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Original Issue


Here is an extraordinary report on a disturbing new figure in boxing: Heavyweight Contender Sonny Liston, who is comforted (right) by his wife Geraldine after his 19th arrest

Shortly before 3 a.m. on June 12 Mrs. Delores Ellis, a 29-year-old Negro woman, was driving home alone through Philadelphia's Fairmount Park when she noticed a car following her. The pursuing car drew alongside, a spotlight was played upon her and she was ordered to pull over and stop. Just then, John Warburton, a park guard, drove up. The two men turned off their lights and sped away. Warburton gave chase at speeds reaching 80 mph. When he overtook them, one man jumped out of the car and ran. Warburton fired a warning shot, and the fugitive halted. The driver remained motionless behind the wheel. Warburton remarked later, with some astonishment, that the driver's face was absolutely expressionless.

The two men were charged with impersonating an officer, extinguishing auto lights to avoid identification, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and conspiracy, and were released on $300 bail. The driver of the car was identified as Sonny Liston, the No. 1 contender for the heavyweight championship of the world, at present held by Floyd Patterson. It was Liston's 19th arrest since 1950. On July 1 the charges were dismissed after a hearing conducted by Magistrate E. David Keiser. At the judge's suggestion, Liston and his companion apologized to Mrs. Ellis.

"A boxing match is like a cowboy movie," Sonny Liston has said in a more carefree moment. "There's got to be good guys, and there's got to be bad guys. That's what the people pay for: to see the bad guys get beat. So I'm a bad guy. But I change things. I don't get beat."

Charles Liston, alias Sonny: colored, 29, 6 feet 1½, 220, black hair, maroon eyes, medium-dark complexion, male, married, Arkansas, boxer, residing at 5785 Dunlap, Philadelphia 31. This is, in effect, how the police of St. Louis and Philadelphia officially describe him. The description "maroon eyes" is, alas, fancy. They are brown and uncommitted, in a round, serene face. His fists, however, are fact. They are as large and substantial as cannon balls, and whatever Sonny has done—his triumphs and his falls—has been accomplished with these magnificent hands.

Liston has had 33 professional fights since 1953 and has won 32, 22 by knockout. He has defeated such accomplished boxers as Eddie Machen and Zora Folley. His only loss was in 1954 to Marty Marshall, whom he later beat twice.

Bob Burnes, sports editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, has told of Sonny's defeat by Marshall, a clowning, eccentric fighter.

"I'm sort of standing there," Burnes quoted Liston as saying, "wondering what this fellow's going to do next. All of a sudden he jumps up and down, lets out a whoop like a wild man, and I get to laughing at him. I had my mouth wide open laughing when he whomped me right on the jaw. It didn't hurt much, but I couldn't close my mouth. That happened about the third or fourth round, and I had to fight him with my mouth open the rest of the way. After a while it got to hurting pretty bad."

Marshall had broken Sonny's jaw. Since then, Liston has learned to glower pretentiously when he is in the ring. It is tempting to say he has also learned to keep his mouth shut, but Liston has always been—ordinarily—an exceptionally reticent, inert and remote man. His forbidding, baleful stare, his heroic "built," his relative illiteracy, his extensive police record and hoodlum associations have caused some observers to speak of him as a beast, an animal who should be kept in a cage. Such representations do not rile Liston.

"Everybody thinks I should be mean and tough, but I'm not," he declares. "Fighting ain't fun. In the ring I look tough because I'm trying to get the scare on the other guy. And the way some of these suckers fight, I guess they are scared."

Sonny Liston was born on a marginal cotton farm outside of Little Rock, Ark. His birth date is conjectural, but it probably was May 8, 1932. Sonny's father, who is dead, was married twice, and Sonny is a product of the second marriage. Sonny thinks there were altogether 25 children, a belief that once prompted Senator Dirksen to observe, "Your father was a champion in his own right [laughter]."

"Let's see, my mother had either 12 or 13 children," Sonny recalls. "No, I'm sure it was 13." He, however, can only account for nine. "E. B. Ward, he's the oldest, a boy child almost 40 years old now. It's been a good while since I seen him. Next comes J. T. I always call him Shorty, and he's close behind E. B. After J. T. there's Leo and then my sisters Clarety, Annie and Alcora, Curtice, me and Wesley. Annie and me was closest, and I see a lot of her. She always kids me because I was bigger than her, yet she would rock me to sleep. Curtice and J. T. get together with me sometimes, and I saw Wesley, the baby, in '58 or '59, but the others have wandered off someplace."

