RED ARROW: The Mysterious Death of Sonny Liston



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“You should remember that you were born to die.” Blind Willie McTell

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Las Vegas, Nevada, 1970. His life was a firetrap; his days were dry tinder. A small spark here or there—some ash from a cigarette, perhaps—and the whole ramshackle hovel would go up in roaring flames. You could shovel all the sand in the world on it, hose it down with the entire Atlantic Ocean—nothing was going to stop that conflagration.

In the brittle Las Vegas heat—sunstroke conditions—Charles “Sonny” Liston, ex-heavyweight champion of the world, roamed from one dark quarter to another. He was wandering through a dangerous netherworld, one still two decades away from turning into a tourist trap where outlandish replicas of the Pyramids and the Statue of Liberty dotted the landscape. No, during those last lost years of Sonny Liston, the Vegas strip was still dominated by garish neon signs and billboards announcing the names of extinct hotels, burlesque clubs, and casinos: The Dunes, The Thunderbird, The Hacienda, The Flamingo. And behind that gaudy façade was an Open City for the lowdown and dirty. Sonny Liston, alas, was in his element.

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After his two mystifying performances against Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali—fights that stunned and outraged more than just the sporting world—a disgraced Liston moved to Las Vegas in 1966 with his wife, Geraldine, and embarked on a far-flung comeback that began in Stockholm, Sweden. His set-up tour reached a dozen consecutive victories before it finally hit The Strip. Then, in his second fight back in Sin City, the beginning of the end finally closed in on him. In December 1969, roughly a year after working his way back into the heavyweight rankings, Liston was brutally knocked out by his ex-sparring partner Leotis Martin in a fight aired live on ABC. A piercing overhand right, hard as flak, sent Liston nosediving into the canvas—and into the shadowlands of Vegas hustling. Although he had one more fight—a bloody TKO of valiant Chuck Wepner in 1970—Liston was now on his own in an underworld as above-ground as any in the nation.

Liston—the hulking ex-strikebreaker with a ramrod jab and a left hook as heavy as a derrick—was at loose ends in a city dominated by wiseguys, grifters, and bad luck. No longer earning big paydays—even the ones creative mob accountants cut into quarter-sized pieces—Liston found himself with cash flow problems and a threadbare resume. Unlike his friend and idol Joe Louis, who made a good living as a greeter, Liston was sullen and monosyllabic in public. He was, in fact, under-qualified for a cushy Vegas entertainment job. So he hit the dust-strewn streets and returned to his roots. Among his Vegas pastimes were blackjack, hookers, craps, vodka, cannabis, and cocaine. Once in a while Liston made a cameo appearance in a film or a TV show—Love, American Style, for example—or he served as a bodyguard for Doris Day and Redd Foxx. Some of his other job descriptions? Try drug trafficker and enforcer. But this raw atmosphere was nothing new to Liston. Until he earned fame as the heavyweight champion of the world, Liston had known little but poverty and violence.

“I can understand the reasons for my failings,” Liston once said. “When I was a kid I had nothing but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother, and a father who didn’t care about a single one of us. We grew up like heathens. We hardly had enough food to keep from starving, no shoes, only a few clothes, and nobody to help us escape from the horrible life we lived.” One of 25 children born to a vicious tenant farmer, Sonny Liston—who never knew his own birthday but settled on a date of May 8, 1932, for bureaucratic purposes—was raised in a tumbledown shack in Arkansas during the Great Depression. Pulled out of school when he was old enough to work the fields with his father, Liston would remain essentially illiterate for the rest of his life. As a teenager he ran off to St. Louis in search of his mother. There, Liston became an ineffectual thief and a strong-arm man with a burgeoning rap sheet and little hope for anything else. Dubbed “#1 Negro” by local law enforcement officials, Liston was eventually arrested for robbery in 1950 and served time in the Missouri State Penitentiary. “Jeff City,” one of the most dangerous prisons in America, was where he learned how to box.

