How the Mob tamed the King of the Beasts

Night Train: the Sonny Liston story by Nick Tosches (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99)
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The Independent Culture

The US in 1962 was moving agonisingly towards civil rights but remained ripped by racial divisions. Malcolm X warned of "social dynamite" in the ghettos and the James Brown classic "Night Train" evoked the unstoppable motion of black protest. White America watched fearfully.

But there was another fear shared by both white and black America. Boxing's heavyweight championship held an expressive value that went beyond sport. The holders of this largely American possession were vested with moral leadership, an informal authority conferred by blacks and whites alike. And the prospect of Charles "Sonny" Liston becoming champion terrified almost everyone.

Far from welcoming the formidable black fighter, who had emerged from the ghetto via the penitentiary, black leaders and their followers believed that Liston "would bring disgrace and trouble" and "would be like gasoline to bring white hatred flaring forth anew". Liston was, as Nick Tosches describes him, "the big bad nigger who looked at you like he didn't know whether to drink your blood or spit on you - something that was inhuman, but also something in which humanity was not even vestigial".

Today, such a person might be highly marketable. Minatory African Americans are regularly turned into commercial products to exploit racist fantasies. But, as Tosches points out: "In those days, bad niggers were not the darling middle-class iconic commodities and consumers of a white-ruled conglomerate culture."

The towering, illiterate Liston came from Arkansas, though he spent most of his life in St Louis, where he became a habitual larcenist. Imprisoned in 1950 after a violent robbery, Liston, then 20 (though there are doubts his birthdate), was taught to box by the prison chaplain. He began fighting professionally in 1953.

At the time, boxing was largely controlled by organised crime, Frankie "The Gray" Carbo being supreme overlord. All manner of recondite deals were made to ensure that Liston became the property of the Mob, though Liston was probably unaware of his virtual serfdom. By 1960, when he surfaced as a contender, "Sonny had lost track of who owned what pieces of him". Nor, it seems, did he much care. "As long as I'm fighting and making money and driving a good car and eating regular, nothing much is bothering me," he declared.

Tosches likens Floyd Patterson, from whom Liston took the world title, to an earlier black champion, Joe Louis, often lauded as "a credit to his race". White leaders as well as black organisations supported Patterson. They were crushed as helplessly as Patterson himself; the indomitable Liston blasted Patterson within a round, repeating the feat in a rematch.

In 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act, Liston defended his title in "a spectacle that pitted the embodiment of callow spirit and whistle-in-the-dark braggadocio against that of the Adversary of the American Dream". Whistling bravely, or perhaps tremulously, was Cassius Clay, hopelessly overmatched and destined to go the same way as other Liston opponents. But, unbelievably, Liston surrendered his title and then, in a second fight, meekly lay down for the count after what seemed an innocuous blow ("the phantom punch").

Why would the invincible "King of the Beasts" succumb so tamely? Tosches has no definite answer, though he reasons that the substantial amounts gambled on the rank underdog Clay shortly before the fight supply a clue. Even at the zenith of his career, Liston was under the domination of others.

The Mob's involvement in Liston's life ended only with his death in 1971. His body was found in his Las Vegas home, and, though traces of heroin were found, the verdict was "natural causes". Tosches believes "he took too much dope and died," though "ultimately the true cause of Sonny Liston's death was the mystery in him."

The reviewer's book, 'The Black Culture Industry', is published by Routledge