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O Unlucky Man: Fortune never smiled on Sonny Liston

O Unlucky Man: Fortune never smiled on Sonny Liston Photo: Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing 60 of the best stories to ever run in the magazine. Today's selection is "O Unlucky Man," William Nack's piercing profile of the sad life and tragic death of one-time heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.

SOMEDAY THEY'RE GONNA WRITE A BLUES SONG JUST FOR FIGHTERS. IT'LL BE FOR SLOW GUITAR< SOFT TRUMPET AND A BELL. -- CHARLES (SONNY) LISTON

It was already dark when she stepped from the car in front of her house on Ottawa Drive, but she could see her pink Cadillac convertible and Sonny's new black Fleetwood under the carport in the Las Vegas night.

Where could Charles be? Geraldine Liston was thinking. 

All through the house the lamps were lit, even around the swimming pool out back. The windows were open too, and the doors were unlocked. It was quiet except for the television playing in the room at the top of the stairs. 

By 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 5, 1971, Geraldine had not spoken to her husband for 12 days. On Christmas Eve she had called him from St. Louis after flying there with the couple's seven-year-old son, Danielle, to spend the holidays with her mother. Geraldine had tried to phone him a number of times, but no one had answered at the house. At first she figured he must be off roistering in Los Angeles, and so she didn't pay his absence any mind until the evening of Dec. 28. That night, in a fitful sleep, she had a vision so unsettling that it awakened her and sent her to her mother's room. 

''I had the worst dream,'' Geraldine says. ''He was falling in the shower and calling my name, 'Gerry, Gerry!' I can still see it. So I got real nervous. I told my mother, 'I think something's wrong.' But my mother said, 'Oh, don't think that. He's all right.' '' 

In fact, Sonny Liston had not been right for a long time, and not only for the strangely dual life he had been leading -- spells of choirboy abstinence squeezed between binges of drinking and drugs -- but also for the rudderless, unfocused existence he had been reduced to. Jobless and nearly broke, Liston had been moving through the murkier waters of Las Vegas's drug culture. ''I knew he was hanging around with the wrong people,'' one of his closest friends, gambler Lem Banker, says. ''And I knew he was in desperate need of cash.'' So, as the end of 1970 neared, Liston had reached that final twist in the cord. Eight years earlier he was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world -- a 6 ft. 1 1/2 in., 215-pound hulk with upper arms like picnic roasts, two magnificent, 14-inch fists and a scowl that he mounted for display on a round, otherwise impassive face. He had won the title by flattening Floyd Patterson with two punches, left hooks down and up, in the first round of their fight on Sept. 25, 1962; 10 months later he had beaten Patterson again in one round.

​Liston did not sidestep his way to the title; the pirouette was not among his moves. He reached Patterson by walking through the entire heavyweight division, leaving large bodies sprawled behind him: Wayne Bethea, Mike DeJohn, Cleveland Williams, Nino Valdes, Roy Harris, Zora Folley et al. Finally, a terrified Patterson waited for him, already fumbling with his getaway disguise, dark glasses and a beard. 

Before the referee could count to 10 in that first fight, Liston had become a mural-sized American myth, a larger-than-life John Henry with two hammers, an 84-inch reach, 23 knockouts (in 34 bouts) and 19 arrests. Tales of his exploits spun well with the fight crowd over beers in dark-wood bars. There was the one about how he used to lift up the front end of automobiles. And one about how he caught birds with his bare hands. And another about how he hit speed bags so hard that he tore them from their hinges, and ripped into heavy bags until they burst, spilling their stuffing. 

''Nobody hit those bags like Sonny,'' says 80-year-old Johnny Tocco, one of Liston's first and last trainers. ''He tore bags up. He could turn that hook, put everything behind it. Turn and snap. Bam! Why, he could knock you across the room with a jab. I saw him knock guys out with a straight jab. Bam! In the ring, Sonny was a killing machine.'' 

Perhaps no fighter had ever brought to the ring so palpable an aura of menace. Liston hammered out danger, he hammered out a warning. There was his fearsome physical presence; then there was his heavy psychic baggage, his prison record and assorted shadows from the underworld. Police in three cities virtually drove him out of town; in one of them, St. Louis, a captain warned Liston that he would wind up dead in an alley if he stayed. 

