Sonny Liston: A man who lived next door

By Michael Katz


Sonny Liston: A man who lived next door

“He got dealt an Oklahoma flush for life - one card doesn't match any other. He had no chance of winning.” Gary Bates, Mandalay Bay blackjack dealer, on his old friend and sparring partner, Charles (Sonny) Liston.

He died next door in a split-level pastel green house on what is now the Las Vegas National Golf Club's 16th fairway. The body, discovered Jan. 3, 1970, was partially decomposed and the date of death was guessed at Dec. 29. Heart failure was listed as the cause. Heroin was found in his system, needle marks in his arms, but anyone who knew the former heavyweight champion knew Charles (Sonny) Liston was so afraid of needles he ran from doctors.

The cops said it was probably an overdose. The death, like his life, remains a mystery. There was talk of a Memphis porn ring that he got involved with; now I've learned that it could have been a “vigilante” group operating out of the sheriff's office who did not like Liston collecting for a West Side loanshark, then zipping back to his country club setting in a pink Cadilac with the top down.

I wasn't thinking much about Sonny until I had a fire in my home a couple of blocks away and the insurance company gave me temporary residence in the home next to Liston's old home and an excuse to look up one of his old buddies.

“Who was the toughest guy in Vegas?” said Gary Bates, the buddy. “It wasn't Sonny.”

The house where Liston last lived, and where he died, has since been painted white and I don't know whom my next-door neighbors are. Debbie Reynolds used to live on the block, which ends a couple of houses down in a cul-de-sac. My four-bedroom ranch was formerly inhabited by an illegal bookmaker - as attested by the many phone jacks still in the smallest bedroom - who is in the Nevada Gaming Commission's “black book,” meaning he cannot step foot into any casino in this state. Word is that he is now plying his trade in the Caribbean.

One of Liston's great idols, Joe Louis, lived less than a mile away. Vegas may be the second fastest growing city in America, but it is full of little histories from its days of not so long ago when it was a 20th Century bastion of the wild, wild West, when giants like Sinatra and Elvis walked its dusty streets, figuratively rubbing elbows with titans like Howard Hughes and Bernard Siegel. And so it was that Liston, a goon in prison and out, purchased the house next to my abode for $64,000 in 1966 from Kirk Kerkorian, the billionaire financier who, in the course of time, has had such toys as MGM, Chrysler and General Motors.

The house is probably worth nine or ten times that much now, but the paint is peeling and Liston has moved to the Garden of Peace section of Paradise Gardens. The gravestone lies flat on the ground, almost as if to avoid the stream of jets passing maybe 300 feet above to land at McCarran Airport. It says:                           “Charles 'Sonny' Liston”
“A Man”

He was much older than the stone suggests, according to Bates. “He was at least 52,” said Bates, who had gone to the house on Ottawa Drive the night the Sonny's wife, Geraldine, returned from a trip out of town and found the body. No one really knew Liston's age, but if Bates's guess is accurate, that would have made Sonny about 45 when he lost the title in a major upset to young Cassius Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali, in 1964.

“He was an old 45, more like 70 would be like today,” said Bates, who is 62 himself. “He was old enough to be my father. He was close to 25, 27 years older than me.”

Bates, one of those rare Vegas natives (from the same county in Henderson), was a 17-year-old busboy when he first met Liston at the Thunderbird.

He was stationed in the Marines about 210 miles away in California. “My car payments were $81 a month and I was getting $79 a month from the Marines. On weekends, I would work at the Thunderbird. I met Liston, I felt like I was talking to a gunslinger,” said Bates, who still looks like he could collect some wayward debts for loansharks. “I was just getting good with a slingshot. He was nice to me. He was with me when I got stabbed in the eye (by a showgirl).”

Bates was involved in a lot of shady doings. He didn't run with the best of crowds. Two buddies were murdered. A third wound up killing his parents. Let's say a guy gives a doll some jewelry, she cheats on him and he wants it back? Someone commits burglary. Bates was a lot luckier than Liston.

He had friends who grew into high places. He was taught boxing as a kid by Mike O'Callaghan, the future godfather of Bates's two daughters and also the future governor of Nevada. The best man at both his weddings was Harry Reid, an old boxing buddy who is now the Senate Majority Leader. For all his wild youth, Bates has settled down into being a real-life hero - he has donated 20 gallons - gallons, not pints - and lots of bone marrow. He once pulled a man out of a burning truck, saved another woman who was pinned in her caar and caught a purse snatcher. Reid said Bates, the product of a broken home, had settled down and become a “very devout Catholic.”

