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Sonny Liston

A Mysterious Death

Sonny Liston never again got a shot at the title, but he never quite retired from the ring either. He won eleven straight fights by knockout, mostly in Europe, through 1968. In his last fight, against Chuck Wepner in June of 1970, he won a 10th round technical knockout. At the time of this last fight, Liston claimed to be 38, but many think he was closer to 50.

Awards and Accomplishments

1953 Golden Gloves world heavyweight champion
1953 In his first professional boxing match, knocks out Dan Smith in first round
1953-61 Wins 34 of 35 matches, 23 by knockouts
1954 Defeats Michigan state heavyweight champion John Summerlin
1962-64 World Heavyweight Boxing Champion
1966 Defeats Gerhard Zech in first match of comeback attempt
1968-69 Wins 12 of 13 matches
1970 Defeats Chuck Wepner in final boxing match of his career

As in birth, mystery surrounds Sonny Liston's death. On January 5, 1971, Geraldine Liston returned from a trip to St. Louis to find her husband dead in their Las Vegas home. The coroner's report was inconclusive, but strongly implied heart failure, although traces of heroin were found in his blood. Some thought the ex-champ, jobless and nearly broke, had killed himself. Others thought an accidental overdose had carried him off. Still others, of course, concluded that the mob had decided it was time for Sonny Liston to take another dive, permanently.

A "Phantom Punch"

When Sonny Liston went down in the first round of his rematch with Muhammad Ali, fans were amazed—and angry. In The Devil and Sonny Liston Nick Tosches wrote: "One thing is certain: in that rematch … when Sonny lay down in the first, he showed less acting ability than in the episode of Love American Style in which he later bizarrely appeared. That fight was not merely a fix … it was a flaunted fix." Tosches suggested the Mob was tired of its tarnished champ and saw more lucrative possibilities with Ali. Others suggested that Nation of Islam figures threatened Liston's life if he didn't throw the fight. But not all saw a fix. Sports Illustrated ran a frame-by-frame analysis of the fight on June 7, 1965, concluding that Ali had in fact knocked out Liston. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: "What happened? I'll tell you what happened. Sonny Liston got the hell beat out of him is what happened … an old man groping his way into a speedy, insolent, reckless kid." Decades later, sportswriter Allen Barra agreed, concluding in The New York Times that "Murray's shot seems right on target, but it's hard to knock out a myth."

Sonny Liston's death, at an indeterminate age, of an undetermined cause, may seem a fitting end for a controversial fighter with such shadowy connections. Even more fitting may be a comment he once made to an interviewer: "Ever since I was born, I've been fighting for my life." Sonny Liston lived and died a fighter, and in the words of the simple epitaph over his grave: "A Man."

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsBoxingSonny Liston Biography - Birth Of A Prison Boxer, From The Big House To The Big Time, Chronology, The Champ Nobody Wanted