Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston (2019) Movie Script

dramatic music
[sirens blaring]
[Gandy] My partner and I got
a call from dispatch.
It says, uh, "Any narcotics
detectives in the area
of Autumn Wood Drive
to come by."
I went up to the bedroom.
There was sheriff's
deputies running
over the place like ants.
They were everywhere.
It didn't even look
like Liston,
he'd been dead for so long.
He'd been dead
four or five days.
He was bloated.
He was full of methane gas.
It really made me sick
in my stomach,
because he was such
a predominant figure
in--in sports world.
I just thought it was
a terrible, disrespectful way
for him to go.
[camera shutter clicking]
tense music
[Farrell] Sonny Liston was
the greatest heavyweight
who ever lived,
I have no doubt about that.
He was a bona fide monster.
[Assael] He punched
with the force
of a government
crash test.
[announcer] Westphal has never
been knocked
on his feet until now.
Sonny Liston was the first
intimidating fighter
with the mean scowl
and the mean grin.
He was a real badass,
a real menacing force.
The way Sonny won most of his
fights was before he even got
into the ring,
those eyes.
[Collins] He was an ex-convict.
- He was brutal.
- [grunts]
He was mobbed up.
He was a symbol of the champ
we didn't want.
Sonny was in the epicenter
of a perfect storm,
as far as what was going on
in society.
The Civil Rights Era
was just starting,
and he was the guy
in the middle
that took all the grief.
America needed to remind
the broader white public
of the danger
that was black folk,
and nobody represented that
danger more than Sonny Liston.
[Roberts] We don't know how
Sonny Liston died,
and in the void created
by the absence
of rational explanation,
conspiracy filled it
like a foul air.
[Assael] The medical examiner
called it natural causes.
But nobody around Sonny
believed that.
Everybody believed
he was murdered.
So many people wanted
Sonny dead.
The only question is,
who got to him first?
tense music
[Collins] Nobody really knows
when Sonny Liston was born.
He often gave the date
of May 8th, 1932.
But he was probably
older than that.
There were no records.
Not even the family Bible
had his birth date in there.
So he was a mystery
right from the start.
Sonny was the 24th
of 25 children.
His father, Tobe,
was a sharecropper,
and with that many mouths
to feed,
it must have been tough.
I mean, Sonny knew what it was
to be hungry.
You know, he knew that.
[Long] In Forrest City,
we were trying to survive.
Day-to-day survival.
'Cause, you know, poor people--
We were poor people.
So, and you know, we trying
to live from day to day.
[Collins] He didn't really get
much of an education.
He never learned to read
or write.
He was out in the fields
working by time
he was eight years old.
[Izenberg] The story--
and I think
it's more than apocryphal--
The mule dies,
and his father says,
"You're the mule."
Hooks him up to the harness and
he's plowing furrows with him.
[Majeski] He was whipped by
his father
to force him to work harder,
and Sonny had the marks
to prove it.
Getting beaten as a child,
you know,
will really affect your
outlook on how you see things.
If you had hoped for
a better life,
you will live your
life differently.
He didn't have hope
for a better life.
[Roberts] All Sonny knows
is violence.
And if Sonny looks at the world
around him, you know,
what does he see?
He sees violence towards
black men, black children.
[Jeffries] Jim Crow America
was violent.
Jim Crow America
was dangerous.
You could be walking down
the street as a young man,
as a boy, as a woman,
and literally your life
could be snuffed out.
Like, that's what Jim Crow was.
Around 1946,
Sonny's mother left to go north
in search of a better life.
She ended up in St. Louis,
but Sonny was still back
on the plantation.
So, um, he got a bus ticket
to go to St. Louis.
[Jeffries] They called it
black folk
in search of
the promised land.
You get a couple million black
folk literally looking
for a better way of life.
The reality, though, uh,
was that promised land
was fabled.
[Roberts] Sonny finds
his mother.
Is the mother happy
to see him?
Maybe a little.
Maybe not.
Sonny is another mouth to feed,
and then he's on the streets.
He was at the dark side
of St. Louis at the time,
the real poor section,
and he saw how the poor
people got money.
They robbed and steal.
[Majeski] Sonny Liston, after
some minor infractions,
went to the big time.
He went to rob a gas station,
he went to rob a restaurant,
and he used a gun in the
commission of these crimes.
[Collins] Sonny always wore
the yellow shirt.
Police knew they were
looking for a guy
wearing a yellow shirt,
and they got him.
After Sonny was tried,
he got, um, five years in jail.
That was the sentence for
armed robbery at the time.
And he went
to the penitentiary
in Jefferson, which was
a really tough place.
[Majeski] Time Magazine
called it
the bloodiest 47 acres
in America.
Gangs ruled it.
There were fights
all the time.
Guards were afraid to patrol
some of the d-blocks.
Liston was brutalized
early in prison.
I believe Liston had to fight
for everything he got there.
And I think he took his share
of beatings.
It was a Darwinian existence.
[Rigueur] His story becomes
about survival.
Now, his story had always been
about survival,
but it takes on a new element.
[Majeski] Father Stevens, who
was working at the prison
got him into the boxing
program there.
[Collins] Father Stevens was
trying to do a good turn
for somebody he thought that
might have a chance
to break away from
a life of crime.
[Izenberg] Boxing has always
a step ladder
for poor people
without other skills.
And Sonny fit that picture
100 percent.
[Tyson] Sonny Liston saw
boxing as a way out.
He didn't wanna live that life
in prison no more.
He didn't want to live
that life in the streets.
And that's why he excelled
and did so well.
[Majeski] Sonny was a prodigy.
He was a revelation.
This is a guy who could be
really an exceptional athlete.
A great fighter.
And this is something good,
that he can hang
his identity onto.
This is what his
identity's all about.
Sonny had beaten up all
the inmates that dared get in
the ring with him.
dramatic music
Father Stevens thought,
"Well, let's see how he could
do with a pro.
So they brought
in Thurman Wilson
who was considered the best
in the neighborhood.
He lasted two rounds
with Sonny.
[Majeski] The manager Mitchell
who brought him in said,
"I don't think I should
be managing Wilson.
I should look into handling
Sonny Liston."
As with everything
with Sonny Liston,
there's always a subtext, okay?
It turns out that
Frank Mitchell
is connected to Johnny Vitale.
Johnny Vitale is in the mob.
And before you know it,
Sonny Liston is paroled.
He doesn't have to serve
his full years.
[alarm ringing]
Also, Johnny Vitale,
he can offer two things.
One is he could offer
an outside job,
which is breaking
people's legs.
[Majeski] Sonny was gonna be
head breaking
against union breakers.
And it was racketeering,
and it was picking up money
for the loan sharks.
[Roberts] But secondly, Johnny
Vitale knows a guy by the name
of Frankie Carbo.
Frankie Carbo
is the underworld
boss of boxing.
[man] Frankie Carbo, Mr. Gray,
the Superintendent,
one of the most feared gunmen
of the Prohibition Era
and the undisputed czar
of the professional sport.
[Collins] You couldn't get
a big fight in most divisions
if you didn't have Carbo
on your side.
That's just the way it was.
I mean, in a way, boxing has
been corrupt forever.
So it wasn't anything new.
But Carbo was more powerful
because he had an organization
behind him and he had
a reputation as a murderer.
[Majeski] Frankie Carbo would
kill you on a dime.
Frankie was the real thing.
He was 100 percent gangster.
There was no question
about that.
But Frankie Carbo
loved boxing.
[Collins] Sonny decided, you
know, if I'm ever gonna make
anything out of my life,
I gotta go with these guys
because they're the ones that
can get me where I wanna go.
[Jeffries] He chooses
this path,
and I don't know how many
of us
would choose
something different,
uh, given the exact same set
of choices that we had.
Before you turn professional,
it's good to get an amateur
career--an amateur tryout,
if you will.
So Sonny enters into
the Golden Gloves tournament.
dramatic music
He won the Chicago
Golden Gloves.
[Collins] And then Sonny Liston
went on to win
the national Golden Gloves,
and that really put him
on the map.
And by September of 1953,
he turned professional.
Liston got the attention
of the boxing world
very, very early,
but you have to understand
that even with mob-controlled
especially if they're
black fighters,
you have to go through
a baptism of fire.
Nobody hands you anything.
He's tested right away
from the very beginning.
He's not fighting real
He won his first fight by
knockout and then continued
the early series of bouts
in St. Louis
winning by knockouts.
He was a straight-up fighter
that came forward,
looked to seek and destroy you.
If he hit you with a good
punch, he knocked you out.
If you wanted to build
a perfect heavyweight,
you would use Sonny Liston
as your model.
He heralded in the era
of giant heavyweights
without, in fact, being
a giant heavyweight himself.
He was only a little bit over
six feet tall,
and he weighed about
200 pounds.
[announcer] That's our newest
youngster, the Sonny Liston.
[Farrell] Liston's reach
was 86 inches,
which was the greatest reach
of any heavyweight champion
in history with a possible
exception of Primo Carnera.
[announcer] Trying to stay
with the bigger Liston.
Harris gets hit with
a left hook and goes down.
[cheers and applause]
He was enormously powerful
through the shoulders.
He had long arms.
His fists were like
huge hams.
His jab was his
greatest weapon,
and it was the greatest jab
any heavyweight's ever had.
Most fighters use jabs just
to set the opponent up.
Usually it's not that hard.
But Sonny Liston used it
as a weapon--boom--
to knock you out
and knock you down.
[Roberts] Sonny's left jab was
a nose-cracking,
jaw-dropping experience.
And they said getting hit
by his jab was like getting hit
by a pole.
Well, Sonny Liston had a big
menacing tough guy reputation,
and that's what preceded him
in the ring.
He intimidates the fighter.
The fighter's really beaten
before he even
got in the ring.
Sonny could pull it off.
I could pull it off.
Not a lot of people
could pull it off.
Sonny, uh, what advice would
you give to a young lad
who came to you and said,
"I want to become a boxer?"
What would you tell him as
regards training and so forth?
Well, they always told me
anything you wanna do,
do your best and be
the best at it.
[Collins] I don't think the
general public ever knew
the real Sonny Liston.
They knew the persona,
the thug-like guy who just
knocked everybody out and was
associated with the mob
and been in jail.
He wasn't really that.
That was a front.
That was like what he needed
to protect himself
and also to intimidate
his opponents.
He was a very sensitive person.
He could be hurt easily.
dramatic music
[Long] Uncle Charles--we didn't
call him Sonny at that time--
was really a soft and gentle
person, seriously.
And so I didn't understand
how they, you know,
I think at some point they
called him the Bear.
But he was never like
that with me.
He wanted me to be a little
bit above where he came from.
Is the term "surrogate parent"?
He was really close to me.
[Izenberg] He was respectful
of kids and old people,
'cause they posed no threat
to him.
And most of all, he was
very respectful of Geraldine.
He's a good man and he's
a kind man
and worthy of a chance
to contribute to society.
I am Mrs. Sonny Liston.
[Izenberg] Geraldine was
so different than Sonny.
I always wondered how
they met.
So one day I asked her.
And she said to me, "Well, you
know, Sonny picked me up."
