Not pleased with the company Liston was keeping—one of his pals was 385-pound Barney Baker, a reputed head cracker for the Teamsters—the St. Louis police kept stopping Liston, on sight and without cause, until, on May 5, 1956, 3½ years after his release from prison, Liston assaulted a St. Louis policeman, took his gun, left the cop lying in an alley and hid the weapon at a sister's house. The officer suffered a broken knee and gashed face. The following December, Liston began serving nine months in the city workhouse.
Soon after his release Liston had his second run-in with a St. Louis cop. The officer had creased Liston's skull with a nightstick, and two weeks later the fighter returned the favor by depositing the fellow headfirst in a trash can. Liston then tied St. Louis for Philadelphia, where Palermo installed one of his pals, Joseph (Pep) Barone, as Liston's manager, and Liston at once began fighting the biggest toughs in the division. He stopped Bethea, who spit out seven teeth, in the first round. Valdes fell in three, and so did Williams. Harris swooned in one, and Policy fell like a tree in three. Eddie Machen ran for 12 rounds but lost the decision. Albert Westphal keeled in one. Now Liston had one final fight to win. Only Patterson stood between him and the title.
Whether or not Patterson should deign to fight the ex-con led, at the time, to a weighty moral debate among the nation's reigning sages of sport. What sharpened the lines were Liston's recurring problems with the law in Philadelphia, including a variety of charges stemming from a June 1961 incident in Fairmount Park. Liston and a companion had been arrested for stopping a female motorist after dark and shining a light in her car. All charges, including impersonating a police officer, were eventually dropped. A month before, Liston had been brought in for loitering on a street corner. That charge too was dropped. More damaging were revelations that he was, indeed, a mob fighter, with a labor goon's history. In 1960, when Liston was the No. 1 heavyweight contender, testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee probing underworld control of boxing had revealed that Carbo and Palermo together owned a majority interest in him. Of this, Liston said, he knew nothing. "Pep Barone handles me," he said.
"Do you think that people like [Carbo and Palermo] ought to remain in the sport of boxing?" asked the committee chairman, Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver.
"I wouldn't pass judgment on no one," Liston replied. "I haven't been perfect myself."
In an act of public cleansing after the Fairmount Park incident, Liston spent three months living in a house belonging to the Loyola Catholic Church in Denver, where he had met Father Edward Murphy, a Jesuit priest, while training to fight Folley in 1960. Murphy, who died in 1975, became Liston's spiritual counselor and teacher. "Murph gave him a house to live in and tried to get him to stop drinking," Father Thomas Kelly, one of Murphy's closest friends, recalls. "That was his biggest problem. You could smell him in the mornings. Oh, poor Sonny. He was just an accident waiting to happen. Murph used to say, 'Pray for the poor bastard.' "
But even Liston's sojourn in Denver didn't still the debate over his worthiness to fight for the title. In this bout between good and evil, the clearest voice belonged to New York Herald-Tribune columnist Red Smith: "Should a man with a record of violent crime be given a chance to become champion of the world? Is America less sinful today than in 1853 when John Morrissey, a saloon brawler and political head-breaker out of Troy, N.Y., fought Yankee Sullivan, lamister from the Australian penal colony in Botany Bay? In our time, hoodlums have held championships with distinction. Boxing may be purer since their departure; it is not healthier."
Since he could not read, Liston missed many pearls, but friends read scores of columns to him. When Bar-one was under fire for his mob ties, Liston quipped, "I got to get me a manager that's not hot—like Estes Kefauver." Instead, he got George Katz, who quickly came to appreciate Liston's droll sense of humor. Katz managed Liston for 10% of his purses, and as the two sat in court at Liston's hearing for the Fairmount Park incident, Liston leaned over to Katz and said, "If I get time, you're entitled to 10 percent of it."
Liston was far from the sullen, insensitive brute of the popular imagination. Liston and McKinney would take long walks between workouts, and during them Liston would recite the complete dialogue and sound effects of the comedy routines of black comedians like Pigmeat Markham and Redd Foxx. "He could imitate what he heard, down to creaking doors and women's voices," says McKinney. "It was hilarious hearing him do falsetto."
Liston also fabricated quaint metaphors to describe phenomena ranging from brain damage to the effects of his jab: "The middle of a fighter's forehead is like a dog's tail. Cut off the tail and the dog goes all which way 'cause he ain't got no more balance, It's the same with a fighter's forehead."