Sand Slough, Arkansas, USA
|Died||Dec. 30, 1970
Las Vegas, Nevada
Charles “Sonny” Liston was a famous American boxer who is best known for his toughness, intimidating look, and punching power. In 1962, he became the World Heavyweight Champion after knocking out Floyd Patterson in the first round of their boxing match. However, he failed to live up to his great reputation after an unsuccessful defense of the title against Muhammad Ali. Ring Magazine has ranked him 15th in its 100 Greatest Punchers in boxing history.
Sonny Liston was born on May 8, 1932, although there is some speculation about his actual date of birth. Most sources, however, state this as his date of birth. He was born in St. Francis County in Arkansas. His dad was a tenant farmer. Together with his 24 siblings and half siblings, Sonny grew up in the local cotton fields. His dad was an abusive alcoholic and at the age of 13, Sonny left to live with his aunt in St. Louis, Missouri.
Sonny Liston tried to go to school, but he quickly left due to his illiteracy. Shortly after leaving school, he turned to crime and led a gang of toughs who mugged and robbed many people. In January of 1950, he was caught after a violent robbery and sentenced to five years in prison. At only 16, Sonny was more than 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. He was arrested more than 20 times during his adolescence.
Sonny never complained about being in prison because he said that he was guaranteed at least three meals each day. At the Missouri State Penitentiary, the athletic director, Alois Stevens, suggested that he try boxing. In 1952, Sonny Liston was paroled.
Starting a Boxing Career
After his time in prison, Sonny quickly competed for and won the local Golden Gloves championship. On September 2, 1943, he became a professional boxer after knocking out Dan Smith in a single round.
His career was disrupted, however, for about nine months starting in December 1956 because he was sent to prison for assaulting a policeman and stealing an officer’s gun. After being released from prison, he relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here, his career flourished once again.
Becoming a Champ
Sonny Liston won 26 consecutive bouts in his early career. As a result, he moved very fast toward the heavyweight championship. Sonny’s opponents best knew him for his scowling as he combined a very intimidating ring presence with amazing power.
On September 25, 1962, he won the heavyweight championship when he defeated Floyd Patterson in merely minutes. This marked the first time in history that a reigning heavyweight champion was counted out in the first round.
Since he was the top fighter in the world, Sonny Liston became an easy target for sports columnists who frequently remarked on his vicious punching power and criminal background. He posted a career record of 50 wins, four losses, and 39 knockouts. This revealed his role as the fighter that Americans loved to hate.
Cassius Clay vs. Liston
In a rematch with Patterson, Sonny Liston scored another knockout. However, his 17-month reign as the heavyweight champion came to an end after losing to Cassius Clay. Sonny, who was viewed as almost invincible before this fight, was not able to answer the bell for the seventh round. This meant that Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) was the new champion on February 25, 1964.
There was a rematch with Clay on May 25, 1965. During the rematch, Clay sent Liston to the mat with his “phantom punch,” which is a major point of controversy among boxing fans even to this day. Sonny went down just after one minute and 45 seconds into the first round.
Making a Comeback
In 1966, after his second loss to Clay, Sonny Liston launched a comeback. In 1968, he won 11 consecutive fights by knockouts and three more fights in 1969. In 1969, he lost a brutal bout to Leotis Martin. On June 29, 1970, he went back to the ring and added another tenth round knockout against Chuck Wepner.
Personal Life and Death
Sonny Liston married Geraldine Clark on September 3, 1957. For 12 days, Geraldine was not able to reach her husband. She went to their home in Nevada and on January 5, 1971, she found her dead husband’s body. The official cause of Sonny’s death was heart failure and lung congestion. After an investigation, the police concluded there were no signs of foul play.