In 1953 Liston turned pro, and after less than a dozen fights, he wound up under the control of The Syndicate. Early in his career, it would be the mid-West Combination headed by John Vitale. Then it was the powerful East Coast outfit, where the prizefight subdivision was led by ex-Lucchese torpedo Frankie Carbo and his bug-eyed sidekick Blinky Palermo. Liston would be dogged by mob ties—and the vilification that came with such shady connections—for the rest of his life. Even after becoming heavyweight champion, in fact, Liston would live through a perpetual whirlwind of paddy wagons, gavels, congressional hearings, ruthless headlines, and witch-hunting state commissions.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, after cleaning out the entire heavyweight division, Liston vaulted from the sports pages and became a national OP-ED nightmare. To a tense America, Liston was a potentially lethal combination of Stagger Lee, Jack Johnson, Nat Turner, and Leadbelly. Liston was the first troublesome African-American heavyweight champion of the Civil Rights Era, a man whose silent contempt and unsavory background unnerved both the Establishment and the downtrodden. Not even the NAACP wanted him to fight Patterson for the title. It was as if Liston—by the sheer force of his inarticulate rage—could somehow single-handedly put a stop to the Freedom Riders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Meredith. Never mind George Wallace, Ross Barnett, or the Ku Klux Klan—the top contender for the biggest prize in professional sports was a threat to progress. Sonny Liston, it seemed, never stopped being “#1 Negro.”

One of the most fearsome heavyweights in history, Liston was ducked for years by Floyd Patterson, whose manager, Cus D’Amato, used the sinister cabal backing Liston as a smokescreen to avoid the imminent ruin of his physically and psychologically fragile champion. When Liston finally got his title shot in 1962, he knocked Patterson over like a bowling pin in less than a round to begin the most unpopular title reign since the days of Jack Johnson. A year later, Liston repeated his performance, dropping Patterson three times and leaving him wall-eyed in 129 ho-hum seconds. Then came the debacles against Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, and Liston was a continental pariah. Still, in Las Vegas, where the infamous “List of Excluded Persons” had been in circulation since 1960, even Liston, dragging shadows as long as Route 66 behind him, was welcome.

Just five-and-a-half years after answering the bell as one of the most famous men in America, however, Sonny Liston, aged anywhere from between 38 and 42, was dead. On December 26, 1970, Geraldine Liston left Las Vegas to visit family in St. Louis. When she returned, on January 5, 1971, she walked in on the grim sight of her husband rotting away in their bedroom. Police found a syringe, along with some heroin and marijuana on the premises. Dennis Caputo, one of the officers in the Liston house that night, described the setting for the documentary Sonny Liston: The Champ Nobody Wanted. “I arrived at the scene, was escorted into the bedroom where Sonny Liston was laying on the bed,” Caputo said. “There was no sign of a struggle. There were no apparent wounds on his body—that was hard to determine because of the deterioration of the body—but there was absolutely nothing to indicate that Sonny Liston died anything but a natural death.”

Later, the autopsy would reveal that traces of morphine and codeine—possible byproducts of heroin—were found in his system. But Liston, whose magnificent physique had powered him to the heavyweight championship of the world, was in such an advanced state of decay that it was hard to tell what had really happened to him. Ultimately, the Clark County coroner ruled that Liston had died of natural causes. “This autopsy rules out the possibility of homicide,” wrote the medical examiner. Another element, one perhaps obliterated by the decomposition of the body—and one the autopsy did not reveal—was the state of his health leading up to his time of death. In November 1970, Liston had been hospitalized after a car crash, and a few weeks later chest pains forced him into an emergency room. In 1991 Geraldine Liston told Sports Illustrated that Liston had suffered from high blood pressure. Could some of these afflictions have contributed to his mysterious death?

