Generally acknowledged as one of the greatest – if not, as he so often proclaimed, “the greatest” – Cassius Clay, or Muhammad Ali as he is better known, first fought Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida. Clay was an up and comer who had won gold for boxing in 1960, and recently defeated the British Heavyweight champion, Henry Cooper. Liston was the reigning World Heavyweight champion, who had knocked out Floyd Patterson in the first round of their title bout.
Coming into the bout, Liston and Clay were each immensely unpopular – Clay was seen as boastful and Liston was a convicted criminal – but most agreed that the champion would hold onto his title. 43 out of 46 sportswriters predicted that Liston would win with a knockout. In the event, Clay defeated Liston in the sixth round, although the match was not awarded until Liston refused to leave his corner at the bell beginning the seventh. Clay was declared the winner by a technical knockout.
The following year, in the rematch, Clay – now calling himself the more familiar Muhammad Ali – knocked out Liston in the first round of their rematch. Ali would go on to be the most successful heavyweight boxer of the modern era, but Liston would never again reach so high.
It’s possible that this isn’t actually the birthday of Sonny Liston – certainly he looked older than his years for most of his life – but it’s the one he always claimed. Born in Arkansas, he was the 12th of 13 children and was frequently beaten by his father (leaving him with scars he would bear his entire life). Perhaps that’s why he started boxing – and it’s hard to imagine that it wasnt a motivation of his. In the course of his professional career, Sonny Liston would become one of the most successful boxers of all time.
He fought a total of 54 fights, of which he won 50 (and 39 of those via knockout), over the course of a career that spanned the years 1953 to 1970. Of his four defeats, two of them were to Muhammed Ali and one to Marty Marshall (whom Liston defeated in the rematch).
Sonny Liston was found dead by his wife on January 5, 1971, but the date that appeared on his death certificate is December 30, 1970. This date is based on a police estimate, but since the police also ruled that his death was due to a heroin overdose and Liston’s autopsy showed no evidence of such an event, the date may also be suspect.
In addition, several things one would expect to find at the site of a heroin injection, such a tourniquet or similar to tie off with and a spoon to cook in, were absent from the scene of Liston’s death. Nor did Liston have any history of heroin use – and it’s hard to believe that he could have kept such a thing a secret, given his well-known love of drinking and partying to excess.
It is widely believed that his death was a result of a criminal hit, ordered by unknown underworld figures, and that the police investigation and its findings were a coverup.
Charles L. ‘Sonny’ Liston pushed hard to get his shot at the title. He was a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who occasionally went a little too far – as in 1956, when he was charged with assault and served six months before being paroled. He was a strong fighter who won a large number of his fights by knockout. When Floyd Patterson finally let him in, after months of refusing on the grounds of Liston’s supposed Mob ties, he didn’t waste the opportunity.
Liston knocked Patterson out in the first round, winning the title of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. On July 22 of the following year, he did it again in the rematch.
But his triumph was short-lived. Cassius Clay beat him in their first bout in 1964, and again in 1965 (although by that time, Clay had renamed himself Muhammed Ali). Liston continued to fight, and won most of his bouts. He retired from professoinal boxing in 1970, and later died in early 1971, in suspicious circumstances.