt with.  The special mention one raid that he was caught in by FBI, but they allowed him to go free and this may have led others to think he was informant.  (FBI agents involved in the raid were shocked to see him there and decided to get him out there while arresting the others.)

Liston had a stellar career with 50 wins and only four losses, that in between violent crimes, prison and allegations of fixes and he was not just a powerful fighter but a technically skilled to go with his power.  He couldn’t read or write, a black man with a troubled past and while he appeared as tough and sullen, the documentary showed that he was sensitive and loved to be around children. Throughout his career, Sports writers attacked him and labeled him a ignorant thug and he didn’t talk to them. When he won his championship, he thought that he would be treated differently but there were no parades or even acknowledgment of his accomplishment. 

Before the Ali fight, he was considered indestructible, but Ali destroyed Liston image as the tough guy in the ring and while he continued to fight, he became invisible to fight fans as the thug was defeated and boxing fans moved on. 

The documentary viewed Liston as a black man lost in 1950’s and 1960’s America as much of the Black leadership flocked to Floyd Patterson, and more radical blacks as well as the political left drifted to Muhammad Ali.  Liston was abandoned by his own race and much of America as well, he was the villain throughout his career except for one brief moment in Lewiston Maine but that fell apart in one minute.

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