​Who Killed Former Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston?

Sonny Liston went from boxing champion and national anti-hero to a Las Vegas thug who drove around in a pink Cadillac and sold drugs. When his body was discovered by police, it was ruled an accidental death, though most believe it was anything but.

Oct 16 2016, 3:30pm

Photo of Sonny Liston fighting Muhammad Ali via Central Press/Stringer/Getty

Photo of Sonny Liston fighting Muhammad Ali via Central Press/Stringer/Getty

In a bygone era of great fighters when heavyweights like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman were king, Sonny Liston was viewed as the ultimate WWE-type heel, a villainous character of epic proportions who people considered the biggest thug on boxing's biggest stage. Liston was like Mike Tyson before there was a Mike Tyson—a scowling, menacing fighter with lights-out power, an intimidating ring presence, and a lengthy criminal background. Big, bold, and brash, he gravitated toward the sport of boxing in a Missouri penitentiary while serving time for a first degree robbery charge. After his release from prison, Liston turned pro in 1953 and won the heavyweight championship in 1962 by knocking out pugilist legend Floyd Patterson.

Amassing a career record of 50 wins and 4 losses with 39 knockouts, Liston was the quintessential anti-hero America loved to hate. The fighter, who some called the "Bad Negro," was also a barroom brawler with ties to the Lucchese crime family and over 20 arrests. After consecutive losses to Muhammad Ali in the mid-60s, his reign as a top heavyweight was effectively over. But Liston subsequently capitalized on his notoriety in Las Vegas, spending his days at the casinos shaking hands and doing public appearances. At night, however, Liston reverted to form. The one-time boxing talent would drive around the strip in his pink Cadillac, dealing drugs, womanizing, and working for the crime syndicates he'd known since his youth as a leg breaker. In 1971, he was found dead from an apparent heroin overdose, but no one believed his death was accidental.

In his new book, The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights, out October 18, ESPN journalist Shaun Assael treats the boxer's death as a cold case and investigates the circumstances that led to Liston's early exit from life. As the story unfolds, readers get a light into not just the seedy underworld of professional boxing, but also 1970s Las Vegas—a world of glitz and glamor, grit and crime. Assael found that Liston straddled the line between two worlds, walking in the limelight with celebrities like Elvis, but at the same time consorting with criminals, big players in the mob, and dirty cops. VICE chatted with Assael to find out what happened to Sonny Liston, a man who many wanted to silence.

VICE: What was Sonny Liston's stature in boxing and the sports world when he died?
Shaun Assael: By the time Sonny died, he was a forgotten champion, in some respects. In the late 50s early and early 60s he was considered the meanest man on the planet, and during the middle 60s when the Civil Rights movement was tearing at America he was known as the baddest black man around. Lots of fighters were scared to fight him. But after two notorious losses to Muhammad Ali in 1964 and 1965, he was kind of a diminished figure. The book picks up when he moves to Las Vegas as that diminished figure after reaching such great heights.

Sonny was a country boy who came out of very, very poor circumstances in Arkansas, and he followed his mother to St. Louis where he really grew up on the streets, despite his mother's best intentions. He had a famous criminal record that followed him all the way up to his early fights, and by the time he was fighting Floyd Patterson for the title in 1962, President John F. Kennedy told Patterson he should find somebody of a higher moral fibers to fight. Sonny was just seen as a thug and a tool of the mob, and that reputation never quite left him. He was always seen as somebody who had organized crime lurking in his corner.

What led to your interest in Liston's story and why did you decide to investigate his death as a cold case murder?
I was actually writing a novel that was about a suspicious death, and the novel made me think, Man, I wish I could go back in time and reinvestigate this. It gave me the idea of going back and finding a cold case to write about and investigate within the sports world. Working for ESPN and having written about boxing in the past, it didn't take me long to reach Sonny [as a subject]. The idea of spending time in Las Vegas and recreating that era and then recreating the world that Sonny lived in was really appealing to me. It turned out to be fascinating because it was a trip into the past with Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes and all these larger-than-life mobsters and all these larger-than-life sports figures. Everybody in the book is larger-than-life... until they're dead.

Among the vast universe of people I talked to, nobody doubted that Sonny was killed. It was just a matter of who they were pointing the fingers at. It was ruled natural causes, although there were heroin metabolites in Sonny's blood that made the police speculate a heroin overdose. His body was so badly decomposed when the cops found it that there was really no way to rule out blunt force trauma or anything else. I firmly believe it was not an accident.

