The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights by Shaun Assael.
Blue Rider Press, October 18, 2016. 320 pages
Shaun Assael’s sprawling,investigative biography-cum mystery The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights charts the rise of Sin City from tourist destination spurred in the sixties by Sinatra’s tidal pull to the home of a new breed of Chicago gangster in a wild west rife with opportunity. Eschewing the neon and glitter of The Strip, the narrative hones in on the city’s seedy underbelly fueled by wiseguys, corrupt cops, and lots and lots of drugs. Somewhere in this lawless pocket of desert town, a declining boxer’s life morphed from a stoic figure of tragic public derision to a heroin addict mired in degeneracy.
Sonny Liston is among the most misunderstood figures in boxing history. While his early life in petty crime earned him jail time (for which he was forever vilified by the press and public alike), to the layman he is perhaps best known for the famous photograph of Muhammad Ali roaring over his hulking, fallen frame. Shot at what has become boxing’s most controversial bout, it captures the baffling end of the 1965 rematch (an out-of-shape Liston lost their first fight in 1964, spitting out his mouthpiece in capitulation after the sixth round) wherein the so-called Phantom Punch floored “The Ugly Bear” just short of two minutes into the first round. The venue was held at a youth center in Lewiston, Maine amid fears of Boston mob interests. In the wake of the murder of Malcolm X, rumors circled of plans of a similar attempt on Ali’s life for his flagrant disregard of the Muslim proscription (lifted when Ali became champion) against boxing. (This may also explain the fight’s minuscule attendance.) Other rumors held that Liston’s life and family were threatened by the Nation should he refuse to throw the fight. All theories are sound (though Paul Gallender’s new-age claim to communicate with Sonny through the afterlife casts new doubts on his otherwise excellent Sonny Liston: The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights). Whatever the case, Liston did not hit the canvas so much as gingerly lay down as if to take a nap. While even luminaries like Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano were stymied as to just what happened that night in May, Ali acolytes will forever contend that Ali’s flashing overhand right indeed floored Liston. Anyone who claims to know the real story should feel free to chime in on what has become a fifty-year debate among boxing historians, most of whom are wary of maintaining a firm theory themselves. Maybe Liston was simply tired of his public persona as the quintessential black menace and only too happy to let the new publicity-soaking, loud-mouth keep him down for good - no one would blame a man for leaving behind the stigma of the “Champ that Nobody Wanted.” Taking the brunt of the scrutiny following the fight, Liston’s purse was withheld by the feds even after he was cleared of any suspicion of criminal involvement.
In 1968, Nixon initiated a nation-wide war on drugs to boost his own popularity. Sonny, fresh off a brief, successful return to the ring, arrived in the city with the third highest crime rate in the US, promptly purchasing a house in Vegas’s most exclusive enclave (and so lowering the value of surrounding properties) and all the “white pussy” he wanted (apparently quite a bit). As he waited in vain for offers of fights that never materialized, he developed a penchant for cocaine and heroin funded by small acting roles and his last three purses. In the first year of the new decade, Liston was buying balloons of coke from jazz trumpeter Robert Chudnick while dealing out of a Keno parlor in the International Hotel and palling with the great ex-heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who had himself sunk into the addict’s life of low-functioning, delirious paranoia. Plagued by routine surveillance, a tough-guy cop-turned-fed named John Sutton was a key figure in the Sonny Liston witch hunts, working undercover with the LVPD in an attempt to bring about charges of dealing. Suffering two car accidents and subsequent arrests in 1970 (both the result of driving while intoxicated - Liston was a notoriously bad drunk, never mind behind the wheel), Sonny identified himself to the officer not as a “celebrity,” “former heavyweight champion,” or even “actor,” but simply as “Boxer. Unemployed.” In two years he’d devolved from ex-heavyweight status to an addict swinging nickel bags.
