The Tragedy of Sonny Liston

Some librettist and composer ought to join forces and create an opera featuring the life of one-time heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston. A tragedy, not an operetta. The travails of the long-dead champion contain classic elements the ancients would’ve venerated.

Brutal skills honed in an unforgiving background marked and formed the raw ambition that raised Liston high. Capricious and uncaring fate drove him into the lowest depths imaginable.

Strong and determined as he obviously once must’ve been driven, so did Liston easily succumb, powerless and guileless to thwart what now seems inevitable. The sole question needing asking and answering, whether Sonny Liston understood his plight, and did he submit?

Liston gets shuffled from our memory because of who followed him. Strange now, but the boxing public and those in the fight game did not initially regard his heavyweight successor, Cassius Clay, highly. No, that falling at his feet stuff came later. Once he changed his name, his faith, our perception of him after he evaded being drafted into possible service in Vietnam.

Moreover, it bolsters the icon Clay became from having seen him in color. The human flesh tones make him more that. Although a contemporary, Liston remains mired in monochrome. He’s perceived as a relic. Worse, a symbol of 1960s conformity.

For the longest Clay simply remained Clay to his opponents and those who disliked his apostasy. He surrendered his given name to accept a Muslim one citing the former a “slave name.” Ironically his father had named him after a famous Roman slave who’d inspired an uprising which shook the Empire.

Had his fists lacked lightning and thunder, a renamed Clay just would’ve been another guy named Muhammad.

Time and revised views and spent youth have calcified Liston into a villain, Clay the hero. Sonny Liston will forever be part and parcel of a criminal organization, manipulated by Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo. His tailored gray flannel darker than those creasing in the era’s boardrooms, Liston conducted his business through horsehair stuffed leather gloves inside rings. He represented the action end of the system.

Cassius Clay’s emergence jibed with the 1960s abrupt sunder from the established order. Depending on which camp one occupied, Clay either sassed Mr. Charlie or called to account an older generation satisfied with progress that advanced by excruciating increments.

Clay appealed to rebellious youths and revolutionaries. Good organization man he portrayed, Liston remained mum. Clay, along with his youthful cadres, heralded “Now!”

So insistent is Clay in death we still hear him. Liston spoke little. What little he said left scant impression on the public. He was the last of a line of pugilists whose circumspection (or inability to articulate) allowed the mainstream to define him however it wanted. Mainly in the laziest, most unimaginative terms.

Liston did not project. Instead he was an active, surly, smut-black canvas upon which white America saw black power safely expressed. At least that’s how guilty whites saw him.

Within the ring, Sonny Liston created sanctioned destruction for the public’s welcome entertainment. No one expected him to ever foment any social mayhem outside the ropes. The idea he would or could jolt society sat beyond whatever passed for the era’s concept of “good Negroes.”

Liston flared up after meeting Muehlmann. The 90-something year old had better than known Liston. In their youth, they ran in some of the same circles back in St. Louis. Some of the same troubles caught up with them there and compelled both to make identical choices to relocate. Eventually the pair converged again in Las Vegas.

Playing poker keeps Muehlmann somewhat sharp. He must do well because his is a frequent presence at the tables of the swanker Strip properties. At his age one would be mistaken seeing his vocation as a pastime. No, Muehlmann plays for significant stakes. He still plays to win nice rolls of folding green.

His recent memories may have suffered diminishment. Muehlmann might have trouble remembering what he ate for lunch the day prior. However, let him return to days and nights when he swaggered in the streets and the past unfurls clearly.

We’ve met before, spoken before. I’ve heard him reminisce previously. Perhaps this latest occasion took on urgency because after all there are only so many hands and antes left in us all.

Obviously I never knew Muehlmann when he was a fuller man. Today he is shrunken and frail. At one time, though, he was a presence. Not the kind that menaced, though certainly one who earned some modicum of attention rather than curt dismissal.

For a time he had spared with Liston; said those sessions with the champ had busted him up good, the effects lingering. Tough envisioning Muehlmann ever having the heft, the bulk required to enter the ring against Liston.

Of course again age has shortened him. His blue eyes are watery, white hair frosts his head, gravity has bowed his back, his skin has thinned, and the chunks and bunches of muscularity which once filled him now exist as tenuously connected bands and sheets. It’s impossible casting him as having the size necessary to stand toe-to-toe with Sonny Liston and not see the champ’s merest blow launch Muehlmann across the ring into the ropes, a la some Three Stooges or Abbott & Costello movie gag.

Naturally had Liston lived beyond 38, aging into his own 80s or 90s, mightn’t he also have lost mass and height as had Muehlmann? We can’t imagine Sonny Liston as a shell of himself. His early death never allowed him to reach this stage.

Until the last two decades, heavyweight fighters weren’t the jumbo behemoths we regularly watch today. Sonny Liston might’ve topped out at 215 on the scales. Now with the increased mass they lug, what current heavyweight fighter shares any of the agility and mobility then common to boxers of Liston’s era? Talk about swinging rusty gates. Most of today’s top heavies are just better conditioned Primo Carneras.

Guarded around reporters and strangers as he must’ve been, trusted running buddies served as relief valves. Not that Sonny Liston presaged any modern figure of manhood by revealing his inner-self without end.

No, but he often detailed his arduous upbringing in Jim Crow, Arkansas, USA. Life there challenged everybody black. Liston’s father, a brutish, illiterate sharecropper, continually angry for good reasons, frequently boozed himself into further fury and dispelled that by wailing on Sonny. Any day ending in “y” sufficed.

