Like Fights Against Ali, Liston Death a Mystery


To millions who had seen him fight, the headline was incomprehensible: “Sonny Liston Found Dead in Las Vegas.”

Sonny Liston, dead? How could it be? Sonny Liston, for some time, had been a mountain, a guy who could take down buildings with his left hook.

Until two questionable performances against Cassius Clay (known as Muhammad Ali the second time), it was thought no human on the planet could stand up to him.

On Jan. 5, 1971, Liston’s wife, Geraldine, returned to their Las Vegas home from a weeklong holiday trip to St. Louis. She found Liston’s decomposing body on their bed, with drug paraphernalia, including heroin and syringes, nearby.


A coroner needed a date for the death certificate and police estimated it, judging by milk bottles and newspapers at the front door, at Dec. 30.

Was Liston murdered and the crime scene set up to look like a drug overdose? Many who knew him thought that was the case.

Years later, Liston’s last trainer, Johnny Tocco, talked about it. “Sonny never had anything to do with heroin. He hated needles. He wouldn’t even go to a doctor for a checkup, for fear he’d get stuck with a needle.”

Said Davey Pearl, a Las Vegas referee and onetime roadwork partner of Liston’s: “Whatever happened to Sonny, I can guarantee you it had nothing to do with drugs. Sonny was scared to death of needles. He’d do anything to avoid getting a shot.”


The coroner found old, scarred welts all over Liston’s back. They were from numerous beatings by his father, when Liston was a child--a child who grew up to become a fearsome fighter.

Sonny Liston lies today beneath a bronze tablet in the Garden of Peace section of Paradise Gardens Cemetery, near the end of one of the runways at McCarron International Airport in Las Vegas.

The tablet reads: “CHARLES SONNY LISTON. 1932-1970. A Man.”



Also on this date: In 1981, Edmonton’s Wayne Gretzky scored his 50th goal in 39 games, in a 7-5 Oiler victory over Philadelphia in which Gretzky scored five goals. . . . In 1970, Ram owner Dan Reeves fired his coach, George Allen, for the second time in two years. Reeves was forced to hire Allen back after a 1968 firing, when Ram players threatened to retire.