I didn't know what
she meant by that.
She said, "No, I mean he
picked me up.
It was raining.
I was standing on a St. Louis
street corner.
Sonny pulls up in this big
car, puts me in the car,
and then says, 'A little lady
like you should not be standing
out in the rain.'"
[Reddish Jr.] Geraldine Liston
was a beautiful lady
who loved her Charles.
I could hear her right now
say, "Charles?"
And he'd, "Yes, dear?"
She was his blanket,
I'll say.
She covered him
and kept him warm.
And loved him.
[Collins] Geraldine
probably knew
that Sonny was running
around with other women.
But there's a lot of women,
they'd rather accept him
messing around on the side
than lose him.
And I think that's pretty much
where she was.
I think in a way they really
loved each other.
You know, there was one thing
that Sonny was better at
than boxing, and that was
compartmentalizing himself.
He could be a loving husband,
he could be a womanizer,
he could be a criminal,
he could be a boxer.
That's what he was
a master at:
boxing and being able to lead
so many different lives.
There were so many men
inside that one man.
[Roberts] By the mid-'50s,
he's a boxer of some repute.
He's a leg breaker
for the mob.
He's an alley dweller.
You know, Sonny never walked
on well-lit streets.
Sonny moved around in darkness.
So there was a running battle
between the police
and Sonny Liston.
The police harassed him.
[Jeffries] He wasn't just some
random black guy.
He was Sonny Liston--
gangster, criminal.
Once you lose that anonymity
in the face of the police,
then you're really
gonna catch hell.
[Assael] He had a target on
his back.
The St. Louis cops would roust
him any time they could.
Sonny was headed towards
a championship fight.
But he was also headed towards
a whole lot of heat.
[Collins] One night, uh, Sonny
was, uh, leaving a party
and a policeman came over.
One thing led to another.
The cop went to draw his gun,
and Sonny took it
away from him,
dragged him back in the alley,
and beat him up.
The weird thing about that
was he was arrested
and he was charged,
but they only gave him
nine months in the workhouse.
This is a black man
in St. Louis
beating up a cop
and taking his gun.
That was an unheard of
lenient sentence,
and you gotta figure that there
was some people connected
behind that.
The mob makes their phone
calls and makes sure
that if they need a fighter
to be available
to the fight,
he's not kept inside
for any length of time.
And after that point,
Sonny was known as a cop hater.
There's so much heat around
A police captain named
John Doherty
takes him to the edge
of St. Louis,
puts a gun to his head,
and says,
"Get the hell out of town."
[Roberts] Frankie Carbo
has henchmen
throughout the country.
In Philadelphia,
his leading henchman--
his partner in crime--
was a guy by the name
of Blinky Palermo.
[Majeski] Blinky Palermo had
complete control of
Had complete control
of the commission.
Had complete control
of the promotions.
They could do with as they
wished in Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia,
Blinky Palermo
and Frankie Carbo gave him
to Willie Reddish,
who was a legendary trainer.
[Reddish Jr.] Gentleman walks
in with Sonny Liston,
talks to my father and say,
"Here he is, train him."
Simple as that.
He didn't talk about
hurting someone.
He didn't talk about
dealing anything.
He was doing just what his job
had given him.
To be a fighter.
With Willie Reddish,
you know,
he had to work for the first
time in his career.
He really had to train hard.
And that was the missing piece
of the puzzle.
[Farrell] They started putting
him in with the elite fighters
of the heavyweight division--
the guys who nobody wanted,
and the guys who really
would beat you.
And Liston just steamrolled
every one of them.
[Majeski] He defeats Julio
Mederos, destroys Wayne Bethea
on national television.
Sixty-nine seconds after
the fight started,
Sonny knocked out
16 of his teeth.
It was a spectacular knockout.
[announcer] Liston with
another left hook,
a right, and another left.
And Bethea is down!
[Majeski] He knocks out
Nino Valdes.
He knocks out Mike DeJohn.
He knocks out Zora Folley.
He outpoints Eddie Machen.
They were tough guys
for their time,
and Sonny walked
right through them.
Sonny merely was in his own
version of Heaven.
He was getting paid money
to knock people down,
and nobody could arrest him.
And he got better
and better and better.
The most impressive fight,
he fights a guy
named Cleveland Williams.
Sonny Liston
and Cleveland Williams
is like Thor fighting Hercules.
You know, it was
no holds barred.
These are the two hardest
punching fighters
in the world at that time.
No one wanted to fight
either one.
I remember both fighters
just swinging,
swinging at the wind,
going for it.
Trying to knock each other out.
Cleveland Williams almost
knocked Sonny Liston
out of the ring.
He broke a rib.
He battered him.
He was lucky to make it
through the round.
That was his epiphany.
I think he saw that,
"If I'm gonna lose,
I'll be back in prison,
I'll be back in poverty."
And I think his managers
and trainers
read the riot act to him.
"Sonny, all you have is your
ability as a fighter.
And you have to win."
[announcer] Liston moves in
with lefts and rights.
Hammer blows
to the head and body.
[Majeski] Sonny doesn't give
and he knocks him out
in one
of the great fights
of all time.
[announcer] One look at
Williams' face,
and you know the end is near.
Everybody was scared
when he knocked out
Cleveland Williams.
At this point, Sonny was the
best heavyweight in the world.
He had cleared out
the dangerous part of
the heavyweight division,
and he'd done it in a way
that was so unilateral
that he was undeniable.
[announcer] And a fast right
to the head puts Harris down.
The fight is over.
Sonny Liston sets his sights
on the heavyweight
Every guy who hit the canvas
was one body to step over
on the way
to a world title fight.
