x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Liston - a champion and a national embarrassment

Few visit the neglected grave anymore, although occasionally a posy of fresh flowers will appear. Nor does the simple brass headplate offer any indication that here lies a once-proud warrior: Charles "Sonny" Liston (1932-1970)

Sonny Liston stands over heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson after knocking him out in the first round of the title fight in 1962.
Sonny Liston stands over heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson after knocking him out in the first round of the title fight in 1962.

Few visit the neglected grave anymore, although occasionally a posy of fresh flowers will appear. Nor does the simple brass headplate offer any indication that here lies a once-proud warrior: Charles "Sonny" Liston (1932-1970) Although he died on Jan 5 1970, the exact term of his Sonny Liston's life is uncertain. Records suggest he was born in 1932 but his mother insisted she gave birth in 1929. Either way, it was a date the one-time heavyweight world champion and the most feared man on earth, was never likely to celebrate.

The 24th of 25 children fathered by Tobey Liston, a poor cotton picker who tyrannised his hungry family with a belt buckle, Liston ran with the mob and served three years in prison for armed robbery before clubbing a cowering Floyd Patterson into semi-consciousness to win the "richest prize in sport". After surrendering his title to the then Cassius Clay, Liston lost the return, became a heavyweight drinker, suspected drug dealer and probable heroin addict.

His tragic life ended mysteriously in Las Vegas eight years later - alone, unloved and penniless. Boxing had never laid eyes on anyone like Liston, a 1.86m, 97.5kg chunk of chiselled granite who emerged scowling from Missouri State Penitentiary. But it was what lay above the magnificently sculpted torso that chilled the blood. Although Liston's eyes could be as beseeching as a spaniel's in moments of serenity, the image he presented in public was one of sneering hostility.

Unable to read, unwilling to communicate, Liston was regarded as an ogre by 34 pulverised opponents. Tales of his 19 arrests, of his ability to lift cars clear off the ground and of his bizarre liking for plucking birds out of the air bare-handed left the nation atremble and persuaded the boxing authorities to ignore his claims for a title shot against Patterson. When Patterson finally ran out of challengers, he agreed to fight Liston on Sept 25 1962, in Chicago.

When a petrified Patterson crumpled to the canvas in less than a round, flattened by one mind-jangling hook to the chin, Liston had possession of the crown wrongfully denied him for so long. But he was never to win the respect he craved. Liston planned a tour of juvenile drug rehabilitation centres, orphanages and reform schools to "reach out to the black kids. To show my people good things can happen to anybody".

Instead, the new champion found himself shunned by the very people he believed were his own. His criminal past, his rumoured Mafia links, his refusal to act "the tame n***** they all want me to be" cast him in the role of national embarrassment. "I didn't expect the President to invite me into the White House and let me sit next to Jackie and wrestle with those nice Kennedy kids, but I sure didn't expect to be treated like no sewer rat," he said.

As a favoured sparring partner, Ray Shoninger was one of the few permitted to see the other side of Liston. "He may have been a killer in the ring but he was a goddam angel compared to many of them that despised him. "Sure he'd made mistakes. His favourite saying was 'I couldn't pass judgment on no one, I wasn't perfect myself', but he served his time in the state pen. All he ever wanted was for people to look up to him and call him 'champ'. But they did not."

America's wish came true 18 months later when Liston surrendered his title to Clay in 1964 by remaining on his stool at the start of the seventh, and in the return bout he collapsed inside a round. Many claimed the fight had been fixed, that Liston had received a death threat from the Black Muslims under whose influence Clay had assumed the name Muhammad Ali. Whatever the reason, they removed his heart when they took away his championship belt.

Now he lies in Paradise Memorial Gardens, Las Vegas. "Sonny Liston. He used to be a hell of a fighter," the cemetery's caretaker once told a visiting reporter. "When you're planted out here, though, you're no better or worse than anyone else." @Email:rphilip@thenational.ae