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Born May 8, 1932 with "dead man's eyes'' on a cotton plantation in northeast Arkansas, Sonny Liston was one of 25 brothers and sisters. He never attended school and was beaten regularly by his father. Liston became a dark and violent man, ending up behind bars for robbery by the time he was 18.
In jail he was introduced to boxing and despite continued run ins with the law, he became world champion in 1962. Liston defeated Floyd Patterson, knocking him out in the first round to become the world champion, the public's distaste for him was palpable. When the time for the rematch came, Liston was booed and hissed as if he was evil itself. Liston knocked out Patterson again in the first round after knocking him down twice in a mere two minutes, 23 seconds. Supposedly an onlooker remarked, "Patterson told everybody he would do better this time and he did. He lasted four seconds longer."
Liston posted a career record of 50 wins to four losses with 39 knockouts. Unfortunately, his infamous loss to Mohammad Ali in the world title rematch led many to believe that the mob men who had controlled Liston throughout his career had finally forced him to take the sort of dives that no boxer can recover from.
Liston made Vegas his home from 1966. Liston was a heavy drinker, favouring J&B whiskey and frequent visitor to casinos. In the late '60s, he spent much of his time shooting craps with his hero, former heavyweight champ Joe Louis.
On January 5, 1971, after being unable to reach Liston for 12 days, his wife Geraldine returned to their Nevada home at which time discovered Listons dead body. The official cause of death was lung congestion and heart failure, although Liston had fresh needle marks on his arm and police discovered heroin and a syringe in the house. Liston was buried in Paradise Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas beneath a simple gravestone with the epitaph "A Man."
The great Muhammad Ali was renowned for baiting Liston pre-fight and tells the following story.
I spotted Liston in a casino shooting craps, went over and took some of Sonnys craps without asking. Suddenly, Liston froze me with that look of his. He said real quiet, "Lets go on over here" and he led the way to a table. I aint going to lie. This was the only time since I have known Sonny Liston that he really scared me. I just felt the power and the meanness of the man I was messing with. Anybody tell me about how he has fought cops and beat tough thugs and all of that, I believe it. I saw that streak in him when he told me, "Get the hell out of here or I will wipe you out."
What did you do?
I got the hell out of there...