International Boxing Hall of Fame

Charles "Sonny" Liston

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Sonny Liston
Real name Charles L. Liston
Nickname(s) Sonny
The Big Bear
Rated at Heavyweight
Height 6 ft 0.5 in (1.84 m)
Nationality American
Birth date May 8, 1932(1932-05-08)?
Birth place Sand Slough, Arkansas, U.S.
Death date January 5, 1971 (aged 38)
Death place Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
Stance Orthodox
Boxing record
Total fights 54
Wins 50
Wins by KO 39
Losses 4
Draws 0
No contests 0

Charles L. "Sonny" Liston (May 8, 1932?�January 5, 1971) was a formidable boxer who became world heavyweight champion in 1962 by knocking out Floyd Patterson in the first round. Liston was one of the most powerful punchers and especially jabbers in the history of boxing.

Early life

Because of a lack of documentation or birth certificate, it is not known when exactly Liston was born. His mother believed he was born in January, 1929, but Liston would later claim his birth date to be May 8, 1932, a date which is probably off by at least two years.[2]

Liston was born the son of a sharecropper in the sector of Morledge Plantation that lay in Johnson Township, St. Francis County, Arkansas. He was the 12th of 13 children born to Tobe Liston and Helen Baskin, and he endured frequent beatings as a child.

At 13, he escaped from his father's control and hitchhiked to St. Louis by himself to reunite with his mother and his cousins.

After the teenage Liston was sentenced to prison for taking part in the robbery of a gas station, his boxing talent was discovered by a Roman Catholic priest, and it was boxing that helped him leave jail early. [3] On Halloween night in 1952, he was paroled, and during a brief amateur career that spanned less than a year, he won several amateur tournaments, including the Golden Gloves. One of his victims was Olympic Heavyweight Champion Ed Sanders.

Professional boxing career

Liston made his professional debut on September 2, 1953, knocking out Don Smith in the first round in St. Louis, where he fought his first five bouts.

At 6' 1/2", Liston had a disproportionately long reach of 84" (equaled only by some champs who were/are 6'4" and over). He also had the largest fists in heavyweight history, 15", at least until the recent appearance of 7-ft Nikolay Valuev. His noticeably more muscular left arm and crushing left jab lends credence to the widely held theory that he was a "lefty" who had converted to boxing as a "righty." Liston's favorite song was "Night Train". He was known to repeat both versions (Jimmy Forrest's original 1952 version and James Brown's 1965 smash hit) during long rope jumping sessions.

In his sixth bout, in Detroit, Michigan, Liston faced John Summerlin (19-1-2) on national television and won an eight-round decision.

Liston again beat Summerlin in a rematch, and then suffered his first defeat, also in Detroit, at the hands of Marty Marshall on September 7, 1954. In the third round, Marshall, a defensive-minded journeyman, managed to break Liston's jaw with a right hand while Liston was laughing at the smaller man's unorthodox ring tactics. Liston proved his mettle by lasting the scheduled eight rounds despite the pain.

In 1955, he won six fights, five by knockout, including a rematch with Marshall, whom he knocked out in six rounds.

A rubber match with Marshall in 1956 saw him the winner by a ten-round decision, but in May of that year he ran afoul of the law. In an incident for which varying accounts have emerged over time, Liston was accused of beating up a police officer. He was paroled after serving six months of a nine-month sentence and prohibited from boxing during 1957.

In 1958, he returned to boxing, winning eight fights that year. 1959 was a banner year for Liston, as he fought four times, knocking out Mike DeJohn in six, No. 1 challenger Cleveland Williams in three, and Nino Valdez also in three.

In 1960, Liston won five more fights, including a rematch with Williams, who lasted only two rounds. He also had knockout wins over Roy Harris (one round) and top contender Zora Folley (three rounds). Eddie Machen was the only contender who was not knocked out by Liston, but Liston secured a one-sided, 12-round decision.

Despite moving up in the rankings, Liston had difficulty getting a shot at world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, whose handlers cited Liston's links with the mob. In 1962, however, he finally signed to meet Floyd Patterson for the title. The fight was scheduled to be held in New York, but the New York Boxing Commission denied him a license because of his criminal record. As a result, the fight was moved to Comiskey Park, Chicago, Illinois. Liston and Patterson met on September 25 of that year, and Liston became world champion by knocking out Patterson in the first round.