[cheers and applause]
[announcer] Sonny, let's talk
about your future now.
Who do you wanna fight in the
ring in your next engagement?
The man who got the title.
He thought that the title
would turn him
into somebody different.
He saw a chance
to reinvent himself.
He had people who wanted
to talk to him,
newspaper reporters who wanted
to cover him,
because they knew where
this was going.
[Collins] The problem was
when he got close to getting
a title fight,
that's when all the resistance
[Roberts] We have a guy
by the name of Kefauver,
senator from Tennessee,
who's investigating
corruption in America.
This is an age where America
was looking for corruption
all over the place,
whether it was communists
or labor unions
or what have you.
And Kefauver decides boxing
is corrupt.
[Lipsyte] Estes Kefauver saw
these hearings
as an opportunity
to be on this very new thing
called television.
You gotta remember, it's not
like television today
where they'll put a camera
in the grave
if they can get away with it.
This was a whole new idea.
Have you ever threatened
manager or boxer
or promoter at any time?
I respectfully decline
to answer the question
on the ground that I cannot
be compelled to be a witness
against myself.
[Roberts] The spotlight
is on Frankie Carbo.
It's on Blinky Palermo.
It's on the other henchmen in
the mob involved with boxing.
And Sonny Liston's tied
to all of them.
So this is a problem.
Sonny Liston, at a time when
he's becoming absolutely
the most famous fighter
in the world,
is becoming known as absolutely
the most criminally tied
fighter in the world.
[Collins] It hurt
his reputation.
The stuff was
already there.
But it broadcasted to a much
wider audience.
[Assael] J. Edgar Hoover and
the FBI are also obsessed--
I mean obsessed--with Sonny
being a linchpin
between the mob and boxing.
This is evidenced by all the
FBI reports where you could
see Hoover was following
Sonny's career closely.
[Collins] They didn't want a
guy like Sonny Liston having
what was probably the most
prestigious prize
in sports at the time.
[Farrell] In order to fight for
the heavyweight championship,
Sonny Liston would have had
to fight Floyd Patterson.
And Patterson's
an interesting figure
because he was a very, very
popular champion.
[Majeski] And he has one of
the cagiest, most brilliant,
most insane managers
in the history of the sport,
Cus D'Amato.
And Cus D'Amato did not want
to expose this property of his
to Sonny Liston.
[Farrell] And he had
a built-in excuse
since he could say,
"Well, we don't want
the heavyweight title even
potentially falling into
the hands of the mob."
[Collins] The time that Sonny
lived and fought in
was a time of change
in America.
He was caught in the crosshair
of a huge upheaval
in this country.
The Civil Rights
era was starting.
A lot of changes
were being made.
[Rigueur] We're seeing
new kinds of protest,
uh, strategies
like the sit-in movement.
[announcer] This is the scene
of sit-downs in the past.
However now we are told
the marchers have stopped here
and a song will be sung.
[Rigueur] Bus boycotts.
African-Americans pushing back
against societal norms
that are telling them
that they are less than.
I would rather die
on the highways of Alabama
than make a butchery
of my conscience.
Also civil rights
organizations are picking
and choosing people that they
see as model citizens
to essentially prove
that African-Americans
are deserving of citizenship.
And so Floyd Patterson fits
this idea.
Now we've heard this word
that a fighter has to have
a vicious attitude
before he goes into the ring.
Now, how do you
feel about that?
Well, not in all cases,
I disagree with that.
In fact, I've only had the
vicious attitude in one fight.
[Majeski] Floyd Patterson was
the Sidney Poitier of boxing.
You know, very soft spoken,
guy you would want
to go out with.
He was involved
with civil rights.
He was friendly
with Jackie Robinson.
He was friendly
with Nelson Rockefeller.
He was meeting senators.
[Jeffries] He's not
a uppity negro.
He's just there to get along,
uh, and he won't upset
the apple cart,
if you will.
That's why the NAACP
and others feel comfortable
with him as being sort of
the face of this effort
to really desegregate--
integrate America.
Sonny Liston's America's
worst nightmare.
He is literally
a dangerous negro.
And he's a dangerous negro
who's unafraid of white people,
as demonstrated by his
consistent and constant
encounters with the police.
[Tyson] He had a bad rap for
always being mob connected.
He was like a black eye
to the black community.
So nobody wanted to be
associated with him.
No respectable person.
[Rigueur] He's imposing,
he's violent,
he's abrupt,
he has no connection
to the civil rights movement.
And he's unapologetic about it.
[announcer] Sonny,
what do you think
about the American
Revolution in 1963?
Well, I think it's
a simple matter,
but, um, a lot of peoples
is carrying this thing
a little too far
for what it is.
[Farrell] As he always said
about the riots,
"I don't have
a dog-proof ass."
He's not gonna get torn apart
for somebody else.
The reason why we don't
really associate Sonny Liston
with the civil rights movement,
uh, is because the civil rights
movement didn't associate
itself with Sonny Liston.
Image was very important,
and that's exactly what
Sonny Liston didn't have.
[Farrell] I know for a fact
that JFK told Patterson
he needed not
to fight Sonny Liston.
Which, if you think about it,
is an enormous statement
coming from the President
of the United States
in regard to a prize fight.
[Reddish Jr.] He had earned
his title.
He had earned
the championship fight.
Of course he had been
incarcerated as a youngster.
They should have been
encouraging him and giving him
a second chance,
so why deny him?
I thought it was a disgrace.
Sonny, I understand that you
have a statement to make
as far as fighters
are concerned.
Well, I've fought
all the top contenders,
and I've fought my way up
to the number one spot,
so what do a man have
to do to get a earnest shot
at the title?
