1 minute read

Sonny Liston Biography

Birth Of A Prison Boxer, From The Big House To The Big Time, Chronology, The Champ Nobody Wanted


American boxer

When Sonny Liston became the world heavyweight boxing champ by knocking out Floyd Patterson in 1962, he hoped his criminal past and unsavory reputation could be put behind him. It was too late. At a time of growing racial unrest, he was cast in the public imagination as the angry, dangerous black man. Even the NAACP had asked "good guy" Floyd Patterson not to fight him. There was no ticker tape parade when he returned to his hometown of Philadelphia after the fight, just petty police harassment that ultimately drove him out of town. Still, nobody disputed his power in the ring, and virtually everyone expected him to easily dispatch a young upstart named Cassius Clay, soon to be renamed Muhammad Ali, who challenged him for the title in February 1964. Instead, after six rounds of pummeling, it was Liston who refused to leave his corner, ceding the championship to Cassius Clay and raising questions about whether the fight was fixed. Even more controversial was the rematch a year later, when Ali knocked out Liston with a "phantom punch" so fast that many thought Liston had taken a dive. Liston began a comeback in 1966, but he never got another shot at the title, and for the last months of his life he was jobless and nearly broke. He was found dead in his home on January 5, 1971, officially from heart failure, but reportedly from a heroin overdose.

Sonny Liston

Born to an Arkansas tenant farmer named Tobe Liston and his second wife, Helen, Charles L. Liston was one of twenty-five children. Other than that, little is definite about his birth, but he seems to have been born in a shack on the cotton plantation where his parents worked, a little outside Forrest City, in Arkansas, which did not at that time require birth certificates for those born at home. In later years, he gave his birth date as May 8, 1932, saying those who challenged this were calling his mother a liar. But she herself at various times gave January 8th or January 18th as his birthday, and many thought he was years older than he claimed. Even his name is a mystery. According to his mother, he was given the name by the midwife, and nobody remembered what the "L." stood for.

Sketch by Robert Winters

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsBoxing