You might as well ask, who killed President Kennedy? Because there are troubling similarities between the death of the former world champion, and the President.
The backgrounds of Sonny Liston and President Kennedy could not have been more different. It was predictable that the talented, charismatic John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a man with a multi-millionaire father who had huge political ambitions for his sons, would rise to the Presidency.
In complete contrast Charles Sonny Liston was one of 25 children in a family that struggled on the breadline. The only thing his father did for him was put him to work from the age of 9. So all the more credit is due for the way he rose from nowhere - to Champion of the World. There was no reason to suppose that Sonny would ever distinguish himself but at his birth a midwife noted the huge hands, a sign of the mountainous physique that was to develop.
As Kennedy moved from war hero to senator and onto the White House, Sonny served time in prison for robbery. He had virtually no education and stole to survive. But as one of the very few sympathetic officials he ever met remarked, "Going to jail was the best thing that happened to him."
Sonny met Father Stevens who ran the prison athletics programme. The Catholic priest spotted that in addition to his strength and size, Sonny had natural boxing ability.
Stevens arranged for the best local heavyweight boxing pro to come to prison as a test. The fight was stopped after two rounds with the pro declaring he didn't want any more. Liston's punching power was in a different class
Much later Rocky Marciano would say that Liston's left jab was the best he'd seen since Joe Louis and no way would he have fancied getting into the ring with him. When Liston knocked out Albert Westphal with a punch to the cheek the impact was so staggering, blood came out of Westphal's ear. Floyd Patterson's handlers took the same view as Marciano and Liston was denied a world title fight for years.
The other big obstacle was that Liston was widely seen as a Mob controlled boxer, while Patterson was given a kind of 'honorary white man' status. Liston did have some shady connections but then again, which boxer didn't, apart from the cleaner than clean Patterson? As a challenger Liston was given the 'bad guy' role. He said he was going to change the situation, 'The bad guy is supposed to lose, I'm going to win'. His confidence was not misplaced.
In two very short contests Liston destroyed Patterson who was more of a built-up light heavyweight than the genuine article. Patterson was skillful and beautifully schooled by Cus D'Amato but he didn't have the power to unsettle Liston. Right from the bell Liston began to soften him up with ferocious body punches. When Liston landed a trademark thunderbolt left it was the beginning of the end. After two minutes and six seconds Patterson was counted out.
STILL THE OUTSIDER
The return fight lasted only four seconds longer before Patterson was down on one knee. The light was gone from his eyes, his senses scattered, all resistance over. Liston hadn't treated the champion with contempt, he was simply a ferocious puncher at the top of his game, he did what he had to. But devastatingly for the new champion the public turned its back on him. He was still the unwanted outsider, the man who won the title for the Mob.
Inevitably this reputation followed him into his fights with Ali. 'Fix, Fix' was the cry after Liston's first defeat by Ali and there's no doubt that all the betting money was to be made from an Ali win. Yet this was no fix, Ali had a lot going for him, especially Angelo Dundee. Dundee was Ali's trainer, mentor and most all, tactician. He had seen that Liston had problems with boxers taller than himself. A combination of height and speed made him look awkward, clumsy even.
Dundee knew that Ali had to use his speed and keep on the move but most of all, stay away from Liston's most powerful weapon, that left jab. So Dundee had Ali constantly moving away to his left, out of range of the jab and Liston became frustrated. So much so that he damaged his shoulder throwing punches that never landed. When he quit on his stool it was because he couldn't throw the jab. Without that he couldn't cope.
He made a practical decision based entirely on self interest. He quit.
Of course it was a sensation. Immediately the theories and accusations started flying. But evidence was produced to show that Liston damaged his shoulder in training and the injury followed on from that. Of course it didn't satisfy the cynics and when Sonny lost the return on a knockdown, from the so called 'phantom' punch that nobody saw, his reputation really hit the skids.
He did a lot to damage his own cause by hanging around Law Vegas gambling joints in the wrong company. But he had been in that sort of company all his life. Early on he realised that society wasn't going to do him any favours. His answer was to operate in the narrow band that lurched between the legitimate, and the crooked. He wasn't the only one. You could say the entire boxing business was in there too.
This is where the similarities between the deaths of Liston and JFK begin to show. Both men were shaped by their backgrounds. Liston always mixed with criminals and the Mob. He needed them to get his opportunities in boxing. They needed him as a source of income and his position as World Champion gave them a certain prestige.
JFK's father, Joe Kennedy, was no stranger to criminal society. He started to build the family fortune during the prohibition era. He made serious money - and contacts - in those wild bootlegging days. It was experience he called on in the battle to get his son into the White House. JFK's win over Richard Nixon was extremely close and it's often alleged that Joe used his underworld contacts in key states to deliver votes for his son. After JFK won, the Mob looked for their reward. It never came. On the contrary, Robert Kennedy went after underworld figures through the courts and was beginning to worry some of the big names.
The Mob had every reason to turn against the Kennedys and, after he lost the title, Sonny Liston was fast losing his value too. In fact, many around Las Vegas at the time say he was becoming a threat. He probably did know too much for his own good and Sonny was not a man to go quietly about his business. In one very ill advised move he publicly confronted a Mob boss in a casino and threatened him with his club-like fist. This is not a situation that any mafioso can ignore.
He told Liston that if he hit him he'd better make sure he killed him because otherwise he would be dead in 24 hours. Sonny backed off but as anyone who has seen the film Goodfellas will recall, such disrespect is never forgiven or forgotten. A price will be paid.
Then again, both Liston and JFK had serious political enemies. JFK in Congress and from Cuba. Liston from the Black Muslims. Ali was a huge asset as they tried to build a movement. The last thing they wanted was Liston threatening to devalue the World Champion by claiming their fights were suspect.
So, both men had violent mysterious deaths. Neither killing has ever been explained satisfactorily - and probably never will be. What is more certain is that back then, and today, the Mob still works away in the background. Always adapting to changing circumstances and always protecting its interests. Quite often with deadly results.
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