The Devil and Sonny Liston by Nick Tosches

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(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Just as the title The Devil and Sonny Liston suggests the inevitable high price paid for bargaining with evil forces, so does the cautionary quotation that introduces the text. Over twenty-four hundred years ago Æschylus, the Greek writer of tragedies, warned:

This is a song
for the one who is doomed,
a blow to the heart that breaks the mind.

Tosches addresses three mysteries that have besmirched the legacy of Sonny Liston. First, did the mob maneuver his professional career for its own nefarious ends? Yes, Tosches concludes, probably as early as his second fight. Second, did Liston purposely lose his two title contests with Muhammad Ali on orders from his handlers? Again, the author answers affirmatively, most certainly for the first bout and probably also for the rematch. Third, did Liston die as a result of foul play at the hands of mobsters? Surprisingly, Tosches believes not and speculates the cause of death to be a self-inflicted drug overdose.

Section 1, “From Nothing,” opens with the corpse of Liston face down on a metal slab, revealing to the coroner faint traces of whipping welts. Grandly ambitious, Tosches attempts to connect Liston’s heritage back to the Norman invasion of England, the African slave trade, and the farm tenancy system of Choctaw County, Mississippi. If that were not enough to doom him to servitude, the one-time Chicago Golden Gloves champion came under contract to unsavory agents well connected to moguls who controlled American professional boxing during the mid-twentieth century. The middle section of The Devil and Sonny Liston reads somewhat like a mystery novel, rife with rumor and innuendo and murky connections between managers, promoters, boxers, and underworld characters, with many clues ending up unexplained or disconnected from the main plot. An economic determinism pervades the final chapters as Tosches concludes, “Not only in his world, but in the only world there is: it came down to money.”

When young Nick Tosches was hanging out at his father’s Newark, New Jersey, saloon, the talk would often turn to the fight game. No pugilist was more feared than the sullen, heavy-faced Charles L. “Sonny” Liston (the nickname picked up at Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City). His menacing image disturbed middle-class whites and African Americans alike. Heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, the so-called “good Negro” and “credit to his race,” avoided him for years on the flimsy excuse that Liston was bad for boxing. Then, his position increasingly untenable among fans of the United States’ most popular blood sport, “The Rabbit,” as detractors called Patterson, showed up on fight night with a fake beard as a disguise in the likely event he lost. Liston detested Patterson and once let it slip that he’d like to run over the Rabbit with a car (unless it was an act to drum up interest and enhance the gate). Liston took special pleasure in bloodying up Patterson in two title bouts. By 1964 he’d become, according to African American militant playwright Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under.” Newspaper columnist Dan Parker concurred that Liston was “as ill-mannered and insolent as a chain gang boss. Hatred seems to ooze out of his every pore.”

“In a racket built on suckers’ money,” Tosches informs readers, “Sonny as a champion was bad, bad news.” Perhaps because of his self-image as a rebel outsider, the author felt a rapport with this seemingly indestructible fighting machine. Fascination turned to disillusionment after the two humiliating bouts with Muhammad Ali (Cassius M. Clay until he announced he was a Muslim after the first fight). The outcomes seemed suspicious even then. In the first match, televised to some households by cable, seven-to-one favorite Liston egregiously chose not to answer the bell after six rounds. Somehow his mysterious arm ailment had eluded...

(The entire section is 1,968 words.)