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.
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.
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.
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."