On December 30, 1970, Charles “Sonny” Liston (1932-1970) died at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada at the age of thirty-eight. His body was discovered six days later by his wife Geraldine when she returned home from a trip out-of-state with Liston’s son Daniel. It was first suspected that Liston, a known user of heroin, had overdosed. But it was later declared by the coroner’s office that he died of natural causes. To this day it is the official cause of death. The late Liston is remembered as one of the greatest boxers to ever grace a ring. His battles in and out of the ring with Muhammad Ali are some of boxing’s most entertaining moments. Although Liston lacked the personality of Ali or the flair of Floyd Mayweather, Jr., he was feared in the ring as a powerhouse of a brawler unafraid to go in and demolish whoever stood in front of him. His personality in the ring was a direct reflection of his personality outside the ring in a life full of twist, turns and ultimately tragedy. Shaun Assael recounts the short and tragic life of Liston and his death which he believes was in fact a homicide that was wrongly classified at the time of Liston’s death.
Las Vegas is known as the City of Sin and the places where secrets remain after visitors have made their destinations back home. But for those who live in or near Vegas, the lure of casinos, fame, glory, drugs and a fast life are sometimes too great of a temptation to resist. For Liston, the question that always remains is why was he drawn to the dark side of Vegas to begin with? His successes in the ring earned him a spot in boxing history and with a good financial advisor, he could have put his earnings towards good use. But as we learn in the book, Liston suffered from the same problem that plagued a number of African-American athletes during those times, he was functionally illiterate and immersed in a boxing world controlled by crooked managers and dark figures from the criminal underworld. In fact, boxing was so infiltrated by crime figures, that Liston himself once appeared before the famed Este Kefauver to answer questions about the organized crime influence in professional boxing. The mafia, fast women, drugs and money engulfed Liston in one of America’s fastest cities that has claimed the lives of many including the late Tupac Shakur (1971-1996).
As a former heavyweight champion, Liston enjoyed many privileges in the City of Sin. But those privileges came with a price, a heavy one that eventually claimed his life. His actions and the situations that developed are sometimes unbelievable. But they also highlight the mindset Liston was in as his addiction to heroin grew and his grip on reality slipped. A lifestyle such as Liston’s typically results in a few conclusions and death is one of them. His demons stayed with him throughout his life all the way up until his last moments on that tragic December night. But for all of his mistakes and untimely end, his accomplishments remain as an example of a rags to riches story common in America. As one of 24 children, he rose to stardom with literally nothing but the clothes on his back. An arrest and time in prison became a blessing in disguise that launched him onto the path that became his life’s calling. But Liston’s brutish personality and addiction to things that served no good purpose in his life became the foundation for the house of cards that eventually collapsed. Nevertheless, Liston remains an icon and one of boxing’s all-time greats. Assael has provided yet another crucial look into the life and death of the great Sonny Liston.