Those who knew him best still say Sonny Liston was done in

The milk bottles were still full, the newspapers unread. They cluttered the doorstep outside the house on Ottawa Drive, and Geraldine Liston was puzzled by the sight.

Returning to Las Vegas from St. Louis on the night of Jan. 5, 1971, after spending Christmas with her mother, Geraldine became suspicious. Her husband had been out of contact for 12 days, but his black Cadillac was in the carport. Where could he have run to? The Westside? Los Angeles?

The front door was unlocked, and several of the windows were open. But even the cool January air couldn’t mask the odor of rotting flesh.

In the main bedroom, Geraldine discovered the body of her husband, former heavyweight champion Charles "Sonny" Liston. He had been dead several days.

Liston’s death four decades ago was quickly called a possible heroin overdose, although those who knew him swore he was afraid of needles and wouldn’t touch the stuff. Authorities discovered a balloon of heroin in the kitchen and a needle mark on his arm, but no syringe. The Clark County coroner found traces of morphine in his system, but not enough to conclusively determine it was the cause of death. It was decided that the death of the man who once was the most feared heavyweight in the world was probably a result of a heart attack and congestive lung failure.

His age was listed at 38, but boxing insiders say he could have been several years older. The 24th of 25 children born to an abusive Arkansas sharecropper, Liston didn’t know the exact date of his birth.

Skeptics of the police and the Vegas game suspected Liston’s old mob connections had finally caught up with him. He’d also been collecting for a local loan shark and by night was running on the Westside with a crew of heroin dealers. By day he struggled to keep his fading boxing career afloat after the vicious beating of Chuck Wepner on June 29, 1970, at the Armory in Jersey City, N.J. Known as "the Bayonne Bleeder," Wepner left the ring needing 57 stitches to close his wounds. At the time of his death, Liston was negotiating for a fight against Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo.

Liston was running out of options when he ran out of time, but he still had some friends. Lem Banker was one.

"Sonny could be a real good guy," Banker says.

At Christmas, Banker and Liston exchanged gifts. Sonny gave Lem a personal recording of a song. Lem gave Sonny an expensive watch.

A day or so later, Liston called his pal and sparring partner Gary Bates.

"The night he died, I went over there to his house on Ottawa with a cocktail waitress from Circus Circus," the former professional boxer recalls. "Sonny had called and said Geraldine was gone for the holiday, and why don’t I come over. I knocked on the door a couple times, but nobody answered. Nobody showed up. Later I read in the paper that he’d passed away."

Liston and Bates chased women and good times together.

"I loved Sonny Liston," Bates says. "And to spar with him was terrifying. I figured every time I went down there, I was about to become a martyr. I thought it was my last day on Earth."

Like many Las Vegans, Bates heard street talk about Liston’s death, whispers that stretched into the dark heart of the town.

"There were rumors he was collecting for a shylock in town and had drawn the wrath by bringing too much attention to himself," Bates says.

Banker also suspects he was murdered: "He had some needle marks on him, but he would never take a needle as far as I know."

Banker was at the Wepner fight, for which Liston was paid just $13,000. That didn’t cover Liston’s debts and expenses. He was broke again, forced once more to earn a living with his hands outside the ring.

"Today, he’d have gotten $30 million for that fight," Banker says.

When Liston returned home, Banker received a call from Sheriff Ralph Lamb, who had a message for the former champ: Stay away from the drug dealers on the Westside. Banker says he delivered the message.

Did Liston fail to listen?

As a regular at Johnny Tocco’s Ringside Gym downtown, I became well-acquainted with Liston’s ghost. The Ringside was Liston’s last training sweatshop, and Johnny was a keeper of Sonny’s story and was his trainer for the Wepner fight.

The world loved to hate Liston, but Johnny loved the man. He often told the story of seeing the scars on Liston’s back and the fighter’s response to the trainer’s curious inquiry: "I had bad dealings with my daddy."

For years whenever Liston’s name entered the conversation down at the gym, Tocco would say with the certainty of a connected guy that despite what the local cops claimed, Sonny was done in by the mob.

Some time later, after a story about Liston quoted Tocco’s statement and made a national splash, Johnny suddenly changed his tune.

