Joe Flaherty’s obituary for Sonny Liston originally appeared in The Village Voice (January 14, 1971) and is also featured in At the Fights. It appears here with permission.
Will no one say amen? After reading and listening to the New York press, it seems that Charles “Sonny” Liston’s soul will be politely consigned to damnation.
Milton Gross of the Post, the Eleanor Roosevelt of the sports pages, said in last Wednesday’s column that he’d decided not to call his boy Floyd Patterson with the news of Sonny’s death till the following day, knowing that Floyd would say: “Gee, that’s terrible. I’m sorry.” Then Miltie hypothetically buried Floyd (in St. Peter’s Basilica, one presumes) and commented: “I know Liston wouldn’t have said the same.” So much for a séance in a wet afternoon daily.
Another Patterson acolyte of old, Howard Cosell, appeared on ABC’s 6:00 news and, in his best Battle of Britain tones, told us that it would be “unethical and unprincipled” for him to praise Sonny, concluding that there would be “no requiem for this heavyweight.” This, of course, is the same Cosell who “ethically” gloated over Pete Rozelle’s muscling Joe Namath during the Bachelors III affair. Sonny would have understood—he always understood the smart money.
And on the late ABC news Jim Bouton, the icky iconoclast whose reporting is so giggly that—in the words of Dorothy Packer—it makes you want to “fwow up,” dismissed Liston with a cute anecdote, proceeding to interview ex-footballer-author Dave Meggyesy (Out of Their League) about the comparisons between racism in football and everyday American life and the similarities between football and the military-industrial complex, blah, blah…. The interview led one to believe that the only thing out of Meggyesy’s league is the English language.
But what about Floyd himself? The Daily News told us that Patterson, upon being informed of Liston’s death, exclaimed: “No, no! I had told them I would fight Liston again.” Such humanity! It would crack the vaults of heaven. Poor Sonny done went and died before Floyd could cure his psyche. The eternal truth is that even in his present condition Liston would be 8 to 5 over Patterson.
Well, the reader may justifiably say that the back of the hand is the only tribute a blackguard deserves. After all, the man was busted 20 times. He was a union goon, ran with the mob, cracked heads with the same niftiness a short-order cook prepares “two over light.” True, so very true. But transgressions always are forgiven in boxing if the sinner prostrates himself in front of his better sinners—namely promoters, managers, and boxing commissioners. But like Ali after him, Sonny was a psychic breakthrough in the sport and in the American (both black and white) mind. He was a blatant mother in a fucker’s game.
He arrived at a time when hopes of integration were high in the air, and Patterson and Ralph Bunche were everybody’s prototypical black men. I can’t recall anyone I know (with the exception of the Philadelphia-based writer Jack McKinney) who publicly wanted Liston to beat Patterson for the heavyweight championship. In Patterson’s corner were clustered Jimmy Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill, and the NAACP (which didn’t even want Patterson to give Liston the fight, because of what Liston would do to the “Negro image”). As Ali murdered the myth of the 60s, so Liston was the pallbearer of the 50s’ liberalism. He embodied what they didn’t want to recognize—that our streets spawn a sea of Sonnys. Like the song, “Night Train,” to which he jumped rope, he was that underground fear we wouldn’t face—the menacing black man who invaded the subway of our souls at four in the morning.
But Liston was only a minor-leaguer in evil compared to the sport at which he toiled, a crude crusher in the domain of charlatans. He wasn’t allowed a license in New York State, and indeed, he wasn’t even allowed to be introduced in the Garden ring before fights. This, while such erstwhile solid citizens as Rocky Graziano (who evaded the military before it became fashionable) and Jake LaMotta (a self-confessed dumper) were wildly applauded. Of course, this is the same New York that denied Ali a for being unpatriotic until a $10,000,000 gate appeared on the horizon and transformed him from a traitor to a pugilistic Patton. Ah, what the green can do for the old red, white, and blue!
Promoters are blessed with more positions than either Nixon or the Kama Sutra. I remember when I was working on a piece about the late Frankie DePaula, an Italian fighter who used to fill the Garden as if it were a church on Palm Sunday. DePaula came under indictment for grand theft, and I called the Garden for his home phone number, only to be told: “It’s a funny thing, Joe. We had that guy’s phone number.”
This was the same DePaula who had worked his way to a light heavyweight shot in the Garden by looking over the titanic likes of “Irish” Jimmy McDermott, a one-handed clover. But then again, one must forgive promoters. Their fantasies always are unfulfilled. Imagine if they were able to get St. Patrick vs. Mother Cabrini for 15 rounds.
Now Liston was a dishonorable man, as I’ve said. He understood his trade admirably. Asked to say a kind word about his opponents before a fight, he usually responded: “I’d like to run him over with a truck.” No dainty doggerel that to entice the Dylan left and the older lib-labs. In fact, Sonny went so far as to say he’d like to leave his wheel marks on the executive board of the NAACP. No charisma.
