Books This new bio of Sonny Liston casts even more shadows on one of boxing's darkest figures

April 16, 2000

THE DEVIL AND SONNY LISTON
By Nick Tosches/Little, Brown, $24.95

Judging a book by the author's acknowledgments is a little like
judging a fight by a boxer's postmatch interview. What should
count in the ring are the punches thrown and taken; in a book
it's the research and writing. Still, read the acknowledgments at
the end of Tosches's new biography of the troubled and troubling
man who held the heavyweight championship from 1962 to '64:
"[T]his is a dark tale. It could not be otherwise, as I knew when
I took its first breath into me.... In my work on this book, I
encountered those who cleared the shadows with light, and those
who overcast light with shadow. Enlightenment, enshadowment.
Which leads to which? And, in the end, are they one and the
same?"

Huh? Perhaps the referee should have stepped in on this one.
Tosches, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and the author of
well-received biographies of Dean Martin, Mafia financier Michele
Sindona and rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, has done some heavyweight
research for this book--digging through police files, court
documents and congressional testimony and interviewing more than
two dozen people who knew Liston and dozens of others familiar
with boxing and/or organized crime--but he has also laden his
subject with so much sociological and existential baggage that
Liston staggers under the weight.

"My boyhood fascination with Sonny Liston," Tosches writes early
in the book, "had to do with his being as feared and hated by
blacks as by whites. He was the ultimate outlaw.... I knew that
there was no other fighter like Sonny Liston. There never had
been and there never would be." He proceeds to promise that "the
secret history of Sonny Liston...would reveal a soul that, even
amid the darkness in which it dwelt, eluded all concepts of good
and evil, of right and wrong, of light and dark themselves."
That's a lot to ask of a pug, even one of the most fearsome
heavyweight champs of all time.

Using an occasionally pretentious jazz-riff prose style to propel
his narrative (perhaps emulating Liston, who famously trained to
the driving beat of Night Train), Tosches paints a compelling
picture of the fighter's early days of poverty in Arkansas,
thuggery in St. Louis and eventual confinement in the Missouri
state penitentiary. Tosches also provides a gritty portrait of an
era in which the mob, led by Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo,
controlled boxing and, according to the author, Liston's career.
When it comes to ring history, however, Tosches tends to swing
from the heels--blithely stating, for instance, that Archie Moore
took a dive in his 1955 heavyweight title bout against Rocky
Marciano. (Never mind that Marciano was the favorite and that
Moore decked Marciano and then took a fierce beating before
succumbing only in the ninth round of a classic bout.) Tosches
also asserts that both of Liston's losses to Muhammad Ali, whom
Tosches grumpily dismisses as "tiresome," "trying" and "drably
colorful," were fixes. Liston's criminal ties are undeniable, but
you can't assume therefore that every time he took a punch it was
a sham.

In the end Tosches fails to settle the very mystery he sets out
to solve: whether Liston, who was found dead of a drug overdose
in his house in Las Vegas on Jan. 5, 1971, was murdered. "The
only real mystery is one without an answer," Tosches concludes.
"There is only one real cause of death, and that is death." Gosh.

Tosches clearly is a writer with some punch. Too bad he wasted it
here on several rounds of enshadowment boxing.

COLOR PHOTO: LITTLE, BROWN

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)