Sonny Liston: Life, Career and Mysterious Death of the Famous Boxer


Sonny Liston

If you ask any boxing fan, “which is the most iconic photo in the sport’s history”, the most likely answer would be “the one where Muhammed Ali is looking down on the boxer after knocking him out”. That boxer who was knocked out, was Sonny Liston. And this incredibly iconic photo was clicked during a boxing bout that almost nobody watched. Even before this iconic fight took place, even before the boxers walked in, this fight was shaping up to be a legendary bout. In this post, we will talk about that fight, but we will also talk about the life, career and mysterious death of Muhammed Ali’s opponent in that fight, Sonny Liston.

Sonny Liston: All You Need to Know

When was Sonny Liston born?

The exact date of birth of Charles “Sonny” Liston is unknown. However, he was born sometime during 1930 in a sharecropping family which toiled at the poor land of Morledge Plantation near Johnson Township, St. Francis County, Arkansas. Sonny Liston’s father, Tobe Liston married Helen Baskin, who was almost 30 years younger than him and moved to Arkansas from Mississippi in 1916. She was his second wife. Tobe Liston had 13 children with his previous wife while Helen had one child before her marriage to Tobe. Together, Tobe Liston and Helen Baskin had 12 children, with Sonny Liston being the second youngest. Unfortunately, any official record of Liston’s birth is non existent. Birth certificates weren’t mandatory in Arkansas until 1965. His family, but not one Charles (or Sonny) Liston, can be found in the 1930 census. In the official 1940 census, Sonny Liston was listed as a 10 year old. Sonny Liston himself didn’t know about his exact date of birth. He believed his date of birth to be May 8, 1932 and used this for official purposes. However, by the time, he went on to win a world title, his older appearance made people question the credibility of his claimed date of birth. Based on census records and statements from his mother during her lifetime, a writer concluded that Liston’s most plausible date of birth was July 22, 1930.

How was Sonny Liston’s childhood?

Sonny Liston’s father Tobe Liston was extremely violent and he inflicted severe beatings on Sonny Liston. He bore the scars from those brutal sessions for many decades after that. “The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating,” Liston said. In 1946, Sonny Liston’s mother Helen Baskin, along with some of her children, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to seek factory work. A 13 year old Sonny Liston remained in Arkansas with his father. The following year, Sonny reunited with his mother and siblings. He thrashed the pecans from his brother-in-law’s tree and sold them in Forrest City, Arkansas. He used that money to finance his travel to St. Louis so he could live with his mother. Liston tried going to school but quickly left after people brutally mocked him because of his illiteracy. He wasn’t able to retain any job for a long period of time. And whatever jobs he got, were exploitative in nature.

Because he failed to land any consistent job, Liston sadly turned to a life of crime. He was the leader of a gang which mugged and robbed people. Because of the shirt he wore during robberies, the St. Louis police called Liston the “Yellow Shirt Bandit.” Liston was arrested in January 1950. He gave his age as 20, while the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported that he was 22. Convicted and sentenced to five years in Missouri State Penitentiary, Liston started his prison time on June 1, 1950.

Oddly enough, Liston wasn’t very apprehensive towards his time in prison. He was happy with the fact that he was going to get three meals per day. The athletic director at Missouri State Penitentiary, Rev. Alois Stevens, suggested to Liston that he try boxing, and his obvious aptitude, along with an endorsement from Stevens, who was also a priest, aided Liston in getting an early parole. When Sonny Liston participated in a sparring session with a professional heavyweight boxer Thurman Wilson, he chose to forfeit the session after just two rounds. He said “Better get me out of this ring, he is going to kill me!”

Ali vs Liston I was actually Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston

The night before the first fight, on February 24, 1964, the show featured Clay and Liston’s sparring partners as guests. Harvey Jones brought with him a lengthy rhyming boast from Cassius Clay:

Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat,

If Liston goes back an inch farther he’ll end up in a ringside seat.

Clay swings with a left, Clay swings with a right,

Just look at young Cassius carry the fight.

Liston keeps backing but there’s not enough room,

It’s a matter of time until Clay lowers the boom.

Then Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing,

And the punch raised the bear clear out of the ring.

Liston still rising and the ref wears a frown,

But he can’t start counting until Sonny comes down.

Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic

But our radar stations have picked him up somewhere over the Atlantic.

Who on Earth thought, when they came to the fight,

That they would witness the launching of a human satellite.

Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money,

That they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.

