‘The Murder of Sonny Liston: A Story of Fame, Heroin, Boxing and Las Vegas’ by Shaun Assael (2016)

“As time passed, Sonny stayed in the conversation but not as an icon on his own. Eventually he became part of other people’s stories. He was the springboard for Ali, the model for Foreman, the guy who always scared (but not faced) Frazier”

Charles “Sonny” Liston was the 25th of 26 kids who grew up with no birth cert and no prospects.  Boxing became his escape, albeit temporarily, from a life of crime that saw him serve time in prison for assaulting a cop.  His career was dominated by  mob control and overshadowed almost entirely by the emergence of Ali, Foreman and Frazier.

Liston is best know for two things – quitting on his chair in Ali-Liston 1, and being the guy on the canvas in the iconic photo of Ali from Ali-Liston 2. A life defined by defeats rather than the tale of a desperately poor, illiterate kid who became World Champion. A life defined by where he fits in the narrative of other, better remembered figures.

Sonny canvas

I was fascinated by Liston from the first time I saw the classic photo.  I grew more interested when I first read the wonderful King of the World by David Remnick. It led me to Night Train by Nick Tosches which I adored as a teenager for its dark moodiness (whether it holds up particularly well, I’m eager to find out).

Recently published, The Murder of Sonny Liston is part sports book, part true crime, part conspiracy theory.  It looks back at Liston’s life primarily through the time and place – Las Vegas in the early 1970s – of his final few years and the (potential) mystery surrounding his death. Las Vegas is as much the central character as Liston is and the two seem perfect for each other. Assael paints a picture of the various low level mobsters and the even more intriguing cops who tried to either stop them or join them. The book, partiularly the first third, oozes noir – the setting is dark, gritty with the smell of booze, sex and drugs almost wafting through the pages.

This is a mini biography of Liston with a bit about his childhood and more of a focus on the later years of his career – particularly post his fights with Ali. Reading this book without the Liston backstory might leave you a little short as to where he fits in to American life at the time. Assael covers the key points – his lack of a birth cert, his poor education, his status as the ‘bad guy’ morphing into the ‘not as bad as Ali guy” (for white America at least) “trouble-making black man”.  Liston’s mob connections are touched on but the book doesn’t get into detail on how Liston, and much of boxing, ended up controlled by mob.

This picture of Liston’s later years is depressing.  Yet in some ways, Liston had it better than many of his fellow retired prizefighters did. He had a nice house, a wife who tolerated his misdeeds, and he appeared to still have his faculties. He undoubtedly was cheated out of plenty of money, but he didn’t become a shambling wreck despite continuing to fight until he was nearly (probably) 50.

Sonny cover

Overall, The Murder of Sonny Liston, is an enjoyable and entertaining read which loses is way in the final third.  It works better when its about Liston and Vegas than when its about The Murder. There is more on Ali’s return to boxing post suspension than there needs to be, but its always entertaining to read about Ali.

Ultimately the book becomes more crime than sports orientated. As suggested by the title, it becomes more about a death than about a life. The speculation mounts as to whether Liston was actually murdered rather than died of natural causes. Assael builds an interesting but not totally convincing case and lays out the prime suspects.  There is no ‘aha’ moment, no realisation of overlooked evidence.  Just the grim reality that Liston appeared on an inevitable path towards a dark ending.

Some of the conspiracy theories are probably too readily accepted – I just don’t believe the Nation of Islam promised Liston a cut of Ali’s future fights if he threw their second bout.

By the end of the book, its hard not to feel that Assael is more interested in the cops and drug dealer tales from 70’s Vegas than he ever is in Sonny Liston. Even in a book about his death, Liston still becomes simply a part of other people’s stories.

liston ticket

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