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O Unlucky Man
William Nack
February 04, 1991
Fortune never smiled on Sonny Liston, even when he was champ
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February 04, 1991

O Unlucky Man

Fortune never smiled on Sonny Liston, even when he was champ

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SOMEDAY THEY'RE GONNA WRITE A BLUES SONG JUST FOR FIGHTERS. IT'LL BE FOR SLOW GUITAR, SOFT TRUMPET AND A BELL.
—CHARLES (SONNY) LISTON

It was already dark when she stepped from the car in front of her house on Ottawa Drive, but she could see her pink Cadillac convertible and Sonny's new black Fleetwood under the carport in the Las Vegas night.

Where could Charles be? Geraldine Liston was thinking.

All through the house the lamps were lit, even around the swimming pool out back. The windows were open too, and the doors were unlocked. It was quiet except for the television playing in the room at the top of the stairs.

By 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 5, 1971, Geraldine had not spoken to her husband for 12 days. On Christmas Eve she had called him from St. Louis after flying there with the couple's seven-year-old son, Danielle, to spend the holidays with her mother. Geraldine had tried to phone him a number of times, but no one had answered at the house. At first she figured he must be off roistering in Los Angeles, and so she didn't pay his absence any mind until the evening of Dec. 28. That night, in a fitful sleep, she had a vision so unsettling that it awakened her and sent her to her mother's room.

"I had the worst dream," Geraldine says. "He was falling in the shower and calling my name, 'Gerry, Gerry!' I can still see it. So I got real nervous. I told my mother, 'I think something's wrong.' But my mother said, 'Oh, don't think that. He's all right.' "

In fact, Sonny Liston had not been right for a long time, and not only for the strangely dual life he had been leading—spells of choirboy abstinence squeezed between binges of drinking and drugs—but also for the rudderless, unfocused existence he had been reduced to. Jobless and nearly broke, Liston had been moving through the murkier waters of Las Vegas's drug culture. "I knew he was hanging around with the wrong people," one of his closest friends, gambler Lem Banker, says. "And I knew he was in desperate need of cash."

So, as the end of 1970 neared, Liston had reached that final twist in the cord. Eight years earlier he was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world—a 6'1½", 215-pound hulk with upper arms like picnic roasts, two magnificent, 14-inch fists and a scowl that he mounted for display on a round, otherwise impassive face. He had won the title by flattening Floyd Patterson with two punches, left hooks down and up, in the first round of their fight on Sept. 25, 1962; 10 months later he had beaten Patterson again in one round.

Liston did not sidestep his way to the title; the pirouette was not among his moves. He reached Patterson by walking through the entire heavyweight division, leaving large bodies sprawled behind him: Wayne Bethea, Mike DeJohn, Cleveland Williams, Nino Valdes, Roy Harris, Zora Folley et al. Finally, a terrified Patterson waited for him, already fumbling with his getaway disguise, dark glasses and a beard.

Before the referee could count to 10 in that first fight, Liston had become a mural-sized American myth, a larger-than-life John Henry with two hammers, an 84-inch reach, 23 knockouts (in 34 bouts) and 19 arrests. Tales of his exploits spun well with the fight crowd over beers in dark-wood bars. There was the one about how he used to lift up the front end of automobiles. And one about how he caught birds with his bare hands. And another about how he hit speed bags so hard that he tore them from their hinges, and ripped into heavy bags until they burst, spilling their stuffing.

"Nobody hit those bags like Sonny," says 80-year-old Johnny Tocco, one of Liston's first and last trainers. "He tore bags up. He could turn that hook, put everything behind it. Turn and snap. Bam! Why, he could knock you across the room with a jab. I saw him knock guys out with a straight jab. Bam! In the ring, Sonny was a killing machine."

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