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Sonny Liston - From The Big House To The Big Time

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With the help of Father Stevens, Liston came to the attention of boxing promoter Frank Mitchell and trainer Monroe Harrison, who secured his parole on October 30, 1952. In February 1953, they entered him in the open-and-novice heavyweight division of the amateur Golden Gloves tournament sponsored by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Liston swept the competition, going on to win the Midwestern Golden Gloves title, beating an Olympic heavyweight champion, and then the national title, becoming the Golden Gloves heavyweight champion in March. In June of that year, he defeated West German Herman Schreibauer to become the Golden Gloves world heavyweight champion. In five months, Sonny Liston had gone from unknown ex-con to amateur champion. Clearly, it was time to turn pro.

On September 2nd, he fought and won his first professional boxing match, knocking out Don Smith in thirty-three seconds, with the first punch of the first round. It was a spectacular beginning to a career that would take him to the top. Over the next few years, his menacing scowl and quick knockouts of his opponents would become legendary. By the end of 1961, with thirty-four wins in thirty-five fights, twenty-three of them by knockouts, Sonny Liston had established an unassailable reputation in the ring. Even his one loss, against Marty Marshall on September 7, 1953, showed the man's power and determination. Marshall caught Liston unawares in the fourth round with a punch that broke his jaw, but Sonny fought on, losing in a close decision after eight full rounds. Before long, the crowds were clamoring to give him a shot at taking the World Heavyweight Title from Floyd Patterson. Some were even calling him the uncrowned heavyweight champion.


1932 Born May 8 in Forrest City, Arkansas (birth date according to one official document signed by Liston; other dates and birthplaces given variously by Liston, his mother, and other sources)
1946 Leaves his father to go live with his mother in St. Louis
1950 Sentenced to Missouri State Penitentiary, Jefferson City, for armed robbery and larceny; begins boxing in prison under tutelage of athletic director Father Edward Schlattmann
1952 Paroled from prison
1953 Enters professional boxing, knocking out Don Smith in first round
1957 Sentenced to nine months in St. Louis workhouse for assaulting a police officer; released August 1957
1957 Marries Geraldine Clark
1958 Signs contract with Joseph "Pep" Barone, associate of alleged mobsters Frankie Carbo and "Blinky" Palermo
1962 Defeats Floyd Patterson to win heavyweight title
1964 Loses heavyweight title to Cassius Clay
1965 Loses rematch to Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) after so-called "Phantom Punch"
1966 Defeats Gerhard Zach in Stockholm, Sweden, as start of comeback
1967 With Geraldine, adopts three-year-old son, Daniel
1970 Wins technical knockout in his last fight, against Chuck Wepner
1971 Discovered dead on January 5 by Geraldine and Daniel in their Las Vegas home. Official date of death put as December 30. Lung congestion and heart failure ruled as official cause of death

But Liston was also cementing another reputation. His troubles with the police continued unabated. Between 1953 and 1958, when he left St. Louis for good, he was arrested fourteen times. To escape the constant harassment, he relocated to Philadelphia. By that time, Liston was being secretly managed by Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, two notorious mobsters who controlled big time boxing throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Both California and Pennsylvania suspended Liston's boxing license, and Liston himself had to appear before a Senate subcommittee investing organized crime's influence in professional boxing. For Floyd Patterson's manager, Cus D'Amato, who had spent years trying to clean up boxing's image and get the mob out, all this made him completely unacceptable as a challenger. But on December 4, 1961, Liston fought in the opening match in a pay-per-view double-header featuring Floyd Patterson in the main event. In less than two minutes, Liston had knocked out West German Albert Westphal, who remained unconscious longer than the fight had lasted. There was no denying it. Patterson was the only fighter left for Liston, and Liston was the only challenger left for Patterson. In March of 1962, Floyd Patterson overrode all the objections and signed a contract to fight Sonny Liston.

Sonny Liston - Chronology [next] [back] Sonny Liston - Birth Of A Prison Boxer

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over 5 years ago

Sonny Liston was an enigma, he deserved better than what he got. His story though tragic.., is still yet compelling. What happened to him during his professional career is no cautionary tale, moreover, it is GOSPEL for what happens when an illiterate young strong and physically gifted black athlete lays down with cannibalistic dogs of the criminal underworld with larcenous hearts. And the beat(Today)goes on.

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over 9 years ago

To me, Liston was not a bad man, we have all been guilty of something in life, from harsh and horrible beginnings and going through a crime filled life and jail, to be battling for what he really wanted in life, to be himself and find the people he could love and be loved by... makes him simply human but an extrodinary man also... to me the real battle he fought was against those who were ever trying to hold him back out of jealousy and spite.

If it weren't for them, he never would have lost his faith and who knows... maybe he would have had the faith in himself to be Cassius also... a long shot, but hey, was not his whole life a long shot, yet somehow he deserved to rid of the vultures surrounding him and so he deserved a hell of lot more than the small consilation people seemed always to offer him in large amounts and that is the tragic paradox of it all... the mob ran most of the boxing world at that stage and boxing is what got him there... to me he was more than just a champion boxer, he was a champion for being a true man and despite the evils of allot of the folks who cursed at him and who were the real villians of it all...

The only crime he ever committed was wanting to live his life despite what the world at large had mercilessly dealt him... I'm sure in part his troubles were his own doing but those men who persectued were far more evil than he could ever have been... in the end we are all responsible for our own lives and yet somehow, not also.

God commend Sonny Liston, that's what I say... he stood up and fought when everyone tried to knock him down... to me he never died, a spirit such as that man's lives eternally in every good person who fights against all odds.