Mired as it is in hearsay (and that’s all we have), the book’s sometimes shaky foundations of speculation nonetheless make for an absorbing attempt to address the mystery that died with the man. At times the padding, rather than keeping us on point with a relevant timeline, strays into swaths devoted to Howard Hughes, Ali’s Muslim problems, and the growth, decline, and resurgence of the city in which Sonny was a liminal, tertiary figure at best. But the rogues’ gallery, as assembled by Assael, assumes the veering, colorful chronology and fast-pace of the very best of true-crime. All the while Assael remains reticent to commit to a solid theory regarding Liston’s lonely death. As Sonny’s habit began derail him, both Chudnick and half of the drug dealers in Vegas came to view him as a liability while the crooked, enabling cops who turned a blind eye to his antics grew less accommodating once Sonny’s top man on the force came under scrutiny for corruption. The last man to see Sonny alive was an undercover narc (probably Sutton), while the first to find his five day-old corpse was his wife Geraldine. Inexplicably, she waited three hours before calling the police, who found a balloon filled with heroin in plain sight on the counter. If Geraldine knew her husband kept drugs in the house (supposedly he didn’t - his cache was reported to be kept hidden outside), why wouldn’t she hide them? Assuel is not the first to surmise that the cops had planted it, but he delves into the mystery more than any writer before him. Whether the cops or the mafia, the question remains as to why the hot shot was administered in the first place.
In 1982, a wildly corrupt vice-squad cop (even by Vegas standards) named Larry Gandy came forward with a story that a drug lord with serious doubt as to Liston’s dependability had the shot administered to bring on his overdose. Sonny never had a good relationship with cops, whom he distrusted (and rightly so), rendering the chances of his ratting out any of the dealers to The Man slim to none. When asked point blank if he himself killed Liston, Gandy answered the question with another one: “Did he have every bone in his body broken? No? Well, then I didn’t kill him.” Many of the figures mentioned when discussing Sonny’s death can actually be found on Facebook (I don’t suggest friending them). Surrounded by needles and balloons suspiciously devoid of fingerprints (the surrounding area was never dusted) the discovery of his body on January 5th places his death somewhere between the hours of New Year’s Eve 1970-71. As in death, Liston’s entire life is virtually impossible to chronicle: his birth date has been placed anywhere from the mid 20s to the mid 30s (though boxing writer Springs Toledo, after decades of research, claims to have pinned it at July 22, 1930). One cannot write off police involvement in a city where the line between cops and bad guys was blurry at best, but even theories of an overdose grow murky under the coroner’s inability to detect a lethal amount of heroin in Sonny’s system. Assael uncovers a car accident in which Sonny was involved a month or so before his death. Liston waited a full week with glass shards launched in his face before having Geraldine bring him to the hospital where he was then diagnosed with a heart condition. With a needle stuck in his arm, heroin must have played a major role in his death - possibly through the exacerbation of said heart condition. Speculations also abound that he was killed for his poor acting skills in throwing his second fight with Ali or his final bout with Chuck Wepner. Like the Gardner Museum heist, any wannabe hood who was around at the time will tell you they know the real story. Of course they won’t -hell, someone could come knocking at their door. The book’s absorbing conclusion is that in the end, no theory firmly sticks. An autopsy attributing “natural causes” to the death of a man the world had deemed inconsequential was quickly put to bed. It seemed there was nothing more to investigate.
One can only hope that the misunderstood man with the haunted eyes of whom James Baldwin wrote “I sensed no cruelty at all” found peace in death buried beneath a stone bearing the simple words, “Sonny Liston. A Man.” Lacking evidence that died along with Liston and occasionally puffed up with dubious interviewees, Assael’s book may occasionally palaver from player to player, yet this provides information (take it for what it’s worth) that colludes to form a wildly entertaining whirl of intrigue which can never be resolved. It may confirm what we already knew (very little-to-nothing), but there’s more than enough intrigue, information, new characters, and pathos to keep us reading. Solved or not, are those not the makings of a great mystery?
Headline, December 31, 1970.