[Farrell] The real reason that
Cus D'Amato didn't want
Floyd Patterson to fight
Sonny Liston is he was
absolutely sure--as sure as
everyone else--
that Patterson had
no chance to win.
Floyd didn't stand a chance.
He was, you know--
He was too light.
He was too weak.
He was scared.
And there's no way you're gonna
beat Sonny if you're scared.
[Roberts] Cus D'Amato's goal
with Floyd Patterson
is never to match him up
against anybody
that's of any competence
The downfall
of Floyd Patterson came
with a great televised
where Patterson defended
his title against the great
fighter Tom McNeeley.
Tom McNeeley was nothing.
The fight was a sham.
On the same card,
Sonny Liston fights
Bert Westphal.
Bert Westphal was
a good fighter.
[announcer] Westphal
has 12 K.O.s.
[Collins] Westphal tries to
stand up to Sonny Liston.
Now he's mixing it
in exchanges,
then finally Sonny
finds the range.
[announcer] Westphal has never
been knocked off his feet
until now.
[Roberts] Liston destroys him.
Liston is the champion.
Patterson's the great
[announcer] Albert Westphal
knocked out by Sonny Liston,
who by virtue of this
one-round K.O. tonight
has taken a long step toward
a fight with Floyd Patterson.
Eventually, under
mounting pressure,
Floyd felt that in order
to have any integrity--
personal integrity--he had
to fight Sonny Liston.
So he overrode
D'Amato's concerns.
[Farrell] When Patterson
finally agrees to fight Sonny,
it's seen as some supreme
act of charity
instead of what it really was,
which was, you know,
an obligation.
I personally think that he
has every right
to fight for the championship
despite his--
despite his unfortunate
How excited was I when Sonny
signed for the heavyweight
championship of the world?
Very excite--I just knew we
were going to become
the heavyweight champion.
I knew it.
That was his ambition in life.
[Farrell] Sonny wanted
this title
because he thought it
would complete him.
Even with all that
had happened--
the congressional hearings,
the dozens and dozens
of rousting by cops,
the--the press--
it's one of the happiest times
in his life.
He had the fight
of his dreams.
[Izenberg] They make the fight.
It's gonna be in Chicago.
So I've immediately decided I'm
gonna go to Floyd's camp first.
He's the champion.
Let's see what he has to say.
It was the county poor farm.
Rolling green hills.
birdies tweeting.
And little bunny rabbits
hopping across the road.
And I said,
"This is Floyd Patterson's
emotional home."
He's got two chances--
slim and none.
Now I go to see Sonny Liston.
We walk down
this concrete corridor
which is ten degrees colder
than outside.
Sonny's taking these medicine
balls to the stomach.
Boom, boom, boom.
And I'm looking
at Sonny's face.
He all but yawned as the ball
hit his stomach.
And I'm saying, "I thought
there was two chances
for Floyd--slim and none.
Slim just went out the door."
You feel that Liston is a
capable opponent, I'm sure.
Sure, I feel that, uh, he's
a bit above and beyond capable.
[Lipsyte] Before the fight,
Sonny Liston goes into
a Spartan condition.
He really kind of picked up
the rhythm of his training.
They were longer,
they were harder sessions.
He really looked leaner
and harder and faster.
He gets himself into
the best condition
he will ever be
for the rest of his life.
He's prime to fight and try
to take the title.
[Roberts] Floyd Patterson,
Sonny Liston fight--
there's been very few other
fights like it.
Very few in boxing history.
I mean, in boxing, you always
want a good guy and a bad guy.
You want a black hat
and a white hat,
and you want
the white hat to win.
Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling,
representative of democracy
versus Nazi fascism.
Well, the Patterson-Liston
fight was the same thing.
I mean, it's good versus evil.
Fight, no.
It was a morality play.
When Liston goes
into the ring,
figuratively wearing his
black hat, he's booed.
It's almost as if you're
in a movie.
[crowd booing]
[Izenberg] I remember when
they came in the ring.
Liston was simply staring
across the ring at Patterson.
And Patterson was trying
not to look,
but every once in a while,
he looked.
And Cus D'Amato's saying,
"I have faith in you.
You can do it."
It's a miracle he wasn't
struck by lightning,
because he didn't have
any faith in him.
dramatic music
[Farrell] Sonny Liston didn't
come out looking
to knock
Floyd's head off.
That's just not
the way he fought.
Liston was really a very,
very complete fighter.
He took opportunities as they
presented themselves,
and if you see the fight,
you see that actually
Patterson appears to be
the more aggressive initially.
Once he was on the inside,
you know,
Liston just took him apart.
And Liston just moves in,
catches him with a left,
catch him with another left.
[announcer] Solid left
to the cheekbone
dropped the champion.
[Tyson] Floyd just went down.
He just couldn't take
the punishment and go down.
It was too much power for him.
There was no fight.
It--It was a slaughter.
And Sonny Liston wins
the heavyweight championship
of the world.
[Majeski] When he became
heavyweight champ,
I think the perception was he's
gonna be the title holder
for the next 20 years.
Nobody's gonna beat this man.
[Roberts] The stadium was
eerily quiet, almost funereal.
In a way, it was a funeral.
A funeral for Patterson.
A funeral for our visions
of what the boxing heavyweight
champion should represent
and should be.
It was not a great beginning
for the championship career
of Sonny Liston.
[announcer] And the new
is inarticulate in victory.
dramatic music
[Izenberg] Sonny came into this
fight with a second goal.
He wanted respect.
Take a look at his life.
When was he respected?
When his father was hitching
him up to a plow?
When the mob was using him?
