America at Large: Story of Sonny Liston’s death makes good reading

Former heavyweight world champion boxer left questions that will remain unanswered

Sonny Liston when he was the reigning world heavyweight champion in 1963. Photograph: Jim Gray/Getty Images.

Sonny Liston when he was the reigning world heavyweight champion in 1963. Photograph: Jim Gray/Getty Images.

 

His final resting place is in Row 1 of the Garden of Peace section of Paradise Gardens Cemetery, hard by the Las Vegas Airport. Inscribed on a one foot by two foot bronze tablet are the words “Charles Sonny Liston, 1932 -1970, A Man”.

A suitably nondescript memorial. No date of birth because he was never exactly sure of that himself. No date of death because he was gone for days before his body was even discovered. Between those two landmark events, there’s plenty we know but so much more we don’t and probably never will about Liston. The enduring fascination of this particular former heavyweight champion.

Infamous bout

Geraldine ListonChuck WepnerMuhammad Ali

The coroner concluded he died of natural causes although traces of morphine in his system suggested he may have accidentally overdosed on heroin. In the most convenient version of the narrative, this was the inevitable demise of a man whose troubled life had been in something of a downward spiral since he’d been felled by the phantom punch.

Many of those closest to him always believed there was nothing accidental about his end, reckoning, for starters, that his fear of needles made mainlining heroin a rather strange way for him to go.

Through the decades conspiracy theories flourished about just who might have been responsible, most fingering mobsters of varying hues who were knocking around Nevada fleshpots in that era. In a compelling new book, The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin and Heavyweights, American journalist Shaun Assael has re-opened the case, pieced together the most forensic investigation yet, and concluded the former champion was a victim of foul play.

Second Captains

To better understand the circumstances of Liston’s demise, Assael takes us on a fascinating trip through Vegas in its pre-corporate pomp. Elvis had a residency at the International Hotel. Howard Hughes was living in a penthouse at the Desert Inn. Mobsters were starting to lose control of the Strip and the whole place was awash with drugs.

In this type of seedy milieu the underworld teemed with outlandish characters, myriad vendettas and no shortage of candidates to carry out a hit on the boxer formerly known as “The Big Bear”, the one who now drove a brash pink Cadillac around town and occasionally dealt $50 bags of cocaine in casinos.

Even by boxing’s standards, Liston’s upbringing was especially hardscrabble. The 24th of sharecropper Tobe Liston’s 25 children, he grew up dirt poor in Arkansas, was savagely beaten by his father as a child, and turned to crime as a teenager on the streets of St Louis. By 18, he started a five-year stretch at Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery. Picking up gloves in prison, he turned pro while on parole, and even after his progress was interrupted by another nine months for assaulting a cop, his brute strength marked him out as a genuine contender.

His potential also caught the eye of organized crime under whose malign influence he spent the majority of his fistic career. Against that background, it was kind of inevitable he’d eventually be drawn to Vegas in the late 1960s, the burgeoning desert city offering opportunists the chance to make money by fair means and foul. Others came west with similar intentions and the colourful list of suspects pieced together by Assael offers a glimpse into the type of nefarious company Liston kept in the last years of his life.

Robert Chudnick was a gifted enough jazz trumpeter to have once taken Miles Davis’s spot in Charlie Parker’s band. When his music career stalled, he discovered peddling heroin was a more lucrative enterprise and business was going well enough for him to retain the fiercesome Liston as an enforcer collecting his unpaid debts. By the end of 1970 though, Chudnick was reportedly paranoid the boxer was in bed with the local cops.

That may sound like an unlikely alliance given Liston’s personal history but his reputation had been besmirched by an incident at the home of Earl Cage the previous year. In the classic Vegas way, Cage was a beautician cum drug dealer and when the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs raided his house Liston was the only person present who wasn’t arrested. Whatever informed the cops’ thinking, the special treatment led to speculation he was on their payroll. Cage is another who Assael puts in the frame.

Compelling break

Larry GandyLas Vegas Police Department

In the kind of telling detail that makes this excellent book read like an Elmore Leonard novel, Gandy had, in retirement, turned to crime, specialising in carrying out home invasions while speaking in a Donald Duck accent.

“Can you tell me what happened to you Sonny?” screamed Geraldine, flinging herself at his coffin at the funeral.

Of course he couldn’t. And, although Assael offers plenty new evidence, perhaps nobody ever really can.

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