?They passed a lunchroom and observed that there was only one man there and that it looked like an easy spot. Belt took a pistol from under the front seat and gave it to Liston. Liston and Jordan entered the lunchroom, and when Liston took the gun out of his pocket, Jordan grabbed it out of his hand and pointed it at the man behind the counter and said, this is a holdup.
?On January 15, 1950, Negro known as No. 1 man, Charles (Sonny) Liston: robbery first degree, two counts and larceny from a person, two counts: was sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City on each charge, the sentences to run concurrently.
"I didn't mind prison," Liston says. "I figure I had to pay for what I did. No use crying. I should have tried that before I did wrong."
Indeed, Sonny has said the food at Jeff City was the best he had ever eaten, an opinion not shared by his fellow inmates, who rioted in 1954 in protest against the food. The day Sonny was paroled, Monroe Harrison, who subsequently became his co-manager, bought him a chicken dinner as a treat. Monroe recalls that Sonny stared somberly at the chicken. "Why don't you eat it?" Monroe asked. "I don't know how," Sonny said.
Sonny was also delighted with his job in the penitentiary. "I was a runner," he says proudly. "You know, I ran messages or carried clothes to the dry cleaners. I got the job because Father Stevenson was always in my corner." Father Alois Stevens (whom Sonny unaccountably calls Father Stevenson) was perhaps the first beneficial influence in his life. "He was the one who started me fighting," Sonny says. Whether prizefighting was a benefit is disputed by one prominent boxing figure. "Boxing has done nothing for Sonny Liston," he says sourly, "but introduced him to a lot of high-class hoods."
"I was the Catholic chaplain at Jeff City," Father Stevens explains, "and the athletic director, too. They used to wish a lot of those jobs on chaplains. Sonny was just a big, ignorant, pretty nice kid. He wasn't smart-alecky, but he got in little scrapes. I tried to teach him the alphabet, but it was hard to impress upon him the importance of it. 'Surely you'll want to read the papers about yourself,' I'd tell him, but he wasn't too faithful. He was very penurious with his words. I ran him two winters in our boxing program, and he wound up being inmate champ."
When Liston became eligible for parole, Father Stevens called on Bob Burnes at the Globe-Democrat to inquire how Liston could become a fighter on the outside. Burnes, who was leary of penitentiary "phenoms," recommended that Monroe Harrison, a former boxer and sparring partner of Joe Louis, go to Jeff City and take a look at Liston. Since Harrison, who is the custodian of a public school, is a relatively poor man, he asked Frank Mitchell, the publisher of the St. Louis Argus, a Negro weekly, to accompany him. As Harrison ruefully explains, "Frank had the car." They took with them—to spar with Liston—a heavyweight named Thurman Wilson. As Mitchell tells it: "Wilson asked me, 'How many rounds?' 'Many you want,' I said. 'We don't want to show the boy up.' At the end of four rounds Wilson told me, 'Better get me out of this ring. He's going to kill me!' "
In October 1952, Sonny was paroled in the custody of Mitchell, Harrison and Father Stevens. Due chiefly to Harrison, all went smoothly for a while. "I recommended Monroe Harrison," Burnes says, "because this is a man Sonny can lean on. Monroe is an automatic uncle."
"Sonny's the type of person that needs understanding," Harrison said the other day in his basement office in the Carr Lane Branch school in St. Louis. "He's vicious all the way. Youth, all his youth! He needs someone to help him control his emotion. He must be kept busy until all that youth and strength leaves him, like it leaves all of us. Right now he's like the leopard, that animal out there in the jungle: leap at an animal, kill it, but he don't need it. I understood Sonny's language, befriended him. I fathered him around. He needs training. He needs love. The right people have to take an interest in the boy and treat him like a member of the family. You got to talk to him about what he talks about. Otherwise he's got no conversation. When you go with him to a function, don't leave him out there in the fourth dimension with all those diplomats."
"Sonny was frightened," Bob Burnes recalls, "lost in the big city. After he worked out, there was nothing to do but listen to the radio. Monroe taught him to play checkers, talked boxing with him. Every once in a while Monroe would haul Sonny down to the office. 'Tell Mr. Bob you've been a good boy,' he'd tell Sonny. 'You been a good boy?' I'd ask. 'Yes, Mr. Bob.' Sonny's not bright, but I've never known him to be mean. He's still a child, easily misled, easily misguided. I have never known Sonny to go looking for trouble."