In public Liston was often surly, hostile and uncommunicative, and so he fed one of the most disconcerting of white stereotypes, that of the ignorant, angry, morally reckless black roaming loose, with bad intentions, in white society. He became a target for racial typing in days when white commentators could still utter undisguised slurs without Ted Koppel asking them to, please, explain themselves. In the papers Liston was referred to as ''a gorilla,'' ''a latter day caveman'' and ''a jungle beast.'' His fights against Patterson were seen as morality plays. Patterson was Good, Liston was Evil. On July 24, 1963, two days after the second Patterson fight, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: ''The central fact . . . is that the world of sport now realizes it has gotten Charles (Sonny) Liston to keep. It is like finding a live bat on a string under your Christmas tree.'' 

The NAACP had pleaded with Patterson not to fight Liston. Indeed, many blacks watched Liston's spectacular rise with something approaching horror, as if he were climbing the Empire State Building with Fay Wray in his hands. Here suddenly was a baleful black felon holding the most prestigious title in sports. This was at the precise moment in history when a young civil rights movement was emerging, a movement searching for role models. Television was showing freedom marchers being swept by fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. Yet, untouched by image makers, Liston steadfastly refused to speak any mind but his own. Asked by a young white reporter why he wasn't fighting for freedom in the South, Liston deadpanned, ''I ain't got no dog-proof ass.'' 

Four months after Liston won the title, Esquire thumbed its nose at its white readers with an unforgettable cover. On the front of its December 1963 issue, there was Liston glowering out from under a tasseled red-and-white Santa Claus hat, looking like the last man on earth America wanted to see coming down its chimney. 

Now, at the end of the Christmas holiday of 1970, that old black Santa was still missing in Las Vegas. Geraldine crossed through the carport of the Listons' split-level and headed for the patio out back. Danielle was at her side. Copies of the Las Vegas Sun had been gathering in the carport since Dec. 29. Geraldine opened the back door and stepped into the den. A foul odor hung in the air, permeating the house, and so she headed up the three steps toward the kitchen. ''I thought he had left some food out and it had spoiled,'' she says. ''But I didn't see anything.'' 

Leaving the kitchen, she walked toward the staircase. She could hear the television from the master bedroom. Geraldine and Danielle climbed the stairs and looked through the bedroom door, to the smashed bench at the foot of the bed and the stone-cold figure lying with his back up against it, blood caked on the front of his swollen shirt and his head canted to one side. She gasped and said, ''Sonny's dead.'' 

''What's wrong?'' Danielle asked. 

She led the boy quickly down the stairs. ''Come on, baby,'' she said.

*****

On the afternoon of Sept. 27, 1962, Liston boarded a flight from Chicago to Philadelphia. He settled into a seat next to his friend Jack McKinney, an amateur fighter who was then a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. This was the day Liston had been waiting for ever since he first laced on boxing gloves, at the Missouri State Penitentiary a decade earlier. Forty- eight hours before, he had bludgeoned Patterson to become heavyweight champion. Denied a title fight for years, barred from New York City rings as ) an undesirable, largely ignored in his adopted Philadelphia, Liston suddenly felt vindicated, redeemed. In fact, before leaving the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago, he had received word from friends that the people of Philadelphia were awaiting his triumphant return with a ticker-tape parade.

The only disquieting tremor had been some other news out of Philadelphia, relayed to him by telephone from friends back home, that Daily News sports editor Larry Merchant had written a column confirming Liston's worst fears about how his triumph might be received. Those fears were based upon the ruckus that had preceded the fight. The New York Times's Arthur Daley had led the way: ''Whether Patterson likes it or not, he's stuck with it. He's the knight in shining armor battling the forces of evil.''

Now wrote Merchant: ''So it is true -- in a fair fight between good and evil, evil must win. . . . A celebration for Philadelphia's first heavyweight champ is now in order. Emily Post probably would recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti we can use shredded warrants of arrest.''

