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The Murder of Sonny Liston A Story of Fame, Heroin, Boxing & Las Vegas By Shaun Assael

Release date: 20th October, 2016
Publisher: Macmillan

List Price: £10.99
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Sonny Liston’s tale should be a compelling, ultimately uplifting, rags-to-riches one; the story of a man who rose from the depths of Depression America to become heavyweight champion of the world. All of the necessary ingredients are all there.

He was one of 25 (no, that’s not an error) children born around 1931 to an Arkansas nut farmer who left to seek a life of crime in St Louis at the age of 14. Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston was illiterate but developed into a powerful man with huge hands; he would spend time in prison before taking up boxing, turning pro in 1953.

By 1962, Liston was world heavyweight champion, though he was dogged by his apparent association with organised crime and accusations that several of his fights were fixed.

The Murder of Sonny Liston is as far from a rags-to-riches tale as you could get, but it is absolutely compelling. It’s a crime thriller laced with stories of corruption, mountains of cash, extreme violence, illegal gambling, the FBI, Hollywood, organised crime and tons of heroin. At times, it reads like the perfect follow-up to the Sopranos.

Though he was world champion, Liston is remembered for his notorious world title fights against Muhammad Ali, both of which he lost, the second most controversially.

In November 1964, Liston was installed as the firm favourite to beat Ali prior to their second scheduled clash when, three days before the fight, Ali was found to be suffering from an incarcerated inguinal hernia which required an immediate operation. The Liston – Ali II fight was delayed for six months, but the delay sent Liston, who had trained hard for the second contest, into a downward spiral.

His use of heroin soared and his training regime suffered to such a degree that by 25 May 1965, he was in bad shape. Though he probably was caught by Ali’s infamous ‘phantom punch’, he was in no hurry to rise from the canvas (the referee never counted him out) and was declared to have been knocked out. It was all downhill for Liston from that night in Lewiston, Maine.

If you’re expecting a happy ending, you’ll be disappointed. Nevertheless, The Murder of Sonny Liston reads like the script for a seedy movie, set in 1960s Vegas, with contracts out on the life of the former world champ who was found dead on new year’s eve 1970, poisoned by a combination of alcohol and pure heroin, even though the autopsy cited ‘natural causes’.


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