When the weather was good," Sonny says, recollecting life as it was in Arkansas, "I'd work in the fields, and when it was bad I'd go to school. My father worked me hard. Sure, I'd get to fooling around when he wasn't looking, but he'd catch me and whup me. Man, I bet I caught a whupping every day. If I didn't, I wouldn't know what to do. If my father missed a day I'd have to go wake him up and ask, 'How come you didn't whup me today?' I was 13 when my father and me got in this fight, and he whupped me. But this time I figured I was too big to be whupped, so I decided to run away to St. Lou, where my mother was staying with Alcora and Curtice.

"One morning I got up early," he says, "and thrashed the pecans off my brother-in-law's tree and carried the nuts to town and sold them. That gave me enough money to buy a train ticket to St. Louis. I figured the city would be like the country, and all I had to do was to ask somebody where my mother lived and they'd tell me she lived down the road a piece. But when I got to the city there were too doggone many people there, and I just wandered around lost. But one morning I told my story to a wino, and he says I favor this lady that lives down the street. He took me over to the house, and I knocked on the door and my brother Curtice opened the door. From then on I stayed with my mother. She put me in school, but I was much bigger than the other children and I didn't stay long. Other kids, you know, seen me coming out of—I was such a large boy. Other kids would see me coming out of such small kids' room. So they would make fun of me and start laughing, and I started fighting. And then I started playing hooky, and from hooky I led to another thing, so I wound up in the wrong school—well, the house of detention."

I got to running with the wrong crowd. We broke into this restaurant about 2 in the morning and got away. But after we had gone 10 blocks we decided to stop and get some barbecue, and then the police came along and barbecued us. I got out on probation. I was 16 then, weighing over 200 pounds. I was in a lot of street fights. I used to punch first and ask questions later, that's the way those guys do. I guess I was the biggest, strongest guy on the corner. None of the other gangs would mess with me, and so I started to strut with this gang and wound up in a bigger house.

"Some sucker sold me a gun to be shot only on Saturday night, that's the only time you needed it. I never shot a gun before, so I held it up in the sky and pulled the trigger. The gun lit up and I, thinking it was on fire, threw it in the mud. After that I started running with this guy who had a car. We made a few stick-ups, got away with the first, tried a second and it didn't turn out. This time they sent me away to Jefferson City for five years."

The record:

•Victim reported the No. 1 Negro struck him in the mouth, knocking him to the street, after which all three Negroes held him down and removed from his left hip trousers pocket his billfold containing $6.

•Victim reported three Negro men threw dirt in his face and then beat him and dragged him into the alley where they knocked him down and kicked him, and one of the men took from his right side trousers pocket $9.

•Victim reported three Negroes came up behind him and pulled him into a vacant lot and took from his person his brown leather billfold, which was in his left hip trousers pocket and which contained about $45.

•They walked to the rear of the filling station and looked in the window and saw the attendant was by himself. At this time a man dressed in a soldier's uniform, who appeared to have been drinking, walked up, and Liston grabbed him around the neck from the rear, bent him backwards and held him while Jordan searched his pockets. He found one nickel, which he kept. Then they went into the filling station and Jordan asked the attendant to sell him a can of gas, and when the attendant turned around, Liston grabbed him around the neck, informed him to be quiet or he would get hurt and said, this is a holdup.

•They passed a lunchroom and observed that there was only one man there and that it looked like an easy spot. Belt took a pistol from under the front seat and gave it to Liston. Liston and Jordan entered the lunchroom, and when Liston took the gun out of his pocket, Jordan grabbed it out of his hand and pointed it at the man behind the counter and said, this is a holdup.

•On January 15, 1950, Negro known as No. 1 man, Charles (Sonny) Liston: robbery first degree, two counts and larceny from a person, two counts: was sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City on each charge, the sentences to run concurrently.

"I didn't mind prison," Liston says. "I figure I had to pay for what I did. No use crying. I should have tried that before I did wrong."