Lucky? Bates was in an artillery unit that was getting ready to ship out to Vietnam when he broke his foot playing flag football. He was the unit's only survivor, in a hospital while the rest of his buddies died in combat.

Liston never got those kind of breaks. “I just wish he had been dealt a better hand,” said Bates. “Sonny was the last of 25 children (in Arkansas). He didn't go to first grade until he was about 11. One of his brothers or sisters said he couldn't just hang around the house, he had to go to school. Basically, he was illiterate. Later, a priest helped him to write his name.

“I remember, I was dealing at the Frontier, in '68, I think, a woman came up to him and asked, 'Don't you ever smile?' and Sonny said 'I don't smile for no reason - you cry for no reason?'

“To the very end he was consumed by the mob. When he was in prison, he was doing mob work (beating up guys who needed beating up). He waas doing it so well, they wouldn't let him out.”

Liston's last fight, he lost to Leotis Martin. Bates said that was it, “Where could he go? He ran out of money. He had no commercial value. He wasn't going to be on any talk shows, not after the reputation he had. He didn't walk away from boxing with anything. He was probably the last of the Neanderthal fighters.”

I never met him, but one of my esteemed predecessors as boxing writer for the New York Times, Bob Lipsyte, described him as a bully. He said once he was seated “knee to knee” with Liston in a room as small as a closet when a young lady tried to interrupt. Lipsyte said Liston told her gruffly to leave him alone, but when she yelled back at him  that he had promised her some time for an interview, the Big Bad Bear meekly apologized.

Liston cost me money when he meekly gave up against Cassius Clay in Miami. I had laid the 7-1 on him against the loudmouth from Louisville. Not that I was against the young man, but I had this image of Liston as some malevolent Superman. Besides, while stationed at Fort Dix, NJ, in 1962, I had made a bundle on him when he won the title against Floyd Patterson. I was in clerk-typist school (I entered typing 80 words a minute and after eight weeks of intensive Army training, I was up to 67) and we had permission to keep the lights to listen to the fight on radio. We all went out and got six-packs, which stacked on the barracks floor resembled a model city. We were still working on our first brew when the fight was over.

In 1970, as the sports editor of the International Herald Tribune, I went to Madrid on a working vacation to check out this undefeated Basque heavyweight about whom reams of copy were crossing my desk in Paris almost daily. Jose Manuel Ibar - known simply as Urtain, which rhymes with poor wine - was challenging for the European heavyweight title.

The promoters brought in the great Basque heavyweight Paulino Uzcudun, who had once beaten Max Schmeling and had lost to Joe Louis. He was with his very old French trainer. Uzcudun, through his trainer's translation, told me Urtain was aa complete phony, that all his fights had been fixed.

His trainer told me there was a “booker” in New York and European promoters would call him up and say, for example, “Madrid, heavyweight, two,” and some American truck driver would show up in Madrid and dutifully go down in the second round. The Frenchman told me stories about Jack Johnson - he claimed to give the signal, a French military salute, for Johnson to go down against Jess Willard - and Battling Siki.

This was 1970, remember, and Ali was in exile, and I asked the Frenchman who was the greatest heavyweight he had ever seen. Without batting an eye, he said “Sonny Liston.”

What about Ali? I protested. He beat Liston twice. Old Pierre said both were fixes, that Frankie Carbo and the boys told him the odds were 7-1 and they would make lots of money - Sonny would get $1 million, tax free - and don't worry, we'll get your title back in a rematch. That's when Liston quit on the stool, not quite sure which shoulder hurt so much he couldn't go on.

For the rematch, Pierre said, the odds were still 3-1 on Liston, and he was told they could pull the scam again and get the title back in a third fight. But this time, the boys said, mindful that Ali almost quit when something got in his eyes and his cornerman, Angelo Dundee, had to push him out into the ring, Liston should play it safe and go down from the first punch to ensure another $1 million payment.

There are those who said that he didn't wait that long and went down BEFORE the first punch landed in Lewiston. The Frenchman said the stench was so bad there was no way to hold a third fight. He said he had become friends with Liston and they would drive around the Nevada desert together, always tailed by a car that Sonny told him was the Feds.

“They're looking for my money” Liston said, reported Pierre. “They know I buried it in the desert, but I fooled 'em. I put it in a wooden tube so their metal detectors can't find it.”

