Charles Liston (May 8, 1932-January 51971), better known in the boxing world as Sonny Liston was a boxer who became world Heavyweight champion, and whose life and personality were always obscure. As a boxer, his nickname was The Big Bear.
Liston was in jail, accused of robbery, when his boxing talent was discovered by a Catholic priest. Hoping for a better future, Liston engaged in the sport on his release. On Halloween night of 1952, he was paroled, and during a brief amateur career that spanned less than a year, he won several awards.
Liston made his professional debut on September 2, 1953, knocking out Don Smith in the first round in St. Louis, where he campaigned for the first five fights of his career. In his sixth bout, in Detroit, Michigan, he faced John Summerlin, who was 22-1, on national television. Liston won a narrow eight round decision. In his next bout he beat Summerlin in a rematch, and then, he suffered his first defeat, at the hands of Marty Marshall on another eight round decision, also in Detroit.
A rubber match with Marshall in 1956 saw him the winner by a ten round decision, but in May of that year, he ran afoul of the law once again, when he beat up a cop in an incident that was unclear, many rumors and allegations of how it happened coming into the public light. He was forced to stay away from boxing during 1957 while serving a nine month sentence. He was paroled after six months in jail.
In 1958, he returned to boxing and began slowly but steadily raising the quality of his opponents. He won eight fights that year, including one over Ernie Cab, and accused the top heavyweights of the era of dodging him.
1959 was a good year for Liston. He knocked out Mike DeJohn in six, number one rated challenger Cleveland Williams (who would later challenge for the world title) in three and Nino Valdez in three. In total, he fought four times, winning all of them by knockout.
In 1962, Liston signed to meet world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson for the title. The fight was going to be held in New York, but New York's commission denied him a license because his suspension was still in force. As a result the fight moved to Chicago, where it was agreed that the fight would be held as soon as the suspension was lifted. Liston and Patterson met on September 25 of that year, and Liston became world champion by knocking out Patterson in the first round.
During his time as a world champion, rumors of Liston's connections with members of the underworld and gamblers were common. These rumors would be strengthened later on in his life. Nevertheless, Liston enjoyed the kind of fame he could never dreamt of: He was a household name, appeared on the cover of Ring Magazine and even made a television commercial for airline TWA.
Patterson and Liston signed up for a rematch, to be held in 1963, on the evening of July 22 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This time the fight lasted exactly four seconds longer than the original fight, Liston once again the winner.
Liston did not box again that year, and in 1964, he met a young contender named Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) on the evening of February 25 in Miami, Florida. During training for the fight, Liston was taunted mercilessly by Ali, who alleged to his corner that Liston blinded him in the third round using an unknown substance smeared on his gloves. No evidence was found to substantiate the allegations, and Liston lost his title when he quit in his corner before the start of the seventh round, after dislocating his shoulder.
Liston's next fight was a rematch with Ali. It proved to be the event that overshadowed the rest of his life. The fight was held in a small high school gym in Lewiston, Maine, before 1,254 paying customers. It was the smallest crowd ever for a world heavyweight championship bout, but it was telecast nationwide, and Liston lost by a knockout in the first round. The punch with which Ali knocked out Liston became known as The Phantom Punch because it was barely visible, even when it was shown in slow motion. Rumors that Liston threw away the fight as a way of repaying a debt to gamblers would taint Liston's reputation in the years ahead. However, no concrete evidence of these allegations were found.
Liston took one year off from boxing, returning in 1966 and 1967, winning four bouts in a row in Sweden, including one over Amos Johnson. In 1968, he won seven fights, all by knockout, including one in Mexico.
In 1969, he had three wins and one loss. Among his wins was a 10 round decision over Billy Joiner at St. Louis, but in his last bout of that year, he lost by a knockout in nine to Leotis Martin at Las Vegas.
Liston seemed to be ready to mount another comeback in 1970, having beaten future Ali world title challenger Chuck Wepner (who also became Sylvester Stallone's inspiration for him to write the first Rocky movie), by a knockout in ten, However, on the evening of December 30 of that year, police found him dead in his apartment, with a syringe in his arm. Just as in life, Liston's death proved mysterious: The police declared it a drug overdose. However, his friends said he had a phobia of needles, prompting some rumors that he could have been murdered by some of his underworld contacts.
Liston's image appears on The Beatles's album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, several books about his life have been published, and his life has also been documented on TV documentaries and even a TV movie.