One must know how to jerk and jolt the Liberal Establishment at the same time. Night trains have no subtle shift in gears; shifty roadsters are more the liberal style. It takes an Ali to tune their senses. Who could convince them he was a legitimate critic of the Vietnam war but a cat so sly he was contented to flunk the selective service test for years until the qualifications were lowered and he became eligible? So, like the unseated Saul, he then became a minister. One has to reread columns twice these days to decipher if they are about Ali or William Sloane Coffin. Will no one say amen?
Was Sonny Satan? Not really, but he’d make a helluva understudy. I first met him a couple of years ago in the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles, where he was starting his comeback. He sat in a small cubicle, naked and sweating after a workout. He just stared at me, not speaking while I waited to be assigned a furnace in his kingdom. In a booming castrato voice I finally asked: “Is 36 really your age?” Slowly, he looked up, and I looked down, hoping the Divine Editor would cancel that question. He boomed: “My mammy says I’m 36. Are you calling my mammy a liar?”
After some neat verbal footwork, I convinced him Mother Liston would make George Washington out to be an old forked-tongue, and, by God, he smiled. A big, wide-open grin that was as honest as his snarl. He talked of how he was the son of a sharecropper who had had 25 children and “whooped me every day.” Hold your faint hearts still, you socially aware, that was not Sonny’s bag. In the next sentence spiced with his salacious grin, he paid his papa his due: “Twenty-five kids. My daddy was a champion at what he did, too.” As his wife, Geraldine, said: “That man has mother wit.” Sure enough.
It was a wit matured and gnarled in gutters, in prisons. The lowdown logic of every hustler who knows the cosmic truth that a bullet from a gun on the end of a pimp’s silk suit travels faster and deadlier than the best left hook ever honed in a gym. But mother wit he did have, and his repertoire wasn’t limited.
He could deliver a classic geographical put-down to a judge in the City of Brotherly Love when confronted with a speeding rap: “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than mayor of Philadelphia.” He out-crazied the Crazies by announcing he was thinking of becoming a Catholic priest. Now that would have been a test of Pope John’s liberalism.
He had a built-in shit detector second only to Papa’s. When he’d beaten Chuck Wepner bloody for eight rounds in Jersey City, someone asked him if Wepner wasn’t one of the gamest men he’d ever seen, and Liston replied: “His manager is gamer.” A better line about boxing has never been uttered.
I spent five days with Liston in Los Angeles, some of them spectacular, some sour. You always could sense his mood from the way he used the word “shit.” On bad days he grunted “Shith”; on his good days he strung the word out on a clothesline till it stretched to “Shee-ee-it.” He would not talk about his losses to Ali, except to mumble: “I was overtrained for the second bout.” On Ali’s impending imprisonment he became a savvy Satan: “He like to say how pretty he is. They like pretty people in prison.” A low-bred mother wit.
The final day I spent with Liston, we met a hippie when we were leaving the gym. He presented Sonny with a “fight song” that he wanted to give to Sammy Davis, Jr., to sing on television. The song was a simpleminded rhyme, extolling Sonny’s ferocity, and he got a kick out of it. The hippie then told him he’d like to make Liston a pair of sandals like those he was wearing. Liston put his huge, flat foot up against the hippie’s and went into a Bunyonesque fable to the effect that there wasn’t enough leather in the West to cover the great man’s foot. The hippie loved the instant legend. As we left, the kid gave him a tin triangle with the words “Jesus, Mary, Joseph” pin-scratched on each angle. The boy said it was to “keep the champ safe.”
As we drove away from the gym in his Cadillac, Liston turned the triangle over and over between his thumb and forefinger, extolling the madness of hippies. “Those cats are right, ” he said. “They don’t worry about a fuckin’ thing in the world.”
We passed a campaign headquarters for Robert Kennedy (then still alive), and Liston exploded: “Tell me, with six million dollars, why the fuck do these people want to be President? All that money, and they want worries. That hippie is smarter. Their old man made all that money smuggling scotch, and they want to become President to tell the people to keep sober. Shit, six million dollars.” I asked him what he’d do if he had $6,000,000, and the storm subsided as the country boy leaned his head back and in philosophical reverie replied: “I’d buy me the finest pussy in the United States of America.” And, concluding his American Dream, Charles “Sonny” Liston with a flip of his thumb sent Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in flight formation into the middle of Wilshire Boulevard.
Was he the bastard everyone says he was? To many, yes. To others, such as Claude Brown, he was the only man alive who could have quelled the Watts riots. I’m not pleading for his life-style—a bastard, maybe, or, perhaps more fair, he did bastardly deeds. But he should be judged in context. He was better than the sport he practiced and the men who rule it. In fact, he was one of boxing’s most legitimate sons. When greed, hypocrisy, and corruption complete their ménage à trois, a Sonny Liston will always be plucked from the breach.
And he was a lot better than the hucksters for sport who now so cavalierly dismiss his life. One could go into a social tract on that life, but Sonny would only stretch a “Shee-ee-it” over the analysis. He was what he was. A villain perhaps, but also once the king of the heavyweights, and it is only fitting that one should find his epitaph in a play populated by an aging king and a bastard:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeit of our own behaviour—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on—an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay goatish disposition on the charge of a star! My father compounded with my under the dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa major; so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing….