Childhood & Early Life
Charles L. “Sonny” Liston was born in St. Francis County, Arkansas, to Tobe Liston and Helen Baskin. His father was 30 years older than his mother.
There is no official record of his date of birth but a writer claimed that he was born on July 22, 1930. However, Liston settled on May 8, 1932, as his official birth date.
His father was an alcoholic and used to beat Liston brutally. His mother moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with some of the children, leaving Liston behind with his abusive father.
After saving enough money, he travelled to St. Louis to be with his family again. His attempt to attend school failed and soon, he joined muggers and robbers of St. Louis for survival.
The policemen of St. Louis called him ‘Yellow Shirt Bandit’ because of the shirt he used to wear during robberies. For his crimes, Liston was arrested more than 20 times by the police.
In 1950, he was arrested and sentenced to ‘Missouri State Penitentiary’ for five years. Rev. Alois Stevens, the athletic director at the Penitentiary, saw in him a great potential to be a boxer.
Stevens arranged a match between Liston and Thurman Wilson, a heavyweight, who, after two rounds, stepped out of the ring claiming that Liston will kill him.
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On October 31, 1952, Liston was released from jail, and a year later had his first match as well as win against the ‘1952 Olympic Heavyweight Champion,’ Ed Sanders. In April, he lost the quarter final to Jimmy McCarter in the ‘National Amateur Athletic Union.’
On June 23, Liston defeated Hermann Schreibauer of Germany to win the ‘International Golden Glover’ competition. He also won a bronze at the ‘European Championships.’
On September 2, 1953, Liston made his professional debut against Don Smith in St. Louis. He knocked his opponent out in the first round.
After winning more than five bouts in St. Louis, Liston faced and defeated John Summerlin in Detroit, Michigan. It was his first match to be broadcast on national television.
After nine straight wins, Sonny lost to Marty Marshall by an eight-round split decision. However, he defeated Marshall in the rematch via sixth-round knockout.
Along with his boxing pursuits, Liston’s criminal record also became a talking point for the media that often wrote about his aggressive nature. One such incident happened on May 5, 1956, when Liston was accused of assaulting a police officer.
While Liston claimed that the officer passed racist comments on him, it was widely publicized that he stole the policeman’s gun and turned into a ‘monster’ at the time of his arrest.
He was sent to a nine-month sentence in 1957, but was released on parole after six months. In 1958, he made a comeback with eight straight wins.
In 1959, he faced Cleveland Williams, known to be the ‘hardest-hitting heavyweight in the world.’ Liston changed the world’s opinion about Williams, after he defeated him in the third round.
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By 1960, Liston had become the No.1 contender for ‘World Heavyweight Championship,’ which was then held by Floyd Patterson. He defeated top contenders like Roy Harris, Zora Folley, and Eddie Machen to challenge Patterson for the title.
During this time, Liston became a victim of racism when whites, including President J.F. Kennedy, didn’t want Patterson to face Liston. After a lot of media pressure by Sonny’s management, Patterson finally agreed to face him on September 25, 1962.
For the first time in the history of heavyweight boxing, a reigning champion was knocked out in the first round and that too, within three minutes of entering the ring. Sonny had a rematch with Patterson on July 22, 1963, in Las Vegas, where he defeated Patterson within five minutes by knocking him down three times.
Liston remained the ‘World Heavyweight Champion’ for 17 months; he lost the title to Cassius Clay, who later came to be known as Muhammad Ali, on February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Florida.
Liston lost to Clay via technical knockout when he failed to get up on the seventh bell. His reason to quit was a shoulder injury, as told by him later.
His rematch with Clay on May 25, 1965, was said to be fixed since Liston went down within two minutes after receiving, what came to be known as the infamous ‘phantom punch,’ from Clay. Liston remained away from boxing for a year after this loss.
He made a comeback with four consecutive wins in Sweden. In 1968, he returned to America and won a total of 14 bouts, including one against the fifth-ranked Henry Clark. His winning streak was broken by third-ranked Leotis Martin in 1969, who defeated Liston in the ninth round, after almost losing to him.
In June 1970, Liston dominated Chuck Wepner, who had to leave the bout after the ninth round due to injury in his eyes and cheekbones. This was also Liston’s final fight.
Personal Life & Legacy
On June 10, 1950, Liston married Geraldine Chambers. His wife had a daughter from her previous relationship.
Liston later adopted a boy. It is said that Liston took care of many children.
Liston’s life had a tragic ending. He was found dead by his wife on January 5, 1971, at his Nevada residence. Geraldine couldn’t reach him for 12 days. When she returned home, he was found dead.
It was said that the police discovered syringe and packets of heroin in his home, and needle marks on his arm. However, it was officially announced that he died of heart failure and lung congestion.
In ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights,’ a book by Shaun Assel, published in 2016, it was claimed that his death could have been a murder.