"This is a song for the one who is doomed a blow to the heart that breaks the mind." - Aeschylus
Charles "Sonny" Liston was the baddest man on the planet. He was the 24th of 25 children fathered by Tobe Liston, who beat him so unmercifully that he had deep scars on his back from whip marks. He claimed that he was born in 1932 but he was probably years older than he claimed. Neither he nor his family knew his true age. At the end of a line of 25 children information blurred and was easily lost. No one cared enough about Sonny to bother remembering. The facts of his origins were lost in time and the humanity in Sonny was lost with them. Although he was born after slavery was abolished, he had the marks of a slave and was treated like one his whole life. Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo of the New York Lucchese mob family owned over half of the stock in Sonny Liston. Palermo was the biggest bookmaker in Philadelphia and a top associate of Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno. Although only five feet tall, Palermo was an extortionist and known for his brutality. Frankie Carbo was the brains behind the fight fixing game. They eventually were jailed for their roles as underground fight promoters and for fixing fights. Sonny Liston was indebted financially to these two gangsters. Having two Mafia hoodlums for de facto managers guaranteed that a usually unruly Sonny Liston would do as he was told, including taking a dive in his two fights against Cassius Clay aka Mohammed Ali. Liston was frightening and unbeatable, despite severe problems with alcohol and eventually heroin. A natural right-handed fighter, he fought left handed to confuse his opponents. In 1964, the poet Leroi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka) described the fear that Sonny Liston inspired: "Sonny Liston was a big black Negro in every white man's hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under." He described him as "the bad nigger, the heavy faced replica of every whipped-up woogie in the world." Sonny was not a role model. Sonny was the ultimate outlaw in a narrow-lapelled sharkskin suit, an illiterate strong-arm man whose only access to money came from beating it out of people. He was as feared and hated by blacks as well as whites. But he wasn't hated by me. I admired him as much as I feared him. I remember seeing him interviewed on television at the age of five and being frightened just listening to him growl. Once Palermo became his manager, Sonny moved to Philadelphia. He was harassed by the police to such a degree that he moved to Denver once he became champ. He said, "I would rather be a light post in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia." My friend Harold Bennett expresses a similar sentiment. On several occasions Harold has said that life in Philadelphia was so hard for a black man in the early sixties that he felt safer in Vietnam during the war than he did in his own neighborhood in South Philadelphia. Liston was in line for a title shot with Floyd Patterson but Patterson's management postponed the inevitable as long as they could. For one thing they suspected that Sonny might kill him in the ring. For another, the public and political leaders feared (these ranks included the president John F. Kennedy) that a loss by an intelligent, well spoken representative of the Civil Rights movement to a brutal thug, an illiterate ex-con with Mafia connections would adversely reflect on the movement itself. When Liston was asked by the press why he didn't go down south to march with Dr. Martin Luther King in Civil Rights demonstrations, he explained, "Because I ain't got a dog-proof ass." Finally Floyd Patterson could hide from Sonny Liston no longer. Liston was a 7-1 favorite. In the first fight, Liston knocked Patterson out in two minutes and five-seconds to become the Heavyweight Champion of the World. In the rematch Patterson lasted just four-seconds longer. I refuse to discuss the bouts that he had with Clay/Ali except that they were both farces, no doubt engineered by his crooked management. The fact of the matter is that Sonny Liston was the toughest son of a bitch on the planet. He was universally despised and brutalized since birth. He had no options but to be anything other than what he was. His skill set was limited to his ability to serve punishment upon any man that had the audacity to face him. WIthout boxing he would have had to become a full-time criminal. Despite what people wanted in a Heavyweight Champ, to their horror they got Sonny Liston. His persona was out of step with the times but he was the best fighter on the planet. Charles "Sonny" Liston was the embodiment of anarchy, inside and outside of the ring.