The darkest corner of Liston's personality was his lack of a sense of self. All the signs from his past pointed the same way and said the same thing: dead end. He was the 24th of the 25 children fathered by Tobey Liston, a tenant cotton farmer who lived outside Forrest City, Ark. Tobey had two families, one with 15 children and the other with 10; Charles was born ninth to his mother, Helen. Outside the ring, he battled his whole life against writers who suggested that he was older than he claimed he was. ''Maybe they think I'm so old because I never was really young,'' he said. Usually he would insist he was born on May 8, 1932, in the belly of the Great Depression, and he growled at reporters who dared to doubt him on this: ''Anybody who says I'm not 30 is callin' my momma a liar.''

''Sonny was so sensitive on the issue of his age because he did not really know how old he was,'' says McKinney. ''When guys would write that he was 32 going on 50, it had more of an impact on him than anybody realized. Sonny didn't know who he was. He was looking for an identity, and he thought that being the champion would give him one.''

Now that moment had arrived. During the flight home, McKinney says, Liston practiced the speech he was going to give when the crowds greeted him at the airport. Says McKinney, who took notes during the flight, ''He used me as sort of a test auditor, dry-running his ideas by me.'' 

Liston was excited, emotional, eager to begin his reign. ''There's a lot of things I'm gonna do,'' he told McKinney. ''But one thing's very important: I want to reach my people. I want to reach them and tell them, 'You don't have to worry about me disgracin' you. You won't have to worry about me stoppin' your progress.' I want to go to colored churches and colored neighborhoods. I know it was in the papers that the better class of colored people were hopin' I'd lose, even prayin' I'd lose, because they was afraid I wouldn't know how to act. . . . I remember one thing so clear about listening to Joe Louis fight on the radio when I was a kid. I never remember a fight the announcer didn't say about Louis, 'A great fighter and a credit to his race.' Remember? That used to make me feel real proud inside.

''I don't mean to be sayin' I'm just gonna be the champion of my own people,'' Liston continued. ''It says now I'm the world's champion, and that's just the way it's gonna be. I want to go to a lot of places -- like orphan homes and reform schools. I'll be able to say, 'Kid, I know it's tough for you and it might even get tougher. But don't give up on the world. Good things can happen if you let them.' '' 

Liston was ready. As the plane rolled to a stop, he rose and walked to the door. McKinney was next to him. The staircase was wheeled to the door. Liston straightened his tie and his fedora. The door opened, and he stepped outside. There was no one there except for airline workers, a few reporters and photographers and a handful of p.r. men. ''Other than those, no one,'' recalls McKinney. ''I watched Sonny. His eyes swept the whole scene. He was extremely intelligent, and he understood immediately what it meant. His Adam's apple moved slightly. You could feel the deflation, see the look of hurt in his eyes. It was almost like a silent shudder went through him. He'd been deliberately snubbed.

''Philadelphia wanted nothing to do with him. Sonny felt, after he won the title, that the past was forgiven. It was going to be a whole new world. What happened in Philadelphia that day was a turning point in his life. He was still the bad guy. He was the personification of evil. And that's the way it was going to remain. He was devastated. I knew from that point on that the world would never get to know the Sonny that I knew.''

On the way out of the airport after a brief press conference, Sonny turned to McKinney and said, ''I think I'll get out tomorrow and do all the things I've always done. Walk down the block and buy the papers, stop in the drugstore, talk to the neighbors. Then I'll see how the real peoples feel. Maybe then I'll start to feelin' like a champion. You know, it's really a lot like an election, only in reverse. Here I'm already in office, but now I have to go out and start campaignin'.''

That was a campaign that Liston could never win. He was to be forever cast in the role of devil's agent, and never more so than in his two stunning, ignominious losses to Cassius Clay, then beginning to be known as Muhammad Ali. In the history of boxing's heavyweight division, never has a fighter fallen faster, and farther, than did Liston in the 15 months it took Ali to reduce him from being the man known as the fiercest alive to being the butt of jokes on TV talk shows.

*****

Photo: Mark Kauffman/Sports Illustrated
''I think he died the day he was born,'' wrote Harold Conrad, who did publicity for four of Liston's fights. By the nearest reckoning, that birth would have been in a tenant's shack, 17 miles northwest of Forrest City and about 60 west of Memphis. Helen had met Tobey in Mississippi and had gone with him to Arkansas around the time of World War I. Young Charles grew up lost among all the callused hands and bare feet of innumerable siblings. ''I had nothing when I was a kid but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother and a father who didn't care about any of us,'' Liston said. ''We grew up with few clothes, no shoes, little to eat. My father worked me hard and whupped me hard.''

