Nearly 50 years after his untimely death, there remains more questions than answers about Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston—including the manner in which he did and even when his life truly began.
The story of the former heavyweight champion of the world and once upon a time the most feared athlete on the planet is far more tragic than celebratory, but one that needed to be shared.
As much information as could be gathered on his life has been translated to screen, with ‘Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston’ due to premiere Friday evening on Showtime (9:00pm ET).
“To me, Sonny Liston was one of the greatest, yet most misunderstood and vilified sports figures of all time,
writer and director Simon George told BoxingScene.com of the former heavyweight champion. “He was born into a time of great turmoil and upheaval in America, and became the scapegoat for a nation in flux.
“It’s really one of the great tragedies of the last 100 years. His story is perfect for film.”
His life, unfortunately, was anything but that.
The 89-minute documentary—loosely based on the 2016 best-selling book ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights’ by award-winning investigative journalist Shaun Assael, who is among the subjects interviewed—starts at the end, with Liston (50-4, 39KOs) found dead in his Las Vegas home early into the 1971 New Year from what was ruled at the time as natural causes, with heroin found in his system. From there, it travels back to the assumed beginning of his life in 1930, with even his exact date of birth still unknown to this very day and a theory offered that he was actually five or six years older.
“He was a man born into abject poverty, yet even his birth remains one of the many mysteries about his life—or lives,” points out George, an award-winning director, writer and producer from Great Britain who has long been fascinated with Liston, and the sport in general. “Everyone you talk to who knew him—even those in the (documentary) seemed to have a different story to tell about Sonny.
“That’s why we named the film ‘Lives and Deaths’—it’s as if he lived more than one life, and there remains so many theories on the manner in which he died.”
From his early years, it was clear that Liston was always in search of something better than what life had to offer. His youth—the 24th of 25 children—was spent working in the fields in Arkansas home. As explained by Hall of Fame boxing scribe and historian Jerry Izenberg, Liston’s role in the family was reduced to that of a field animal.
“'The mule dies, and his father says, ‘You're the mule,’” notes Izenberg. ‘He hooks him up to the harness and he's plowing furrows with him.”
It was enough to make the young Liston flee for a better way of life, hopping a bus to St. Louis, Missouri to reunite with his mother, who wasn’t necessarily all the way on board with a family reunion.
This aspect of his life is explained through the eyes of another troubled former heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson whose own backstory is a more familiar tale to the current generation of boxing fans.
“Mike Tyson’s presence was absolutely essential to this story being told,” revealed George, who also recruited the services of former Ring Magazine editor-in-chief Nigel Collins and fellow historians Bob Lipsyte and Don Majeski, college professors Hassan Jeffries, Leah Wright Rigueur and Randy Roberts. “His presence, his own story—being born into abject poverty as well and turning to crime before being led to a great mentor in Cus D’Amato—makes it more relatable to a younger audience.
“Stephen Espinoza (president of sports and event programming for Showtime) gave Mike a call as did Gene Kilroy (longtime friend and business manager of Muhammad Ali, and also featured in the documentary). He was great, charming and very intimidating. To me, Mike lifted the document. Walked the same journey, just without the mob. He was essential.”
The documentary explores in great detail Liston’s time spent as a troubled youth, his prison stint and how he was led to boxing—and the mafia—all the way through his amazing boxing career as both an amateur and pro.
What is widely recognized as the pinnacle of his career—knocking out Floyd Patterson in just over two minutes to win the heavyweight championship in Sept. 1962—is expertly framed as yet another disappointment in a life spent in search of acceptance.
The old tale has is it that Patterson was asked by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the late United States President John F. Kennedy to not face Liston, for fear that the sport’s most cherished prize would fall in the hands of the mob. Patterson not only ignored that advice, but went out of his way to insist to his handlers that the fight take place.
Liston’s response to the champion doing the right thing: “I’ll kill him. I’d like to run him over in a car.”
Liston realized the dream of every aspiring boxer, yet returned home to Philadelphia not to a hero’s welcome, instead nary a soul turning up to celebrate the achievement.
“At that point, Sonny knew he would never be respected,” notes George. “He was always despised. He was the wrong kind of Black sports hero sought during the rise of the Civil Rights movement—in fact, he beat the ideal choice for the movement in Floyd Patterson.”
He would do so again in the rematch, which took place 10 months later in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas where he relocated after realizing Philadelphia was no longer a place he could call home. The rematch lasted just as long (or short) as the first fight, with Patterson hanging around just four seconds more in suffering another first round knockout loss. He entered the first fight with Liston as the first ever two-time heavyweight champion, but would never again reach that level.
The rematch marked the last and only time Liston successfully defended the title. Then came the most identifiable part of his troubled life—his two-fight set with Muhammad Ali, who was still Cassius Clay heading into their first fight in May 1965.
Even the two fights with the iconic Ali remain mired in controversy and widespread debate more than 50 years later. The documentary offers varying theories as to whether the outcome was predetermined in either—or both—of their fights. There’s debate as to the manner in which Ali’s vision was compromised in their first fight, why Liston opted to remain on his corner stool after the 6th round and willingly relinquish the heavyweight crown.
Notorious fight fixer Charles Farrell lends his theories as to alleged outside influence in the first fight, although its their dubious rematch which forever remains disputed, down to the extent in which both boxers’ lives were at risk—the mafia allegedly threatening Ali, the Nation of Islam allegedly trying to get to Liston.
Any such questions surrounding those events and so many more aren’t necessarily answered in the documentary. We never find out the circumstances surrounding the final fight of his career with Chuck Wepner (the inspiration for the Rocky franchise), one that allegedly went opposite as was arranged,
We don’t know if it generated his death certificate, whether his life of crime—in later years, selling drugs in Las Vegas—caught up to him or he along with the manner in which he died, whether he overdosed or was murdered. It’s even suggested that the detective who was assigned the case (Larry Gandy, also featured throughout the documentary) was hired by a mob driver to murder Liston.
Every researched theory is offered and discussed at full-length, but the purpose of the film was not to provide closure but rather ensure a new generation of boxing fans were clued in to one of the most troubled and ignored figures in boxing history.
“This was never intended as a cut and dry lineal story, nor did we market it as such,” points out George. “Our goal was to provide this big playground to explore and investigate his life and career. He meant something different to so many different people who encountered him.
“What we wanted to accomplish with this story was to present open-ended and make up their own conclusions. Really, it doesn’t matter who pushed that syringe into Sonny Liston. Ameirca as a whole pushed that syringe into his arm. He was controlled by the mob, chewed up by America and died a mysterious death. It was a time of change and uprising in America, so many movements and Sonny didn’t fit in any part. It’s a sad tale, but one that needs to be shared with the world.”
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox