Title: The Murder of Sonny Liston
Rating: 4 Stars
A true crime story involving the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. He died in 1970 under very mysterious circumstances. He was dead for five days before his wife, who was visiting relatives, came home and found his body. His wife waited several hours before calling the police. He was a known drug user and drug paraphernalia was found near him, but he had a phobia about needles and would have never injected himself. The medical examiner ruled his death of natural causes. He claimed that Liston died of a rare heart condition that usually only affects women or diabetics, of which he was neither (and the coroner was new to his job and not an expert on heart diseases to boot).
All that is interesting, but is not really what the book is about. The probability of solving a 45 year old mystery is pretty slim, and, spoiler alert, the author does not solve it here.
What is interesting is the milieu in which Liston lived.
First of all, there’s his life story. He was born the son of a sharecropper, in a part of Arkansas that was so poor that birth certificates weren’t even required until the 1960’s. Therefore, he didn’t even know how old he was. He would give various answers when pressed. He finally settled on 1932, which would make him 38 when he died. He always seemed older than that and Assael claimed in the book that he was closer to 50. However, given the fact that he didn’t show up in the census in 1930 and in the 1940 census he shows up as being 10 years old, that claim seems not to hold merit (and was one of the reasons that I docked him a bit in the rating; if he got that wrong, what else did he fudge over?).
His father brutally beat him. His mother moved away to St Louis when Liston was 13, and he joined her shortly after. He tried to go to school but he was so far behind that he quit. He was essentially illiterate his entire life.
He fell in with criminals and committed muggings and robberies. He was eventually caught and sent to state prison. While in prison, he took up boxing and discovered he had a talent for it.
He was paroled and became a professional boxer. Since he was a large, intimidating black man, he was constantly harassed by police. One of the reasons that he probably ended up enjoying Las Vegas, his final home, was the fact that the Las Vegas police, themselves notoriously corrupt, protected him.
He defeated Floyd Patterson and then defeated him again in a rematch. Ultimately he lost to Muhammad Ali and then lost to him again in a fight widely believed to be fixed. In fact, there is a rumor that Liston struck a deal with the Nation of Islam to take a fall in exchange for a cut of Ali’s future earnings. At the point of his death in 1970, the first Frasier / Ali fight was being scheduled, with a multi-million dollar payout for both fighters. Liston was going around claiming that he was going to get a cut of that fight, although no evidence exists that such a deal was made.
Pretty much up to his death, he was still fighting or planning to fight. At his death, even if we assume his age of 38, he was still considered a top fighter.
One thing that was surprising to me was the life of boxers after boxing. Both Liston and Joe Louis, who is without a doubt considered to be one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time, were living in Las Vegas and were close friends. Both of them occasionally lent themselves out as enforcers to gamblers or drug dealers looking to collect money owed. It blows my mind to think of Joe Louis, a true legend, hanging out with a drug dealer, threatening deadbeats for probably some small fee.
Similarly, both Louis and Liston were addicted to heroin. In the months before his death, Liston began to take on the hollow, shaky appearance of a junky. Louis, if anything, was even worse off. He became paranoid and delusional, blocking off vents to keep radioactive waves from getting to him. You think of how fit boxers must be to be able to take/give out punishment, it seems shocking that they would become heroin addicts, especially since Liston was, at least until he got into a serious car accident shortly before his death, still shooting for another title shot.
Las Vegas was truly a seedy town in those days. The Las Vegas cops were on the take. The county cops were on the take. The casino owners and their employees (eg managers and dealers) were members of organized crime. Police would regularly arrest drug dealers, confiscate their drugs, and then sell the drugs to the casinos for them to give to their high rollers.
There was rampant racism where the black community was completely isolated to one part of the town and, if they dared cross it, they would either be arrested/assaulted by the police or attacked by the whites. Liston, only with his fame, was able to live in the white area.
Las Vegas was a cesspool of corruption. In this cesspool, Liston was not only taking drugs but also dealing them.
It’s within this context that his alleged murder took place. Who could have done it? There were any number of suspects. Was it the casino owner who was under investigation by the feds and was worried that Liston would roll over on him? Was it the ex-hero cop now turned criminal who was ordered to take him out? Was it the Nation of Islam ordering a hit to deprive Liston of future earnings? Was it the snitch who seemed to know everything but whose stories never quite added up?
Who knows? The author certainly doesn’t? Which is unfortunate, but not that surprising.
If you want a true crime noir with all of the grit and seediness, you can certainly do worse than reading about Liston’s troubled life.