In part 1 of a two-part feature, LIAM NOLAN recalls the life and career of one of the meanest heavyweight fighters of all time
For me, one of the saddest things about the Sonny Liston story is that a lot of the despicable things written and said about him were based on fact.
But a great deal of the stuff they peddled about him was vicious, racist, inaccurate, and cheap shot.
Little of that vile stuff has ever been taken back, or apologised for, since his death in 1970. I think that’s disgraceful.
You may think I’m stretching things too far in summoning Shakespeare in trying to make a case for Liston. I don’t think so. I turn to the Mark Anthony speech from Julius Caesar, the one in which he says, “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”
The evil that Sonny Liston did certainly lives after him — but was good interred with his bones? His wife Geraldine said, “He was a great guy, great with me, great with kids, a gentle man.”
And a priest named Father Murphy flew from Denver to Las Vegas to give the eulogy at Sonny’s funeral. Father Murphy wept for an hour afterwards before he could talk about it.
“They had the funeral procession down the Strip,” he said. “Can you imagine that?… They used him all his life. They were still using him on the way to the cemetery… another Las Vegas show. God help us.”
Sonny Liston started out in life with about a 1% chance of becoming a normal citizen. Nevertheless he won the World Heavyweight title in 1962, by knocking out the champion, Floyd Patterson in 2 minutes and 6 seconds of the first round of their fight in Chicago.
On the plane back to his adopted home city, Philadelphia, the following day, he said, “It was in the papers that the better class of coloured people were hopin’ I’d lose, even prayin’ I’d lose… I want to go to orphanages and reform schools and say, ‘Kid, don’t give up on the world. Good things can happen if you let them.’”
As a boy he had listened to radio broadcasts of Joe Louis fights, and he remembered announcers always saying of Louis, “A great fighter and a credit to his race. That used to make me feel real proud inside.”
On the plane he worked out a little speech for when the plane landed. “There’ll be thousands there to welcome you,” his friends assured him.
When they opened the plane’s door at Philadelphia Airport and Sonny stepped out, there was NO welcoming crowd — just a few airline workers and a couple of newspapermen.