Sonny Liston

From New World Encyclopedia

Sonny Liston
Liston-Patterson fight (3).png
Real name Charles L. Liston
Nickname Sonny
Rated at Heavyweight
Nationality American
Birth date May 8, 1932
Birth place Flag of United States Sand Slough, Arkansas
Death date December 30?, 1970
Death place Flag of United States Las Vegas, Nevada
Stance Orthodox
Boxing record
Total fights 54
Wins 50
Wins by KO 39
Losses 4
Draws 0
No contests 0

Charles L. "Sonny" Liston (May 8, 1932 – December 30, 1970), was a championship boxer who became world heavyweight champion in 1962 by knocking out Floyd Patterson in the first round. It was the first time Patterson had been knocked out for a count of ten. Liston was known by the boxing community as one of the most powerful punchers in the history of the heavyweight division. He was best known for his two heavyweight title fights with Muhammad Ali (or Cassius Clay as he was known in the first fight), both losses. Liston had a reputation, a least partially deserved, as something of a thug both in and out of the ring, which served to intimidate opponents until he ran up against the brash Kentuckian and Olympic Gold Medal winner, Cassius Clay. From that point on his career would be shrouded in controversy of the mythical punch in the rematch.

Early life

Although Liston's birthdate is publicly known as May 8, 1932, there is a considerable amount of uncertainty about the date's authenticity. Liston himself wasn't sure on the date, and it has led to speculation that he was a few years older than originally thought during his boxing career. Many believe he was born in 1927, though there is no son named Charles listed with the family in the 1930 census.[1]

Liston was born the son of a sharecropper in Johnson Township, St. Francis County, Arkansas. As the 24th of 25 children growing up in poverty-strictened conditions, it made for a tough living environment for him in his early years. His parents Tobe Liston and Helen Baskin had many children to look after, making it hard on Sonny as a child. "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, we grew up with few clothes, no shoes, little to eat, my father worked me and 'whupped' me hard."[2] He started to work early; his father's opinion was, "If he can sit at the table, he can work."[3]

His relationship with his father, and his living conditions led him to escape at the age of 13 to St. Louis. It was there that he reunited with his mother, after she herself fled from her husband in 1946. His childhood experience sent him on a path that led to prison in 1950, when he plead guilty to two charges of larceny and first degree robbery. These crimes led to several five year sentences, but Liston was released on parole on October 30, 1952. During his time in prison, Liston practiced boxing; it was the beginning of his Hall of Fame career with the sport. After his release Liston found work as a "bonebreaker" for the Italian Mafia. He had a bad reputation, but at home he was gentle and loving. His mean appearance in interviews was simply a result of bashfulness.

In fact, when the teenage Liston was sentenced to prison for taking part in the robbery of a gas station, his boxing talent was discovered by a Roman Catholic priest, and his Boxing talent helped him leave jail early.

During a brief amateur career that spanned less than a year, he won several amateur tournaments, including the Golden Gloves.

Professional boxing career

Liston made his professional debut on September 2, 1953, knocking out Don Smith 33 seconds into the first round in St. Louis, Missouri St. Louis. It was there that he campaigned for the first five fights of his career. In his sixth bout, in Detroit, Michigan, he faced John Summerlin, who was 22-0, on national television. Liston won an eight round decision.

Liston beat Summerlin in a rematch, and then suffered his first defeat, at the hands of Marty Marshall also in Detroit. In the third round, Marshall, a defensive-minded journeyman, managed to break Liston's jaw with a right hand while Liston was laughing at the smaller man's unorthodox ring tactics. Liston proved his mettle by lasting the scheduled eight rounds despite the intense pain.

In 1955, he won six fights, five by knockout, including a rematch with Marshall, whom he knocked out in six rounds.

A rubber match with Marshall in 1956 saw him the winner by a ten round decision, but in May of that year he ran afoul of the law once again. In an incident for which varying accounts have emerged over time, Liston was accused of beating up a police officer. He was paroled after serving six months of a nine month sentence, and prohibited from boxing during 1957.

In 1958, he returned to boxing, winning eight fights that year.

1959 was a banner year for Liston. He knocked out Mike DeJohn in six, number one rated challenger Cleveland Williams in three and Nino Valdez in three. In total, he fought four times, winning all by knockout.

In 1960, Liston won five more fights, including a rematch with Williams, who only lasted two rounds, with knockout wins over Roy Harris in one round and top contender Zora Folley in three rounds. Eddie Machen was the only contender not knocked out by Liston, with Liston winning on a lopsided twelve round decision.

But Liston had difficulty getting a deserved shot at Floyd Patterson whose handlers tried to use Liston's links with the mob as an excuse against arranging the fight.

In 1962, Liston finally signed to meet world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson for the title. The fight was going to be held in New York until the New York commission denied him a license.

As a result, the fight moved to Comiskey Park, Chicago, Illinois. Liston and Patterson met on September 25 of that year, and Liston became world champion by knocking out Patterson in the first round in two minutes and six seconds.

He was not a popular champion, and Liston was very disappointed that on his return to his hometown of Philadelphia, the fans did not come to cheer him. Philadelphia Daily News Sports Editor wrote: " A celebration for Philadelphia's first heavyweight champ is now in order, Emily Post would probably recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti we can use shredded warrants of arrest." Jerry Spinelli, the author of the children's novel Stargirl, also included him in its dedication because its protagonist has an analogous experience.

