2019-11-14 17:31:08 UTC
*Showtime's documentary, 'Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston,'
premieres Friday, chronicling the mysteries surrounding the former champ
A heavyweight boxer once thought to be invincible, Liston suffered a pair of
stunning defeats to Muhammad Ali, which many believe were fixed
Six years after losing to the rematch to Ali, Liston was found dead by his wife
Geraldine in their Las Vegas home, the victim of an apparent heroin overdose
'Pariah' challenges the official record on nearly every aspect of Liston's
life, from the date of his birth, cause of his death, and whether or not he took
a dive vs. Ali
Liston's lifetime of Mafia connections and ties to drug dealers hurt his
reputation with many Americans, as did his resistance to the civil rights
Director Simon George: Liston 'became the scapegoat for a nation in flux'
Former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston is perhaps best known as the man
sprawled across the canvas and looking upwards at Muhammad Ali in one of the
most celebrated moments in boxing history.
The immortalized photographs were taken at a small gymnasium in Lewiston, Maine,
where Liston's rematch with Ali was famously held after being moved from Boston
Garden amid fears of organized crime a presence throughout most of Liston's
For Ali, who is seen taunting Liston to 'get up and fight, sucker,' the image
has become a symbol of The Greatest's unabashed self-confidence.
For Liston, who was once thought to be invincible, the controversial first-round
knockout defeat marked the beginning of the end.
Within six years, a 40-something Liston would be found dead by his wife
Geraldine in their Las Vegas home, the victim of an apparent heroin overdose -
even though he was afraid of needles.
But much like his first and second bouts with Ali, which some believe to have
been fixed by gamblers, Liston's death is colored by his well-documented
connections to the Mafia and other criminals.
A former fight fixer claims Liston was supposed to take a dive in his last
fight, but didn't, and lost the mob a lot of money. A coroner who examined the
evidence has also suggested that the amount of heroin in his system wouldn't
have caused an overdose.
The true stories behind his supposed overdose, his enigmatic life, and his
connection to organize crime are examined in Showtime's documentary, 'Pariah:
The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston,' which premieres Friday.
Directed by Simon George and based somewhat on Shaun Assael's investigative
book: 'The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights,' the
film does more than simply rattle off a few conspiracy theories.
'Pariah' may not provide any singular conclusion, but does challenge the
official record on nearly every aspect of Liston's infamous story.
'There was enough to recommend two or three different suspects,' Assael told the
Daily Mail. 'I was unable to land on one definitive [suspect].'
The Las Vegas Police Department conducted an investigation into his death and
concluded there was no foul play.
Officially Liston was born in 1930, although Assael and many others believe him
to be five or six years older, which would help to explain his sudden downfall
at the end of his career.
In any case, no birth certificate exists for Liston, who is believed to be the
24th of 25 children born to an abusive Arkansas sharecropper.
As told by legendary Newark Star-Ledger sports writer Jerry Izenberg, Liston
worked in the fields from a young age.
'The mule dies, and his father says, "You're the mule," and hooks him up to the
harness and he's plowing furrows with him,' Izenberg says in 'Pariah.'
Sick of abuse, Liston hitchhiked up to St. Louis, where his mothers and sisters
found work. But without any education, the barely literate Liston quickly turned
'He saw how poor people get money,' said former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson,
who is often compared to Liston. 'They rob and steal.
'Being beaten as a child will really affect your outlook on how you see things.
If he had hope for a better life, he would have lived his life differently. He
didn't have hope for a better life.'
Eventually Liston was given five years for robbing a gas station and restaurant
with a gun, which ultimately proved to be a good thing.
It was at the Missouri State Penitentiary where Liston met Rev. Alois Stevens,
who turned him onto boxing.
Liston proved so talented that a local heavyweight named Thurman Wilson visited
the prison for a bout, only to be defeated in two rounds.
Wilson's manager quickly signed Liston, and upon the boxer's parole in 1952,
introduced him to mobster Johnny Vitale, who in turn introduced him to fellow
mobster Frankie Carbo, one of the most powerful forces in the sport.
'Sonny had an abusive father, and he ran away from him as fast as he could,'
Assael said. 'So he never had a father figure. A succession of mobsters became
his father figures. Sonny was very much raised by the mob.'
Soon Liston was earning a living as an enforcer against unions and a collector
for loan sharks, all while becoming the most feared heavyweight of the era.
It certainly didn't hurt that his reputation in the ring was preceded by his
status on the streets.
'Sonny Liston was the first intimidating fighter, with the mean scowl and the
mean grin,' said Tyson. 'He was a real bad ass; real menacing force.
'[Liston's opponent] was really beaten before he got into the ring,' Tyson
continued. 'Sonny could pull it off. I could pull it off. Not a lot of people
could pull it off.'
