Monday, December 30, 2013

Remembering Charles L. "Sonny" Liston May 8, 1932 - December 30, 1970

One of the headlines read "O Unlucky Man" " Fortune never smiled on Sonny Liston, even when he was champ."

Such was true in the life of Charles "Sonny" Liston, formerly the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, whose life was far from the illustrious title he once carried.

Sonny's true date of birth isn't known although the date of May 8, 1932 was the one used for U.S. Census purposes but he was believed to be older than the date shows. He was born into a sharecropper  family who farmed land  in St. Francis County, Arkansas.  Sonny was one of 25 brothers and sisters and it is believed that Sonny was the youngest son.  He grew up in an abusive relationship.  The scars left on Liston's body were still quite visible
throughout his life. His mother left some of her family when Liston was young. He tried to earn money during his childhood by selling pecans from his brother in law's tree. When he earned enough money, he left his abusive father to reunite with his mother and other siblings in St. Louis.  Liston attempted school but quit because of the ridicule from the other children for being illiterate.  He also couldn't find a permanent job because of illiteracy.

Sonny soon turned to crime.  He joined the gangs and became quite known to the St. Louis Police Department for his illegal activity that included muggings and robberies.  He was known by the law enforcement as the "Yellow Shirt Bandit" because he was always wearing his favorite yellow shirt.  In 1950, Liston was caught following a violent robbery and following his conviction, was sentenced to five years in prison at the Missouri State Penitentiary.  He also served a prison sentence for assaulting a police officer.  He never complained about his time in prison and often said that he was guaranteed three meals a day.  While in prison,  a man who worked in the prison by the name of Fr. Alois Stevens suggested that Liston try boxing and eventually aided Liston in getting an early parole.  It was during this time that Liston's talent as a fighter became quite apparent.

Sonny had a brief amateur career (less than a year) as a fighter having won several fights including several Golden Gloves competitions.  He signed his professional boxing contract in September, 1953.  As a professional fighter, he had an illustrious career with a record of 50 wins (39 by knock out) and 4 losses.  He was exceptionally powerful and was known for his crushing left jab and left hook.  It was early in his professional career that he was nicknamed "The Big Bear"  His professional career was marred by several confrontations with law enforcement.  He became the #1 contender for the heavyweight title.  The peak of Liston's career came on the night of September 5, 1962 when Liston and heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson fought for the title at Comiskey Park in Chicago.  The fight lasted 2 minutes and five seconds when Liston KO'd Patterson.  It was the third fastest knockout in a world heavyweight fight  and the first time a champion had been knocked out in the first round.  A rematch took place on July 22, 1963 in Las Vegas and Liston prevailed once again.

Liston's heavyweight title lasted less than a year when he met up with a young boxer by the name of Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali in Miami, Florida.  Clay prevailed in a one sided fight.  They fought once again in 1965 and Ali won with another knockout.

Sonny Liston's final fight came in June, 1970 against Chuck Wepner and Liston prevailed when the match was stopped. Wepner suffered a broken cheekbone and nose and received 72 stitches.

Sonny Liston was married to his wife Geraldine in 1957 and was the stepfather to a girl and boy.  He was remembered as a gentle and caring man to his wife and stepchildren.

He had a brief acting career that included an appearance in the film "Head" that featured "The Monkees."  His life was featured in a film titled "Phantom Punch" that starred actor Ving Rhames as Liston.    He also appeared in a novel "The Cold Six Thousand" and "Blood's a Rover."  A wax model of Liston appears on the sleeve cover of The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."  He was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991, 21 years following his death.

In 1971, Liston was negotiating a fight with the Canadian boxing champion, George Chuvalo.  On January 5, 1971, Sonny's wife Geraldine returned from a trip when she noticed a foul odor when entering her home.  She entered the bedroom and found Sonny slumped over the bed.  His body was in an advanced state of decomposition.  It was determined that his death occurred December 30, 1970 that was estimated from the newspapers and milk bottles at the front door.  Following the investigation, it was determined that no foul play was involved and his death was ruled a heroin overdose.  Because of the condition of his body, the official ruling was lung congestion and heart failure.  Many continue to  question the cause of his death today and believe it was a coverup.  His life ended as sadly as it began.

Liston's memorial program
Charles "Sonny" Liston's memorial service (program pictured) was held on Saturday, January 9, 1971 at the Palm Mortuary Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Over 700 people attended his service that included many Hollywood personalities.  Among those in attendance were Ed Sullivan, Ella Fitzgerald, Jerry Vale, Nipsy Russell, Doris Day and Rosey Grier.  The Inkspots sang "Sunny" and the Rev. Edward Murphy, a Denver priest who helped rehabilitate Sonny eulogized him and music included the song "You'll Never Walk Alone"  A large list of honorary pallbearers include Redd Foxx, Buddy Hackett, Sammy Davis Jr. and George Foreman.

 Following the 45 minute service, a funeral procession that included Liston in a silver casket was escorted down the Las Vegas strip to Paradise Gardens Cemetery.  His wife Geraldine remarked "Sonny had always said if anything ever happened to him, his fond wish would be that he go down the Strip for the last time."

Liston's resting place

He rests at Paradise Memorial Gardens (pictured) in Las Vegas and the epitaph on his bronze marker is "A Man"

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