Maybe it was an accident after all, Tocco said.

At least publicly, Geraldine Liston never bought into the overdose theory.

"If he was killed, I don’t know who would do it," she told Sports Illustrated’s William Nack. "If he was doing drugs, he didn’t act like he was drugged. Sonny wasn’t on dope. He had high blood pressure, and he had been out drinking in late December. As far as I’m concerned, he had a heart attack. Case closed."

The late Harold Conrad promoted several Liston fights and knew the heavyweight well. He believed Liston was murdered, probably with a hot shot by some of his fast company.

Liston had been raised in poverty with an abusive father, had been arrested two dozen times and served multiple stints in prison, had been the mob’s fiercest fighter, but in the end was expendable. In his memoir, "Dear Muffo," Conrad wrote, "I think he died the day he was born."

That sounds about right.

Four decades later, Charles "Sonny" Liston rests in Paradise Memorial Gardens. Jets full of Las Vegas visitors fly overhead and land at nearby McCarran International Airport.

His headstone reads, "A Man."

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at

Indoor farming in Southern Nevada
Experts discuss Nevada's indoor farming industry. (Bailey Schulz/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former Fontainebleau could have become a Waldorf Astoria
Months after developer Steve Witkoff bought the Fontainebleau last summer, he unveiled plans to turn the mothballed hotel into a Marriott-managed resort called The Drew. But if Richard “Boz” Bosworth’s plans didn’t fall through, the north Las Vegas Strip tower could have become a Waldorf Astoria with several floors of timeshare units. (Eli Segall/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Springs Preserve Exhibit Shows Off "Nature's Ninjas"
"Nature's Ninjas" arrives at the Springs Preserve, in an exhibit and live show featuring critters that come with natural defenses, from armadillos to snakes, poison dart frogs to scorpions and tarantulas (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CrossRoads of Southern Nevada psychiatric urgent care to open in Las Vegas
Jeff Iverson, who operates the nonprofit sober living facility Freedom House, is opening a private addiction treatment center that will operate a detoxification center and transitional living for substance users trying to recover. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Metro Capt. Jaime Prosser gives update of officer-involved shooting
Metro Capt. Jaime Prosser provides an update about an officer-involved shooting at Radwick Drive and Owens Avenue in the northeast Las Vegas on Thursday. A robbery suspect was shot and killed. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Wayne Newton surprises burglars
Wayne Newton and his wife, Kathleen, arrived at their southeast Las Vegas home shortly before midnight on Wednesday to find two burglars inside their house. The burglars fled and were seen heading north through the property. Las Vegas police quickly set up a perimeter and launched an extensive search of the area, but the suspects were able to escape. It was unclear if the burglars got away with anything of value. Several items, under the watchful eyes of the police, were seen on the ground near the home's main driveway. Neither Newton, nor his wife, were injured. The Newtons were not available for comment.
Police Officers Turn Off Body Cameras
In four separate body camera videos from the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting released Wednesday, officers in a strike team are instructed to turn their body cameras off and comply with the request.
Debra Saunders reports from Singapore
Las Vegas Review-Journal White House correspondent talks about the historic summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.
How long will North Korea's denuclearization take?
In Singapore, Las Vegas Review-Journal White House correspondent Debra Saunders asks President Donald Trump how long North Korea's denuclearization will take. White House video.
LVCVA purchase of gift cards hidden
A former LVCVA executive hid the purchase of $90,000 in Southwest Airlines gift cards in records at the agency. Brig Lawson, the senior director of business partnerships, said the money was for promotional events and did not disclose that it was for gift cards. Lawson also instructed Southwest employees to submit invoices without mentioning the purchases were for the cards. More than $50,000 of the cards cannot be accounted for. The convention authority is publicly funded . Lawson recently resigned.
Kim Jong Un visits Marina Bay Sands in Singapore
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his entourage visited the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore briefly Monday night, local time. (Video by Philip Chope)
Coca-Cola Bottle Purse Has 9,888 Diamonds
Designer Kathrine Baumann and jeweler Aaron Shum set the Guinness World Record for most diamonds (9,888) set on a handbag. The Coca Cola bottle-shaped purse was on display at the Coca Cola Store on the Strip. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sentosa Island a pleasure resort with a pirate past
