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Charles L. "Sonny" Liston (May 8, 1932 (uncertain) – December 30, 1970) was a professional 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 jabbers in the history of boxing. He was number 15 on Ring Magazine's list of 100 greatest punchers of all time.

Early life

His mother believed he was born in January, 1928, but Liston would later claim his birth date to be May 8, 1932.

Liston was born the son of a sharecropper in the sector of Morledge Plantation that day in Johnson Township, St. Francis County, Arkansasmarker. 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. Louismarker by himself to reunite with his mother and his cousins.

After he was sentenced to prison, as a teenager, 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. 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 opponents 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' 0½", 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 belief that he was left-handed but utilized an orthodox stance.

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 6th bout, in Detroitmarker, Michiganmarker, Liston faced John Summerlin (19-1-2) on national television and won an eight-round decision. He later beat Summerlin in a rematch, but 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, he won five by knockouts, 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 again ran afoul of the law, 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. 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 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.


In 1962, Floyd Patterson finally signed to meet Liston for the world title. The fight was scheduled to be held in New Yorkmarker, but the New York Boxing Commission denied him a license because of his criminal record. As a result, the fight was moved to Comiskey Parkmarker, Chicago, Illinoismarker. 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 Philadelphiamarker, the fans did not show up at the airport to cheer his success.

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


Liston did not box again that year, and in 1964 on the evening of February 25 in Miami, Floridamarker he fought against Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay], whom odds-makers made a distant 8-1 underdog. Liston lost his title when he shockingly quit in his corner before the start of the seventh round, claiming he had hurt his shoulder. However, by that point in the fight it had become clear that Liston had no answer for the young challenger's speed and slick movement.

A special issue cover of Sports Illustrated shows Ali yelling at Liston to "Get up and fight."

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

Less than two minutes into the fight, while he was pulling away from Liston, Ali hit Liston with an extremely quick punch which didn't seem to have much weight behind it. However, Liston awkwardly went down, first lurching forward to the canvas then sprawling out onto his back, spread-eagled. In the total shambles that followed, referee Jersey Joe Walcott never counted over Liston and never made Ali go to a neutral corner, while Ali yelled hysterically at Liston, running around the ring, arms aloft. During this time Liston made an attempt to get back to his feet, before again rolling onto his back.

After Liston finally got up, ringside boxing writer Nat Fleischer, who had no authority, informed Walcott that Liston had been on the canvas for over 10 seconds (during which time the fight briefly resumed), and that the fight should be over. Walcott then waved the fight off. The photograph of the knockdown of this fight and 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" which was taken by renowned sports photographer Neil Leifer.

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 Swedenmarker, co-promoted by former World Heavyweight Champion Ingemar Johansson. These knockout victories included one over Amos Johnson, who had recently defeated Britainmarker's Henry Cooper. In 1968, he won seven fights, all by knockout, including one in Mexicomarker. During that year, he stopped the young prospect Henry Clark (seven rounds), who was ranked No. 5 at the time. This bout was broadcast 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. But while Martin's career ended after the fight because of a detached retina, 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 Pittsburghmarker, when he was found dead by his wife in their Las Vegasmarker home on January 5, 1971. 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. Following an investigation, Las Vegas police concluded that there were no signs of foul play.

The cause of Liston's death remains a mystery. The police declared it a heroin overdose. 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.

Some, however, believe that the police investigation was a coverup, and the cause of Liston's death remains unresolved. To wit, Liston supposedly had 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.

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, Nevadamarker. His headstone bears the simple epitaph "A Man."

In popular culture

  • A feature film about Liston's life Phantom Punch, starring Ving Rhames was produced in 2008 by Hassain Zaidi, Marek Posival and Ving Rhames.
  • A wax statue of Liston in his boxing robe, borrowed from Madame Tussaudsmarker' Wax Museum, stands next to The Beatles on the cover of their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
  • 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.
  • Jerry Spinelli, the author of the children's novel Stargirl, included him in its dedication because its titular character has an analogous experience.
  • 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 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 claims to have punched a whale and that the whale went down 'like Liston'.
  • In the film Sleepers, a poster for Liston is seen on the wall of Robert De Niro's apartment and show's The Pines as the location of the fight.
  • The TV show E-Ring features a character named Samantha "Sonny" Liston.
  • 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, 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," appeared 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 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".
  • Liston is mentioned in the UCL song "Save You From the Fire: I'm winning this fight like Ali vs. Liston."
  • Liston is mentioned in the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song, "Swingin'" on their 1999 album Echo: "Yeah, she went down swinging / Like Sonny Liston."
  • A whole CD is dedicated to Sonny Liston, called Comme Sonny cogne by the French band 10 Rue d’ la Madeleine.

See also


  1. Tosches, Nick, 'The Devil And Sonny Liston, 2000, Little, Brown, USA, ISBN 0-316-89775-2.
  2. Sares, Ted, "Boxing's Hard Times, Good Times", East Side Boxing, November 22, 2006.
  3. The Sad Legacy of Sonny Liston

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