Sonny Liston was one of the hardest hitters the boxing world has ever seen. Standing 185 centimeters (6’1″) tall and packing over 90 kilograms (200 lb) ofpure muscle, there’s a reason he was nicknamed “The Big Bear,” and it wasn’t for the hugs he gave.
His career in heavyweight boxing spanned from 1953 to 1970, and he spent all 17 of those years going guts for glory against the biggest men this side of the Van Allen belt. But no matter how many punches Liston threw in the ring, he still couldn’t knock out his past.
10A Tough Beginning
Sonny Liston was born into the unenviable position of not being wanted. He was the 24th child out of 25, and another child only meant another mouth to feed. The Listons were poor, overworked, and underpaid, struggling even before the Great Depression hit. When they moved to Arkansas in 1916 (before Sonny was born), Sonny’s mother, Helen, was only 16. His father was closer to 50.
There, the Listons toiled in the dusty earth to grow cotton and peanuts as sharecroppers. They sent three-quarters of everything they made back to the man from whom they rented their land, leaving the growing family with barely enough to get by. And just as the economy collapsed, along came little Sonny. His mother moved away when he was young, leaving Sonny in the care of his father, Tobe.
When Sonny was eight, Tobe sent Sonny to work rather than to school. Tobe believed that if children were “big enough to go to the dinner table, they’re big enough to go to the fields.” But that wasn’t the worst part. Sonny later said, “The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating.” Even at the height of his boxing career, Sonny still bore the scars of the whippings he got as a young boy from his father.
9No Age And No Home
Sonny often guessed his birth date to be somewhere around 1932 or 1933, but he never knew for sure. He never even knew exactly what town in Arkansas he’d been born in. He sometimes said that when he was born, someone carved his name and the date on an old tree on the family’s rented land. “Trouble is,” he’d continue, “they cut down the tree.” The only reality for him was that he was poor and black in the middle of the Great Depression, and nobody ever let him forget it.
Sonny never went to school, so he never learned how to read. That fact became a ribbing point for journalists later on when he began to make a name for himself, but he never let it stop him from getting where he wanted to go.
When he was about 13, he decided that he’d had enough of the cotton fields and his father’s daily abuse, so he hatched a plan: The next morning, he woke up before everyone else and spent the whole morning picking pecans from his brother-in-law’s tree. He took the pecans downtown and sold them, garnering enough money for a one-way ticket to St. Louis, Missouri, where his mother lived.
But without an address, he was just a country boy lost in a big city. It was only after a few days and a heaping helping of luck that he chanced on his mother’s home. Once he found that, he was sure that life was about to get a lot better. He was wrong.
8The Yellow Shirt Bandit
Life with his mother in St. Louis was a different kind of hard than the life he’d known on the farm, but it was still hard. Sonny worked any way he could, eking out a living as a teenager in a city where he was the wrong color at the wrong time.
Although he tried to go to school, he couldn’t read and was already a hulking mountain despite his young age, so he eventually left school and began taking odd jobs around his neighborhood. He sold whatever he could. He got into fights at work and then found new work. He cleaned chickens at the local market, earning $15 a week. “On the good days,” he said, “I ate . . . buteating’s a hard habit to get out of.”
It wasn’t long before his meager paycheck wasn’t enough. By the time Sonny was 16, he was stealing from grocery stores with some of the other kids in his neighborhood. As the years passed, the crimes escalated. Finally, one cold January night in 1950, Sonny walked into a diner with a .32 revolver in his hand and a yellow-and-black checkered shirt on his back and took the place for everything they had: $37.
It was a rush. After splitting the take with the driver and his two accomplices, Sonny and his gang drove down the street and rushed into a filling station for a second robbery in less than 20 minutes. They went to a bar after to celebrate, not knowing that the police were already onto them. The cops even had a name for Sonny and his big checkered shirt: the “Yellow Shirt Bandit.”
When Sonny stumbled out of the bar later that night, there was a policeman waiting for him. He was arrested and given five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary.
7A Boxer And A Car Thief
To paraphrase George Jung, Sonny Liston went into prison with a bachelor’s in brawling and came out with a doctorate in boxing. He started out like any other prisoner, just serving his time the best that he could. He worked in the laundry room, took his meals like any other inmate, and rarely made a fuss. But when a prison chaplain named Father Alois Stephens took special notice of him, the planet shifted in its orbit. Maybe Sonny didn’t know it then, but that moment changed the course of his entire life.
Father Stephens wanted him to try boxing.
Soon enough, the prison started to take notice. One of the other inmates in the prison, a car thief named Sam Eveland who had a history of boxing, took Sonny under his wing. Together, they laid the groundwork for everything Sonny would need in his later boxing career. He refused to learn the alphabet, but “you’d show him a punch or a technique and by the end of the day he had it down.”
Sonny got his big break when Father Stephens arranged for a local heavyweight fighter, Thurman Wilson, to get into the ring with Sonny in prison. It was his first bout with a real fighter, and he threw everything he had at it. It only took four rounds before Wilson was begging to end the fight, saying, “You better get me out of this ring. He’s going to kill me!”
6A Killing Machine
In 1952, Sonny was released on parole with the help of Father Stephens, who promised the parole board that he’d get Sonny involved in boxing to keep him away from crime. After a brief amateur career that barely lasted 11 months, Sonny signed on to the big leagues as a professional boxer. His first professional fight was over in 33 seconds. All it took was one punch to knock his opponent out cold.
From that point on, it seemed that Sonny could do nothing but good. His trainer, Johnny Tocco, called him “a killing machine” in the ring. After the first knockout, he went on a nine-win streak before finally losing a grueling eight-round match with Marty Marshall.
But no matter how hard he fought in the ring, Liston couldn’t fight real life. Around St. Louis, he was watched by the police constantly. Often, they would stop him on the street and search him for weapons. He had a reputation that he couldn’t shake. In 1956, it got the best of him when he threw a fist at a policeman and stole his gun. He served in a workhouse for nine months, and it seemed like his boxing career had hit a brick wall. But as Sonny already knew, if there’s a wall in front of you, you darn well break through it.
Fresh out of prison for the second time, Sonny moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to try to pick up the scraps of his career. There weren’t many. His old manager was broke, the world saw him as an illiterate brute, and the police were suspicious of his alleged ties with St. Louis mobster John Vitale. Even in Philadelphia, he found himself in trouble with the law, and he was suspended from boxing for three months after resisting arrest.
But he wormed his way back into the ring as surely as a fox sneaks into a henhouse. By the time he’d won his third consecutive fight in May 1955, the world was ready to take notice of Sonny “Big Bear” Liston once again. Then he won a fourth and a fifth, and suddenly the fox was taking the coop apart one chicken at a time. Over the next nine years, Sonny didn’t lose a single match. He was unstoppable. When he stepped into the ring with heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in 1962, he had 26 consecutive wins under his belt, with 34 total wins out of 35 fights.
The fight with Floyd Patterson lasted less than one round, and in those fateful seconds, Sonny secured the title of heavyweight champion of the world.
4The First Ali Fight
Already riding high on his newly won title, Sonny reached the stratosphere when he defeated Floyd Patterson again after the former champ came back to reclaim his title. Like the first fight, this one was over with a knockout in the first round. It clinched it: Nobody could defeat Big Bear.
Then came Cassius Clay. Soon to be known by a different name, Clay was a young upstart from Kentucky who’d only been boxing for three years before he went up against Sonny. With less than 20 fights under his belt, Clay was barely a match for now-veteran Sonny Liston, the knockout king with a criminal past. Bookies had the odds at 7–1 in Sonny’s favor.
But from the first seconds of the opening round, Sonny knew he’d met a worthy opponent. He could smash bricks to powder with his haymaker, sure, but Cassius Clay was too fast to land any. And with every missed punch, Clay was landing two or three jabs right in the honeypot.
As the match wore on, the two giants raged back and forth. Sonny took the lead in the fourth round, but Clay snatched it right back in the fifth. By the sixth, both men were exhausted, bruised and bloody, and ready for the fight to end.