Over 40 years later, no one knows exactly what happened to Liston. It would take a study the size of the Warren Commission Report to gather all the theories—conspiracy and otherwise—put forth concerning his death. Consider this short list of possibilities: the mob gave Liston a “hot shot;” Liston had a contract put out on him by gambler Ash Resnick; he was murdered by some drug dealers he had double-crossed; a Black Muslim conspiracy cut him down; he was depressed and committed suicide. Of course, the simplest explanation of all—that he overdosed on heroin—seems implausible to most. But is it really such a far-fetched scenario?

Most of those close to Liston swore that he was not a heroin addict. Geraldine Liston insisted that Sonny did not dabble in drugs at all. “He never took any drugs as far as I knew, and I sure knew a dopehead when I saw one,” she told Unsolved Mysteries in 1995. Davey Pearl, his closest friend during his Vegas exile, repeatedly asserted that Liston never even drank. Conversely, Las Vegas trainer Johnny Tocco told Flash magazine that Liston had nothing but a taste for liquor. “All Liston did was drink,” he said in 1988. “I know…I ran the bar here. Vodka on the rocks was all.” But these character references are contradicted by the facts: Liston was a documented user (pot and cocaine) and as far from a clean liver as Geoffrey Firmin was in Under the Volcano.

The fact that Liston used cocaine brings up other issues as well. In America, cocaine use in the late sixties and early seventies was limited. It would be years before the “Champagne of Drugs” would become a chic and omnipresent symbol of the disco era. Drug use before the popularity of mirror balls usually meant amphetamines, morphine, mushrooms, pot, LSD, and horse. Prescription drugs—like barbiturates and tranquilizers—were also abused. The mere fact that Liston was using cocaine during 1970 likely meant one thing only: he was selling it. Simply put, cocaine was too expensive for an ex-pug without a bankroll on the hustle in the bleak city Lenny Bruce used to call “Lost Wages, Nevada.”

John Sutton, a former federal narcotics agent, makes it clear in his book, Thin White Lines, that Liston was not only trafficking, but that he was getting high on his own supply as well. Sutton, working undercover alongside an informant, met with Liston in late 1970. “He related that he just made enough from the coke business to get by, have a little cocaine for his own use and pay a few bills,” Sutton wrote. “He had no pension, no money saved, and no real future ahead of him.” What Liston did have, however, was plenty of access to drugs.

Over the years much has been made about the intense fear of needles Liston reportedly had. Indeed, it is one of the only consistent aspects of the many accounts written about him. This fear is the main reason why many insist that Liston could not have died of a heroin overdose. How, they ask, can someone so afraid of needles shoot up? No doubt Freud would have had a thing or two to say about the story of a man who protested so much about needles only to wind up dead from a possible overdose. As Nick Tosches wryly noted in his biography of Liston, “there never was a junkie who did not start out afraid of needles.” It should also be pointed out that heroin can be snorted, inhaled, or smoked; mainlining is not the only way Liston could have been using.

Finally, you can almost see the progression—common in drug users—from one stimulant to another: liquor, marijuana, cocaine, and then? What next? Is heroin next? And if his wife and his friends were unable to spot reefer, coke, and vodka, what makes the historical record certain that they could spot heroin? Plenty of others, however, did finger Liston as a user. Years after the Liston investigation ended, Dennis Caputo spoke to author Paul Gallender. “It was common knowledge that Sonny was a heroin addict,” Caputo said. “The whole department knew about it.” In early 1971 novelist Bruce Jay Friedman haunted some of the back alleys of Las Vegas for Esquire. One night he ran across one of probably hundreds of shady ladies who had known Liston. “With little prompting she tells you of an evening which she and Sonny and another white chick sat around and all fixed together,” Friedman wrote. “How he had gone from sniffing coke to shooting it and, when that didn’t get him off, had moved on to skag and how sad it is.” This source seems to indicate that Liston was fairly new to heroin. Or maybe he was simply the joypopping type.