Indeed, Sonny has said the food at Jeff City was the best he had ever eaten, an opinion not shared by his fellow inmates, who rioted in 1954 in protest against the food. The day Sonny was paroled, Monroe Harrison, who subsequently became his co-manager, bought him a chicken dinner as a treat. Monroe recalls that Sonny stared somberly at the chicken. "Why don't you eat it?" Monroe asked. "I don't know how," Sonny said.

Sonny was also delighted with his job in the penitentiary. "I was a runner," he says proudly. "You know, I ran messages or carried clothes to the dry cleaners. I got the job because Father Stevenson was always in my corner." Father Alois Stevens (whom Sonny unaccountably calls Father Stevenson) was perhaps the first beneficial influence in his life. "He was the one who started me fighting," Sonny says. Whether prizefighting was a benefit is disputed by one prominent boxing figure. "Boxing has done nothing for Sonny Liston," he says sourly, "but introduced him to a lot of high-class hoods."

"I was the Catholic chaplain at Jeff City," Father Stevens explains, "and the athletic director, too. They used to wish a lot of those jobs on chaplains. Sonny was just a big, ignorant, pretty nice kid. He wasn't smart-alecky, but he got in little scrapes. I tried to teach him the alphabet, but it was hard to impress upon him the importance of it. 'Surely you'll want to read the papers about yourself,' I'd tell him, but he wasn't too faithful. He was very penurious with his words. I ran him two winters in our boxing program, and he wound up being inmate champ."

When Liston became eligible for parole, Father Stevens called on Bob Burnes at the Globe-Democrat to inquire how Liston could become a fighter on the outside. Burnes, who was leary of penitentiary "phenoms," recommended that Monroe Harrison, a former boxer and sparring partner of Joe Louis, go to Jeff City and take a look at Liston. Since Harrison, who is the custodian of a public school, is a relatively poor man, he asked Frank Mitchell, the publisher of the St. Louis Argus, a Negro weekly, to accompany him. As Harrison ruefully explains, "Frank had the car." They took with them—to spar with Liston—a heavyweight named Thurman Wilson. As Mitchell tells it: "Wilson asked me, 'How many rounds?' 'Many you want,' I said. 'We don't want to show the boy up.' At the end of four rounds Wilson told me, 'Better get me out of this ring. He's going to kill me!' "

In October 1952, Sonny was paroled in the custody of Mitchell, Harrison and Father Stevens. Due chiefly to Harrison, all went smoothly for a while. "I recommended Monroe Harrison," Burnes says, "because this is a man Sonny can lean on. Monroe is an automatic uncle."

"Sonny's the type of person that needs understanding," Harrison said the other day in his basement office in the Carr Lane Branch school in St. Louis. "He's vicious all the way. Youth, all his youth! He needs someone to help him control his emotion. He must be kept busy until all that youth and strength leaves him, like it leaves all of us. Right now he's like the leopard, that animal out there in the jungle: leap at an animal, kill it, but he don't need it. I understood Sonny's language, befriended him. I fathered him around. He needs training. He needs love. The right people have to take an interest in the boy and treat him like a member of the family. You got to talk to him about what he talks about. Otherwise he's got no conversation. When you go with him to a function, don't leave him out there in the fourth dimension with all those diplomats."

"Sonny was frightened," Bob Burnes recalls, "lost in the big city. After he worked out, there was nothing to do but listen to the radio. Monroe taught him to play checkers, talked boxing with him. Every once in a while Monroe would haul Sonny down to the office. 'Tell Mr. Bob you've been a good boy,' he'd tell Sonny. 'You been a good boy?' I'd ask. 'Yes, Mr. Bob.' Sonny's not bright, but I've never known him to be mean. He's still a child, easily misled, easily misguided. I have never known Sonny to go looking for trouble."

Harrison was Liston's co-manager, along with Frank Mitchell, for his first 13 or 14 fights. But when Marty Marshall broke Liston's jaw and, at the same time, Harrison's wife became seriously ill, the financial burden became too severe, and Monroe had to get rid of his end of Liston. He sold it for $600. This left Sonny to Mitchell, who is, according to one St. Louis police officer, "an unwholesome influence." Mitchell has a generally poor reputation; he has been arrested 26 times, although he has never been convicted (except for speeding violations), and the majority of his arrests have been for "suspicion of gambling."