Helen moved to St. Louis during World War II, and Charles, who was living with his father, set out north to find her when he was 13. Three years later he weighed 200 pounds, and he ruled his St. Louis neighborhood by force. At 18, he had already served time in a house of detention and was graduating to armed robbery. On Jan. 15, 1950, Liston was found guilty of two counts of larceny from a person and two counts of first-degree robbery. He served more than two years in the Missouri state pen in Jefferson City.

The prison's athletic director, Father Alois Stevens, a Catholic priest, first saw Liston when he came by the gym to join the boxing program. To Stevens, Liston looked like something out of Jane's Fighting Ships. ''He was the most perfect specimen of manhood I had ever seen,'' Stevens recalls. ''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.''

In 1952 Liston was released on parole, and he turned pro on Sept. 2, 1953, leveling Don Smith in the first round in St. Louis. Tocco met Liston when the fighter strolled into Tocco's gym in St. Louis. The trainer's first memory of Liston is fixed, mostly for the way he came in -- slow and deliberate and alone, feeling his way along the edges of the gym, keeping to himself, saying nothing. That was classic Liston, casing every joint he walked into, checking for exits. As Liston began to work, Tocco saw the bird tracks up and down Liston's back, the enduring message from Tobey Liston.

''What are all those welts from?'' Tocco asked him.

Said Liston, ''I had bad dealin's with my father.''

''He was a loner,'' Tocco says. ''He wouldn't talk to nobody. He wouldn't go with nobody. He always came to the gym by himself. He always left by himself. The police knew he'd been in prison, and he'd be walking along and they'd always stop him and search him. So he went through alleys all the time. He always went around things. I can still see him, either coming out of an alley or walking into one.''

Nothing was simpler for Liston to fathom than the world between the ropes -- step, jab, hook -- and nothing more unyielding than the secrets of living outside them. He was a mob fighter right out of prison. One of his managers, Frank Mitchell, the publisher of the St. Louis Argus, who had been arrested numerous times on suspicion of gambling, was a known front for John Vitale, St. Louis's reigning hoodlum. Vitale had ties to organized crime's two most notorious boxing manipulators: Frankie Carbo and Carbo's lieutenant, Frank (Blinky) Palermo, who controlled mob fighters out of Philadelphia. Vitale was in the construction business (among others), and when Liston wasn't fighting, one of his jobs was cracking heads and keeping black laborers in line. Liston always publicly denied this, but years later he confided his role to one of his closest Las Vegas friends, Davey Pearl, a boxing referee. ''He told me that when he was in St. Louis, he worked as a labor goon,'' says Pearl, ''breaking up strikes.''

Not pleased with the company Liston was keeping -- one of his pals was 385- pound Barney Baker, a reputed head-cracker for the Teamsters -- the St. Louis police kept stopping Liston, on sight and without cause, until, on May 5, 1956, 3 1/2 years after his release from prison, Liston assaulted a St. Louis policeman, took his gun, left the cop lying in an alley and hid the weapon at a sister's house. The officer suffered a broken knee and gashed face. The following December, Liston began serving nine months in the city workhouse.

Soon after his release Liston had his second run-in with a St. Louis cop. The officer had creased Liston's skull with a nightstick, and two weeks later the fighter returned the favor by depositing the fellow headfirst in a trash can. Liston then fled St. Louis for Philadelphia, where Palermo installed one of his pals, Joseph (Pep) Barone, as Liston's manager, and Liston at once began fighting the biggest toughs in the division. He stopped Bethea, who spit out seven teeth, in the first round. Valdes fell in three, and so did Williams. Harris swooned in one, and Folley fell like a tree in three. Eddie Machen ran for 12 rounds but lost the decision. Albert Westphal keeled in one. Now Liston had one final fight to win. Only Patterson stood between him and the title.