And for every Liston confidante who denies drug use, there are just as many who believe that the former heavyweight champion of the world died chasing the dragon. In his recent book, Sonny Liston: The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights, Paul Gallender reveals a number of shocking new details surrounding the death of Liston. But, in the end, he, too, believes that Liston died of misadventure. “What seemed most likely is that Sonny suffered a heart attack and died where he fell. He probably was doing heroin but not injecting it.”

Hank Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, was more succinct: “The man took an enormous belt and O.D.’d.” Gene Kilroy, publicist, also thought that Liston overdosed. “I think he was using and he overdosed,” Kilroy told Nick Tosches. “I think he was depressed because he was running out of money. I think either he did himself in or he accidentally did himself in.”

Other theories—like the Black Muslim conspiracy—are much sketchier and need a fairly vivid imagination to pursue. As for Liston crossing the mob somehow, well, Liston had worked hand-in-hand with the mob for over 15 years without ever, apparently, kicking. Another fact that points away from a mafia hit is this paragraph from a 1968 Sports Illustrated article: “The word has been circulated in Las Vegas that Liston is now square with the mob. Though little was ever proved, it has always been assumed that certain underworld elements were cutting the fighter from the beginning. “Not long ago he paid his way out of all that,” an insider explains. ‘He’s clean.’” Add to this the fact that other fighters have openly defied the mob and never suffered from payback. Jake LaMotta and Ike Williams, for example, both testified to the Kefauver Committee about LCN activity in boxing.

Although no one has ever come forward with tangible information on a supposed “hot shot” killing or a La Cosa Nostra hit, somebody did speak up about Liston and his heroin connection. In his book Las Vegas Babylon, Jeff Burbank spoke to Mark Rodney, whose father, troubled jazz/con man Red Rodney, had a heroin habit in the 1950s that cost him several thousand dollars a week—an astonishing figure for that time. Rodney, a superb trumpet player who had toured with Charlie Parker during the height of the bebop era, spent many years in prison for theft, fraud, possession. In the 1960s and 1970s, Rodney played for showroom orchestras in Las Vegas, but he remained, at heart, a hardcore junkie.

And he was friendly with none other than Sonny Liston.

From Las Vegas Babylon: “According to…Mark, who was a teenager in late December 1970, Liston knocked on the door of their Vegas home, smiled, and went with his dad into Red’s bedroom. Liston soon left. A few days later, Red told his son that Liston’s wife had found her husband’s moldering corpse—after he’d been dead for a couple of days—in Liston’s bedroom. Red feared that the police investigation would lead to him, but it never did. Red soon skipped town anyway.”

For Liston, a man whose life was chaos, perhaps nothing as prosaic as a drug overdose would be accepted as an epitaph. After all, inscrutable signs dominate his death scene: Newspapers and milk bottles left outside his doorstep; a glass of vodka on the night stand; heroin, a syringe, and a balloon, but no gimmick to double as a tourniquet; a mysterious black powder; a .38 caliber gun sheathed in its holster; track marks on the arms of a man who allegedly suffered from aichmophobia.

Despite the mysteries, contradictions, and unfathomable symbols that surround his death, it seems as if Liston died exactly how it appeared he did—by misadventure with a drug he was still relatively unfamiliar with. No conspiracies, no mob hit, no hot shots—none of that. Whether it was because Liston was new to the joypopping game, or whether he had a pre-existing condition that made his drug use a serious gamble every time he dabbled in it, heroin was a death sentence for him. Combine high blood pressure and a recent hospital stay for chest pains with a cocaine habit and a thirst for vodka, and you have a man playing Russian roulette with five chambers.

“Can you tell me what happened to you, Sonny?” Geraldine Liston cried out during his funeral service. This question has echoed and haunted now for over 40 years. Perhaps it will no longer. In the end, then, it appears that Sonny Liston died from an overdose of heroin sold to him by a bebop trumpeter nicknamed “The Red Arrow.”

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Tags: HEAVYWEIGHTS Muhammad Ali Red Rodney Sonny Liston