Judging a book by the author's acknowledgments is a little like judging a fight by a boxer's postmatch interview. What should count in the ring are the punches thrown and taken; in a book it's the research and writing. Still, read the acknowledgments at the end of Tosches's new biography of the troubled and troubling man who held the heavyweight championship from 1962 to '64: "[T]his is a dark tale. It could not be otherwise, as I knew when I took its first breath into me.... In my work on this book, I encountered those who cleared the shadows with light, and those who overcast light with shadow. Enlightenment, enshadowment. Which leads to which? And, in the end, are they one and the same?"
Huh? Perhaps the referee should have stepped in on this one. Tosches, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and the author of well-received biographies of Dean Martin, Mafia financier Michele Sindona and rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, has done some heavyweight research for this book—digging through police files, court documents and congressional testimony and interviewing more than two dozen people who knew Liston and dozens of others familiar with boxing and/or organized crime—but he has also laden his subject with so much sociological and existential baggage that Liston staggers under the weight.
"My boyhood fascination with Sonny Liston," Tosches writes early in the book, "had to do with his being as feared and hated by blacks as by whites. He was the ultimate outlaw.... I knew that there was no other fighter like Sonny Liston. There never had been and there never would be." He proceeds to promise that "the secret history of Sonny Liston...would reveal a soul that, even amid the darkness in which it dwelt, eluded all concepts of good and evil, of right and wrong, of light and dark themselves." That's a lot to ask of a pug, even one of the most fearsome heavyweight champs of all time.
Using an occasionally pretentious jazz-riff prose style to propel his narrative (perhaps emulating Liston, who famously trained to the driving beat of Night Train), Tosches paints a compelling picture of the fighter's early days of poverty in Arkansas, thuggery in St. Louis and eventual confinement in the Missouri state penitentiary. Tosches also provides a gritty portrait of an era in which the mob, led by Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, controlled boxing and, according to the author, Liston's career. When it comes to ring history, however, Tosches tends to swing from the heels—blithely stating, for instance, that Archie Moore took a dive in his 1955 heavyweight title bout against Rocky Marciano. (Never mind that Marciano was the favorite and that Moore decked Marciano and then took a fierce beating before succumbing only in the ninth round of a classic bout.) Tosches also asserts that both of Liston's losses to Muhammad Ali, whom Tosches grumpily dismisses as "tiresome," "trying" and "drably colorful," were fixes. Liston's criminal ties are undeniable, but you can't assume therefore that every time he took a punch it was a sham.
In the end Tosches fails to settle the very mystery he sets out to solve: whether Liston, who was found dead of a drug overdose in his house in Las Vegas on Jan. 5, 1971, was murdered. "The only real mystery is one without an answer," Tosches concludes. "There is only one real cause of death, and that is death." Gosh.
Tosches clearly is a writer with some punch. Too bad he wasted it here on several rounds of enshadowment boxing.