Whether or not Patterson should deign to fight the ex-con led, at the time, to a weighty moral debate among the nation's reigning sages of sport. What sharpened the lines were Liston's recurring problems with the law in Philadelphia, including a variety of charges stemming from a June 1961 incident in Fairmount Park. Liston and a companion had been arrested for stopping a female motorist after dark and shining a light in her car. All charges, including impersonating a police officer, were eventually dropped. A month before, Liston had been brought in for loitering on a street corner. That charge, too, was dropped. More damaging were revelations that he was, indeed, a mob fighter, with a labor goon's history. In 1960, when Liston was the No. 1 heavyweight contender, testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee probing underworld control of boxing had revealed that Carbo and Palermo together owned a majority interest in him. Of this, Liston said, he knew nothing. ''Pep Barone handles me,'' he said.

''Do you think that people like [Carbo and Palermo] ought to remain in the sport of boxing?'' asked the committee chairman, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver.

''I wouldn't pass judgment on no one,'' Liston replied. ''I haven't been perfect myself.''

In an act of public cleansing after the Fairmount Park incident, Liston spent three months living in a house belonging to the Loyola Catholic Church in Denver, where he had met Father Edward Murphy, a Jesuit priest, while training to fight Folley in 1960. Murphy, who died in 1975, became Liston's spiritual counselor and teacher. ''Murph gave him a house to live in and tried to get him to stop drinking,'' Father Thomas Kelly, one of Murphy's closest friends, recalls. ''That was his biggest problem. You could smell him in the mornings. Oh, poor Sonny. He was just an accident waiting to happen. Murph used to say, 'Pray for the poor bastard.' ''

But even Liston's sojourn in Denver didn't still the debate over his worthiness to fight for the title. In this bout between good and evil, the clearest voice belonged to New York Herald-Tribune columnist Red Smith: ''Should a man with a record of violent crime be given a chance to become champion of the world? Is America less sinful today than in 1853 when John Morrissey, a saloon brawler and political headbreaker out of Troy, N.Y., fought Yankee Sullivan, lammister from the Australian penal colony in Botany Bay? In our time, hoodlums have held championships with distinction. Boxing may be purer since their departure; it is not healthier.''

Since he could not read, Liston missed many pearls, but friends read scores of columns to him. When Barone was under fire for his mob ties, Liston quipped, ''I got to get me a manager that's not hot -- like Estes Kefauver.'' Instead, he got George Katz, who quickly came to appreciate Liston's droll sense of humor. Katz managed Liston for 10% of his purses, and as the two sat in court at Liston's hearing for the Fairmount Park incident, Liston leaned over to Katz and said, ''If I get time, you're entitled to 10 percent of it.'' 

Liston was far from the sullen, insensitive brute of the popular imagination. Liston and McKinney would take long walks between workouts, and during them Liston would recite the complete dialogue and sound effects of the comedy routines of black comedians like Pigmeat Markham and Redd Foxx. ''He could imitate what he heard down to creaking doors and women's voices,'' says McKinney. ''It was hilarious hearing him do falsetto.'' Liston also fabricated quaint metaphors to describe phenomena ranging from brain damage to the effects of his jab: ''The middle of a fighter's forehead is like a dog's tail. Cut off the tail and the dog goes all whichway 'cause he ain't got no more balance. It's the same with a fighter's forehead.'' He lectured occasionally on the unconscious, though not in the Freudian sense. Setting the knuckles of one fist into the grooves between the knuckles of the other fist, he would explain: ''See, the different parts of the brain set in little cups like this. When you get hit a terrible shot -- pop! -- the brain flops out of them cups and you're knocked out. Then the brain settles back in the cups and you come to. But after this happens enough times, or sometimes even once if the shot's hard enough, the brain don't settle back right in them cups, and that's when you start needing other people to help you get around.''

So it was that Liston vowed to hit Patterson on the dog's tail until his brain flopped out of its cups. Actually, he missed the tail and hit the chin. Patterson was gone. Liston had trained to the minute, and he would never again be as good a fighter as he was that night. For what? Obviously, nothing in his life had changed. He left Philadelphia after he won the title, because he believed he was being harassed by the police of Fairmount Park, through which he had to drive to get from the gym to his home. At one point he was stopped for ''driving too slow'' through the park. That did it. In 1963 he moved to Denver, where he announced, ''I'd rather be a lamppost in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia.''