When Muehlmann heard these occasions, though, he never felt the crucible produced a tougher man. Just one whose shell was harder, thicker. Everything else, anything else, those traits that lend us humanity especially, had apparently been beaten out of the young Sonny. Muehlmann believed this for the longest about him.

The 1965 Clay-Liston rematch changed Muehlmann’s perception of his friend. But first the 1964 title fight which laid the foundation for suspicion which lasts until today.

In the first bout, after six mystifying rounds Clay emerged the victor when the champ, Liston, failed answering the bell for the seventh. Liston had stalked Clay to the limits of his own boxing convictions. It’s said that only goading by Clay’s trainer enabled his fighter to turn aside what the champion had delivered.

The second bout promised more raw violence.

Anticipated as the second tilt was, many suspect the wiles of men outside the ropes predetermined the outcome within them. Rumors abound that men such as Palermo and Carbo assured Clay his title’s defense. Mind, without ever informing him. Rather, the fix was in on Liston’s side. Makes sense.

Even then Clay stood above the Sweet Science’s grubbier aspects. Perhaps his religious conversion bestowed a ginn which protected him from the sport’s common unsavory practices. Or Clay, already showing signs of future integrity, wouldn’t bow himself before men who debased the participants’ glory.

No. Sonny Liston would’ve been the inside for the fix. Early in his career, and then sometimes between bouts while ascending the rankings, Liston worked as mob muscle. He’d entered the fight game from breaking thumbs and being a bagman. In fact separation between the two occupations might’ve been only as thick as two fingers.

If the boys needed Sonny to “lie down,” he’d have acquiesced. Naturally he’d have seen a chunk of something extra afterwards. Yet willingly dive? Forsake an honest effort to regain his belt, reclaim his heavyweight title? Regardless of recompense, Liston would wind up a bigger loser.

Being obedient, Sonny followed orders. Liking it, though, a different matter. Losing, no, forfeiting, in such a manner hurt him beyond any beatings his father lashed upon him.

The Clay-Liston rematch result is among boxing’s most controversial. During the opening round, Clay allegedly clipped the challenger with a “savage” right. Those in attendance at ringside, and later on film, and perhaps Clay at his most confessional hour, dispute leather touched opponent. A phantom blow, one with malicious intent though no contact floored Sonny Liston.

There is an iconic photograph of the fight’s conclusion. Looming above and menacing a prostrate Liston, Clay bellowing, imploring him to rise and continue fighting.

Some look upon the tableau as merely Clay triumphant. Vanquishing Liston in words after deed.

Instead, let’s see the scene this way: Clay knows. He’s been handed his title defense through a dive. It’s an unearned honor. It offends him. A prideful man, being defeated by a better fighter is no disgrace. Rather, how he’s attained this prize is dishonorable. Liston must rise. He must continue. For the result to be valid in the champion’s mind he must beat the other.

The referee counted out Liston.

Here these two boxers diverge forever. Clay moves into world renown. The ignominy of such a loss sends Liston into Palookaville. Despite several subsequent nothing fights and retention in the heavyweight Top-10 ranks, it’s over for Liston. He returns to a level he’d truly never fully risen from.

Thumb-breaker. Bagman.

One wonders if any of the “accounts” from whom Liston collected, especially those deeply delinquent, realize who’s making them cough up. How surreal could those instances have been? The same fists that had been admired while dismantling Floyd Patterson a few years before then worked over some fight fan-cum-deadbeat who shorted on the vig. Living vicariously should not mean getting lumped up while being walked down.

In his dressing room after his rematch with Clay, Liston cried. Not the quiet sobs of bitter tears but breakdown bawling. Muehlmann doubted the boxer had ever shown this much grief even during his father’s most vehement sessions. Just a few witnessed this collapse. Muehlmann among them. Even fewer heard about it afterwards.

That night’s surrender hurt Liston worse than all the parental, sparring, and prize fighting blows he’d accumulated throughout his entire life.

By laying down before Cassius Clay, Sonny Liston had ceded whatever he considered his manhood. His sole virtue. Unmoored, from hereon he drifted.

The penultimate day of 1970, Sonny Liston died from a heroin overdose. Lore has it he’d somehow run afoul of the boys. As a lesson to others who’d possibly dare step out of line, they clipped Sonny and made it appear an accident.

To Muehlmann that Liston had “somehow” crossed the boys was laughable. And he was a man who in his time was better than acquainted with both. Despite the dirt done him, despite the arrangement’s one-way street, Liston was loyal. The offense never would’ve crossed his mind.

Muehlmann further discounted the former champion’s last spike being sloppy. It hadn’t been incorrectly measured. Liston had been skeezing for years. He knew his tolerances.

Deep now into his own twilight, Muehlmann saw Liston’s demise in almost valiant terms.

Sonny Liston had borne up under his father’s fists, a lifetime routine of casual humiliations directed at blacks, then at the end ridiculed by an ascendant stellar opponent. Yes, Liston had bent. No one alive could’ve withstood all those assaults without bending.

Liston never broke – until the dive.

The dive broke him. Of all that had tasked him, what some might regard as the least demanding finally bowed his head.

In Muehlmann’s final estimation, Sonny Liston couldn’t bear one more day of living as the instrument who brought himself low.