SI Vault
Gilbert Rogin
July 17, 1961
Here is an extraordinary report on a disturbing new figure in boxing: Heavyweight Contender Sonny Liston, who is comforted (right) by his wife Geraldine after his 19th arrest
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July 17, 1961

Can't A Fellow Make A Mistake?

Here is an extraordinary report on a disturbing new figure in boxing: Heavyweight Contender Sonny Liston, who is comforted (right) by his wife Geraldine after his 19th arrest

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Shortly before 3 a.m. on June 12 Mrs. Delores Ellis, a 29-year-old Negro woman, was driving home alone through Philadelphia's Fairmount Park when she noticed a car following her. The pursuing car drew alongside, a spotlight was played upon her and she was ordered to pull over and stop. Just then, John Warburton, a park guard, drove up. The two men turned off their lights and sped away. Warburton gave chase at speeds reaching 80 mph. When he overtook them, one man jumped out of the car and ran. Warburton fired a warning shot, and the fugitive halted. The driver remained motionless behind the wheel. Warburton remarked later, with some astonishment, that the driver's face was absolutely expressionless.

The two men were charged with impersonating an officer, extinguishing auto lights to avoid identification, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and conspiracy, and were released on $300 bail. The driver of the car was identified as Sonny Liston, the No. 1 contender for the heavyweight championship of the world, at present held by Floyd Patterson. It was Liston's 19th arrest since 1950. On July 1 the charges were dismissed after a hearing conducted by Magistrate E. David Keiser. At the judge's suggestion, Liston and his companion apologized to Mrs. Ellis.

"A boxing match is like a cowboy movie," Sonny Liston has said in a more carefree moment. "There's got to be good guys, and there's got to be bad guys. That's what the people pay for: to see the bad guys get beat. So I'm a bad guy. But I change things. I don't get beat."

Charles Liston, alias Sonny: colored, 29, 6 feet 1�, 220, black hair, maroon eyes, medium-dark complexion, male, married, Arkansas, boxer, residing at 5785 Dunlap, Philadelphia 31. This is, in effect, how the police of St. Louis and Philadelphia officially describe him. The description "maroon eyes" is, alas, fancy. They are brown and uncommitted, in a round, serene face. His fists, however, are fact. They are as large and substantial as cannon balls, and whatever Sonny has done—his triumphs and his falls—has been accomplished with these magnificent hands.

Liston has had 33 professional fights since 1953 and has won 32, 22 by knockout. He has defeated such accomplished boxers as Eddie Machen and Zora Folley. His only loss was in 1954 to Marty Marshall, whom he later beat twice.

Bob Burnes, sports editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, has told of Sonny's defeat by Marshall, a clowning, eccentric fighter.

"I'm sort of standing there," Burnes quoted Liston as saying, "wondering what this fellow's going to do next. All of a sudden he jumps up and down, lets out a whoop like a wild man, and I get to laughing at him. I had my mouth wide open laughing when he whomped me right on the jaw. It didn't hurt much, but I couldn't close my mouth. That happened about the third or fourth round, and I had to fight him with my mouth open the rest of the way. After a while it got to hurting pretty bad."

Marshall had broken Sonny's jaw. Since then, Liston has learned to glower pretentiously when he is in the ring. It is tempting to say he has also learned to keep his mouth shut, but Liston has always been—ordinarily—an exceptionally reticent, inert and remote man. His forbidding, baleful stare, his heroic "built," his relative illiteracy, his extensive police record and hoodlum associations have caused some observers to speak of him as a beast, an animal who should be kept in a cage. Such representations do not rile Liston.

"Everybody thinks I should be mean and tough, but I'm not," he declares. "Fighting ain't fun. In the ring I look tough because I'm trying to get the scare on the other guy. And the way some of these suckers fight, I guess they are scared."

Sonny Liston was born on a marginal cotton farm outside of Little Rock, Ark. His birth date is conjectural, but it probably was May 8, 1932. Sonny's father, who is dead, was married twice, and Sonny is a product of the second marriage. Sonny thinks there were altogether 25 children, a belief that once prompted Senator Dirksen to observe, "Your father was a champion in his own right [laughter]."

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