Black Pioneers: Sonny Liston

Sonny Liston in fighters pose
Photo courtesy of the Museum of American History, Cabot Public Schools.

Charles “Sonny” Liston was a noted boxer who briefly reigned as Heavyweight Champion after a first-round knockout against Floyd Patterson. However, his career was marred by criminal activity and, later, accusations of mob connections and throwing fights, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. On this date in 1964, a heavily favored Liston lost his title to upstart Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali. 

Sonny Liston was born on May 8, probably 1932, to Tobe and Helen (Baskin) Liston, African-American sharecroppers in rural St. Francis County. He was one of many children — one account lists 22 siblings and half-siblings. Liston was raised on heavy farm work, many beatings and with virtually no schooling. At the age of 13, he ran away to St. Louis, following his mother who had left earlier. There, he committed various muggings and robberies. He was caught and charged with first-degree robbery and larceny, and was sentenced in 1950 to 5 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary.

In prison, encouraged by Catholic chaplains, Liston took up boxing, where he was an immediate and spectacular success. Paroled in 1952, he had a brief amateur career, winning several Golden Gloves championships and defeating 1952 Olympic heavyweight champion Ed Sanders. Liston turned professional in September 1953, earning his first paycheck in St. Louis with a first-round knockout of Don Smith.

Nine years of steady fighting later, and following additional scrapes with the law, Liston fought Floyd Patterson for the Heavyweight Championship. During that same period, he got married (in 1957 to Geraldine Clark), moved from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and was questioned by a congressional committee about the takeover of his management by mob elements in 1960. He had earned the title shot with an impressive string of 1959–60 victories over top contenders.

Liston defeated Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson on Sept. 25, 1962. The rematch in Las Vegas on July 22, 1963, was another first-round knockout.

Less than a year later in Miami Beach, Liston lost his title to Cassius Clay when he refused to answer the bell for the seventh round, claiming a shoulder industry. He continued fighting until June 29, 1970, when he knocked out Chuck Wepner, but he never got another title shot. His final record as a professional was 50 wins, 39 by knockout, and four losses.

Liston moved to Las Vegas in 1966 and was found dead there on Jan. 5, 1971, when his wife returned to their home from a Christmas visit with her mother. Liston was buried in the Paradise Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas under the simplest of epitaphs: “A MAN.”