So after the fight, he was
absolutely euphoric
because he knew Philadelphia
would welcome him
with open arms
and his life would change.
[Long] It was mainly
for his image.
You get to be the heavyweight
champ and you're not looked at
as a criminal anymore.
[Collins] Jack McKinney was
a boxing writer
for the Philadelphia
Daily News,
and he was the only writer
in Philadelphia
that Sonny trusted.
He called City Hall
in Philadelphia
to get some sort of greeting
for Sonny.
He had all these plans
that he told Jack about
that, you know, he was gonna
turn his life around.
He thought he could be a role
model for young men
and children.
Sonny loved children.
[Izenberg] The plane lands,
he straightens his tie,
and he's ready.
[Collins] Walked into
the airport.
There was nobody there
to meet him.
And he didn't say anything.
But Jack looks over at him
and he said
there was like a little lump
in his throat.
It finally sunk in that it
didn't matter what he did.
He would never shake his past
and he would never
be fully accepted.
And I think that moment
where his life could have gone
in one direction,
it went in the other.
[Reddish Jr.] I received a
phone call from Sonny Liston
that night and he told me,
"Come on over."
We just stayed up all night
and talked.
All he wanted to do
was to be accepted
as a normal human being.
He was heartbroken.
Well, that's life.
[Roberts] The tragedy
of Sonny Liston's reign
as heavyweight champion of
the world is nothing changed.
The FBI impounded the money
to the fight.
The police arrest him for going
too slow through a park.
Sonny Liston is still
the despised,
the hated,
the hassled.
He's not accepted.
[Assael] You know, this was not
the press's finest era.
Every invective,
every insult you could imagine
being thrown at a black man
in America was thrown at Sonny.
[Long] I was hurt,
really hurt.
You know, he'd come through
all of the other stuff
he'd been through and then to
get this far and then have to--
it took him back, I thought.
And that didn't feel good
at all to me.
[Collins] He wasn't a bad guy,
deep down inside.
He'd done bad things.
But he wanted, actually,
to be a good person.
And after that, I don't think
he really gave a damn.
The public is not
with me now,
but they'll have to swing along
until somebody else come along
to beat me.
He accepted it.
He tried to escape it.
He went to Vegas.
And we know what happened
in Vegas.
Vegas, why hasn't he thought
of this before?
It was a perfect town for him.
exciting music
Far from being dogged by
rumors about the mob.
The mob ran Vegas.
It was an institutional supply
of showgirls for him.
His friend Joe Louis
was there.
You know,
he loved the casinos.
Sonny loved Vegas,
and Vegas loved Sonny.
It was a marriage made
in Heaven.
When Sonny comes off
the airplane,
he's met by a jowly figure
in a shiny suit
driving a Thunderbird named
Ash Resnik,
who'll become a very central
figure in his life.
My father came to Las Vegas
on the advice of a mobster
named Charlie
"The Blade" Tourine,
who probably was instrumental
in setting him up
at the Thunderbird,
which was my father's first
casino job in Las Vegas.
Every casino had some mob
influence back in the '60s.
So you have to remember the
people who came to Las Vegas
to join the legal gambling
industry had generally
come from illegal
gambling elsewhere.
[Assael] Ash fills
an important role.
The reason is that in Philly,
Carbo and Palermo
both go to jail.
Ash is here in Vegas.
He knows everybody.
The important fights
are moving here.
[Izenberg] Sonny took an
immediate liking to him,
and he took an immediate
liking to Sonny.
And that relationship would
blossom into something
very different.
But at this point,
that could have been the most
significant thing that happened
to Sonny while he was in Vegas
on that trip.
dramatic music
[Farrell] The Floyd Patterson,
Sonny Liston rematch
was held at the Las Vegas
convention center.
Liston, who was disliked before
the first fight, if anything,
was more disliked now.
Since he'd entrenched himself,
he was now the champion.
And I think Patterson--
who was deeply beloved
before the fight--if anything
was now held as a, you know,
sort of last beacon
of hope.
[announcer] Floyd is down
for the third time.
Lightning has struck again
in the same round
as the first fight.
The only difference
in the fight, really,
was it lasted
four seconds longer.
Two minutes and ten seconds
and, boop, that's it.
[announcer] Sonny Liston again
knocks out Floyd Patterson
in one round
to successfully defend
his world heavyweight
The one thing significant
about Patterson-Liston II
is we got a glimpse of the
future of professional sports.
At the end of the fight,
a guy by the name
of Cassius Clay jumps in the
ring and puts on a performance.
At the time, the public
thought Cassius Clay
was crazy because
he jumped in the ring
threatening Sonny Liston
after the Patterson fight.
You've gotta remember nobody
challenged Sonny Liston.
Now, here's this up and coming
young fighter jumping in,
tell him, "I want you.
I want you.
You ugly."
You know, he didn't know
what to think.
[Izenberg] This is really
a low-class burlesque.
However, um, nobody went broke
underestimating the mentality
of the American boxing fan.
So they ate it up.
The media fell
in love with him.
He was an easy story,
this, you know,
a narcissistic loudmouth.
It's like covering Trump.
Well, let me finish.
Let me talk.
This boy's modest.
I'm the greatest.
He's not a talker.
I'm gonna fight Sonny Liston
right after
I annihilate Henry Cooper.
And as soon as I annihilate
Henry Cooper,
I want that big ugly bear
right in, uh,
right here on Miami Beach.
[Collins] Cassius Clay
bugged Sonny Liston
even before the fight
was signed.
It was part of his
psychological warfare.
He had a bus that he took
to Sonny's house
in the middle of the night
screaming and yelling.
[Roberts] "You gotta fight me!
You gotta fight me!
