Birth Of A Prison Boxer
What is fairly certain is that he had a difficult upbringing. Lost among his dozens of siblings, young Charles Liston worked beside them as soon as he was old enough, rarely attending school and never learning to read and write. Never close to his father, he once said, in a rare commentary on his childhood, "The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating." Eventually, he was sent to live with a stepbrother, and after his father's death, in 1946, he followed his mother to St. Louis.
Actually, young Charles simply showed up in St. Louis one night, thinking it was like the small towns he was used to, where anybody he met would be able to point him to the home of Helen Liston. A couple of policemen found him wandering around and took him to an all-night café where a friend of Helen's told him where she lived. The cops agreed to drive him there. It would be Liston's last friendly contact with the police. With his huge hands and menacing attitude, Charles Liston soon fell in with St. Louis' youth gangs, beginning with petty crimes and moving on to harder stuff. On January 15, 1950, he was sentenced to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City on two counts of armed robbery and two counts of larceny. It was there he found his calling.
The big man with the bad attitude soon caught the attention of Father Edward Schlattmann, the Catholic chaplain who doubled as the prison's athletic director. As he did with other prison brawlers, Fr. Schlattmann convinced Liston, who had somehow acquired the nickname "Sonny," to work out his aggression in the prison's boxing ring. After a few weeks, other inmates refused to get into the ring with Liston. Father Schlattmann's successor, Father Alois Stevens, told a Sport Illustrated reporter that Liston "was the most perfect specimen of manhood I had ever seen. Powerful arms, big shoulders. Pretty soon he was knocking out everybody in the gym. His hands were so large! I couldn't believe it. They always had trouble with his gloves, trouble getting them on when his hands were wrapped." Sonny's fists were some fifteen inches around, in sharp contrast to the foot or less claimed by the vast majority of heavyweight boxers.