December 30, 1970: Mysterious Death of Sonny Liston

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A Brief History

On December 30, 1970, former heavyweight boxing champion Charles L. “Sonny” Liston lay dead on the bedroom floor of his Las Vegas home.  There he would stay until his wife found his dead body on January 5, 1971, almost a week later.  Officially, the Coroner said heart failure (your heart always fails when you die, just sayin’) and lung congestion.  The body was already somewhat decomposed, making definitive analysis of cause of death difficult, and rumors started almost immediately.

Digging Deeper

Liston had won the heavyweight championship by beating Floyd Patterson in 1962 at the age of about 32 (but his date of birth was never established).  Liston had started a boxing career around 1953, and by 1960 was the number one contender for the title, but his supposed ties to organized criminals (Liston had worked for criminals as an enforcer ala Rocky Balboa) kept Champion Floyd Patterson from agreeing to a fight.  Civic officials and even the NAACP encouraged Patterson not to give Liston a title shot, due to these unsavory connections.  Important people such as President Kennedy and former Champ Jack Dempsey opined against Liston having a title fight!  Liston’s refusal to fight for African-American civil rights in the South were highlighted by the big man saying, “I aint got no dog-proof ass!”   Finally, a long campaign by Liston and his handlers forced Patterson to fight Liston, claiming that Patterson would only fight Caucasian challengers.

Liston (214 lbs) knocked out Patterson (189 lbs) in just over 2 minutes in the first round.  Despite his new status as heavyweight champion, Liston managed to alienate the public and even the police, getting into trouble on several occasions.  When the rematch with Patterson happened in July of 1963, Liston finished the hapless ex-champ in just over 2 minutes of the first round, only 4 seconds later than the first fight!

When Liston fought Cassius Clay in 1964 for his second defense, Liston was an overwhelming favorite to beat the guy who had won the Olympic Gold Medal in boxing (light heavyweight) in 1960.  Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, out boxed the champ and Liston was unable to come out for the seventh round.  Liston had lost his title and the boxing world was shocked.  The rematch was delayed by Ali having a hernia, and trouble surrounding the criminals involved with promoting the fight almost torpedoed the match.  The fight was moved to Lewiston, Maine (population 14,000!) and this time the fight became one of the most controversial fights in history.  Ali knocked Liston down in the first round with a punch many in attendance claimed did not land.

The pandemonium that ensued prevented the referee from hearing the knock down time counter and Ali spent some time looming over Liston, taunting the downed fighter instead of retreating to a neutral corner.  When Liston finally got up, the fight resumed, and the knockdown timekeeper was yelling that he had counted Liston out, at which time the referee quickly stepped in and stopped the fight, declaring Ali the new champ by knockout.

Many boxing fans never believed the fight was legitimate, and Liston’s reputation suffered more than ever, with innuendo that he had thrown the fight due to criminal involvement.  The “phantom punch” became part of boxing lore. After a year out of the ring, Liston returned to win 14 fights in a row (13 knockouts) and seemed ready to again challenge for the title.  In his next fight, Liston was winning but got knocked out himself in the ninth round against Leotis Martin, ruining Liston’s chance for title shot.  Liston went on to fight one more time, a victory over Chuck Wepner (the guy that was the inspiration for Rocky Balboa), breaking Wepner’s cheekbone and nose while causing major cuts (72 stitches) above Wepner’s eyes.

Police responding to Liston’s death declared the death to be caused by heroin overdose, but toxicology indicated levels of heroin far under fatal levels.  Friends and family claimed Liston did not use heroin, and rumors circulated that police were aware of Liston’s death days before the official finding of the body.  Rumors of organized crime involvement have circled the sad end of the ex-champ ever since.  In 2008 a major motion picture starring Ving Rhames as Liston was released, called Phantom Punch. 

(Other films and cultural references are also extant, but Phantom Punch is probably the most significant.)

Question for students (and subscribers): Was Sonny Liston murdered?  If so, by whom and why?  Did Ali really knock down Liston with a legitimate punch, or was there funny business with, too?  Please give us your opinions on these controversial topics in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Assael, Shaun.  The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights.  Blue Rider Press, 2016.

Gallender, Paul R.  Sonny Liston – The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.

Steen, Rob.  Sonny Liston: His Life, Strife and the Phantom Punch.  JR Books, 2008.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.