- Sonny Liston: The Real Story behind the Ali–Liston Fights by Paul R. Gallender
Former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston’s life is explored in Paul Gallender’s Sonny Liston: The Real Story behind the Ali–Liston Fights, another re-examination of Liston’s reputation as a nasty thug. Prior to the new millennium, Liston’s dark past entitled him to only two biographies, few questioning his seedy media depiction. Only in the past fifteen years has inquiry beyond the ugly Goliath to Ali’s David appeared. Gallender’s revelations about their second fight would never have been published when Ali was liberal America’s repository of virtue. His iconic status for opposing the Vietnam War made him an untouchable sacred cow. This book’s assertions, that Liston was physically an old man in their first fight and forced to throw the second one, has elicited little public outrage from Ali fans, bolstering its credibility.
Gallender begins describing Liston’s strength, with so much praise the reader might suspect a romanticized ode. Yet the author leaves no doubt Liston was a force of nature, knocking out or breaking sixteen teeth from one opponent and enduring a broken jaw without flinching; even his sparring partners required chest protectors! One must read longer to find a thesis that Liston got a raw deal in public hostility, having a decent side overlooked by vindictive sportswriters. Gallender reveals a Liston that 1960s Americans never saw.
The author partially cites race to explain Liston’s demonization. No slack came Sonny’s way. Suspicious arrests, removal from the rankings for arrests without investigation, and calls for the abolition of boxing by grandstanding politicians make it clear that Sonny scared white America. Yet Gallender goes beyond racism. Harlem boxing fans booed Liston, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People rooted against him.
The conventional wisdom of Liston exposed as a bullying coward by Ali, quitting on his stool, is challenged. Eight doctors confirmed Liston’s arm was injured and declared him seven to ten years older than he claimed afterward, evidence available but largely ignored for decades because it didn’t serve Ali’s legend.
Boxing fans might be astonished to read of Liston lavishing gifts on his wife, his generosity toward friends and strangers, his unappreciated intelligence and warm humor, and his adoption of children.
Other truths hurt Gallender’s thesis, however. Liston had a mean streak as a boy, long before public rejection. One arrest, for impersonating a police officer, was not white [End Page 109] paranoia, given a black victim and Liston’s apologizing. Driving his car onto sidewalks to scare people raises interest about other Liston “pranks.”
An unsettling part of Gallender’s revisionism involves references to two sexual assaults, obviously not depicting an intrinsically decent man. Gallender makes no attempt to integrate these ugly crimes into his sympathy for Liston, describing them in a matter-of-fact way chillingly bereft of moral judgment.
Liston’s struggles for a title shot against Floyd Patterson scream unfairness, revealing political manipulations by a hypocritical Cus D’Amato, who had his own sketchy background, using transparent excuses to save his boxer. Patterson kept the crown against mediocre-at-best opponents, even denying fights to deserving black fighters. Such timidity was sanctified by a fawning sports media wanting to celebrate Floyd as a reformed delinquent, instead of a sullen, black reflection of Nat Turner with gloves.
The author insists Liston wanted to rise above his past but was denied by a sanctimonious press too lazy to look beyond the boxer’s reputation. Such hostility never allowed him to be a role model. It seems that a proudly meritocratic nation favoring redemption could have left the door slightly ajar for Liston to earn back its good graces.
Age, inactivity, a broken-down body, and Ali’s head games made Liston’s loss anything but surprising in retrospect. Liston was in no condition to fight Ali either time, a truth probably unpalatable to Ali admirers. The...