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So many mouths to feed on the farm
Sonny was the second to the last one born
His mamma ran away and his daddy beat him bad
And he grew up wild, good love he never had

Nobody knows for sure when Sonny Liston was born. He himself claimed it was May 28, 1932 but there’s hardly any evidence to support that. In fact, towards the end of his career most people said he looked like he was still fighting well into his 50’s. What is known is this.

His family was a bunch of sharecroppers that settled in St. Francis County, Arkansas. His father was well into his 50’s when Sonny was born and had already fathered 12 children. His father then hooked up with a 16 year old girl and they went on to spawn 13 more kids. It’s not known for sure but Sonny was thought to be the second to last one.

I guess life on the farm got to be too much for Sonny’s mom and one day she packed her bags and along with some of her other kids, headed off to St. Louis, Missouri. Sonny guesses that this occurred when he was about 13 years old. Left under the supervision of his father Sonny was subject to beatings that would leave scars on his back for the rest of his life.

He had a left like Henry's hammer
A right like Betty Bamalam
Rode with the muggers in the dark and dread
And all them sluggers went down like lead

Sonny managed to scrape by for awhile but soon had enough. He left Arkansas and met up with mom in St. Louis. All accounts are that he tried to live life on the up and up but had to quit school because he was illiterate. He held some odd jobs but soon fell victim to life on the streets. It wasn’t long before he got busted for robbery and assaulting a cop. He was staring at five years in the Missouri State Pen.

Well he hung with the hoods, he wouldn't stroke the fans
But he had dynamite in both his hands
Boom bam like the slammer door
The bell and the can and the bodies on the floor

In order to pass the time in prison he took up boxing and with the aid of the prison priest was granted an early parole. He took up sparring in and around the gyms in St, Louis and it wasn’t long before local gangsters noticed him and liked what they saw. After beating just about everybody in sight as an amateur he decided to turn pro.

Beware, the bear's in town
Somebody's money says the bear's going down
Yeah, the bear never smiles, Sonny's going down
For miles and miles
Sonny's going down
For miles and miles

It didn’t take long for those in the boxing world to give him the nickname “The Big Bear". He had a crushing left hook and a menacing demeanor and was able to take a punch.

The writers didn't like him, the fight game jocks
With his lowlife backers and his hands like rocks
They didn't want to have a bogey man
They didn't like him and he didn't like them

It wasn’t long before he was named the number one contender for the heavyweight crown but was the victim of stall tactics by then world champion Floyd Patterson. The rest of the boxing world seemed to agree that Liston wasn’t “worthy” to be champion because of his checkered past and dubious associations and even the NAACP added their two cents by claiming that if Liston won the title, their image would be tarnished. Most of the boxing world predicted a Patterson victory due to his speed and ring savvy.

It took Liston all of one round to destroy Paterson.

One would think that the public and sports writers that witnessed the devastation would give Liston his due and shower him with accolades. Instead, he was virtually ignored by both of them except for being on the end of racial slurs and stereotypes.

While champion Liston was no stranger to controversy. Allegations against him ran far and wide ranging from rape, loitering and impersonating a police officer. Sonny turned to drugs and the bottle as a source of comfort.

The public was clamoring for a rematch. They claimed the first bout between Liston and Patterson was a fluke and things would be different the next time around. A second fight was set up but the outcome remained the same. Liston by knockout in round one.

Black Cadillac, alligator boots
Money in the pockets of his sharkskin suits
Some say the bear took a flop
They couldn't believe it when they saw him drop

Next in line was the young and brash (then) Cassius Clay. Due to his inexperience in the ring Clay was a 7-1 underdog on the night of the fight. Perhaps Liston took him lightly because as the fight began many in the crowd began to notice that he looked slow and out of shape. After the seventh round Liston was spent and refused to come out of his corner. Clay was the new heavyweight world’s champion.

In what was to become one of the most controversial fights of all time, a rematch was scheduled on May, 25, 1965 in the unlikely location of Lewiston, Maine.

About two minutes into the first round Liston gets “tagged” with what appeared to be a phantom punch. He goes down in a heap and rolls over on his back. Ali runs screaming around the ring and the ten count doesn’t begin until he makes his way to a neutral corner. By this time Liston had rolled over onto his back and appeared to be trying to shield his eyes from the light. He tries to get up once but topples over again. The fight is stopped and Ali retains his championship.

Cries that the fight was fixed and Liston went in the tank ran through the boxing world and in a way are still alive today. While first denying he took a dive Liston allegedly went on to tell a reporter from Sports Illustrated ”That guy Ali was crazy. I didn’t want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn’t hit.”

Joe Louis was his hero, he tried to be the same
But a criminal child wears a ball and chain
So the civil rights people didn't want him on the throne
And the hacks and the cops wouldn't leave him alone

After taking some time off Liston tried to make a comeback. He actually won a few fights in Sweden and a couple stateside but his career came to an abrupt end when he was knocked cold by someone named Leotis Martin on national television.

At the foot of his bed with his feet on the floor
There was dope in his veins and a pistol on the drawer
There was no investigation as such
He hated needles but he knew too much

On January 5, 1971 Liston’s wife returned home from a trip abroad. Upon entering their home in Las Vegas she was greeted with a foul odor. She went in the bedroom and found Sonny slumped over, dead as a doornail. Although the actual date of death is subject to debate a coroner’s report and police estimated that he died on December 30th, 1970 and wasn’t discovered until days later. The autopsy revealed morphine and cocaine in his system but the official cause of death was ruled heart failure.

Criss-crossed on his back
Scars from his daddy like slavery tracks
The second-last child was the second-last king
Never again was it the same in the ring

The ensuing controversy about the cause of Liston’s death grabbed headlines for awhile. Some claim there was a police cover up and that Liston was the victim of a mob hit. His wife added fuel to the fire by saying Sonny has a lifelong fear of needles and would often refuse to have injections for such things as the flu or the common cold.

They never could be sure about the day he was born
A motherless child set to working on the farm
And they never could be sure about the day he died
The bear was the king they cast aside

So, nobody knows for sure when Sonny Liston was born or when he died. It’s likely that the controversy surrounding his entire upbringing, rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace will never be truly answered. For what it’s worth it probably left a stain on the sport of boxing that lives on to this day.

One last thing. Sonny Liston is buried in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas. For all of his accomplishments and failures during his life his headstone contains only two words.

”A Man”


The lyrics came from Mark Knopfler and his fine tune called “Song For Sonny Liston”. The rest came from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonny_Liston,