Sonny Liston was a notable twentieth century African-American boxer. He was known for his punching power and intimidating appearance in the boxing ring. Liston earned the World Heavyweight Championship in 1962 when he knocked out his opponent Floyd Patterson.
He was named Charles Liston upon his birth. The exact year of his birth is unknown, although it is disputed that he could have been born during early 1930s. Liston grew up in a sharecropping family in Sand Slough, Arkansas. His family farmed the poor land of Morledge Plantation. Liston had a rough childhood as he claimed that the only thing his father ever gave him was severe beatings and the scars left were visible even decades later. Though his mother left him with his father, he managed to travel to St. Louis to reunite with her and his siblings. He began his education at a local school but quickly left afterwards for being criticized about his illiteracy.
Since Liston had no education or any other skills, his chances of any respectful employment were quite low. The dire situation led him toward the life of crime. Liston formed a gang of tough guys like him and organized mugging and armed robberies. The St. Louis police named him “Yellow Shirt Bandit” as he was usually seen in yellow during a robbery. Eventually, Liston was captured by the law in 1950 and was sentenced to five years of imprisonment in Missouri State Penitentiary. The imprisonment didn’t bother him as he was grateful for three times of meals a day. He was suggested by the athletic director of the penitentiary to try boxing and due to priest’s endorsement Liston gained an early parole. A sparring session with a professional heavyweight named Thurman Wilson was arranged to gauge Liston’s potential.
After being released from the prison in 1952, Liston had a brief career before he won the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in 1953. He also competed in the 1953, National Amateur Athletic Union Tournament but lost to Jimmy McCarter. He then participated in International Golden Gloves competition and defeated the bronze medal winner, Hermann Schreibauer of West Germany, in the first round. His professional boxing career was helped built by the connection in organized crime. He made his professional boxing debut in September, 1953 and knocked out Don Smith in the first round. Despite not being tall enough for a heavyweight champion, Liston had an intimidating physique which worked in his favour.
Sonny Liston faced several highly capable boxers in his early career such as John Summerlin, whom he defeated in his own hometown Detroit, on national television. His first defeat was at the hand of Marty Marshall. However after losing in an eight-round split decision, he defeated Marshall in a rematch and a rubber match in 1956. Liston’s connection with the underworld again came back to haunt him. The police officers began to stop him on sight to question about his personal association with a notorious labor racketeer. Once he was questioned about a car parked near his home, he allegedly assaulted the officer and took his gun. He was claimed to resist arrest and sentenced to nine-months of imprisonment. Nonetheless, he was paroled after serving six months but prohibited from boxing. After receiving conspicuous threats from the police, Liston moved to Philadelphia. By 1958, he was back where he started and won eight fights that year.
Sonny Liston’s reputation wavered when he lost the World Heavyweight Champion title to the invincible Muhammad Ali. He was ranked as the 7th greatest heavyweight of all-time in 1998 by The Ring magazine.