Bates doesn't know about all that. He said Liston told him that if he wanted to see his son alive “when the fight's over, don't be the champ.”

“So Sonny sat down,” said Bates. “If Ali sat down, he'd have laid down. If Ali had laid down, he would've laid down and rolled out of the ring.”

There is, of course, another theory: No matter how old or slow Liston was by that time, no matter what advice he might have received from the guys with pointed shoes, there was no way he was going to beat The Greatest in the first place.

Remember, when my French friend said Liston was the best heavyweight he had ever seen, it was 1970 and he hadn't seen the best of Ali yet. Yes, Ali was at his physical prime before the exile, but it was only after he returned, a step or two slower and obliged to fight, that he showed his true greatness - the chin, the heart, the smarts. In 1970, he still was to win two of three from Joe Frazier, two of three from Ken Norton and score another major upset by beating George Foreman.

“Sonny Liston was the most perfectly built fighter I've ever seen,” said Bates. “When other fighters jabbed you, it was like getting slapped by your mother-in-law. Sonny's jab, it could knock you out.”

He sparred with Liston for years and said “I couldn't see beyond his jab, it covered my whole face. His forearms were as big as his shoulders. They looked like buttocks. His chest was like armored plate. Other people practiced the jab, they threw three, four at a time. Sonny would throw 200. He could skip rope to 'Night Train' by James Brown. 'Ominous' was the best word to describe him.”

He said Liston, at just a little over 6 feet and a bit over 200 pounds, would have gone through the giants of today. Mike Tyson, who considered Liston an idol, would have been knocked out, said Bates. “The Klitsachkos? They'd be better for him because they were slower. It's something akin to Gerry Cooney. Large guys are not ballerinas.”

Bates knows about Cooney. That was his final opponent in a 16-18-2 career according to Bates said that the record was incomplete, that it didn't include a 1968 draw with Jerry Quarry, but in the three “name” fights on it, he did not do very well.

He faced Ken Norton in 1969, had his jaw broken in the second round, but managed to back the old Marine against the ropes in the fifth.

“They had to stop the fight in the eighth because I couldn't get my mouthpiece out,” he told Royce Feour of the Las Vegas Review Journal, a buddy who introduced me to Bates.

He spent much of his Marine stint on Okinawa as a boxer. He got out in 1965 and renewed acquaintanceship with Liston. He said Liston taught him to use amphetamines before fights. He used them, he said, for eight or nine fights, but cut them out when he was still “wired” the following morning.

“The San Diego Chargers used to give them to their players, but they had to cut it out when their wives started divorcing them,” said Bates.

After Norton, Bates was matched in 1971 with Ron Lyle. A hook broke a rib on Bates's right side. A right hand did equal damage on the left side. That was the first round. Bates made it through four.

He said the first punch Cooney landed was a right hand to the chest - yes, a right hand - and “I suffered from cardiofibulitis, I totally lost my vision. He hit my wiring.”

He decided Cooney was “just too big” and he was getting too old and he never really considered himself a fighter. It was just something he did on the side. He got along well with the fight crowd. He was best man at the second wedding for the late Johnny Tocco, the legendary local gym owner and Liston cornerman. He and his wife still go visit his buddy Liston. “Lem Banker (a famous linemaker) also goes out to the stone all the time,” he said.

Charles “Sonny” Liston. 1932-1970. A Man.

The Man next door.

PENTHOUSE: He may be nicknamed The Ghost, but Kelly Pavlik showed a lot more substance in stopping the gritty Jose Luis Zertuche. It's nice that the middleweight division has some quality players for the first time since Roy Jones Jr. and James Toney left Bernard Hopkins virtually all alone. Pavlik showed he can box a bit, punch a bit and maybe even take a shot.

OUTHOUSE: What were HBO and/or Bob Arum thinking about putting the exciting Jorge Arce in with a stinker like Argentina's Julio Ler. Arce, sucking on his cherry lollipop while riding a dancing horse, could never get his opponent to engage. It proves, one supposes, that you can lead a horse to the ring, but you can't make the other guy fight. It was Kid Lollipop vs. Kid Suck….My note after Tye Fields, Arum's 6-foot-8-inch entry into the heavyweight ranks, won a ten-round decision over journeyman Kendrick Releford: “There were no knockdowns and fewer skills.”\...The question now is whether Jose Sulaiman retires the OUTHOUSE by allowing Vitali Klitschko to cut in line ahead of Samuel Peter.


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