— Cassius Clay, As read on CBS’ I’ve Got a SecretClay also presented that poem on The Jack Paar Show with Liberace giving improvised piano harmony.

Jesse Bowdry brought a much terser written message from Sonny Liston:

Cassius, you’re my million dollar baby, so please don’t let anything happen to you before tomorrow night.

— Sonny Liston, As read on CBS’ I’ve Got a Secret

The match had a greater number of storylines than a drama. Boxing’s most splendid youthful star was again facing a famous bruiser in a rematch of their exciting and dubious heavyweight title battle one year earlier, a battle that was trailed by 14 months of global interest and the flammable governmental issues of the 1960s. 

In the principal battle, in Miami, a 22-year-old Cassius Clay moved around the ring, provoked Liston, guaranteed correspondents he’d stun the world, and afterward followed through on that guarantee with a rankling late assault that incited Liston to throw in the towel after the 6th round. It made a hero out of Clay, who proclaimed that he “shook up the world.” 

That would end up being putting it mildly. As indicated by a report in the Miami Herald half a month prior to the 1964 battle, Clay was associating with individuals from the Nation of Islam, who Clay’s dad asserted had “conditioned” his child. Earth carried Malcolm X alongside him to Miami, and in the midst of the contention, the battle was practically dropped. He offered no remark on the matter, however his triumph would before long transform it into a worldwide story. 

Several weeks before the fight, the Miami Herald published an article quoting Cassius Clay Sr. as saying that his son had joined the Black Muslims when he was 18. “They have been hammering at him ever since,” Clay Sr. said. “He’s so confused now that he doesn’t even know where he’s at.” He said his youngest son, Rudy Clay, had also joined. “They ruined my two boys,” Clay Sr. said. “Muslims tell my boys to hate white people; to hate women; to hate their mother.” Clay Jr. responded by saying, “I don’t care what my father said. … I’m here training for a fight, and that’s all I’m going to say.”

Out of nowhere, the world needed to understand another sort of heavyweight champion. As per a New York Times report the day after the battle, Clay was to be sure an authority individual from the Nation of Islam. The association was viewed as a fanatic enemy of white individuals, disdain gathering and rivals of integration and Martin Luther King Jr. Mud’s penchant for self-advancement and discussion appeared to find a place with the gathering’s fiery manner of speaking. 

The bits of hearsay whirling almost dropped the battle the night earlier, and when a journalist that morning broke practice and inquired as to whether Clay was an individual from the “Dark Muslims,” as the gathering was regularly called, the fighter affirmed his new religion. He utilized the stage to explain the political hypothesis that was so censured in white America, safeguarding Malcolm X and denouncing racial persecution — this was still a long time before President Lyndon B. Johnson marked the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

“I don’t need to be what you need me to be,” Clay told fomented correspondents. “I’m allowed to be who I need.” 

Before long, he was known as Cassius X, shunning the last name given to his subjugated family by their proprietors. Under 10 days after the fact, he was Muhammad Ali, a name offered him to Elijah Muhammad, the top of the Nation of Islam. Prominent Black activist Malcolm X revealed later that Muhammed Ali had converted to Islam many years before the fight but he had kept his religious affiliation a secret in the build up to the fight.

Was Ali vs Liston I fixed?

As soon as the fight ended, a lot of people started claiming that something fishy was going and the fight might have been fixed. Arthur Daley of the New York Times did not believe the claim. He wrote:

“When a fight ends in the fashion this one did, with the unbeatable monster remaining in his corner, suspicions of larceny are immediately aroused. They are not helped by the fact that Liston, an ex-convict, was sponsored by mobsters at the start of his career. For the larceny theory to be valid, however, there would have to be an overwhelming reason for it. The prospects of a betting coup can be dismissed because the 8-to-1 odds in Liston’s favor never varied more than a point. If there had been a rush of smart money on the underdog, the odds would have plummeted. This is an unfailing barometer of hanky-panky. What would Liston have gained by throwing the fight? The heavyweight championship is the most valuable commodity in the world of sports and not even a man of Liston’s criminal background would willingly toss it away. It also brought him an aura of respectability such as he never had known before.”

