Published On: Wed, Jul 17th, 2019

The mysterious death that haunts boxing

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Ibrahim Mahama and the seats at the Whitworth art gallery in Manchester

Sonny Liston became world heavyweight champion in 1962 and fought Muhammad Ali twice
In January 1971, former heavyweight champion of the world Sonny Liston was found dead at his Las Vegas home. A coroner ruled that he died of natural causes – but some say the truth is far darker.
It was late in the evening when Geraldine Liston returned home and found the newspapers piled up at her door.
She had been trying to contact her husband – the recently retired heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston – for almost two weeks but had failed to get through. When her most recent call went unanswered, she apologised to her mother, who she had been visiting in St Louis over Christmas, and rushed back to Las Vegas to check on him.
The doors were unlocked and the house was in darkness. Geraldine felt uneasy. She hoped to find her husband in one of his usual spots – perhaps playing cards with a friend or watching TV. Instead, as she entered their large, split-level, home, she was struck by a sickening smell that hung heavy in the winter air.
“I thought he must have cooked and left something on the stove,” she would say in a rare interview years later. “But I went in the kitchen and I didn’t see anything there.”
She followed the strange odour to an upstairs bedroom where she found her husband. Once the most feared fighter in America, he was sprawled at the foot of their bed wearing only his underwear. His body was bloated – he had been dead for at least six days – and there was dried blood streaking from his nose. Geraldine led the couple’s seven-year-old son, Daniel, downstairs and told him to wait there.
She did not ring the police for several hours. According to a Las Vegas police report, she first called her lawyer and then tried desperately to reach a doctor. When one finally arrived he could do little more than confirm what she already knew. Charles “Sonny” Liston was pronounced dead at the scene. Why he died remains one of sport’s most enduring mysteries.
It was well after midnight when the police arrived at the Liston house, which sat in an affluent, largely white, suburb called Paradise Palms.
The doorstep was cluttered with days’ worth of unopened milk bottles as well as a stack of unread Las Vegas Sun newspapers, which investigators would later use to determine the exact day Liston had died. Several windows had been left open, but this did little to ease the stench of rotting flesh.
Sergeant Dennis Caputo, now 69, was one of the first officers to arrive. “The call came over despatch and we were aware that it was the Liston residence,” he tells the BBC from his home in the city. “But in Las Vegas it wasn’t unusual to get high-profile calls like that. For me, it wasn’t a big deal.”
He quickly began a thorough search. “It was a very nice house,” he says. “Well-kept and orderly. I got the feeling it hadn’t been lived in too much.” There was nothing to suggest – at least on first sight – that something sinister may have happened. “There were no apparent signs of forced entry, no visible weapons, and no signs of a struggle,” he recalls.
Sgt Caputo was escorted to the master bedroom where he found a small bag of marijuana and a glass of vodka alongside Liston’s prone corpse. “He was wearing a T-shirt and boxer shorts and was in a state of decomposition,” he says. While some accounts of Liston’s death say a revolver was discovered in the bedroom, Sgt Caputo remembers things differently: “There were no visible wounds and no weapons were found.”
Shortly after, he discovered a small amount of heroin in the kitchen but no syringe. “The kitchen was spotless except for a penny balloon on the counter,” he says. “It was common knowledge that these kind of balloons were used to transport illegal narcotics. I will also say that it was pretty well-known that Liston was a part-time user.”
Most reports of Liston’s death state that fresh needle marks were found on his arm. While Geraldine has disputed that her husband ever used drugs, some have alleged that she may have cleared the syringe away. “Geraldine and her attorney were in the house for an unknown period of time before we arrived,” Sgt Caputo says. “I did find it odd that [she] called her attorney when the body was discovered rather than the police.”
But others – including some of Liston’s closest friends – say that he would never have used heroin because he was terrified of needles. “He wouldn’t even go to a doctor for a check-up, for fear some doctor would want to stick a needle in him,” his former trainer, Johnny Tocco, told the Washington Post in 1989.
Liston’s body was eventually moved into a waiting ambulance. According to some witness accounts, his vast weight proved too much and he was dropped several times. It was an undignified exit, reminiscent of a felled boxer being carried out of the ring.
