“Some day they're gonna write a blues for fighters. It'll just be for slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.”—Heavyweight champion Sonny Liston quoted in Gordon Marino, “Bookshelf: A Slugfest for the Ages,” The Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2012
Few boxers have merited “a blues for fighters,” from birth to death, more than Sonny Liston. With his perpetual ring glare and numerous scrapes with the law, he contrasted sharply with his immediate predecessor and successor: Floyd Patterson, whom he dethroned on this day 50 years ago, and Muhammad Ali, who as Cassius Clay, did the same to him.
As with Babe Ruth, Liston’s talent was recognized by a Roman Catholic priest when the athlete was in a facility for those deemed troubled. But the future Yankee great was lucky enough that, after his parents had given up on raising their seven-year-old streetfighter, he was placed in St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, where Brother Matthias Boutlier taught him at least a measure of self-discipline and encouraged his better instincts.
Liston had taken far harder blows, and for longer, than Ruth when his clerical mentor discovered him. He was the 24th of 25 children of a tenant father who was an abusive alcoholic. Living with an aunt in St. Louis after he turned 13 didn’t help matters. Arrested more than 20 times, he was already at least 20, perhaps as much as 23, years old (documentation of his birth is unclear) and serving time in a penitentiary for larceny and robbery in 1952 when the prison athletic director Father Alois Stevens, noticed his gift for boxing.
It would take another 10 years before Liston (by this time, having relocated to Philadelphia) would get his shot at the heavyweight title. Patterson lost in the first round to the punishing Liston—the first time in history that a sitting champ lost the title in the first round.
Americans were confronted with a new champion who made them profoundly uneasy. Patterson--a gentlemanly sort who would even hand opponents back their mouthpieces, an underdog who had gained the championship after a rematch with Ingemar Johansson--had been succeeded by a hulking boxer who not only had an extensive prison rap sheet, but also, it was widely believed, ties to the Mob that had enabled him to get his shot at the title.
A large, violent black man: 1960s racist America’s worst nightmare.
The year before his bout with Patterson, Liston had gotten into two more scrapes with the law. Again, he sought the help of a Catholic priest, the Rev. Ed Murphy, pastor of a predominantly African-American church in Denver, as a spiritual counselor. But it was becoming increasingly hard for the fighter to shake his reputation as a hard case, as well as the substance abuse that had bedeviled his father. Almost as soon as he awoke, he would start drinking again. “Oh, poor Sonny,” a priest friend of Murphy’s said. “He was just an accident waiting to happen. Murph used to say, 'Pray for the poor bastard.'"
One of the most attention-grabbing Esquire covers of the 1960s showed Liston showed Liston dressed in a Santa Claus cap. It was all the more remarkable because the facial expression most Americans associated with Liston was the scowl. That, along with his fists of steel, seemed enough to reduce opponents to masses of jelly in the ring. (Or before stepping into the ring: the manager for another contender, Henry Cooper, observed: "We don't even want to meet Liston walking down the same street.")
But within only 18 months of winning the heavyweight crown, the boxer that Ali dubbed the "big ugly bear" shocked the sports world by losing, as he sat in his stool at the start of the seventh round, unable (or unwilling) to answer the opening bell, complained of a shoulder injury that many believed a phantom. In 1965, in a controversial rematch, Liston suffered the same ignominy he had directed at Patterson: Though a punch of Ali’s barely seemed to graze him, Liston hit the mat and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get up. In the wake of these puzzling losses, all sorts of speculation arose, with the most common being that Liston had thrown at least one at the urging of his Mob handlers.
The heavyweight crown had brought Liston the attention, but not really the respect, of fight fans and the media. The boxer felt particularly unappreciated in his adoptive city of Philadelphia. Though he fought more than a dozen matches after his second loss to Ali—and only lost one—Liston only continued because he really had nothing else to keep the money coming in.
After being unable to reach Liston for a dozen days, his wife discovered his corpse in their Nevada home on January 5, 1971. At this point, the questions about his life only multiplied. Puncture wounds were found on his body and a syringe nearby. But friends insisted he hated needles and that his major form of substance abuse was alcohol.
Boxing bios have been created about Gentleman Jim Corbett, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta, and, of course, Muhammad Ali, but it is doubtful if one will ever be made about Liston. His story is overwhelmingly downbeat, even more so than LaMotta’s (who, after all, has survived into his 90s with his faculties reasonably intact).
No blues song, so far as I know, has ever been created about Liston, by the way—but he has been mentioned in tunes by the likes of Billy Joel, 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, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.