At times, in fact, things were not much better in the Rockies. ''For a while the Denver police pulled him over every day,'' says Ray Schoeninger, a former Liston sparring partner. ''They must have stopped him 100 times outside City Park. He'd run on the golf course, and as he left in his car, they'd stop him. Twenty-five days in a row. Same two cops. They thought it was a big joke. It made me ashamed of being a Denver native. Sad they never let him live in peace.'' 

​Liston's disputes were not always with the police. After he had won the title, he walked into the dining room of the Beverly Rodeo Hotel in Hollywood and approached the table at which former rum-runner Moe Dalitz, head of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas and a boss of the old Cleveland mob, was eating. The two men spoke. Liston made a fist and cocked it. Speaking very distinctly, Dalitz said, ''If you hit me, nigger, you'd better kill me. Because if you don't, I'll make one telephone call, and you'll be dead in 24 hours.'' Liston wheeled and left.

The police and Dalitz were hardly Liston's only tormentors. There was a new and even more inescapable disturber of his peace: the boisterous Clay. Not that Liston at first took notice. After clubbing Patterson, he took no one seriously. He hardly trained for the rematch in Las Vegas. Clay, who hung around Liston's gym while the champion went through the motions of preparing for Patterson, heckled him relentlessly. Already a minor poet, Clay would yell at Liston: ''Sonny is a fatty. I'm gonna whip him like his daddy!'' One afternoon he rushed up to Liston, pointed to him and shouted: ''He ain't whipped nobody! Who's he whipped?'' Liston, sitting down, patted a leg and said, ''Little boy, come sit in my lap.'' But Clay wouldn't sit; he was too busy running around and bellowing, ''The beast is on the run!'' 

Liston spotted Clay one day in the Thunderbird Casino, walked up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. Clay turned, and Liston cuffed him hard with the back of his hand. The place went silent. Young Clay looked frightened. ''What you do that for?'' he said.

'' 'Cause you're too -- -- fresh,'' Liston said. As he headed out of the casino, he said, ''I got the punk's heart now.''

That incident would be decisive in determining the outcome of the first Liston-Clay fight, seven months later. ''Sonny had no respect for Clay after that,'' McKinney says. ''Sonny thought all he had to do was take off his robe and Clay would faint. He made this colossal misjudgment. He didn't train at all.''

If he had no respect for Clay, Liston was like a child around the radio hero of his boyhood, Joe Louis. When George Lois, then an art director at Esquire, decided to try the black-Santa cover, he asked his friend Louis to approach Liston. Liston grudgingly agreed to do the shoot in Las Vegas. Photographer Carl Fischer snapped one photograph, whereupon Liston rose, took off the cap and said, ''That's it.'' He started out the door. Lois grabbed Liston's arm. The fighter stopped and stared at the art director. ''I let his arm go,'' Lois recalls.

While Liston returned to the craps tables, Lois was in a panic. ''One picture!'' Lois says. ''You need to take 50, 100 pictures to make sure you get it right.'' He ran to Louis, who understood Lois's dilemma. Louis found Liston shooting craps, walked up behind him, reached up, grabbed him by an ear and marched him out of the casino. Bent over like a puppy on a leash, Liston followed Louis to the elevator, with Louis muttering, ''Come on, git!'' The cover shoot resumed.

A few months later, of course, Clay handled Liston almost as easily. Liston stalked and chased, but Clay was too quick and too fit for him. By the end of the third round Liston knew that his title was in peril, and he grew desperate. One of Liston's trainers, Joe Pollino, confessed to McKinney years later that Liston ordered him to rub an astringent compound on his gloves before the fourth round. Pollino complied. Liston shoved his gloves into Clay's face in the fourth, and the challenger's eyes began burning and tearing so severely that he could not see. In his corner, before the fifth round, Clay told his handlers that he could not go on. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, had to literally push him into the ring. Moving backward faster than Liston moved forward, Clay ducked and dodged as Liston lunged after him. He survived the round.

By the sixth, Clay could see clearly again, and as he danced and jabbed, hitting Liston at will, the champion appeared to age three years in three minutes. At the end of that round, bleeding and exhausted, he could foresee his humiliating end. His left shoulder had been injured -- he could no longer throw an effective punch with it -- and so he stayed on his stool, just sat there at the bell to start Round 7.