An autopsy would later reveal that traces of morphine and codeine – of a type commonly produced by the breakdown of heroin – had been in Liston’s system. But there was not enough of it to definitively state that he had died of an overdose. Officially, the Clark County Coroner ruled that the boxer died of natural causes, specifically lung congestion and heart failure.
It was a verdict that – in the eyes of many boxing fans – only raised more questions. How could a man – still active as a professional fighter – suddenly drop dead? Was it possible that he could have been training while using hard drugs? And wasn’t he afraid of needles anyway?
The strange circumstances of Liston’s death – and the murky life he had been living at the time – have fuelled fierce speculation about what may have happened to him. Some, such as Sgt Caputo, accept the coroner’s verdict of natural causes. But many still struggle to do so, and the prevailing theory – one that has only gained traction since his death – is that his criminal connections came back to bite him and he was murdered by the mob.
“The whole Liston story is so shrouded in mystery,” says Rob Steen, who wrote a biography of the boxer. “There’s so many people who died who might have been able to shed a little bit of light on it.
“But I don’t think anyone ever really believed he had a heart attack.”
The mystery surrounding Liston’s death is in some ways fitting. This is a man, after all, whose most basic details were the subject of speculation. He was born in rural Arkansas to a family of sharecroppers – the 24th of 25 children – but birth certificates were not a legal requirement at the time and so Liston did not have one. It is believed he was about 40 when he died, but some have suggested he may have been closer to 50.
As a child he was beaten at home and he struggled at school. “We hardly had enough food to keep from starving, no shoes, only a few clothes, and nobody to help us escape from the horrible life we lived,” he would later say. “We grew up like heathens.”
The young Liston was teased relentlessly because he was unable to read or write and, when his family upped sticks and moved from Arkansas to St Louis, he abandoned education and turned to crime. “The police were forever chasing him,” says Steen. “Apparently they had his photograph stapled to the inside of the visor in their cars. He was in trouble with the police quite a bit.”
In one early incident, he made his disdain for the police clear while demonstrating his remarkable strength. “He started a fight with a cop, beat the cop senseless, snatched his gun, picked him up and dumped him in an alley,” recounts Jonathan Aig in Muhammad Ali: A Life. “[He] then walked away smiling, wearing the cop’s hat.”
His first serious conviction was for armed robbery when he was about 22. He was sent to Missouri State Penitentiary where his natural athleticism and talent for fighting were soon spotted by Father Alois Stevens, a Catholic priest who also ran the prison gym. “He was the most perfect specimen of manhood I had ever seen,” Stevens later told Sports Illustrated. “Powerful arms, big shoulders. Pretty soon he was knocking out everybody in the gym. His hands were so large! I couldn’t believe it.”
After two years in jail he was freed on parole and – in 1953 – he turned professional. But his newfound freedom was short-lived as the mob, which would go on to dominate his career and later life, quickly claimed him as their own. They would – according to boxing historians – manage his every fight and control his every earned dollar.
“When he comes out of jail, because he is such a muscular figure, such a powerful figure, people don’t really want to fight him,” Rob Steen says. “In order to get the kind of fights that he needs to progress as a boxer he needs ‘heavyweight representation’, shall we say.”
“This is where the mob comes in,” Steen continues. “They manage to create fights for him that other people couldn’t because they use their muscle. He’s the last great investment the mob make in boxing.”
Source: BBC
Quote
In one early incident, he made his disdain for the police clear while demonstrating his remarkable strength. “He started a fight with a cop, beat the cop senseless, snatched his gun, picked him up and dumped him in an alley,” recounts Jonathan Aig in Muhammad Ali: A Life. “[He] then walked away smiling, wearing the cop’s hat.”
His first serious conviction was for armed robbery when he was about 22. He was sent to Missouri State Penitentiary where his natural athleticism and talent for fighting were soon spotted by Father Alois Stevens, a Catholic priest who also ran the prison gym. “He was the most perfect specimen of manhood I had ever seen,” Stevens later told Sports Illustrated. “Powerful arms, big shoulders. Pretty soon he was knocking out everybody in the gym.

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