On the afternoon of Sept. 27, 1962, Liston boarded a flight from Chicago to Philadelphia. He settled into a seat next to his friend Jack McKinney, an amateur fighter who was then a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. This was the day Liston had been waiting forever since he first laced on boxing gloves, at the Missouri State Penitentiary a decade earlier. Forty-eight hours before, he had bludgeoned Patterson to become heavyweight champion. Denied a title fight for years, barred from New York City rings as an undesirable, largely ignored in his adopted Philadelphia, Liston suddenly felt vindicated, redeemed. In fact, before leaving the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago, he had received word from friends that the people of Philadelphia were awaiting his triumphant return with a ticker-tape parade.
The only disquieting tremor had been some other news out of Philadelphia, relayed to him by telephone from friends back home, that Daily News sports editor Larry Merchant had written a column confirming Liston's worst fears about how his triumph might be received. Those fears were based upon the ruckus that had preceded the fight. The New York Times's Arthur Daley had led the way: "Whether Patterson likes it or not, he's stuck with it. He's the knight in shining armor battling the forces of evil."
Now wrote Merchant: ""So it is true—in a fair fight between good and evil, evil must win.... A celebration for Philadelphia's first heavyweight champ is now in order. Emily Post probably would recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti we can use shredded warrants of arrest."
The darkest corner of Liston's personality was his lack of a sense of self. All the signs from his past pointed the same way and said the same thing: dead end. He was the 24th of 25 children fathered by Tobey Liston, a tenant cotton farmer who lived outside Forrest City, Ark. Tobey had two families, one with L5 children and the other with 10; Charles was born ninth to his mother, Helen. Outside the ring, he battled his whole life against writers who suggested that he was older than he claimed he was. "Maybe they think I'm so old because I never was really young," he said. Usually he would insist he was born on May 8, 1932, in the belly of the Great Depression, and he growled at reporters who dared to doubt him on this: "Anybody who says I'm not 30 is calling my momma a liar."
"Sonny was so sensitive on the issue of his age because he did not really know how old he was," says McKinney. "When guys would write that he was 32 going on 50, it had more of an impact on him than anybody realized. Sonny didn't know who he was. He was looking for an identity, and he thought that being the champion would give him one."
Now that moment had arrived. During the flight home, McKinney says. Liston practiced the speech he was going to give when the crowds greeted him at the airport. Says McKinney, who took notes during the flight: "He used me as a sort of test auditor, dry-running his ideas by me."
Liston was excited, emotional, eager to begin his reign. "There's a lot of things I'm gonna do." he told McKinney. "But one thing's very important: I want to reach my people. I want to reach them and tell them. "You don't have to worry about me disgracin' you. You won't have to worry about me stoppin' your progress.' I want to go to colored churches and colored neighborhoods. I know it was in the papers that the better class of colored people were hopin' I'd lose, even prayin' I'd lose, because they was afraid I wouldn't know how to act.... I remember one thing so clear about listenin' to Joe Louis fight on the radio when I was a kid. I never remember a fight the announcer didn't say about Louis, 'A great fighter and a credit to his race.' Remember? That used to make me feel real proud inside.
"I don't mean to be sayin' I'm just gonna be the champion of my own people," Liston continued. "It says now I'm the world's champion, and that's just the way it's gonna be. I want to go to a lot of places—like orphan homes and reform schools. I'll be able to say, 'Kid, I know it's tough for you, and it might even get tougher. But don't give up on the world. Good things can happen if you let them.' "
Liston was ready. As the plane rolled to a stop, he rose and walked to the door. McKinney was next to him. The staircase was wheeled to the door. Liston straightened his tie and his fedora. The door opened, and he stepped outside. There was no one there except for airline workers, a few reporters and photographers and a handful of p.r. men. "Other than those, no one," recalls McKinney. "I watched Sonny. His eyes swept the whole scene. He was extremely intelligent, and he understood immediately what it meant. His Adam's apple moved slightly. You could feel the deflation, see the look of hurt in his eyes. It was almost like a silent shudder went through him. He'd been deliberately snubbed.
"Philadelphia wanted nothing to do with him. Sonny felt, after he won the title, that the past was forgiven. It was going to be a whole new world. What happened in Philadelphia that day was a turning point in his life. He was still the bad guy. He was the personification of evil. And that's the way it was going to remain. He was devastated. I knew from that point on that the world would never get to know the Sonny that I knew."