A small, tidy, passionate man, Mitchell bitterly declares that he is being persecuted, yet when he was subpoenaed by the Kefauver committee last December and had the opportunity of setting the record straight, he took the Fifth. "Not that I couldn't answer," he argued the other day in the Argus offices. "It was that going back three, four, five years, I might not have been able to answer accurately. I did not want to subject myself to perjury."

"Poor Frank took this ignorant boy out of the pen, made something out of him," says Mrs. Nannie Turner, who is the president and treasurer of the Argus and Mitchell's mother. ("I made Frank publisher," she says. "That's the best job there is. I wouldn't make him editor. He doesn't like to sit around and write. I tell Frank sometimes, maybe God isn't pleased with his attitude, letting him be persecuted.")

"They've raked me over the coals, sent me through the wringer, given me the devil," says Mitchell. "I'm supposed to be a front man with the hoodlums." Indeed, it is generally accepted that Mitchell was a front for Hoodlum John Vitale (58 arrests, three convictions), Hoodlum Frankie Carbo, Hoodlum Blinky Palermo and perhaps Millionaire Sportsman James D. Norris as well in the management of Liston. Carbo and Palermo are at present in California facing possible maximum sentences of 85 and 125 years respectively for their illegal activities in boxing.

Mitchell makes the preposterous claim that he met Vitale by chance on the golf course. "It was not a prearranged thing," he says. "You see, there were twosomes. The starter tuned Vitale's twosome and my twosome in. I couldn't afford to discriminate on a public golf course, me of all people."

Liston and Mitchell claim Liston worked for Vitale in construction, and later for an associate of Vitale, Raymond Sarkis. As Liston once said: "I consider John Vitale as a good friend whom I worked for about one year after I was introduced to him by my manager, Frank Mitchell. During this time John Vitale introduced me to Barney [Baker, a labor goon: five arrests] and Millie Allen [Vitale's girl]. In between rounds at my fights I would wave and smile at Millie and John in the crowd. I made long-distance collect phone calls to John to find out how things were at home. He said I could call him collect at this time. When John quit his business he introduced me to Raymond Sarkis, and I worked for Raymond for about one-and-a-half years, driving him around in his car. He was a good friend."

According to the testimony of Sergeant Joseph Moose of the St. Louis police before the Kefauver committee: "It has been reported that Liston's main function [for Vitale] was to keep the Negro laborers in line."

"He whopped a few [laborers] out in the county," says one St. Louis police reporter. "He didn't need to whop many—just stared at them. I don't think there were any arrests. Too scared."

"All I did for Sarkis," says Liston, "was to drive his car and help around in the house. Mostly I'd drive his car—a white Cadillac with air-conditioning and a telephone, and the cops would see me in the summertime driving along, nice and cool with the windows all up and the cold air pouring in on me and they'd be out there sweating. I know they was jealous, and they'd even the score by pulling me in."

"We wanted to break up Liston's associations with hoodlums," explains Captain John Doherty, who was in command of the hoodlum squad. "Every time we could jump Liston up, find him, we did. We wouldn't tolerate beating any citizens up, robbing them, which he was known for. I must have talked to Liston on 20 occasions. 'Where you come from?' 'I don't know.' 'Where you going?' 'I don't know.' We tried to treat him pretty good. I told him he had great potentialities, but if you're going to associate with Vitale and them other hots, I said, you can't make a decent living. He never accepted my advice. He's dumb. He's got a vicious temper. He's ill-advised on many occasions. He shakes hands with police characters."

"When you start to take him in," says Lieut. Frank Burns, "he always hesitates. You get the opinion he's gauging his chances, standing there wondering whether he'll go along quietly or not. He doesn't react, just stands there. He's like that in the ring."

"When I stopped him once on 12th Street, he doubled up his fists," says Detective Bob Green. "I pulled my gun and stood back. 'You better unroll those fists, my man," I told him. Why did I stop him? Just to find out where he's going."

"Once you have a record as an ex-con they'll pick on you," says Mitchell. "Sonny has the mind of a 12-year-old child. He has no finesse, tact, whatsoever. He doesn't realize that he has to keep his name out of the paper. He's kind of mean, too. He hates policemen; they hate him.

"Sonny got locked up once with one of those buzzer things in his hands. Shook hands with a policeman with it. Cost him $700. But he wouldn't have the sense to be a goon."

"The cops just kept grabbing me, picking me up," Liston says, "holding me overnight. If nobody come down to make a squawk to get me out, they keep me, then finally let me go. Next day, back in. I said what they wanted me to say, because who wanted to sleep on that cold steel all night? They never told me anything. They just picked me up and put me in the can and questioned me. The captain, Captain Doherty, told me to my face if I wanted to stay alive for me to leave St. Louis. So he said, 'If you don't, they are going to find you in the alley.' "

"Doherty got a bum rap on that," James Chapman, the assistant chief of police, says. "I'm the one that told him that. As far as I'm concerned, Liston's a big, 18-carat phony."

"The only thing I tried to do is work and make an honest living," Liston says. "I promised Father Stevenson I would never meet him back up there. Once I was picked up, and this one cop, who had boxed some, told the captain he wanted to take me downstairs, to work Liston over with his fists. He just begged the captain for a chance to hammer at me. So I said, 'Yeah, Captain, why don't you let him take me downstairs?' But I guess Captain knew better. He wouldn't stand for it."

The ex-fighter on the force Liston refers to probably is Detective Sergeant James Reddick, a onetime Golden Gloves champion. Sergeant Reddick, himself a Negro, seems to consider Liston incorrigible.

"He's a bad man," Reddick says with feeling. "He hangs out with a bunch of dogs. I'd like to show him how bad he is. If he ever crossed me, I'd baptize his ass. He'd be like a coffee sieve. They'd remember him all right—every Decoration Day."

Father Charles Disma Clark, the celebrated Hoodlum Priest and founder of Dismas House in St. Louis, is more tolerant. "He needs someone to show him how to live," Father Clark says. "He needs somebody he can turn to. If he's supervised, he's all right. The penitentiary dulls minds. You walk the same concrete, see the same bars, never make decisions. These people don't mind getting in trouble again. They learn to trust people, but the wrong people. They panic very quickly. They rationalize their panic, and they become bad for the community, they torment it."

And Sonny Liston panicked and got in trouble again on the night of May 5, 1956. Trouble, in this instance, was Patrolman Thomas Mellow of the St. Louis police. "I was making my relief corner and passed an alley," Mellow said. "A cab was parked in it with the parking lights on. From the entrance to the alley I asked who the driver was. The driver came down, said his name was Patterson. I told him he could get a ticket, but I was going to let him move the cab. Then Liston came down. 'You can't give him no ticket,' he said, real rough like. 'The hell I can't,' I said. I took out my ticket book, flashlight, to get the city sticker number off the cab. As I started over, Liston came over and gave me a bear hug from the front, lifted me clear off the ground. I didn't realize what was happening until he grabbed me. Kind of caught me off guard. After they got me in the dark part of the alley, Patterson says, 'Get his gun.' We struggled, and all three of us fell. Liston got my gun out. Then Patterson says, 'Shoot that white son of a bitch.' Liston releases me and points the gun at my head. I'm pushing up on the barrel with both hands to keep from looking down that muzzle. They were walking all over me. I hollered: 'Don't shoot me.'

"Liston let up all of a sudden," Mellow said, "hit me over the left eye with either the gun or his fist, it took seven stitches. My left leg was broken in the knee either from the fall or somebody stomping me. Then they run up the alley. That's the biggest man I ever.... When he give me that bear hug I couldn't even get my toes on the ground. He appeared to be drinking; the fellows that arrested him had a little trouble."

This is Liston's version: "I called a cab to come pick me up. I saw the cab pull up into the alleyway, and I hurried out of the house. Meanwhile, a cop came up and told the cabby he was going to give him a ticket. I said, 'How come you going to give this cab a ticket? He's just doing his business.' Then the cop turns to me and says, 'You're a smart nigger,' and when I say 'I'm not smart,' he reaches for his gun and tries to take it out his holster, but I take it away from him. Later the cop said I was drunk. Now how could a drunk handle a sober cop trained to make arrests and to pull his gun? I never drink hard liquor anyway, and the only time I drink beer is when my trainer makes me. A lot of times after a hard fight and I got beat around the kidney my trainer makes me drink a beer to flush my kidneys out."

