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Sonny Liston

Sonny Liston mugshot

The arrest of Sonny Liston:

He was strong, tough and intimating and really looked like a Heavyweight Boxing Champ.

Sonny Liston boxing photo

Which he was, until Cassius Clay, soon to be renamed Muhammad Ali, captured his crown in a couple of controversial bouts.

But before that, Charles L "Sonny" Liston was involved in plenty of other fights – several with the law. Liston was born on an Arkansas farm, but there's no official record. He once said his birth date was carved into a tree, but the tree was cut down. (His mother gave the date as January 8, 1932. But even she later said it could have been 1929 or 1930.)

It was a sharecropping family that moved to Arkansas from Mississippi. Formal education didn't work because Liston quit when other students ridiculed him for his illiteracy. So he turned to crime and led a gang who mugged people and committed armed robberies.

The St. Louis police called him the "Yellow Shirt Bandit", because that's what he wore when committing robberies. He was convicted and spent five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary starting in June, 1950, at the age of 20 (or so.)

Even as he made his mark as a prize fighter, police kept a close eye on him and in May 1956, there was an incident in which he resisted arrested, adding to his negative image.

Sonny Liston on cover of sports illustrated

Liston beat Floyd Patterson for the Heavyweight title, even though Paterson avoided the bout because of Sonny's links to organized crime. Even President John F. Kennedy urged Paterson to sidestep Liston because of his mob ties. But in Chicago in September, 1962…

Sonny Liston vs. patterson poster

Liston beat Patterson to claim the heavyweight crown …

Sonny Liston fighting patterson

…and was subsequently called "gorilla" and "jungle beast" in print. He had continuing run-ins with police in Philadelphia.

It wasn't until February 25, 1964 that Liston started to fade from his peak as Clay (famously Ali) …

Muhammad Ali

…beat him for the Heavyweight Title, in a technical knockout that was a major upset.

newspaper report of Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston fight

Some felt Sonny didn't give his all.

Muhammad Ali kocking down Sonny Liston

The Liston Ali rematch sparked even more controversy and charges of a fix…

…and although Sonny continued boxing, his career was never the same.

He was founded dead by his wife, Geraldine Clark Liston…

Sonny Liston with his wife

… In their Las Vegas home on January 5th, 1971 after a strong smell was noticed. Police said Liston died of a heroin overdose but officially the cause as listed as lung congestion and heart failure. Some people even suspected that Liston may have been murdered.

Liston's buried in Paradise memorial Gardens in Las Vegas.

Sonny Liston grave

His gravestone reads: "A Man." His widow added that he was a "gentle man" with her and the family, which included her daughter from an earlier marriage and an adopted son.

Famous Arrests