His jab is described as 'a nose-cracking, teeth-busting, jaw-dropping
experience' by another of the film's contributors, Purdue University professor
and author Randy Roberts. And although Liston wasn't enormous, standing just
6-feet tall, he was still able to land that punishing jab against anyone, thanks
to his 84-inch reach.
'If you wanted to build the perfect heavyweight, you would use Sonny Liston as
your model,' said former fight fixer Charles Farrell, and admitted fight fixer
and the business manager of former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. 'He
heralded in the era of giant heavyweights, without, in fact, being a giant
A remarkable 39 of his 50 wins came by knockout, and although his arrest record
delayed an inevitable title shot, Liston eventually did fight Floyd Patterson in
1962, dethroning the popular champion in just over two minutes.
The rematch would take only four more seconds, and suddenly, Liston was boxing's
most ferocious figure, although hardly its most beloved.
'Not only is he not the guy that white America dislikes, but black America hates
him,' Assael said. 'Everyone hates Sonny.'
This became eminently clear after Liston's first victory over Patterson.
He expected to return to a hero's welcome in Philadelphia, where he was living
at the time. But when Liston got off the airplane, there was no recognition of
his greatest accomplishment.
'When he expects a parade and it doesn't happen, he just says f*** it,' Assael
said. 'He turns his back on polite society.'
Unlike Patterson, Liston was seen by many white Americans as a criminal. For
that matter, many African-Americans viewed him the same way, and others were
turned off by his resistance to the civil rights movement.
'I think it's a simple matter, but a lot of peoples are carrying this thing a
little too far,' Liston said of the civil rights movement in 1963.
By that time, Liston had become the singular obsession of a young Cassius Clay,
who had dubbed the heavyweight champion 'the bear.'
After months of 'bear hunting,' which was essentially just prolonged public
harassment of Liston, Ali got his title shot in 1964.
'I think he should be locked up for impersonating a fighter,' Liston told
reporters at the time.
For once, the media was in Liston's corner, if only because of Ali's connection
to the Nation of Islam, which was viewed with suspicion by white America.
'Pariah' offers an abundance of perspectives on the two Ali-Liston bouts.
The first fight took place in Miami Beach in 1964 and ended when Liston, who had
been battling a shoulder problem, refused to answer the bell for the seventh
'Did he give up because he was in such terrible agony he couldn't move?'
legendary sports writer Robert Lipsyte says in 'Pariah.'
'Did he give up because he suddenly realized he couldn't win this fight? Did he
give up because he had been paid to dump it at some point? Who knows?'
The belief that the first fight was fixed stems largely from the betting odds,
which were heavily in favour of a Liston victory.
'There were two Clay-Liston fights; the first one was the real fix,' said
Farrell, considered one of the preeminent authorities on fixing fights.
'The mob isn't in the boxing business to do anything, other than to make money,'
he continued. 'The odds were 8 to 1. They could make a tremendous amount of
money betting against Liston. That was where the money really was.
The problem with that theory is that Liston may have actually cheated to win the
fight by secretly 'loading' his gloves with some chemical before the fourth
round in an effort to blind Ali.
Although the accusation has never been proven, Ali was clearly struggling to see
in the fourth and fifth rounds, before re-establishing himself in the sixth and
'I think it's utter nonsense to say that first fight was fixed,' said Roberts.
'If Sonny was trying to fix the fight, why was he loading up his gloves before
Round 4? He was loading up the gloves to blind Clay and win the fight.'
In any case, his failure to answer the bell in the seventh cemented Liston's
reputation as a quitter.
'I think it's unacceptable that Sonny didn't get off the stool,' Tyson said. 'He
should have carried on.'
The second fight took place in Maine the following year, and famously ended on
Ali's 'phantom punch,' a quick right hook that appeared to topple Liston,
although some like Assael do not believe it connected.
Liston allegedly once bragged about making an agreement with Ali to fix the
second fight, with the former getting a percentage of the latter's future
'The second fight, I'm sure, was a fix, although I don't think it started out
that way,' Assael said. 'He was down to his lean, muscular essence [preparing
for the rematch in 1964]. And then Ali got a hernia and the fight had to be
postponed [six months].
'And at [Liston's] age - I always say he's at least five or six years older than
his birth certificate - he couldn't get back into that shape.'
Without being in good shape, Liston may have been open to other financial
Assael reported in his book that Liston once bragged about making an agreement
to fix the second fight, allowing him to earn a percentage of Ali's future
'The second fight was a fix, but I would argue that it was Sonny maybe taking
control of his life for the first time,' Assael continued. 'He just thought of
it as a way of making himself a retirement fund.'
If that were true, Liston would have been disappointed, as Ali was soon exiled
from the sport for his refusal to fight in Vietnam. (State boxing commissions
began licensing Ali again in 1970, shortly before Liston's death)
Others believe that Liston was knocked down cleanly and was simply the victim of
the confusion in the ensuing panic.
