Charles “Sonny” Liston was born on May 8, 1932, in Sand Slough, Arkansas. He was the 24th of 25 children by a sharecropper named Tobe Liston, and one of ten by Tobe’s wife Helen. Sonny received little in the way of schooling and was essentially illiterate all his life.
When his mother left his father and moved to St. Louis in 1946, Sonny ran away from home and joined her. As a teenager he participated in an armed robbery of a gas station and was sentenced to prison where his talent for boxing was discovered by a Catholic priest and it ultimately resulted in an early parole.
Liston turned professional on September 2, 1953, and promptly won a first round knockout in his first fight. Standing 6’ 1 ½”, weighing 215 pounds, and possessing a long reach, powerful jab, knockout power in either hand and a nasty scowl, he was an extraordinarily intimidating fighter. He quickly compiled an impressive record.
His boxing career was interrupted in 1957 when he returned to jail for nine months after beating up a St. Louis police officer. A year later, two main mafia figures, Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, purchased majority shares into his fight contract. Sonny fought 12 contests while under their control. During this time he defeated many top heavyweight contenders including Cleveland Williams, Nino Valdes, Zora Folley, and Eddie Machen to put himself into contention for a shot at the title. Liston got that shot when he faced heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in Chicago on September 25, 1962. Liston captured the title with a crushing first round knockout.
Liston defended his crown in February of 1964 against a cocky young heavyweight challenger named Cassius Clay and shockingly lost when he claimed he was unable to continue for the seventh round due to an injured shoulder.
He was granted a rematch with the new champion, who had adopted the name Muhammad Ali, on May 25, 1965, but suffered a first round knockout. The two losses to Ali forever tarnished Sonny’s reputation. He fought for another six and a half years, finishing with a career mark of 50 wins (39 by knockout), and four losses. Sonny Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971, by his wife Geraldine, who had been out of town; coroners determined he had died at least a week earlier. His true cause of death remains a mystery.