There were cries that Liston had thrown the fight. That night Conrad, Liston's publicist, went to see him in his room, where Liston was sitting in bed, drinking.

''What are they sayin' about the fight?'' Liston asked.

''That you took a dive,'' said Conrad. 

Liston raged. ''Me? Sell my title? Those dirty bastards!'' He threw his glass and shattered it against the wall.

The charges of a fix in that fight were nothing compared with what would be said about the rematch, in Lewiston, Maine, during which Liston solidified his place in boxing history. Ali, as the young champion was now widely called, threw one blow, an overhand right so dubious that it became known as the Phantom Punch, and suddenly Liston was on his back. The crowd came to its feet in anger, yelling, ''Fake! Fake!''

Ali looked down at the fallen Liston, cocked a fist and screamed, ''Get up and fight, sucker! Get up and fight!''

There was chaos. Referee Joe Walcott, having vainly tried to push Ali to a neutral corner, did not start a count, and Liston lay there unwilling to rise. ''Clay caught me cold,'' Liston would recall. ''Anybody can get caught in the first round, before you work up a sweat. Clay stood over me. I never blacked out. But I wasn't gonna get up, either, not with him standin' over me. See, you can't get up without puttin' one hand on the floor, and so I couldn't protect myself.''

The finish was as ugly as a Maine lobster. Walcott finally moved Ali back, and as Liston rose, Walcott wiped off his gloves and stepped away. Ali and Liston resumed fighting. Immediately, Nat Fleischer, editor of The Ring magazine, who was sitting next to the official timer, began shouting for Walcott to stop the fight. Liston had been down for 17 seconds, and Fleischer, who had no actual authority at ringside, thought the fight should have been declared over. Walcott left the two men fighting and walked over to confer with Fleischer. Though he had never even started a count, Walcott then turned back to the fighters and, incredibly, stepped between them to end the fight. ''I was never counted out,'' Liston said later. ''I coulda got up right after I was hit.'' No one believed him, of course, and even Geraldine had her doubts. Ted King, one of Liston's seconds, recalls her angrily accusing Sonny later that night of going in the water. ''You could have gotten up and you stayed down!'' she cried. 

*****

Photo: Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated
Liston looked pleadingly at King. ''Tell her, Teddy,'' he said. ''Tell her I got hit.''

Some who were at ringside that night, and others who have studied the films, insist that Ali indeed connected with a shattering right. But Liston's performance in Lewiston has long been perceived as a tank job, and not a convincing one at that. One of Liston's assistant trainers claims that Liston threw the fight for fear of being murdered. King now says that two well- dressed Black Muslims showed up in Maine before the fight -- Ali had just become a Muslim -- and warned Liston, ''You get killed if you win.'' So, according to King, Liston chose a safer ending. It seems fitting somehow that Liston should spend the last moments of the best years of his life on his back while the crowd showered him with howls of execration. Liston's two losses to Ali ended the short, unhappy reign of the most feared -- and the most relentlessly hounded -- prizefighter of his time. 

Liston never really retired from the ring. After two years of fighting pushovers in Europe, he returned to the U.S. and began a comeback of sorts in 1968. He knocked out all seven of his opponents that year and won three more matches in 1969 before an old sparring partner, Leotis Martin, stopped him in the ninth round of a bout on Dec. 6. That killed any chance at a title shot. On June 29, 1970, he fought Chuck Wepner in Jersey City. Tocco, Liston's old trainer from the early St. Louis days, prepared him for the fight against the man known as the Bayonne Bleeder. Liston hammered Wepner with jabs, and in the sixth round Tocco began pleading with the referee to stop the fight. ''It was like blood was coming out of a hydrant,'' says Tocco. The referee stopped the bout in the 10th; Wepner needed 57 stitches to close his face.

That was Liston's last fight. He earned $13,000 for it, but he wound up broke nonetheless. Several weeks earlier, Liston had asked Banker to place a $10,000 bet for him on undefeated heavyweight contender Mac Foster to whip veteran Jerry Quarry. Quarry stopped Foster in the sixth round, and Liston promised Banker he would pay him back after the Wepner fight. When Liston and Banker boarded the flight back to Las Vegas, Liston opened a brown paper bag, carefully counted out $10,000 in small bills and handed the wad to Banker. ''He gave the other $3,000 to guys in his corner,'' Banker said. ''That left him with nothing.''