However, everybody didn’t believe whatever Arthur Daley believed. A memo dated May 24, 1966, which the Washington Times called “the most tantalizing evidence,” details an interview with a Houston gambler named Barnett Magids, who described to agents his discussions with Resnick before the first Clay-Liston fight. This is what the report said:

“On one occasion, Resnick introduced Magids to Sonny Liston at the Thunderbird, [one of the Las Vegas hotels organized crime controlled],” the memo states. “About a week before the Liston and Clay fight in Miami, Resnick called and invited Magids and his wife for two weeks in Florida on Resnick. Magids’ wife was not interested in going, but Magids decided to go along, and Resnick was going to send him a ticket.

“Two or three days before the fight, Magids called Resnick at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami to say he could not come,” the memo states. “On this call, he asked Resnick who he liked in the fight, and Resnick said that Liston would knock Clay out in the second round. Resnick suggested he wait until just before the fight to place any bets because the odds may come down.

“At about noon on the day of the fight, [Magids] reached Resnick again by phone, and at this time, Resnick said for him to not make any bets, but just go watch the fight on pay TV and he would know why and that he could not talk further at that time.

“Magids did go see the fight on TV and immediately realized that Resnick knew that Liston was going to lose,” the document states. ” A Sports Illustrated article after a week described Resnick as a loser because he backed Liston in the fight. Later people ‘in the know’ in Las Vegas told Magids that Resnick and Liston both reportedly made over $1 million betting against Liston on the fight and that the magazine article was a cover for this.”

Ron Kantowski of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote that the Washington Times article “had more holes than the left side of the Cubs’ infield.” He continued:

“Here, then, is the most titillating part of the Washington Times story: “At about noon on the day of the fight, (Barnett Magids) reached Resnick again by phone, and at this time, Resnick said for him to not make any bets, but just go watch the fight on pay TV, and he would know why …”

This was after the weigh-in, when Ali went berserk and Sonny just burped up a couple of … hot dogs.

Is it possible this is why Ash Resnick might have told Barnett Magids—according to Magids—not to make any bets on Liston?

According to a Sports Illustrated story, Resnick lost a lot of money betting on Liston. … The Washington Times’ story suggested … the magazine story may have been a cover-up, quoting “people in the know.”

Sometimes in boxing, a guy trains on hot dogs and beer, and then maybe he injures his shoulder. A guy everybody expects to win, doesn’t win. And then there are FBI files and conspiracy theories, and then “people in the know” want to put a guy like Sonny Liston on the grassy knoll with a smoking gun in his hand.”

Ali versus Liston II 

When did Cassius Clay become Muhammed Ali?

On February 27, 1964, Cassius Clay officially announced his membership into the Nation of Islaam. This was first disclosed the previous night at the group’s annual national convention in Chicago by Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam.

“I began worshiping this way five years ago when I heard a fellow named Elijah Muhammad on the radio talking about the virtues of the Islam religion,” Clay said. “I also listened to his ministers. No one could prove him or them wrong, so I decided to join.”

Before becoming Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay started calling himself Clay X. The surname X was used by the members of the Nation of Islam as a way to reject the surnames given to them by former slave owners.On March 6, 1964, Elijah Muhammad announced in a recorded statement played over the radio that Clay would be renamed Muhammad Ali. Muhammad means “worthy of all praises”, and Ali means “most high”.

Liston was disputable by his own doing 

There were a lot of intense inquiries after the principal battle for Liston, as well, in particular, for what reason didn’t he come out for another round? Because of Liston’s long relationship with the mafia and standing as an amazing troublemaker, there was a hypothesis that he’d fixed the fight and agreed to throw it away in order to get some money.

The FBI was on the chase for proof for match-fixing, given Liston’s crowd ties — mobsters actually claimed a lot of his battle advancement contract — and the game’s obscure plan of action. Yet, a Senate subcommittee hearing turned up no proof of any match-fixing, and specialists affirmed his clarification that he’d taken such harm to his shoulder that he was unable to feel his arm. 

All things considered, Liston was flabby — as per a story in Esquire at that point, Liston “prepared as expected, going around five miles every day, eating wieners and drinking lager.” He was additionally potentially a lot more seasoned than his recorded 32 years than everything else. 

The rematch nearly didn’t occur, all things considered 

Actually, contracts for fights should have rematch statements, however practically every one of them had a type of escape clause and understanding when each side needed to ensure a return session — once more, the laws by which boxing administered itself were truly more ideas at that point. For this situation, Intercontinental Promotions Inc., which reserved the options to Liston’s battle, additionally had the opportunity to pick the principal adversary for the new boss, should Liston lose. Normally, they concluded that Ali would take on Liston. 