Referee Joe Walcott, himself a former heavyweight champion, struggled to get Ali
to a neutral corner and lost track of the count. Eventually, after Liston
returned to his feet and attempted to continue, timekeeper Francis McDonough
ruled that he had been down for ten seconds and that the fight was over.
'I think the punch that Muhammad Ali hit Sonny Liston with in the second fight
was enough to knock him down, especially if he didn't
Living in Las Vegas, Liston became involved with drug dealers and gambling
kingpins, like Ash Resnick.
'He thought like a mobster,' Assael said. 'And when things kind of went south
for him at the end, he reverts back to that.'
He nearly made a successful comeback attempt, which could have put him in line
for a title shot against Joe Frazier in 1970. Unfortunately Liston was knocked
out by Leotis Martin. (Martin was fighting with a detached retina after a nearly
devastating blow by Liston earlier in the bout)
Liston's final fight was in New Jersey against Chuck Wepner, who would go on to
become the real-life inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's 'Rocky.'
American heavyweight champion boxer Sonny Liston looks over his shoulder while
pulling the handle of a slot machine to which a small photograph of Muhammad Ali
Wepner, known as the 'Bayonne Bleeder,' was completely overwhelmed and quit
after the ninth round, which may have turned into an existential problem for
According to Farrell, Liston had been instructed to take a dive that night.
'I was told that Liston was killed because of the Wepner fight,' Farrell says in
'The mob lost a lot of money and I know that it's something that everybody
involved would have done.'
Liston was discovered by his wife Geraldine when she returned from a trip to
Officially Liston died of lung congestion and heart failure, likely caused by
heroin, according to the Las Vegas coroners who examined his bloated corpse
after it had decomposed over the better part of a week.
He did have needle marks on his arm, and a bag of heroin was found in the
kitchen, but all that evidence is scrutinized in 'Pariah.'
Liston certainly knew drug dealers and may have been sleeping with a cocktail
waitress who used heroin, according to Assael.
On the other hand, Geraldine was home for several hours before calling the
police, and had ample time to clean the kitchen table, which is where an officer
claims to have found a bag of heroin.
Furthermore, Coroner Mark Herman said the amount of heroin in Liston's system
was likely too small to have caused an overdose.
Whether he injected it or snorted it is another matter. Despite the presence of
needle marks, no syringe was ever found at the scene.
'Sonny was deathly afraid of needles', said Philadelphia Daily News sports
writer Jack McKinney, as quoted in 'The Devin and Sonny Liston.'
'He and I had the same dentist... he wouldn't even take Novocain.'
If Liston was murdered in a staged overdose, it's possible that his killer was
unaware of his needle phobia.
'I am willing to entertain the idea that it was an overdose, but not an
accidental one,' Assael said. 'The preponderance of evidence I found suggests
that it is more than likely he was killed than not.'
Assael's own 2016 book offered one of the more compelling explanations, stemming
from an unsolicited, anonymous tip that Liston had been killed by a policeman
working as a hired killer.
'I was about two thirds of the way through the book, and I thought I was done
and I get an unmarked manila envelope addressed to me,' Assael said. 'Inside is
this transcript that really changed my thinking.'
Liston pictured with wife Geraldine, who later found him dead of a suspected
That transcript contained the testimony of a police informant, claiming that
Liston's 1970 death was the work of a police hit man, Larry Gandy, who was
working for Resnick.
Gandy, one of the reporting officers the night of Liston's death, is actually
interviewed in 'Pariah.'
'Killing people really does something to you,' he said. 'It scars you for life.
It may be sick that somebody would accuse you of killing for hire. I am not a
contract killer and never would be.'
Gandy, meanwhile, suggests that Liston may have been killed for talking to
police about local gangster Earl Cage.
There are no shortage of other theories.
Drug dealers, bookies, and Mafia kingpins have all been tossed out as
possibilities, but rather than wild speculation, 'Pariah' focuses on the
testimony of Liston's contemporaries, first-hand accounts, and the journalists
who have spent years unraveling the mysteries of his life.
'I don't know,' said Lipsyte. 'I really don't know.'
The best vague answer anyone can offer is that Liston was killed by his past.
It's hard to say which aspect of his life came back to get him in the end, but
Liston serves as a cautionary tale about American culture and values.
Born into poverty and raised by criminals, Liston's success was never enough to
change the public's perception of him.
'To me, Sonny Liston was one of the greatest, yet most misunderstood and
vilified sports figures of all time,' said director Simon George. 'He was born
into a time of great turmoil and upheaval in America, and became the scapegoat
for a nation in flux. He was a man who aimed for the stars but instead got torn
apart by the factions warring for their places in post-war America. His story is
one of race, prejudice and injustice.
'It is a film about how America chooses its heroes and how it never lets anyone
forget their past.'