My uncle Sam was a pit boss in Reno. He met Sonny Liston once, and as they shook hands Liston said icily, "Every time I shake hands with one of you white [expletive], I lose money." That grim exchange, and whatever film I saw of him, summed up Sonny Liston for me: a gruff, glowering villain.
"The Devil and Sonny Liston" by Nick Tosches capably fills in the rest of the story. Liston essentially remains to me what he was before I read the book; now, however, I have a better sense of what may have turned Liston into the distant and ultimately tragic figure he became.
Tosches delivers amazing detail on Liston's family history. We find out what plantation Liston's grandfather worked on, but the simple fact of Liston's birth date proves elusive. (As with most biographies, I was overwhelmed by all of the family history. What am I supposed to make of all this information?) I had to re-read pages to keep everything straight. In this case, however, the research is impressive because so little was known about Liston in his lifetime that readers of the book may end up knowing things even Sonny Liston did not know. Or care to know.
Tosches draws on police files, fight tapes, Congressional investigation records and extensive interviews with Liston's family and associates to create a frightening portrait of a doomed man. Liston was born on a plantation and courtesy of his "management" by gangsters in the boxing underworld, was no less than a modern-day slave throughout his career and in the sad, declining years after he left the ring. Liston's mysterious death of a drug overdose in Las Vegas comes as no surprise. As Tosches writes, Liston was "born with dead man's eyes."
"The Devil and Sonny Liston" is also a probing look into boxing, the mob and American culture in the post-World War II era. Tosches' refresher course on the origins of the IBC is particularly revealing. The entrenched corruption that has pushed boxing to the margins of American sport is rooted in the very men who controlled Sonny Liston's rise and fall. Underworld characters like Blinky Palermo, Frankie Carbo and Big Barney Baker are as essential to Liston's story as Chuck Wepner, Floyd Patterson and Cassius Clay.
The last third of the book deals with the end of Liston's boxing career, including a persuasive argument that Liston may have thrown both of his fights with Clay. Tosches asserts Liston was just too unpopular (read menacing) to be champion. He had disposed of Floyd Patterson but the mob would be better served if someone else wore the crown. This part of the story is abstruse but Tosches lays it out clearly while adding new information and a fresh perspective.
It is a strange thing to say about the heavyweight champion of the world, but I felt sorry for Sonny Liston in the end. As Tosches says, "He life began and ended in a blur." He never had a chance.