The World Boxing Association — one of a few boxing associations — was not very satisfied, moving to strip Ali of his title and exhorting states not to consent to have the rematch. Just Massachusetts was able to have the battle, however it was deferred from November 1964 to May 1965 with the goal that Ali could recuperate from his medical procedure. 

During the interval, authorities in Boston likewise experienced some sudden nerves. Liston continued running into issue with the law and Ali had an objective on his back after the death of Malcolm X, whom he had denied after Elijah Muhammad constrained him out of the Nation of Islam. Suffolk County, where Boston is found, at last reassessed, leaving them without a setting with not exactly a month to go. The legislative head of close by Maine, John Reed, ventured up and elected to have it in the humble community of Lewiston, where a retreat and ice arena could give some framework. 

Ali carried his huge character to the unassuming community, however Liston was as yet the top pick. He’d appeared at the contest doing very well — no franks or brews in his eating regimen this time — and vowed to bring down Ali.

The phantom punch that “shook the world”

Individuals all throughout the planet tuned in by means of satellite to watch the match, which was battled before 2,434 paying ticket-holders, the littlest group in heavyweight title battle history; individuals there recommended the group was more similar to 4,000, yet in any case, it was a little face to face crowd. Furthermore, it was likely generally advantageous — ticket-purchasers didn’t by and large get their cash’s worth. 

The battle kept going short of one full round, with Ali taking out Liston at the 1:44 imprint. It was a stunning outcome, not just on the grounds that Liston was the favourite in the match, but since scarcely anyone saw the punch that brought him down. Liston had tossed a punch with his left arm and, inclining forward, took a correct snare from Ali right to the skull. He sunk to the material, and as he was down, Ali remained over him, provoking and requesting his paralyzed adversary get back up. The photograph catches the hero’s urgings, with all the fire and enthusiasm and dynamic genuineness that made him such a marvel. 

Muhammad Ali flexing after knocking Sonny Liston down with the “phantom punch”

Liston did ultimately rise from the canvas, however before long, the official split up the two fighters and concluded that Liston had been down for over 10 seconds, finishing the contest. 

Crowds at home were befuddled and offended. Liston had never been taken out, and the vast majority didn’t witness the punch. It got known as the “phantom punch” and has been the subject of debate and theory throughout the previous 55 years. Whole books have been expounded on the battle, and one, delivered in 2015, looked to end the idea that Liston took another fall. 

Was Ali vs Liston II also fixed?

At the fight’s end, numerous fans started screaming, “Fix!” Many skeptics came up with the term “the phantom punch” to discredit Ali’s knockout blow. Ali called it “the anchor punch.” He said it was taught to him by comedian and film actor Stepin Fetchit, who learned it from Jack Johnson. However, Ali himself wasn’t very sure about the punch connecting with Liston after he had thrown it. Footage from the event shows Ali in the ring asking his entourage, “Did I hit him?” Ali told Nation of Islam minister Abdul Rahman that Liston “laid down” and Rahman replied, “No, you hit him.” Rahman later added, “Ali hit him so fast, Ali didn’t really know he hit him. … and It took a long time before even he saw the punch he hit Sonny with. Notably, Ali never threw the ‘anchor punch’ again and never even talked about it.

Once the final bell rang, George Chuvalo climbed through the ropes and shoved Ali, yelling, “Fix!” He was quickly reigned in. He went on to say later that he said that he had seen Liston’s eyes while the challenger was on the floor, and he knew that he was not in bad shape. “His eyes were darting from side to side like this,” he said, darting his eyes from side to side. “When a fighter is hurt his eyes roll up.” However, Dr. Carroll L. Witten, former Kentucky State Boxing Commissioner, who had studied the reactions of knocked out fighters, said, “Chuvalo is wrong. The side-to-side movement of eyes is commonly associated with temporary unconsciousness and is one of the first things you look for. It is called nystagmus.”

Not everyone who watched the fight live, believed in the “fixing” theory. Larry Merchant, who was always critical of Sonny Liston’s personality, wrote about it 50 years later. He said: “I saw the actual punch land on the actual chin, as did others in my area of the press section. It was a quick right hand that caught Liston as he was coming forward … According to ringside doctors I’ve spoken to, that is a classic example of a medulla-oblongata K.O.” World Light Heavyweight Champion José Torres said, “It was a perfect punch.”Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote that it was “no phantom punch.” Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated wrote, “The blow had so much force it lifted Liston’s left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas.”