"If Sonny had called me right away I would have squelched it," Mitchell says. "Sonny doesn't drink. That's an old excuse. Racial slurs it was. Black son of a bitch, something like that. That would aggravate him."

"Sonny cannot drink," Bob Burnes says. "He gets sick."

In spite of his record, Liston isn't absolutely anticop. "If we didn't have cops," he says, "the world would be in a terrible fix. Everyone would have to go around wearing a gun. Most cops is good guys, but some of those people think them badges makes them big shots. They polishes those badges at night before they go to sleep, and they polishes them badges when they get up in the morning." Sonny, however, is quite obviously enraged by personal contact with the law. Here's what happened last May when he was arrested on a Philadelphia street corner.

Liston's story: "I was talking to a fan of mine on 40th and Market when this cop comes by and tells this guy to move along. The fan says he was just waiting for the bus, but the cop says, 'No, you're not, now beat it.' I thought the guy done something wrong until the cop says to me, 'That goes for you, too.' Then I said, 'What is this, Russia or something, you can't stand on a street corner? If I am not allowed to stand on the street corner and talk to people, then I might as well be in Alabama.' At this, the cop told me, 'Either move on or you get locked up.' And I said, 'You're kidding.' So the cop booked me for corner-lounging. Now that cop should have asked what me and this fan were doing on the corner before he got tough. I think people who pay taxes have a right to stand any place they want. You know what people think after they read in the paper that I got arrested."

As usual, the official version of Sonny's arrest is somewhat at variance with Sonny's. According to Patrolman James Best, who is a Negro, he went to 40th and Market to check a complaint and found six men, five of them "regulars," on the corner. He told them to move along. All did except one, says Best. This man stared at Best for a few seconds, then said senselessly: "You're going to have to take me in." Best went to a call box and summoned a wagon. Sonny phoned his new manager, Georgie Katz, who got hold of Magistrate Harry J. Ellick. Ellick made a special trip to the police station to give an extraordinary hearing for the illustrious guest at 9:20 p.m., discharging him with this admonition surprised that a man who has reached such pugilistic height would get involved in anything so foolish as this. But you got your wish. You were arrested."

It is not only Liston's own series of arrests that has given others besides Ellick pause. It is his long symbiotic association with known hoodlums and undercover managers. According to Lieut. Joseph A. Kuda of the St. Louis police, John Vitale owned 12% of Liston's contract through Mitchell, Blinky Palermo owned 12%, Frank Carbo owned 52% and two unidentified persons owned 12% each.

Liston makes light of this: "Now you hear people say that lots of other guys owned me: John Vitale got so much percent, Mitchell got so much percent and a bunch of other guys got so much percent. If that's so, what did I get? I'll tell you what I got; I got no percent. Now that don't make sense, I do all the fighting and I get nothing! Let me tell you, if Mitchell held anyone else in with him then, I didn't know about it. Just like you know your boss, but you don't know who he's with. You know he pays you, that's all. But you don't know who he gets his money from."

Despite Liston's denials, Mitchell has admitted: "I don't definitely know the intricacies of the deals, but Blinky was definitely using his interest. But it's not in writing." And Liston said at one time: "I think that Norris has a piece of my contract, but I don't know how much he owns."

It would be unrealistic to deny that Vitale and Palermo, a Carbo lieutenant, controlled Liston. There was ample testimony at the Kefauver hearings to indicate that Vitale and Palermo shared in Liston's purses according to Lieut. Kuda's percentages. In 1958 the mob moved Liston out of St. Louis to Philadelphia and got him a new manager, Joseph (Pep) Barone (two arrests), who had never managed a fighter until he was given Liston to handle. Barone is a longtime associate of Palermo's and was reportedly his "detail supervisor" for several years. Barone self-righteously denies that he was a front for anyone, but when he, like Mitchell, had the opportunity to testify before the Kefauver investigating committee last December he turned up in a hospital suffering from anxiety and deep depression.