Liston, however, was not a popular champion and was disappointed that on his return to his hometown of Philadelphia, the fans did not show up at the airport to cheer his success. Jerry Spinelli, the author of the children's novel Stargirl, included him in its dedication because its titular character has an analogous experience.

Patterson and Liston signed for a rematch, held on the evening of July 22, 1963, in Las Vegas, Nevada. This fight lasted two seconds longer than their first fight, with Liston once again knocking out Patterson in the first round.

Liston versus Ali

Liston did not box again that year, and in 1964, he met a young contender named Cassius Clay on the evening of February 25 in Miami, Florida. Liston lost his title when he quit in his corner before the start of the seventh round, claiming he had hurt his shoulder. Some believed the fight was fixed, and doubt whether Liston's shoulder injury was real.


On May 25, 1965, Liston would encounter Clay again, now known as Muhammad Ali. The bout was originally scheduled for Boston, Massachusetts, but Ali, a week before the fight, was hospitalized with a hernia. The rescheduled match was in the small town of Lewiston, Maine.

Less than two minutes into the fight, it was over. While he was pulling away from Liston, Ali hit Liston with a soft punch and Liston, who had never been knocked off his feet, went down. In the total shambles that followed, referee Jersey Joe Walcott never counted over Liston and never made Ali go to a neutral corner as Ali yelled hysterically at Liston. The photograph of the conclusion of this fight is one of the most heavily promoted photos in the history of the media, and was even chosen as the cover of the Sports Illustrated special issue, "The Century's Greatest Sports Photos".

George Chuvalo, who sat in the fourth row at ringside and later fought Ali twice, commented, "It was a phoney." Floyd Patterson also said he did not believe the fight was on the level, as did former heavyweight champions Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, and Joe Louis. [2]

Subsequent fights

After the second loss to Ali, Liston took a year off from boxing, returning in 1966 and 1967, winning four consecutive bouts in Sweden, co-promoted by Ingemar Johansson. These knockout victories included one over Amos Johnson, who had recently defeated Henry Cooper. In 1968, he won seven fights, all by knockout, including one in Mexico. During that year, he stopped the young prospect Henry Clark (seven rounds), who was ranked No. 5 at the time. This bout was broadcasted on ABC's "Wide World Of Sports" and was America's first look at Liston since the Ali rematch.

In 1969, Liston had three wins and one loss. Among his wins was a 10-round decision over Billy Joiner in St. Louis. But, in December, Liston lost by a knockout in nine rounds to Leotis Martin in Las Vegas after dominating the majority of the fight. Martin's career ended after the fight because of a detached retina, but Liston went on to win his final fight by technical knockout, against Chuck Wepner in June 1970.


Liston was negotiating to fight George Chuvalo in Pittsburgh, when on January 5, 1971 he was found dead by his wife in their Las Vegas home.[4] The time of death has been placed as six to eight days prior to that, and several sources list December 30, 1970 as his date of passing. He was supposedly 38 years old, although most experts believe Liston's true age at the time of his death was actually 41 or 42. Following an investigation, Las Vegas police concluded that there were no signs of foul play. Many, however, believed that the police investigation was a coverup.[2]

The cause of Liston's death remains a mystery. The police declared it a heroin overdose, yet Liston was known to have a phobia regarding needles. After winning the title, Liston at first refused to go on an exhibition tour of Europe when he was told he would have to get shots before he could travel overseas.

Liston's wife also reported that her husband would refuse basic medical care for common colds because of his dislike of needles. This, coupled with the fact that Liston was never known to be a substance abuser (besides heavy drinking), prompted rumors that he could have been murdered by some of his underworld contacts. For some, the cause of Liston's death remains unresolved. [2]

As documented on the show Unsolved Mysteries, authorities found a puncture wound on Liston's right arm, a syringe near his body, and small bags of heroin inside his kitchen. Authorities thus ruled Liston's death a heroin overdose, although an autopsy showed only minute morphine and codeine levels in Liston's body; too small for an apparent overdose.

Additionally, authorities could not locate any other drug paraphernalia that Liston presumably would have needed to inject the fatal dose, such as a spoon to cook the heroin or an appendage to wrap around his arm. This only added to the mystery surrounding his death.