“Many people in the arena did not see [the punch], understandably”, Merchant wrote: “Or they couldn’t believe that it had the force to knock out the seemingly indestructible former champion”. He described the belief that the fight was rigged as “the apparently unkillable myth … many people believe that the moon landings were staged, probably right there in Lewiston”. Slow motion footage of the fight revealed that the “knockout punch” that landed was a short grazing right to Liston’s cheek and of apparently limited power. Hall of Fame announcer Don Dunphy was also in the skeptics camp. He said: “If that was a punch, I’ll eat it,” he said. “Here was a guy who was in prison and the guards use to beat him over the head with clubs and couldn’t knock him down.” But others contend that he wasn’t the same Liston. Dave Anderson of the New York Times said Liston “looked awful” in his last workout before the fight. Apparently, Liston’s sparring partner was paid an extra $100 to “go easy on Liston”. Arthur Daley of the New York Times wrote that Liston’s handlers knew he “didn’t have it anymore.” These statements don’t accord with the fact that three years later Liston easily knocked out Lincoln within two rounds.

Former World Heavyweight Champion James J. Braddock, said the suspect Ali right hand merely finished up what an earlier punch had begun. “I have a feeling that this guy (Ali) is a lot better than any of us gave him credit for,” Braddock said. “It isn’t the knockout punch that sticks in my mind as much as a punch he let go (earlier). … It was a right to Liston’s jaw and it shook him to his shoe tops. For all we know, it could have been the one that set up the knockout.”

In his own words in Thomas Hauser’s 1991 biography, Muhammad Ali wasn’t convinced that he had successfully knocked Liston out successfully. He was quoted saying this in the book: “The punch jarred him. It was a good punch, but I didn’t think I hit him so hard that he couldn’t have gotten up. Once he went down, I got excited. I forgot about the rules”. Within the pages of the same book, Liston was also quoted two years after the fight ended: “Ali knocked me down with a sharp punch. I was down but not hurt, but I looked up and saw Ali standing over me. … Ali is waiting to hit me, the ref can’t control him”.

Dave Anderson claimed to have spoken to Liston when he met him in Las Vegas in 1967. This is what Liston (allegedly) told him: “It wasn’t that hard a punch, but it partially caught me off balance and when I got knocked down, I got mixed up because the referee never gave me a count,” Liston said. “I was listening for a count. That’s the first thing you do, but I never heard a count because Clay never went to a neutral corner.”

Newark Star-Ledger’s Jerry Izanberg said Liston told him that he lost simply because “the timekeeper couldn’t count.”

Sports Illustrated’s Mark Kram said that Liston was worried about the ramifications from the Nation of Islam. Liston said: “That guy [Ali] was crazy. I didn’t want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn’t hit.”

“Any target spectator would have needed to surrender that Ali’s counterpunch had landed, and arrived with sufficient power to turn Liston’s head,” Rob Sneddon wrote in The Phantom Punch: The Story Behind Boxing’s Most Controversial Bout. Rocky Marciano, the previous heavyweight champion, said that he valued the punch’s solidarity upon reevaluation. “I didn’t think it was an amazing punch when I saw the battle from ringside,” he said. “Presently (subsequent to seeing video) I think Clay, seeing the opening, snapped the punch the last six inches. 

As far as concerns him, Liston said that the ref’s failure to monitor time was a major problem for him, as he didn’t have the foggiest idea when to get up from the tangle. He purportedly later told an associate that he took a plunge since he feared the results of beating Ali. 

Ali would lose his title a year later, however it didn’t occur in the ring. The hero was deprived of the belt when he refused the Vietnam War draft, and he didn’t participate again in a match that tallied until 1970. This is what Ali had to say about why he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam war: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

Even Sonny Liston didn’t live for a long time after the fight. He passed away because of lung complications on December 30th, 1970. His death was mired in mystery and controversy.

Sonny Liston – Best Quotes

Newspapermen ask dumb questions. They look up at the sun and ask if it is shining.

A boxing match is like a cowboy movie. There’s got to be good guys and there’s got to be bad guys. And that’s what people pay for – to see the bad guys get beat.

How would you like to find out how good my right is?

The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating.

It don’t matter as long as he can count up to 10.

If they ever let me in the ring with him [Cassius Clay], I’m liable to be put away for murder.

My punches are just as hard in Chicago as in New York.

Come over here and sit on my knee and finish your orange juice.


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