The site of Tuesday's U.S.-North Korea summit is known for theme parks and resorts. But before that, it was known as a pirate island. (Debra Saunders/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Judge Sandra Pomrenze's comment about girl's hair
Nevada Races Full of Women From Both Sides
It's already been a historic election season for women in politics. Record numbers of women are running for political office all over the country - including Nevada. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
East Las Vegas home damaged by fire
Clark County Fire Department crews responded to a house fire in east Las Vegas Thursday morning. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
911 call: Mom tries to get to son shot at Route 91
A woman stuck on the interstate during the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting on Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas, tries to get to her son. 911 call released by Las Vegas police.
Las Vegas 911 caller reports people shot on Oct. 1
A 911 caller on Oct. 1, 2017, reports several people shot at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas.
911 call from woman under stage in Las Vegas shooting
A 911 call from a woman underneath the stage at the Route 91 Harvest festival during the Oct. 1, 2017, Las Vegas shooting.
LVCVA facing scandal over gift cards
LVCVA is facing a growing scandal over airline gift cards. LVCVA bought $90,000 in Southwest Airline gift cards between 2012 and 2017. Now auditors can’t account for more than $50,000 of the cards. CEO Rossi Ralenkotter and his family used $16,207 in gift cards on 56 trips. Brig Lawson, the senior director of business partnerships, was responsible for buying and distributing the cards. He recently resigned.
Siblings separated in the foster care system get a day together
St. Jude's Ranch for Children and Cowabunga Bay Cares program partnered to bring 75 siblings together for the day to play on the water slides and in the pools at the Henderson water park. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
People flee the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1, 2017
Las Vegas police released footage from a camera on Mandalay Bay of the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1, 2017
Aaliyah Inghram awarded medal of courage
Aaliyah Inghram, a 10-year-old girl who was shot while protecting her 18-month-old brother and 4-year-old cousin during a shooting on May 8, awarded medal of courage. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Las Vegans Pack Public Lands Open House
A crowd filled the Clark County Library conference room Tuesday afternoon where Clark County officials hold their first -- and possibly only -- public meeting on plans to open almost 39,000 acres of federal land for development just outside the Las Vegas metropolitan area. County commissioners are set to vote June 19 on a potentially controversial resolution seeking federal legislation that would set aside tens of thousands of acres for conservation while giving Nevada’s largest community more room to grow. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police search Henderson Constable's home and office
Las Vegas police served search warrants Tuesday at Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell's home and office. The investigation was sparked by a Las Vegas Review-Journal story showing Mitchell wrote himself $70,000 in checks, used ATMs at casinos and video poker bars, and traveled to places his adult children live. All using county funds. Police refused to comment but Mitchell's attorney said he did nothing wrong.
Vegas Golden Knights fans shows his colors for community
Vegas Golden Knights superfan Lynn Groesbeck has wrapped his new truck with Knights logos and images. He loves how the Golden Knights are bringing community back to Las Vegas. People stop him on the street to take photos and share his support. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Acting Coach Daryl Morris on His Craft
Acting coach Daryl Morris, whose father Bobby was Elvis Presley's conductor in Las Vegas, discusses his craft and how he leads his own classes. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Constable wanted county funds to fight Review-Journal investigation
The Las Vegas Review-Journal asked for public records to investigate constable spending. But Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell hired outside counsel to fight the request. And he wanted the county to pay nearly $7,500 for those attorneys. The county declined. And records show the constable's office owes taxpayers $700,000. County officials said the money will be repaid over three years. Mitchell abandoned his re-election before the Review-Journal story ran.
BalanceVille Art Car Rides High Above First Friday
First Friday attendees got to ride in BalanceVille, a Burning Man art car that rises 50 feet in the air on a hydraulic lift. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Mecum Las Vegas Auction Draws Motorcycle Enthusiasts
Motorcycle enthusiasts descended on South Point Casino Friday for the Mecum Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction, which featured 600 vintage and collectible motorcycles and bikes. The auction is set to return to Las Vegas in January with more than 1,700 lots. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
News Headlines
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like