Sonny Liston fights Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship title in 1962. Photo via Getty/George Silk

What was the extent of Liston's mob connections and why was the former heavyweight champion selling drugs in Las Vegas?
In the 1950s and certainly well into the 60s, the mob ran boxing and one of the seminal figures in this was Frank Palermo who was a key crime figure in Philadelphia. His partner was a member of [organized crime group] Murder, Inc. You couldn't get a big fight back then without the mob being involved. It was not so much that the fights were fixed, but you couldn't make a match without the mob blessing the match. By 1970 that was beginning to change. You had huge businessmen like Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Washington Redskins, and a Hollywood agent named Jerry Perenchio, who were making the Ali-Frazier fights. You were beginning to see the loosening of the mob's hold over boxing—not the elimination, but the loosening.

Sonny never really got paid 100 percent of his contracts—not that any fighter does, but he especially didn't. As one friend once remarked, he was carved up pretty well. And so by the time he's in Vegas and we see him in 1970, having lost a fight that would have given him that one last payday, he was left hustling money. He was paid $13,000 for his last fight and he had to fly to the Jersey City Armory in New Jersey to do it. Sonny needed money and hustling drugs was the way he knew how to get it.

When you were researching the story, what did you find out about 1970s Las Vegas that surprised you the most?
One of the most surprising things for me was just knowing about the glittering strip, how racially segregated Las Vegas was, how mean the police force was, and how little opportunity black people had in Las Vegas. The closer I was able to look at that the more I was stunned about how Sonny may have actually been the only celebrity who was able to transcend those two worlds. He lived in a largely-white suburb filled with actors and casino executives. He spent his nights driving this pink Cadillac all the way to the heart of the ghetto. It's that duality that fascinated me about Sonny. He had this public personality that made people want to come up to him in casinos and shake his hand, and he had this soul that kept him dealing drugs, working for crime syndicates, and doing a little bit of muscle enforcement even after he had been in four title fights.

Why do you think that Sonny Liston never became an icon and superstar like the other boxers of that era? He fought in a time when heavyweights ruled the sports world, yet he's a footnote among the boxing greats.
The heavyweights were the giants that roamed the earth. They weren't just sports figures, they were political figures. When Joe Lewis fought Max Schmeling it was a proxy fight for the US and Germany. Joe Lewis became a revered figure during World War II because of that. Floyd Patterson became a revered figure for the African-American community, so you had heavyweight boxers as these iconic figures, and there was an understanding that they'd talk to the press as gentleman champions and they'd visit orphanages. Then here comes Sonny smack into this world with no graciousness at all.

In his heart of hearts, he wanted to be like his friend Joe Lewis, but because he could barely read and he spoke like he was a leg breaker, the press just turned on him. He was portrayed as a mean, surly guy. Sonny entered this land of giants and he wasn't asking anybody for anything. He grabbed the heavyweight crown from Floyd Patterson. He became resented for it. He's mocked for it, and by the time he's ready to fight Ali the press couldn't wait to knock Sonny down. It's a huge fight when Ali wins, and when they fight again, Liston gets laid out in the first round by Ali's famous phantom punch. Liston's career is all but over. He's tarnished. He's fulfilled everybody's belief about him that he's just a guy out for himself with no respect for the game. That sets up the next era of fighters—Ali, Frazier, Forman, the greats—and these men redefine the heavyweight division. They're almost seen as restoring boxing from the tatters Liston left it in.

So who killed Sonny Liston and why? And how come no one was ever prosecuted for the murder?
Las Vegas was a very leaky place when it came to rumors, and I became convinced that the word had already gotten out on the street to everybody but Sonny that he was going down. He was making a lot of noise about being owed money from one of his fights with Ali at exactly the time Ali was about to face Joe Frazier in the largest fight in boxing history. So there were a lot of people who wanted Sonny silenced. I also determined that the feds were onto Sonny, that he was the subject of a sting operation, and that he was about to get in a lot of hot water. There were a lot of people who had a lot of reasons to want Sonny dead.

The real breakthrough of the book is when you learn about a little-known informant for the Las Vegas Police Department who ten years after Sonny's death walks into the LVPD with a story about who actually killed Sonny. I call that person in the book Suspect No. 1. I was really lost to the ages concerning who killed Sonny until I found him at the end of the book. The most riveting part of the story is when I interview Suspect No. 1 about the suspicions that have circled around him. He offered his own theory about who killed Sonny. The book explores if it could have been him or one of many others. When Sonny died, Las Vegas gave him this great, grand send off. It was the first time cops ever saluted Sonny. The sports world at that point was already passed him. His death was noted, but it was overshadowed.

'The Murder of Sonny Liston' is out October 18 on Blue Rider Press. Pre-order it here.

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