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Famous Like Me > Actor > L > Sonny Liston

Profile of Sonny Liston on Famous Like Me

Name: Sonny Liston  
Also Know As:
Date of Birth: 8th May 1932
Place of Birth: St. Francis County, Arkansas, USA
Profession: Actor
From Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia

Charles "Sonny" Liston (May 8, 1932 – December 30, 1970), was a boxer who became world Heavyweight champion, and whose life and personality were always obscure. As a boxer, his nickname was The Big Bear.

Sonny Liston
Career Snapshot
Born May 8, 1932
Died December 30, 1970
Total Fights 54
Won 50
Lost 4
Drew 0
Knockouts 39
Titles Won Heavyweight (1962 - 1964)

Ring Magazine named him number fifteen all time among boxing's best punchers in 2003.

Early life

There is considerable uncertainty about when Liston was actually born. Liston gave his year of birth as 1932, However, many believe that he was born in 1927. Liston was born the son of a sharecropper in Arkansas. He was one of seventeen children born to Tobe Liston and Helen Baskin. Liston endured frequent beatings as a child. He started to work early as his father's opinion was: "if he can sit at the table, he can work".

At the age of 13 he escaped from his father to St. Louis to reunite with his mother. His childhood experience sent him on a violent path that led to prison. He had a bad reputation, but at home he was gentle and loving. His mean appearance in interviews was simply a result of bashfulness.

When he was sentenced for the armed robbery of a gas station, his boxing talent was discovered by a Catholic priest. Boxing helped him leave jail early. On Halloween night of 1952, he was paroled, and during a brief amateur career that spanned less than a year, he won several awards, including Golden Gloves.

Professional boxing career

Liston made his professional debut on September 2, 1953, knocking out Don Smith in the first round in St. Louis, where he campaigned for the first five fights of his career. In his sixth bout, in Detroit, Michigan, he faced John Summerlin, who was 22-1, on national television. Liston won a narrow eight round decision. In his next bout he beat Summerlin in a rematch, and then, he suffered his first defeat, at the hands of Marty Marshall on another eight round decision, also in Detroit.

In 1955, he won six fights, five by knockout. Among the fights won, there was a rematch with Marshall, whom he beat 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, when he beat up a police officer in an incident that was unclear, many rumors and allegations of how it happened coming into the public light. He was forced to stay away from boxing during 1957 while serving a nine month sentence. He was paroled after six months in jail.

In 1958, he returned to boxing and began slowly but steadily raising the quality of his opponents. He won eight fights that year, including one over Ernie Cab, and accused the top heavyweights of the era of dodging him.

1959 was a good year for Liston. He knocked out Mike DeJohn in six, number one rated challenger Cleveland Williams (who would later challenge for the world title) in three and Nino Valdez in three. In total, he fought four times, winning all of them by knockout.

In 1960, Liston won five more fights, including a rematch with Williams, who only lasted two this time, wins over Roy Harris, Zora Folley and Eddie Machen.

In 1961, he had trouble with the law again, and his license to box was suspended by United States boxing commission for one fiscal year. He had difficulty getting a deserved shot at Floyd Patterson whose handlers tried to use Liston's links with the mafia (Carbo and Palermo) as an excuse against the fight.

In 1962, Liston was finally signed to meet world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson for the title. The fight was going to be held in New York, but New York's commission denied him a license because his suspension was still in force. As a result the fight moved to Comiskey Park, Chicago, Illinois, where it was agreed that the fight would be held as soon as the suspension was lifted. Liston and Patterson met on September 25 of that year, and Liston became world champion by knocking out Patterson in the first round. Liston was very disappointed though that on his comeback to hometown Philadelphia, the fans did not come to cheer him. He wasn't a liked champion.

During his time as a world champion, rumors of Liston's connections with members of the underworld and gamblers were common. These rumors would be strengthened later on in his life. Nevertheless, Liston enjoyed the kind of fame he could never dreamt of: he was a household name, appeared on the cover of Ring Magazine and even made a television commercial for Trans World Airlines.

Patterson and Liston signed up for a rematch, to be held in 1963, on the evening of July 22 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This time the fight lasted exactly four seconds longer than the original fight, Liston once again the winner.

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, Florida. During training for the fight, Liston was taunted mercilessly by Clay, who alleged to his corner that Liston blinded him in the third round using an unknown substance smeared on his gloves. No evidence was found to substantiate the allegations, and Liston lost his title when he quit in his corner before the start of the seventh round, after dislocating his shoulder. Some experts believe that the shoulder has not been the real cause (upon the analysis of video and the punches thrown). Instead, Sonny might have simply lost his heart for fight having his face beaten to a pulp with Clay's jabs.

Liston goes down in the opening round of his rematch with Ali

The Phantom Punch

Liston's next fight was a rematch. It proved to be an event that overshadowed the rest of his career. The fight was held in a small high school gym in Lewiston, Maine, before 1,254 paying customers. It was the smallest crowd ever for a world heavyweight championship bout, but it was telecast nationwide.

Liston lost by a knockout in the first round. The punch with which Ali knocked out Liston became known as The Phantom Punch because it was barely visible, even when it was shown in slow motion. Even Ali was surprised, yelling "Get up and fight! Get up!". Rumors that Liston threw away the fight as a way of repaying a debt to gamblers would taint Liston's reputation in the years ahead. However, no concrete evidence of these allegations was found. According to Liston's wife, the punch was real, but not strong enough to put him out for good. However, when on the canvas, Liston realized he was not able to win the fight and decided to toss the outcome.

Subsequent fights

Liston took one year off from boxing, returning in 1966 and 1967, winning four bouts in a row in Sweden, including one over 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 10 round decision over Billy Joiner at St. Louis, but in his last bout of that year, he lost by a knockout in nine to Leotis Martin at Las Vegas.

His death

Liston seemed to be ready to mount another comeback in 1970, having beaten future Ali world title challenger Chuck Wepner (who also became Sylvester Stallone's inspiration for him to write the first Rocky movie), by a knockout in ten. However, on the evening of December 30 of that year, his wife found him dead in their apartment.

She had gone to her parents' home for Christmas. As he didn't return her calls, she returned early. The smell in the house made her think that Sonny must have cooked something bad. She found him dead in bed. Police found no signs of foul play. Some drugs, including marijuana, were found in the house. His blood contained traces of morphine and codeine. The precise cause of Liston's death is mysterious: the police declared it a drug overdose. There were rumours he died with a syringe in his arm (not confirmed by his wife who found him). His friends also said he had a phobia of needles. All this prompted rumors that he could have been murdered by some of his underworld contacts.

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


  • Liston's image appears on The Beatles's album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
  • Liston made a cameo appearance as a boxer in the 1968 film Head.
  • Several books about his life have been published, and his life has also been documented on TV documentaries and a TV movie.
  • Mark Knopfler penned the biographical and somewhat sympathetic "Song For Sonny Liston" for his 2004 album Shangri-La.
  • Liston's name appears in The Mountain Goats song 'Love Love Love' on the album The Sunset Tree, and in The Dictators' song 'Borneo Jimmy' on the album Bloodbrothers. He is also mentioned in the first line of "Glenn Tipton," the first track on Sun Kil Moon's album Ghosts of the Great Highway.
  • Sonny has an adopted son, Paul Liston
  • The 1995 song "Sunny" by British pop singer Morrissey, is reportedly about Liston.

This content from Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Sonny Liston