I'm the champion!"
Lights are going off around
the neighborhood.
It pulls the police out there.
Last thing Sonny Liston wants
at his house are the police.
He did anything he could
think of to rattle Sonny.
And let's face it,
he was pretty creative.
He hunts Sonny Liston
down in Vegas.
Sonny Liston is shooting
Cassius Clay shows up and says,
"You can't even shoot craps!
You're a loser!"
It just pissed
Sonny Liston off.
You don't mess
with Sonny Liston
when he's about
to throw the dice.
So he got slapped
for his trouble.
All of a sudden he said,
"Yeah, we're gonna fight.
I'm gonna kill you."
Sonny Liston took the fight
because he thought he could
destroy Cassius Clay.
Don't you have any respect
for him at all
as a fighter?
As a fighter?
I think he should be locked up
for impersonating a fighter.
[Roberts] The promotion
of the fight
began as a classic
Sonny Liston was very
comfortable wearing
the black hat by this time.
He knew that was the only one
he was going to wear.
But then suddenly rumors
appear that Cassius Clay
has secretly joined
the Nation of Islam.
The Nation of Islam
at this time is viewed
as an anti-white
hate organization.
[Assael] I'd be like Rocky
Marciano saying, "I'm a member
of the Ku Klux Klan."
It shocks white America.
It shocks a lot
of black America.
[Jeffries] The only thing
scarier to white America
than the black brute
is the black brute who is
articulate and smart.
And that's what,
to white America,
the Nation of Islam was.
We know that we're going
to lose a few,
but we know that God going
to kill all of you.
[Jeffries] The head of the
Nation of Islam
was Elijah Muhammad.
But it's Malcolm X--
his principal recruit--
uh, who has the charisma.
[Rigueur] He provides
a very stark contrast
with the respectability model
of middle class civil rights
Malcolm X is saying,
"Violence is as American
as apple pie."
That's our motto.
We want freedom
by any means necessary.
[Rigueur] He is speaking a
language of the dispossessed.
He is speaking a language
of people
that have felt powerless.
This is kind of going into
this narrative
that Clay has grown up with.
When Malcolm X starts
showing up and seeming
buddy-buddy with Cassius Clay,
it scares the hell
out of promoters.
[Kilroy] They wanted to
keep--to keep him quiet.
They didn't want him
to say he belonged
to the Nation of Islam
because they were afraid no one
would come to their fight,
or no one would go
to Closed Circuit.
[Jeffries] This gives Liston
the chance
to be the hero that he had
never been before.
If he wins, he will be thanked
by white America
for shutting that dude up.
[Roberts] The Liston-Clay fight
in Miami
in February of 1964
was a pivotal moment, really,
in American history.
America was--was changing.
Changing in fundamental ways.
In November, the President
of the United States--
John F. Kennedy--had been
The country had gone into
a period of mourning.
Then in February,
there was a glacial shift
in American culture.
In music, the Beatles arrive
from Great Britain.
Everybody recognized
something's changing.
There's a new wave
coming in.
Then you have this
young brash--
a fighter like no other,
Cassius Clay.
So the Liston-Clay fight
has to be viewed
in this continuum.
Malcolm X goes into Clay's
locker room and says to Clay,
"This is the cross
and the crescent--
Christianity versus
the Nation of Islam."
So he's sure that this fight's
going to be important.
And sure enough, he's right.
[Kilroy] Everybody was
talking about it.
It was one of the biggest
sporting events in history,
not only in the United States,
all over the world.
Most of the people--
75 percent of them--
thought Sonny Liston would
destroy Cassius Clay.
He may end up
in the morgue.
Liston is prepared
for a quick knockout.
Liston comes after him.
He can't get him.
Cassius Clay's not throwing
any punches at first.
He's just moving.
[announcer] Cassius Clay's
on the move, as we see,
looking to get Sonny
to lunge.
dramatic music
Cassius Clay was outthinking
Sonny Liston.
Liston was fighting
to the death,
but he wasn't fighting Sonny.
He was running through Sonny.
And that threw Sonny off.
But as he got close
to the bell,
he threw a flurry of punches
that all landed.
And that was
to let Liston know
that he had something too.
And I'm saying,
"That son of a bitch.
I can't believe he's doing
this to Liston.
It's gotta be a trap.
Liston's gotta be setting
a trap."
[Roberts] But then Clay starts
hitting him.
Hitting him
a little bit harder.
Right crosses,
right leads.
[announcer] Sonny rattled,
Sonny rattled.
Cassius has him hurt!
And all of a sudden there's
puffiness under Liston's eye.
And then suddenly in
the third round, boom.
[announcer] He has a cut
below the eye
and he's getting hit with
all the punches in the book.
Liston had never been cut
before in a fight.
[Izenberg] Whoever was there
saw the blood
and then we went--
It was like the room
was a giant vacuum
and suddenly sucked all the air
out of it.
And then when the bell rang
and Liston was still upright--
All the air went out again.
Now, the fourth round was a,
uh, notorious round.
Clay started to feel a burning
sensation in his eye.
And it got worse.
He told Angelo Dundee,
his trainer,
"Cut the gloves off.
I can't see.
We're going home."
[Roberts] The question in
Clay's corner is,
what happened?
Can we get this guy out
fighting again?
[Collins] What got in Clay's
eyes is a matter of debate.
Boxers use liniment sometimes
on themselves
to--muscle aches
and stuff like that.
The original theory was some of
that had got on Liston's glove
and accidentally got into
Clay's eyes.
I don't think that's
what happened.
Other fighters who had fought
Liston--Cleveland Williams,
Eddie Machen--had complained
that something had gotten
in their eyes--Monsel's
solution in their eyes.
