By Douglas Ward
Born into a poor sharecropping family with little or no record of his actual birthdate, Sonny was always haunted by questions about his age. His death, ruled a suicide, was just as shrouded in secrecy, controversy and speculation. His boxing career was plagued by rumored ties with the mob and two highly questionable losses to Muhammad Ali. In between all of that chaos and confusion, Charles “Sonny” Liston was one of the most feared, powerful and dominant fighters to ever lace them up.
Sonny led a troubled, tumultuous life, but that’s part of what has made him an enigmatic figure in boxing. He was, in fact, larger than life. Physically, he was an imposing heavyweight. First, he possessed an 84" reach, second only to heavyweight giant Primo Carnera's. He had a massive 18" neck and huge fists that measured 15" around. All of that sat on top of two tree-trunk, thick, muscled legs that used to generate enormous punching power. His physicality was matched only by his equally menacing demeanor. Abused as a child (the 24th of 25), hounded by the law, demonized by critics and forced to pound his way into boxing's elite, Sonny understandably carried some hate with him. If not in his heart, certainly his head. This extra incentive to prove himself made Liston that much more dangerous and imposing. It was with that commanding frame and ferocity that Sonny tore through the division's best for nine years, dismantling Cleveland Williams, Nino Valdez and Zora Folley on his way to the claim the heavyweight title.
Every step of the way and with every dominating performance, those in power tried to keep him out of the heavyweight spotlight and away from title contention. With most of his prime years behind him, and only after he had absolutely demolished every other leading contender, then and only then, did Floyd Patterson and Cus D'Amato run out of options and ultimately agree to give Liston a shot at Patterson’s title. Patterson was subsequently stopped in the first round of their championship bout and then again in the very first round of their rematch.
Next is where it really gets ugly, but if you’re talking about Liston’s ability, you can forget about the Ali fights. There was more going on in those outings than anyone may ever get to the bottom of. They reek of religious influences, scrupulous associations and dark undertones. Cast those aside and you are left with a legacy of one of the best fighters to ever live.
Consider this: as an up-and-coming fighter, Liston faced Johnny Summerlin, who had an 18-1 record in only his fourth professional fight. He squared-off against only three guys, in his entire career, who had losing records. In all of his 54 fights, he faced legitimate, formidable opposition. After the Ali fights Liston fought 16 more times, winning all but one of those outings. History and casual fans have all but forgotten those fights.
At nearly every turn of his life and boxing career, Sonny was shunned, shut out and shot down and yet he still managed to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Given the opportunity and a "fair shake” you can only imagine what Charles "Sonny" Liston might have been. He might have been the best, most fearsome heavyweight ever. Instead, he died an early death, shrouded in mystery, controversy and intrigue. It was an end that ironically mirrored his entire life.
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