The Murder of Sonny Liston

Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights
“Illuminating” – The Boston Globe, Best Books of 2016

Las Vegas, 1970: Elvis Presley is playing two shows a night at the International. Howard Hughes is running his empire from the penthouse suite of the Desert Inn. And middle-America is flocking to The Strip, transforming it from an exclusive playground for the mob to a mecca for corporate dollars. But the city is also rotting from within. Heroin is pouring over the border from Mexico and the segregated Westside is on the cusp of a race war. The cops, brutally violent, are barely holding it together.

Driving through town with the top of his pink Cadillac down, Sonny Liston is the one celebrity who’s unafraid to bridge both worlds. Cashing in on his fading notoriety in the casinos, he is also dealing drugs, working as an enforcer for a crime syndicate, and trying to break into Hollywood as an action star. Along the way, he has a boxer’s faith that he can duck any threat, slip any punch. Heroin addiction is the only knockout punch he doesn’t see coming.

UK Version

On January 5, 1971, Liston was found dead in his home, with heroin in his blood, from what Las Vegas police speculated was a drug overdose. But Liston’s closest friends never believed that he accidentally OD’d. They believed he was murdered. In the decades since, a cottage industry of theories has hung over his death. But none have been substantiated.

By digging deep into the life Liston tried hard to hide, investigative journalist Shaun Assael treats Liston’s death as a cold case. The result is a page-turning whodunit that evokes a glorious and grimy era of Las Vegas, based on police records and original interviews with cops and politicians who worked in Vegas at the time–including a key suspect who was accused of killing Liston, and who offers up his own theory about who did it. The Murder of Sonny Liston takes a fresh look at the legendary boxer, and the town he called home, getting to the bottom of one of America’s most enduring mysteries.

Writing with the flair of a mystery writer and the attention to detail of an investigative journalist, Assael dissects the suspicious death of former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston…The engrossing depiction of Sin City’s corrupt cops, malevolent mobsters, and drug dens follows in the footsteps of Nick Tosches’s The Devil and Sonny Liston…Assael’s journey into the seedy underworld of the Las Vegas’s past is worth the ride.
Publishers Weekly

As tough and pounding as its subject, this is the send-off Sonny Liston deserved. Only read it if you’re interested in crime, Vegas, and boxing, or the complications of being human.
Robert Lipsyte, The Contender and An Accidental Sportswriter

Mobsters, casino moguls, degenerate gamblers, junkies, strung out fighters, drug dealers, crooked cops and coke-head judges all play a role in The Murder of Sonny Liston. Shaun Assael has delved deeper into Liston’s mysterious death than anybody and come up with sensational results. Investigative reporting at its finest.
Nigel Collins, former editor-in-chief of The Ring magazine and 2015 inductee to the International Boxing Hall of Fame

Drugs, booze, gambling, fixed fights. Casino moguls, crooked cops, mob bosses. The Murder of Sonny Liston has it all. Investigative reporter Shaun Assael’s account of the death and life of one of boxing’s biggest and saddest characters crackles with drama, tension, and suspense. It’s part The Wire, part Chinatown, part The Professional—but unlike those works of fiction, all remarkably true.
Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic

Shaun Assael delves into Las Vegas at the turn of the 70s and uncovers a thrilling mystery. Leave it to Sonny Liston to emerge as its larger-than-life anti-hero.
Nick Pileggi, author of Wiseguy and Casino


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In this excerpt from the book, Shaun Assael recounts the day in 1982 when a sergeant in the Las Vegas police force got a strange tip that set in motion a new round of questions.

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Hang Up and Listen to this podcast with Stefan Fatsis

Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca discuss the first five games of the World Series. They also interview Shaun Assael about The Murder of Sonny Liston and talk about the Kabaddi World Cup with writer Jemayel Khawaja and Team USA’s Kevin Hustle.

Episode air date: October 31, 2016

On the Death of Sonny Liston
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Before his death, Sonny starred in Moonfire (1970), an action adventure film about truckers battling a Nazi hiding in Mexico. Below is adapted from a poster and magazine spread.

Moonfire-PosterCharles “Sonny” Liston, an actor? Wipe that grin off your face. The late “Big Bear,” doesn’t attempt Hamlet, but he doesn’t need to, for in MOONFIRE, the late ex-Heavyweight Champion of the World plays a black man very much like himself.

The part of “The Farmer” was custom designed for Sonny Liston. For those who didn’t know him, they will be more than pleasantly surprised at Sonny’s humor which came from a heart as big as the big man himself.

MOONFIRE was Sonny Liston’s first — and last — dramatic role in a motion picture. His part as “The Farmer” is a fitting tribute to the man so few people knew.

Moonfire-Sonny-BioListon could scowl as hard as any man in — or out — of the ring, and, of course, he invented the “big stare” that gave his fifty losing opponents in the professional ring cause for alarm. And, in MOONFIRE, Liston had more than one opportunity to revive the memories of his many years in the ring.

But Sonny’s humor, warmth and smile, known only to those close to him, also come to lie in his role as “The Farmer.” The audience can now share a part of The Man who was all-too-human out of the ring and off the screen.

Sonny Liston’s untimely death at the age of thirty-eight came just three weeks after the final scenes of MOONFIRE were shot. He never got to see himself on the screen, a double tragedy because in MOONFIRE, he isn’t just Sonny Liston the fighter, he’s Sonny Liston the actor–and one you’ll remember for a long time.