A friend of Liston's also told Unsolved Mysteries that Liston had been in a car accident a few weeks prior to his death. Liston was hospitalized with minor injuries, and received intravenous medicine. This is believed to be the source of the puncture wound that authorities found upon discovering Liston's body.

Liston is interred in Paradise Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas, Nevada. His headstone bears the simple epitaph "A Man."

In Popular Culture

  • Liston made a cameo appearance in the 1968 film Head, which starred The Monkees.
  • Liston played the part of the "Farmer" in the 1970 film Moonfire, with Richard Egan and Charles Napier.
  • Liston appeared in a 1960s Braniff Airlines TV commercial with Andy Warhol. [2]
  • Liston appears as a character in James Ellroy's novel "The Cold Six Thousand." In the novel, Liston not only drinks, but also pops pills, and works as a sometime enforcer for a heroin ring in Las Vegas. Ellroy says Liston will also be featured in the novel's upcoming sequel, 'Blood's A Rover".
  • Brian DeVido's 2004 novel Every Time I Talk to Liston (Bloomsbury USA) details a boxer's attempts to draw inspiration from visits to Liston's Las Vegas grave.
  • Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine is the title of a 2000 collection of short stories by Thom Jones
  • Hunter S. Thompson's novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas mentions Liston: "The idea that two heroin pushers in a white Cadillac convertible would be dragging up and down the Strip, abusing total strangers at stoplights, was prima facie absurd. Not even Sonny Liston ever got that far out of control."
  • Redd Foxx mispronounced the boxer's name (whether accidentally or deliberately isn't quite clear) as "Sonny Lister" on his comedy album Live and Dirty, vol. 1.
  • The Munsters - Season 1, Episode 23 entitled Follow That Munster (original air date 2-25-1965) references Liston when Lily calls herself "Sonny Liston" as she strikes Herman in the jaw, knocking him down.
  • The Season six premiere of Scrubs, "My Mirror Image": The older patient the Janitor is talking to refers to a whale going down after a punch like Sonny Liston.
  • In the film Sleepers, A poster for Sonny Liston is seen on the wall of Robert De Niro's apartment and show's The Pines as the location of the fight. The scene is when they are talking about the defense of the trial and De Niro's talk to Jason Patric and Minnie Driver
  • The TV show E-Ring features a character named Samantha "Sonny" Liston.
  • Liston's image appears on The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
  • Liston has been referenced in songs by artists such as Sun Kil Moon, The Animals, Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, Phil Ochs, Morrissey, The Mountain Goats, Freddy Blohm, treysuno, Chuck E. Weiss, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
  • Mark Knopfler's tribute to Liston, "Song for Sonny Liston," can be heard on his 2004 album Shangri-La.
  • Liston is mentioned in the Sun Kil Moon song "Glenn Tipton". This song is also found on Mark Kozelek's 2006 live solo album "Little Drummer Boy." Lyrics: "Cassius Clay was hated more than Sonny Liston. Some like KK Downing more than Glenn Tipton. Some like Jim Nabors, some Bobby Vinton. I like 'em all..."
  • Liston is mentioned in The Roots song "Don't Feel Right": "And that's the reason we livin' where they don't wanna visit, where the dope's slang and keep swingin' like Sonny Liston"
  • Liston is mentioned in the Wu Tang Clan song "Triumph": "Sound convincing, thousand dollar court by convention hands like Sonny Liston."
  • Liston is mentioned in the Gone Jackals song "Born Bad": "I dodged a sucker punch and dropped a bomb, like Liston, on an animal hunch."
  • Liston is mentioned in the Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire": "Liston beats Patterson."
  • Liston is mentioned in the Mountain Goats song "Love Love Love": "And Sonny Liston rubbed some tiger balm into his glove..."
  • Liston is mentioned in the Roll Deep song "Badman": "Youths go missing in the system, get banged up like Sonny Liston."
  • Liston is mentioned in the treysuno song "A Man": "I am a man / and I did what I had to / because I'm Sonny Liston / and you're The Greatest."
  • Liston is mentioned in the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song "Babe, I'm On Fire" from 2004's Nocturama.
  • Liston appears on the December 1963 cover of Esquire magazine (cover photograph by Carl Fischer) �the last man on earth America wanted to see coming down its chimney.�
Preceded by
Floyd Patterson
Heavyweight boxing champion
1962 � 1964
Succeeded by
Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali)