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I always had this negative feeling about Sonny Liston, as he had beaten my hero, a man I was too young to ever see fight, but who taught me to box—Floyd Patterson. And Liston’s reputation was never that of a good man, but only of a hard and dangerous man who died in mysterious circumstances perhaps related to his involvement in organized crime.
So I picked up The Murder of Sonny Liston by Shaun Assael, a longtime writer for ESPN, curiously and with trepidation. The reporting Assael weaves together takes us back into the windowless rooms that smell of Vaseline, sweat and leather where fighters hands are taped before gloves are pulled over their fists. You see Las Vegas in the 1960s and early 70s and meet the mobsters and police officers and boxing trainers. Most of all you follow Liston on his violent and tragic ride. Reading this book you feel like you are watching a grainy 1940s film noir whose central character isn’t the hardnosed, yet somehow likable Philip Marlowe, but a despicable thug collecting money for the mob, which is one of the things Liston allegedly did.
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Sonny Liston’s tale should be a compelling, ultimately uplifting, rags-to-riches one; the story of a man who rose from the depths of Depression America to become heavyweight champion of the world. All of the necessary ingredients are all there.
He was one of 25 (no, that’s not an error) children born around 1931 to an Arkansas nut farmer who left to seek a life of crime in St Louis at the age of 14. Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston was illiterate but developed into a powerfulman with huge hands; he would spend time in prison before taking up boxing, turning pro in 1953.
By 1962, Liston was world heavyweight champion, though he was dogged by his apparent association with organised crime and accusations that several of his fights were fixed.
The Murder of Sonny Liston is as far from a rags-to-riches tale as you could get, but it is absolutely compelling…
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