Nearly 50 years ago today, former heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston’s wife returned home from a two-week planned trip and found him dead in their Las Vegas home.
And, 50 years later they’re still writing about, talking about, and even making documentaries about, the controversial professional boxing career and death of one of the sports most menacing knockout artists ever.
Charles “Sonny” Liston was born in Arkansas and later came up in a tough neighborhoods in St. Louis that eventually led to him committing numerous muggings and eventually, armed robberies. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to five years in a Missouri Prison in 1950.
While there, he tried boxing for the first time and eventually, with his release after just 2 1/2 years from prison and with his tremendous physical strength and punching power, he tried amateur boxing for less than a year. And then, he became a pro fighter. And, in need of money, he began relationships with criminal types in Chicago connected to the mob to help finance his fights..
Simultaneously, he rose quickly to the top of the ranks as a heavyweight contender scoring early KO after devastating early KO.
Liston was 32-1 and had been one of the top contenders for the title for two years scoring 11 KOs or stoppages in 12 fights.
However, Champion Floyd Patterson had refused to grant him to a title shot due to suspicion to his ties to organized crime in Chicago. Finally, they did fight and Liston destroyed Floyd Patterson in just one round to capture the heavyweight championship September 1962. He, then also defeated Patterson equally as devastatingly in their rematch with another 1st round KO in 1963.
But, it was when Liston stepped through the ropes in Miami Beach, Florida in February of 1964, to defend his championship against former Olympic gold medalist Cassius Clay, later to become Muhammad Ali, that the overarching controversy of the last few years of his life would begin.
Whether it was Liston’s inability to catch up to the quick Ali, an injured shoulder that he is supposedly suffered during training, the Las Vegas mob influence and or some combination of all three, Liston retired on his stool after the 6th round, unable to continue. And, Ali had scored one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history.
For weeks after the fight, speculation ran in the media that Liston had thrown a fight on purpose, because Las Vegas mobsters, who had allegedly bet heavily on the upset by Ali, were cashing in.
The two fighters would meet again just three months later in May of that same year in Lewiston, Maine, and as we wrote on the anniversary of that fight, it had even more controversy.
This as, Liston hit the deck from a short right hand “jab like” punch from Ali that caught him on the jaw coming in. Liston then rolled around on the ground for more than 10 seconds, as a confused referee “Jersey Joe” Walcott didn’t realize that the man counting for the knockdowns at ringside had reached the count of “ten” and declared the fight over.
Immediately, from every direction the cries of “fix” or “fake” went up. And now, for some 50 years there have been great debates and discussions about whether Liston and his family were being threatened by the mob for him to again purposely lose to Ali in the rematch.
Liston took more than a year off, but then, interestingly, chose to fight several times abroad being promoted by former heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson in Sweden. He scored four straight KOs over a two year period.
Next, he returned to the United States won one another 12 fights in a row, but never could get a title shot. Then, he lost to Leotis Martin in December of 1969 by knockout.
He fought Chuck Wepner and stopped him after nine rounds in June of 1970 in New Jersey and it was the final time he would be in the ring.
As numerous films and documentaries have recounted, including the most recent one in 2019 from Showtime Sports, Liston had fallen into drug and alcohol abuse, while going to the crime-ridden run-down neighborhoods of Las Vegas.
In these documentaries, Liston had repeatedly told members of the media, who interviewed him in the final years of his life, that he feared for his life on a regular basis.
And that brings us to the end of 1970, when Liston’s wife went on a planned two-week vacation without him to see family back in the Midwest. When she returned to their home on January 5th, she made the gruesome discovery that Liston had been dead apparently for several days inside of their bedroom.
The Las Vegas Police came and quickly determined that Liston had died from an apparent drug overdose, while apparently alone in the home. They could tell from his body’s decomposition, the number of newspapers and untouched milk bottles outside the home, that Liston had died at least five days earlier.
To this day, there are some who still believe that the mob had something to do with Liston’s death and whether it was over debts or a grudge, his demise was not accidental.
Still there’s no concrete proof of anything other than the official coroner’s report ,which listed heroin overdose which ended Liston’s life far too soon at just 40 years old.
Still, he is remembered, even 50 years later, as one of the biggest most bruising punchers the heavyweight division has ever seen. And, likewise, he’s also known for two of the most famous and controversial fights with Ali, three months apart in 1965, in the history of the sport.