Passing years add tolerance to the Liston legend

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The Independent Online

Back when Henry Cooper held the British and Commonwealth heavyweight championships, the late Jim Wicks, who is not remembered solely as a boxing manager, declined an opportunity to challenge Sonny Liston for the world title. "My Henry won't be fighting Liston or any other of them mahogany sideboards," he said.

I am reminded of Wicks' refusal to put the comparatively light Cooper – he never went to the ring weighing more than about 13st 8lb – at risk against such a grim opponent whenever Liston's name crops up, as it did on Tuesday night when he figured as the subject of Reputations on BBC 2.

Not much, if anything, was revealed about Liston that some of us did not already now from personal experience or contact with people who knew him well, most notably, in my case, the late New York publicist and boxing entrepreneur Harold Conrad, who inspired the character played by Humphrey Bogart in Budd Schulberg's damning screenplay The Harder They Fall.

It was Conrad who said that Liston died the day he was born, which is as good a way as any of summing up a life that ended mysteriously in Las Vegas, where his grave bears the simple inscription 'Charles "Sonny" Liston. A man.'

There are many stories about Liston, some true, others imagined, but nearly all bolstering the impression of an illiterate ogre and social outcast who is mostly remembered for two defeats to Muhammad Ali, the second coming inside two minutes of the first round from a punch which virtually nobody saw. The truth of it went with Liston to his grave.

Conrad was diametrically opposed to the popular estimate of Liston's character, seeing him as a victim of circumstances achingly familiar to the majority of blacks who grew up in the deep south. "People took Sonny at face value, leaped to conclusions, didn't bother to explore his background, the things he suffered," Conrad said. "Once Sonny did time he was a marked man and that followed him into boxing. He was no saint, but I found him sad."

Not so long ago, coinciding with an anniversary of Liston's death on 30 December, 1970, another old friend, Bill Nack of Sports Illustrated, went back over the last days of a fighter who spread fear throughout the heavyweight division and was once thought to be unbeatable. He too arrived at the conclusion that Liston's character was shaped by the realisation that nobody had ever given him a square deal. "But I couldn't get to the truth about Sonny's death," he said, "and I don't think anybody ever will."

Far from the hero's welcome Liston imagined when flying into Philadelphia after taking the title from Floyd Patterson on 25 September 1962, he was met by only by a handful of reporters and photographers. Already selling on the streets was an editorial composed by Larry Merchant of the Philadelphia Daily News. "A celebration for Philadelphia's first heavyweight champ is now in order.... for confetti we can use shredded warrants of arrest." Another News writer, Jack McKinney, who had sat with Liston on the flight, told Nack: "When Sonny took in the scene, he understood immediately what it meant. You could feel the deflation, see the hurt in his eyes. He'd been deliberately snubbed. From that point I knew that the world would never get to know the Sonny I knew." Two weeks later, Liston was stopped by police for driving "suspiciously slow" through a section of the city. Soon afterwards, he and his wife moved to Denver. "I'd rather be a lamppost in Denver than mayor of Philadelphia," he snarled.

Unquestionably, Liston had friends and associates linked with organised crime. "You couldn't help being suspicious of him," the veteran trainer Eddie Futch once said. Now in his 90th year, Futch recalls encountering Liston when in New York with the welterweight Don Jordan. "Seeing Sonny in the hotel put me on my guard because I'd been told that there might be an attempt to get at Jordan," he said. "So after we checked in I switched the rooms. Not long afterwards I answered a knock at the door to find Sonny standing there. He looked surprised, then asked if I could let him have a towel. There was no doubt in my mind that he'd been sent to intimidate Jordan."

This raises the profound question of whether Liston was as bad as he has been painted or simply a guy who never got an even break. I wouldn't know, but as the years pile it is surprising how one's views lengthen into tolerance.