Patterson and Liston signed for a rematch, held on the evening of July 22, 1963, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Months before the fight Liston decided to relocate to Denver because he was tired of the police harassment in Philadelphia. This fight lasted exactly two seconds longer than their first fight, with Liston once again knocking Patterson out in the first round.

Clay versus Liston

Liston did not box again that year, and in 1964, he met a young contender named Cassius Clay on the evening of February 25 in Miami. Leading up to the fight, Liston hardly trained, and lost his title when he quit in his corner before the start of the seventh round, claiming he had hurt his shoulder. A 7-1 favorite, Liston started an uproar over the finish of the fight, leaving many fans of the sport shocked. Some fans believed the fight was fixed, and doubted that Liston's shoulder injury was real. Others felt that Liston was a beaten man that night, and simply lost the will to continue.

Ali Versus Liston

On May 25, 1965, Liston had his rematch with the cocky, young, Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Ali changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964, and later converted to Sunni Islam in 1975. The bout was originally scheduled for Boston, Massachusetts, but Ali, a week before the fight, was hospitalized with a hernia. The rescheduled match was in the town of Lewiston, Maine.

The suspense for the fight had been building for months, however, the fight only lasted minutes. While he was pulling away from Liston, Ali hit Liston with what came to be known as the controversial "phantom punch." Liston, who had never been knocked off his feet, went down. Shocked by the sight of Liston on the floor, and attempting to get the hysterical Ali into his corner referee, the referee, Jersey Joe Walcott, himself a former heavyweight champion, never counted to ten. Seventeen seconds passed before Liston got back on his feet. Walcott had to be told by a writer how long Liston was down, and proceeded to declare Ali the winner. The photograph of the conclusion of the fight is one of the most heavily promoted photos in the history of the media, and was even chosen as the cover of the Sports Illustrated special issue, "The Century's Greatest Sports Photos." Referee Walcott stopped the fight after the two men began boxing again because a ringside sportswriter yelled out that Liston had been lying on the canvas for more than ten seconds.

For almost four decades the rumor that the fight had been fixed has existed in the boxing community. Some thought it was fixed because Liston had fear of being murdered by Black Muslims, according to his biography by ESPN. George Chuvalo, who sat in the fourth row at ringside and later fought Ali twice, said, "It was a phony." Floyd Patterson also said he did not believe the fight was on the level, as did former heavyweight champions Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and Joe Louis.[1] However, Sports Illustrated in 1965 ran a frame-by-frame analysis and concluded that the punch was real.[4] Liston never admitted to taking a dive, but once told a Sports Illustrated writer by the name of Mark Kram that, " "That guy was crazy. I didn't want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn't hit."[5]

Subsequent fights

Liston took one year off from boxing, returning in 1966 and 1967, winning four bouts in a row in Sweden over a ten month span. One of his victories included a fight with Amos Johnson. In 1968, he won seven fights, all by knockout, including one in Mexico.

In 1969, he had three wins and one loss. Among his wins was a ten-round decision over Billy Joiner at St. Louis, but in his last bout that year, he lost by a knockout in nine rounds to Leotis Martin at Las Vegas. Martin's career ended after the fight because of a detached retina. Liston won his last fight by knockout in 1970, against Chuck Wepner, who would later fight Clay for the heavyweight championship.


Liston was at the end of his fighting career when, on January 5, 1971, he was found dead by his wife in their Las Vegas home. The time of death has been placed as six to eight days prior to that, and several sources list December 30, 1970 as his date of passing. He was believed to have been 38 years old.[1]

The precise cause of Liston's death is mysterious; officially, it was said Liston died of heart failure and lung congestion, but needle marks found in his arm led people to believe he died of a heroin overdose. Another theory has Liston killed by the mob due to a loan-sharking ring with which Liston was rumored to be involved. After winning the title, Liston at first refused to go on an exhibition tour of Europe when he was told he would have to get shots before he could travel overseas. All this prompted rumors that he could have been murdered by some of his underworld contacts. In the opinion of some, the case of Liston's death remains unsolved.[1]

Liston is interred in Paradise Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Sonny Liston's most notable boxing accomplishment occurred in 1962 when his 14-inch fists knocked Floyd Patterson out in the first round in Chicago, Illinois. The hard-hitting Liston continued his mark on the sport of boxing, when he defended the title the next year knocking Patterson out once again. His criminal background in larceny, robbery, and assault insured that he would always be seen as a controversial figure within the boxing world. This controversy would range from his actual date of birth all the way to his cause of death, and would notably include both the loss of his heavyweight crown in his first title fight with Cassius Clay in 1965 and even moreso the subsequent rematch in 1966. While critics dispute his actions outside of boxing, Liston's 50-4 career record, with 39 knockouts helped to cement his place in the sport of boxing. Most believe Sonny Liston died of a heroin overdose, but whatever the cause, Liston's death is as enshrouded in mystery as was his life.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Nick Tosches, The Devil And Sonny Liston (Little, Brown, 2000, ISBN 0-316-89775-2).
  2. Liston was in Trouble in and out of the Ring Retrieved February 19, 2008.
  3. A quote mentioned in David Remnick's book King of the World.
  4. Sports Illustrated, June 7, 1965
  5. Liston was trouble in and out of the ring Retrieved February 19, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

External links

All links retrieved February 3, 2023.

Preceded by:
Floyd Patterson
Heavyweight boxing champion
1962 – 1964
Succeeded by:
Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali)


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.