And then, it did. Sonny never came out for the seventh round. The crowd fell to a hush and then rose up with an angry roar. Not since 1919 had any heavyweight champion quit a match like that. Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, had won the heavyweight title at the age of 22.
3The Second Ali Fight
Just why he decided to quit in the seventh round, nobody knew. Sonny sure wasn’t telling. What he was doing was training. In a year, he was going up against Clay again, and this time, he wasn’t planning to quit. Clay was now officially Muhammad Ali. He’d been accepted into the Nation of Islam after his surprise upset victory against Sonny Liston. Sonny began running 8 kilometers (5 mi) every morning, and he spent hours in the gym, blowing through partner after partner in sparring bouts. He was primed, focused, and ready.
The fight was scheduled to be held in Boston, but at the last minute the location had to be moved. Venue after venue was explored, but it all came to nothing. It seemed that nobody wanted to host the fight because of Liston’s mysterious mob connections and Ali’s newfound ties to the Nation of Islam. Finally, the location was moved to a high school hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, and the date was set.
Both fighters were prepared, but the match was destined to be a shocker. The audience had barely settled into their seats when Ali hit Sonny with a lightning-fast jab, and the big man went down. Nobody could believe it. While Sonny rolled on the mat and Ali stood over him shouting, “Get up and fight, sucker,” the referees were scrambling to get a count on the knock-down clock.
After a tense 12 seconds, they called the fight. Ali had won by a knockout in the first round, unseating the former champion who’d never been knocked out in his life with a punch that barely anybody saw. It was a controversial victory, and there are still people who claim that the fight was fixed. We’ll probably never know.
2The Final Fight
After losing his second fight to Muhammad Ali, Sonny left boxing for a year. He came back in 1966, perhaps hoping to revive the career that he’d lost, and for awhile it seemed like it might happen. He hit Sweden first, burning through four opponents like a California wildfire in a high wind. After that, he went stateside, even going so far as to say he was ready to fight Ali again. He never got the chance, but he continued to run his comeback streak through 14 consecutive wins.
The last defeat he ever faced came on December 6, 1969, when he fought Leotis Martin. It was the fourth time in his life that he’d ever lost, making him all the more eager to prove that he still had what it took. In 1970, he got his chance when he signed a contract to fight Chuck Wepner in Jersey City.
Wepner was an ex-Marine who was relatively new to the world of boxing, but Sonny wasn’t going to be caught off guard like he had in his first fight with Ali. He went into the fight with both fists swinging. After taking a hard hit in the first round, he slowly but surely beat Wepner to a pulp. By round seven, Wepner’s left eye was swollen shut. By round eight, there was blood coursing down his cheeks. And in round nine, the referee stopped the fight. There was just too much blood. Liston was unanimously declared the victor, and Wepner was sent away to get 72 stitches. It was the last great moment of Sonny Liston’s life.
1Contract With A Dead Man
By the time Canadian boxer George Chuvalo signed a contract to fight Sonny Liston, Sonny had already been dead for a week. His wife found his body in their home in Las Vegas. She’d been visiting family in St. Louis at the time of his death. The official death report called it natural causes, although investigators had found a balloon filled with heroin near the body. One of Sonny’s arms was covered in needle marks, which led to the obvious speculation that he’d died of a drug overdose.
But other theories arose as well. According to one of his close friends, Sonny had a morbid fear of needles. Others have repeated the sentiment. That’s saying a lot for someone who spent his life facing down punches from some of the toughest men in the world. But it raised the question of whether someone had killed Sonny and then arranged the crime scene to make it look like he’d overdosed. There’s even a witness willing to testify to it—in 2013, a man came forward claiming to be the son of the mafia hit man who’d killed Sonny.
Why? Who knows. Maybe it’s not even true. His death, it seems, is destined to be as much of a mystery as his beginnings. For a man whose gravestone reads plain and simple, “A Man,” Sonny Liston definitely had more complexities than the world ever realized.