In the last weeks of his life Liston was moving with a fast crowd. At one point a Las Vegas sheriff warned Banker, through a mutual friend, to stay away from Liston. ''We're looking into a drug deal,'' said the sheriff. ''Liston is getting involved with the wrong people.'' At about the same time two Las Vegas policemen stopped by the gym and told Tocco that Liston had recently turned up at a house that would be the target of a drug raid. Says Tocco, ''For a week the police were parked in a lot across the street, watching when Sonny came and who he left with.''

On the night Geraldine found his body, Liston had been dead at least six days, and an autopsy revealed traces of morphine and codeine of a type produced by the breakdown of heroin in the body. His body was so decomposed that tests were inconclusive -- officially, he died of lung congestion and heart failure -- but circumstantial evidence suggests that he died of a heroin overdose. There were fresh needle marks on one of his arms. An investigating officer, Sergeant Gary Beckwith, found a small amount of marijuana along with heroin and a syringe in the house.

Geraldine, Banker and Pearl all say that they had no knowledge of Liston's involvement with drugs, but law enforcement officials say they have reason to believe that Liston was a regular heroin user. It is possible that those closest to him may not have known of his drug use. Liston had apparently lived two lives for years.

Pearl was always hearing reports of Liston's drinking binges, but Liston was a teetotaler around Pearl. ''I never saw Sonny take a drink,'' says Pearl. ''Ever. And I was with him hundreds of times over the last five years of his life. He'd leave me at night, and the next morning someone would say to me, 'You should have seen your boy, Liston, last night. Was he ever drunk!' I once asked him, 'What is this? You leave me at night and go out and get drunk?' He just looked at me. I never, ever suspected him of doing dope. I'm telling you, I don't think he did.''

Some police officials and not a few old friends think that Liston may have been murdered, though they have no way of proving it now. Conrad believes that Liston became deeply involved in a loan-sharking ring in Las Vegas, as a bill collector, and that he tried to muscle in for a bigger share of the action. His employers got him drunk, Conrad surmises, took him home and stuck him with a needle. There are police in Las Vegas who say they believe -- but are unable to prove -- that Liston was the target of a hit ordered by Ash Resnick, an old associate of Liston's with whom the former champion was having a dispute over money. Resnick died two years ago.

Geraldine has trouble comprehending all that talk about heroin or murder. ''If he was killed, I don't know who would do it,'' she says. ''If he was doing drugs, he didn't act like he was drugged. Sonny wasn't on dope. He had high blood pressure, and he had been out drinking in late December. As far as I'm concerned, he had a heart attack. Case closed.'' There is no persuasive explanation of how Liston died, so the speculation continues, perhaps to last forever. 

Liston is buried in Paradise Memorial Gardens, in Las Vegas, directly under the flight path for planes approaching McCarran International Airport. The brass plate on the grave is tarnished now, but the epitaph is clear under his name and the years of his life. It reads simply: A MAN. Twenty years ago Father Murphy flew in from Denver to give the eulogy, then went home and wept for an hour before he could compose himself enough to tell Father Kelly about the funeral. ''They had the funeral procession down the Strip,'' Murphy said. ''Can you imagine that? People came out of the hotels to watch him pass. They stopped everything. They used him all his life. They were still using him on the way to the cemetery. There he was, another Las Vegas show. God help us.''

In the end, it seemed fitting that Liston, after all those years, should finally play to a friendly crowd on the way to his own burial -- with a police escort, the most ironic touch of all.

Geraldine remained in Las Vegas for nine years after Sonny died -- she was a casino hostess -- then returned to St. Louis, where she had met Sonny after his parole, when he was working in a munitions factory. She has never remarried, and today works as a medical technician. ''He was a great guy, great with me, great with kids, a gentle man,'' says Geraldine.

With Geraldine gone from Las Vegas, few visit Sonny's grave anymore. Every couple of minutes a plane roars over, shaking the earth and rattling the broken plastic flowers that someone placed in the metal urn atop his headstone. ''Every once in a while someone comes by and asks to see where he's buried,'' says a cemetery worker. ''But not many anymore. Not often.''

 

 

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