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Aptly nicknamed the 'Night Train', Sonny Liston remains cloaked in unsolved mystery and underappreciated tragedy. Arrested over a hundred times, this heavyweight was bad news both in and out of the ring.
Writer: Andy Afford / Illustrator: Luca Selwood
Consensus has Charles L ‘Sonny’ Liston born in the May of 1932, as the twenty-fourth of 25 children sired by father, Tobe. He grew up tall-and-strong as part of a sharecropping family, picking cotton in the fields of Sand Slough, Arkansas. His ‘intimidating demeanour’ and size was said to be born of his father administering regular ‘whoopings’ as well as substituting him for the mule to pull a plough.
He ran away to join his mother in St Louis when aged 13. Where his inability to read and write further marked him out. The streets proved his outlet, seeing the young Liston arrested over a hundred times as a teen. Described as ‘not afraid to fight the cops’, his photograph served as a warning, and was a fixture in every squad car in the city.
He eventually and inevitably found himself Missouri State Penitentiary in 1950 on a five-stretch. It was at the prison’s boxing club where his more formal fight training began. Whilst there he would regularly take on two or three opponents – the only way to challenge him – developing a reputation as a ‘head breaker’ on the wing.
Early parole came, reportedly, due to his ‘talent’ drawing the attention of The Mafia. Where, when on the outside, this head-breaker became a ‘knee breaker’ in service of the Mob.
His amateur days soon turned professional. Liston’s early career being ‘sponsored’ by the local racketeering boss, whom he served as hired muscle. His criminal record and underworld connections saw him systematically stopped and searched by police. Where May 5, 1956, saw Liston break a cop’s knee – and face – during a confrontation. Liston also took the officer’s gun for good measure.
Six months in prison followed, after which repeated overnight detention’s and thinly veiled threats on his life - made by the local constabulary - saw him leave town for Philadelphia.
He married Geraldine Chambers in 1957. Chambers having a daughter from a previous marriage, the Listons would go on to adopt a boy from Sweden. A place where Liston fought a good deal towards the end of his career. He was also said to have fathered ‘several’ other children, though none with his wife.
By 1960 he was a world heavyweight contender. But his links to The Mafia saw his credibility ignored by champion, Floyd Patterson. Despite his rise, criminality continued. Disorderly conduct and resisting arrest – plus impersonating a police officer – saw him disqualified from boxing for a period.
Liston finally met Patterson on September 25, 1962, the champion previously taking a string of title defences against white challengers. Liston would claim his opponent had up to that point drawn the colour line against his own race.
Challenger Liston – 25 pounds heavier – demolished the holder in the first round. He returned to Philly, a winner but without fans or fanfare. Even his adopted hometown having rejected him.
A contracted rematch with Patterson ended the same way, this time victory was accompanied by booing, “The public is not with me. I know it,” said Liston at the time. “But they’ll have to swing along until somebody comes to beat me.”
He lost his second defence to overwhelming underdog, Cassius Clay. A rematch followed. Where Liston’s reported heavy drinking and drug use were believed to be only contributing factors in a thoroughly poor performance. The fight ended on what is now referred to as the infamous “phantom punch”. The ‘blow’ thrown by the now-named, Muhammad Ali, but witnessed by no one in the auditorium. Leaving Ali standing over the ‘stricken’ Liston, shouting and gesturing, "Get up and fight, sucker!" and "Nobody will believe this!" The crowd cried, "Fix!”
Known as the ‘Night Train’, he gained a reputation as the most feared fighter in boxing history. Whilst also regarded as one of the sport’s all-time most-brutal punchers, a 17-year ring log says 50-4, with 39 of those wins by knockout. Fearsome, as he undeniably was, he was also a favourite of The Beatles. Appearing on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He also possessed the sport’s meatiest-ever fist at 15 inches.
Novelist, James Ellroy, portrayed him as a fight thrower, a heroin addict, a black racist, and a Mafia jawbreaker in his novel The Cold Six Thousand, his reputation only seeing him inducted into boxing’s Hall of Fame as late as 1990. With over $4m in career earnings, he was also the first fighter to claim a $1m purse.
When he appeared wearing a Santa Claus hat on the cover of the December 1963 edition of Esquire, the image was said to embody ‘60s White America’s most nightmarish fears.
A comeback between 1968 and 1969 saw him win 14 straight fights before defeat. At his death, in Las Vegas in 1970, he was still ranked sixth in the world. He remains the youngest-ever heavyweight champion to die, aged 38. His death – not unlike his birth - remains shrouded in mystery.
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