Paul Gallender is an angry writer. He is angry because of the appalling treatment he believes Sonny Liston has received at the hands of history and the media. “Sonny Liston – The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights” is his immensely detailed and mostly enjoyable attempt to redress the balance. So, according to Gallender, Liston was, among other things . . . .
. . . a highly intelligent man, who merely suffered from a lack of education. Here we may note that Liston spent time in prison as a young man after committing a series of muggings. Unfortunately, he chose to wear the same distinctive yellow shirt each time, winning him the title of “Yellow Shirt Bandit”. I’m not sure this can plausibly be put down to a lack of education.
. . . a loving, caring husband to Geraldine, who obviously adored him, and a man who loved children. A sensitive Gallender mostly spares the reader the trifling details of Liston’s endless & notorious infidelities, and only briefly mentions that the Listons adopted a boy from Sweden, something made all the more extraordinary by the fact that the boy was almost certainly Sonny’s illegitimate son (if you don’t think it extraordinary, consider what your wife might have done under the same circumstances).
. . . a charming, witty conversationalist, always smiling and joking in his private life. The only reason he looked so grumpy in the ring was that once had his jaw broken when punched while laughing.
. . . only on the most distant of terms with organised criminals – though the reader cannot help but be impressed how many of the warm endorsements of Liston come from close business associates with names like “Vinny”, “Fingers” or “The Hat” (Frank Sinatra himself spoke very highly of Sonny, if you know what I mean).
. . . in possession of an enormous penis.
In reality, Liston was no saint. He had a lifelong problem with drink, drugs and bad company, possibly right up to his last moments (he was found dead with a needle in his arm and traces of heroin in his system: rumour suggests that this had been caused by people on whose behalf he had been collecting debts). Besides associating with racketeers and gangsters he was, at times, a violent criminal and a drug dealer.
But we shouldn’t be too hard on Gallender for writing mostly in whitewash rather than ink. With a passion & thoroughness bordering on obsession he compels the reader to admire a man whose roots are so obscure that no one knows when he was born or even how many siblings he had, but rose to become heavyweight champion of the world – at a time when there was only one such champion, and it really meant something. Equally admirable is the tremendous patience and determination Liston displayed in waiting so long for previous heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson to give him a shot at the title. The reason Patterson gave for his refusal, namely the extent of Liston’s underworld connections, was entirely bogus. For one thing, this argument was propagated not by Patterson himself but by his trainer & manager, Cus D’Amato, who eventually lost his licence due to his own connections to organised crime. (Incidentally, we still lack a proper* biography of D’Amato, one of the most interesting, complex people in all of sport, never mind boxing: a project Gallender could usefully consider.) And the real reason for Patterson’s reluctance to fight was that he was terrified. At any rate, Gallender makes it clear that whatever the reality of his life outside boxing, Liston was a magnificent physical specimen, a tremendous fighter, and – when his time finally came – truly a great champion.
What’s more, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the way he lost the title. Forced to quit during his first fight against Ali mainly because of a terrible shoulder injury (though admittedly also because he was undertrained, having underestimated Ali’s speed, power and chin), Liston lost his chance of a fair rematch when Ali developed a hernia at just the wrong moment. When they finally met, Liston went down in the first round following a notorious “phantom punch” which no one saw. Ali himself later told stories about the crucial punch being so fast that everyone blinked and missed it, but while Liston was on the canvas Ali stood over his prone form – a moment made immortal in Neil Leifer’s photograph – reportedly shouting “Get up and fight, sucker! No one’s going to believe this!”. The true story of this event remains maddeningly unavailable, but Gallender’s theory is that Liston’s family were being held hostage until he hit the canvas, and that both the Mafia and the Black Muslims were involved. Whatever we think of this suggestion, what is clear is that hardly anyone thinks the result was on the level, and remarks made by Sonny himself later in life seem to confirm as much. Liston fought on, but never regained the highest levels of the sport, and never got another crack at the title before meeting his premature and undignified end.
While plainly written and pedestrian at times, Gallender’s book wins on thoroughness & compassion. Liston’s reputation deserves a reappraisal, and this is an excellent, if one-sided start.
*According to my extensive research – which means I both Googled it and looked on Wikipedia – D’Amato has inspired a “stage and screenplay” and a “biographical novel” (check it out at http://www.ConfusingtheEnemy.com), but not a biography in the usual sense.