Also on this date, former Heavyweight Champion Charles "Sonny" Liston dies at the age of 38.
Liston’s death was surrounded by controversy.
An ex-con with known mob ties, there are several theories that Liston was murdered ... but he was also known to have a pretty substantial drug habit at the time ... and also appeared to have been drinking heavily. (Drugs and alcohol were found at the death site.) Still, the official coroner's report stated that Sonny Liston died of natural causes, brought on by lung congestion and heart failure. (Many felt at the time that Liston overdosed on heroin ... which is also what Las Vegas police first believed when they arrived at the scene ... but others who were aware of Sonny's drug dependency say that he would never have shot up the drug ... and that if they found a needle mark in his arm showing otherwise, somebody ELSE had to be the one to inject that fatal dose ... thus the "murder controversy" ... and conspiracy theory ... that has existed ever since.)
His dead body went undiscovered for about a week. His wife had been out of town, visiting family ... and when she returned, the odor inside their home was unbearable. Calling a friend to help her investigate, they discovered Sonny's badly decomposing body lying on the bed ... so much so that his date of death had to be estimated based on the condition of his body when police and the coroner were called to the scene.
With a reach of 84 inches (and fists that measured 15 inches, both the largest of any heavyweight champion), Liston won the Heavyweight Title from Floyd Patterson when he knocked The Champ out in the first two minutes of the very first round in a fight held right here in Chicago at old Comiskey Park on September 25th, 1962. (He would lose the title just a year and a half later to Muhammad Ali ... then Cassius Clay ... in what most sports journalists considered to be an upset outcome. Clay announced his new name at a press conference the very next day.)
Rumors abound to this day about Sonny Liston taking a dive in his second bout with Muhammad Ali a year later. (On several occasions since, Liston reportedly boasted to confidants that, as part of his compensation for taking the dive, he was receiving a percentage of Ali's purses from that moment forward, at one point reportedly saying "So who REALLY lost that fight?") If true, this would become an ENORMOUS financial factor in the first Ali / Frazier fight which, at the time, became the biggest boxing purse in the history of the sport. (By the way, we'll be covering the 50th Anniversary of THAT fight in March of next year as part of our salute to 197!)
A Showtime documentary released in 2019 even speculates that the fix may have been in on the first Liston / Ali fight, when Liston refused to answer the bell after the sixth round, thus counting himself out and relinquishing the title of Heavyweight Champion Of The World to Muhammad Ali by TKO. (Liston entered the fight with a record of 35-1, 21 of those victories coming by way of knock-out. He was the clear cut favorite to win the Ali bout ... but mob gamblers reportedly bet heavily against their boy, at 7 to 1 odds, reaping the benefit of a HUGE pay day when Liston refused to answer the bell for the seventh round.) Honestly, the idea of a fix in the first fight seems somewhat unfounded ... midway through the battle, Ali complained that something had come off of Liston's gloves and was burning his eyes ... not the first time such an allegation had been raised during a Sonny Liston fight. Why would Liston to go to that length to disable his opponent if he was going to throw the fight a few minutes later?
All of this hullabaloo (along with all the growing outrage and continued opposition to Clay's name change to Muhammad Ali after winning the title, turning a number of fans against him for his Muslim beliefs), helped set the stage for the rematch ... and an even BIGGER pay day should you put all your money on Liston to lose. This time, Sonny was knocked out just seconds into the first round. (Many called it "the phantom punch" that nobody actually saw) ... even close-up video of the knock down makes a less than definitive case of Ali's ability to knock out the former champ with such ease. (Legendary Sportscaster Howard Cosell, who was sitting ringside and calling the bout on closed circuit tv, later said "I saw the punch ... it wouldn't have split a grape.")
We likely will never know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth ... but Liston (who used to break legs for the mob before he started to make a name for himself on the heavyweight circuit) was considered, by all accounts, a very formidable opponent ... and one of the strongest men to ever step inside the ring. Why throw all of that away and allow a brash, young, loud mouth like Clay (who referred to Sonny as "the ugly bear") to take the title? I guess we'll never really learn the answer to that question.