Books for Christmas: The menace and mystery of Liston: Ken Jones on boxing enigmas and stuff of legends

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'FLOYD PATTERSON was the Hope of the Civilized World. John Kennedy was counting on him. Eleanor Roosevelt was counting on him. Every parlour liberal who ever attended a Pete Seeger concert or voted for Adlai Stevenson was counting on him. Every middle-class black who figured Sonny Liston would give the race a bad name was counting on him. And after two minutes, the referee was counting on him, all the way to 10.'

Joseph D O'Brien, Ring magazine, February 1987.

Jack Johnson apart, no heavyweight challenger in history went to his corner with less support than Liston had on 25 September 1962 when he knocked out the hapless Patterson in Chicago.

Everything about Liston, his size, the clubbing destructiveness he carried in huge fists, the brooding scowl, the icy stare, conveyed menace. That the title should fall into the hands of a jailbird and strike-breaker who consorted with racketeers, raised serious implications even for a business as dubious as boxing.

As Bill Nack recalled in Sports Illustrated: 'Many blacks watched Liston's spectacular rise with something approaching horror. Here suddenly was a baleful black felon holding the most prestigious title in sports. This was at the precise moment when a young civil rights movement was emerging, a movement searching for role models . . . yet untouched by image makers, Liston refused to speak any mind but his own. Asked by a young white reporter why he wasn't fighting for freedom in the South, Liston deadpanned, 'I ain't got no dog- proof ass'.'

Curiously, Sonny Boy - The Life and Strife of Sonny Liston by Rob Steen (Methuen, pounds 15.99) is the first biography of a man whose death in Las Vegas 22 years ago this month was as mysterious as his life.

As a theme, Steen's clearly stated disgust with boxing (it is the sport not the art that is ignoble) proves to be self-defeating. Through diligent research he quickly becomes engrossed in a tale of human fraility and tells it with considerable style.

Nothing reveals more about Liston than the sorry details of his return to Philadelphia after becoming champion . . . a hero's welcome? Hardly. Stepping from the aircraft he saw only a small gathering of airline staff, reporters and photographers. An associate, Bill McKinney recalled, 'He understood immediately what it meant. You could feel the deflation, see the look of hurt in his eyes. He'd been deliberately snubbed. I knew from that point on that the world would never get to know the Sonny that I knew.'

Gaining purchase for his prejudice, Steen writes, 'Rarely had the futility of boxing, of redemption through violence, been embodied more ruthlessly.'

Articulating it honestly, Steen has a substantial case. However, in common with the majority of abolitionists he is given to over-simplification.

A publicist, the late Harold Conrad with whom I spent many informative hours, said of Liston, 'He died the day he was born.' Life, not boxing did for him.

On 25 February 1964, Liston put up his title against Cassius Clay in Miami Beach, Florida. Few gave the boy-braggart a chance but Liston quit after six humiliating rounds. When they met in a return 15 months later, Liston went down from a short right in the opening round and was counted out.

Returning from a trip on 6 January 1971, Geraldine Liston found her husband dead in their Las Vegas apartment. He had lain there for six days. Speculation suggested a drug overdose but tests proved inconclusive. Steen states, 'One plausible scenario was furnished by Sonny's erstwhile press aide, Harold Conrad (from long experience Conrad was given to inventing his own truths), who believed that Sonny was also involved with Las Vegas loan sharks as a debt collector. Sonny apparently wanted a bigger slice of the pie, Conrad calculated, so his bosses plied him with booze and the odd Mickey Finn, drove him home and administered the fatal dose.'

Two months after Liston's funeral, Muhammad Ali, back from exile, failed to regain the heavyweight championship, when he lost a 15-round decision to Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. Muhammad Ali: A Thirty Year Journey by Howard Bingham (Robson Books, pounds 19.95) is a pictorial chronicle of the most remarkable career in sport.

The closest and most loyal of Ali's associates, his best friend since they met in 1962, Bingham's pictures vividly capture every facet of Ali's extraordinary life.

By comparison, Lennox Lewis, the first British-born heavyweight this century to hold a least a share of the championship, has only just begun. His autobiography Lennox Lewis with Joe Steeples (Faber and Faber, pounds 15.00) is premature. Brought out in September to coincide with Lewis's defence against Frank Bruno in Cardiff it could also have done with better editing.