The belief was--and that we
have some evidence--
that Liston's gloves
were loaded.
Now, all hell breaks loose
in that corner.
That was not a corner of great
decorum ever anyway,
with Bundini and with Angelo.
[announcer] That's Angelo
that he was arguing
with, Joe.
Angelo now is telling him
off a little bit
while he gets him ready.
[Collins] Angelo Dundee
was an old pro.
He knew what to do.
He said,
"Cut this bullshit out.
Go out there and run."
[Roberts] And that led
to the dramatic round five.
The belief was Clay's
gonna get killed.
[announcer] His eyes
are bothering him.
They're yelling from
Cassius Clay's corner.
[Rahmen Muhammad] Bundini was
working the corner.
And Bundini was saying,
"Keep a yard stick out there!
Keep a yard stick--"
That mean keep
the left hand out.
'Cause Sonny was trying
to come at him,
but literally the man
was blind.
Liston hits him a lot.
Liston just can't hurt him,
can't knock him out.
And by the end of the round,
the last minute of the round,
Clay's eyes had cleared and
Clay just takes him apart.
Hits him with everything.
Hits him with hooks.
Hits him with jabs.
Hits him with
right hand leads.
[bell rings]
[Collins] When Liston flopped
his butt down on the stool
at the end of the sixth round,
he said, "That's it."
Willie Reddish didn't know
what he was saying.
He put the mouthpiece in
to go out for the next round.
Sonny spit it out and he said,
"I said that's it."
And that was the end
of the fight.
[bell rings]
[announcer] They might be
stopping it.
That might be all,
ladies and gentlemen.
I think it was unacceptable
that Sonny Liston didn't get
off the stool.
He should have carried on.
[Lipsyte] If you're heavyweight
you die trying.
But he just kind of sat there.
He gave up.
Why did he give up?
And this, of course,
is the mystery
at the heart of it all.
Did he give up because
he was in such
terrible agony
he couldn't move?
Did he give up because
he suddenly realized
he couldn't win this fight?
Did he give up because he had
been paid
to dump it at some point?
Um, who knows?
[Farrell] There were two
Clay-Liston fights.
The first fight
was the real fix.
And let me talk about that
a little bit.
The mob isn't in the boxing
business to do anything
other than to make money.
The odds were eight to one.
They could make a tremendous
amount of money
betting against Liston.
That was where the money
really was.
You know, a guy who would have
had to go years and years
fighting fights that didn't
interest the public.
Or you cash him in--this old
guy--right away.
This is really boxing 101.
[Roberts] I think it's utter
nonsense to say
that first fight was fixed.
If Sonny was trying
to fix the fight,
why was he loading up his
gloves before round four?
He was loading up the gloves
to blind Clay
to win the fight.
[Rahmen Muhammad] Sonny wanted
to kill that man.
I guarantee and just about put
my life on it.
That wasn't no fix.
That was a good ass whooping.
dramatic music
[Long] When Sonny lost the
title, it made me feel
really, really, really sad.
I mean, I cried.
I actually cried.
So, my uncle got beat up?
You know, that's the term
I could remember using.
Beat my uncle Charles up?
Oh, no.
That didn't go well at all
with me.
I was anticipating Sonny
holding onto that title
for at least five, six years.
Make himself
$30, 40 million,
whatever the case may be,
and live a good life.
But that wasn't the plan.
[Assael] Sonny didn't have a
friend after that fight.
Maybe Ash.
But otherwise, Sonny didn't
have a friend.
I mean, Sonny was toxic.
I mean, really radioactive.
Reporters--who are looking
to descend on him anyway--
came at him hard
like a group of vultures.
The press was saying
Sonny was a dog.
Sonny was a quitter.
Sonny threw the fight.
I mean, there were--
You know,
they couldn't explain it.
It only added
to his bad reputation,
not as an individual,
but as a fighter.
And it was probably the worst
thing he did in his career.
[Lipsyte] The second fight
was booked to be in Boston.
The Kennedys pushed it
out of Boston
because of the criminality
around Liston.
So it ended up in
Lewiston, Maine.
[Izenberg] Lewiston, Maine.
Small town on
the Canadian border
known for having
a bedspread factory there.
That's pretty much all it had.
There was so much tension
around that fight.
There was two controversial
characters fighting
and, you know, a lot of stuff
was going on.
[Izenberg] In the months
following that first fight,
Elijah Muhammad gave Cassius
Clay the name Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad means
"worthy of all praises,"
and Ali means "most high."
Yes, sir, I wanna be called
by that name.
I write autographs
with that name.
I wanna be known all over
the world as that name.
You want us to call you
what name?
That is the furthest thing from
sort of the minds of white folk
when it comes
to black respectability.
[Roberts] Shortly after that,
Malcolm X was thrown out
of the Nation of Islam
by Elijah Muhammad.
That tension between
the two factions
just continues to build
with Elijah Muhammad and
others really pushing this
idea that Malcolm is a traitor
and deserves no fate
other than death.
Malcolm X and anybody else
who attacks or talks about
attacking Elijah Muhammad
will die.
Just when you think the
social issues that are swirling
around boxing can't get
any more raw,
Malcolm X gets assassinated.
Some thought that the Nation
was behind his assassination.
So to have Ali still fighting
under the banner of the Nation
adds this whole other overlay
to that fight.
So there was a real kind of
of existential terror
up in Lewiston, Maine.
All sorts of rumors floating
around before this fight,
that there are people
who had supported Malcolm
that were going to come
to the fight and assassinate
Muhammad Ali.
There were rumors going
around that white women
were going to be smuggling
hand guns into the arena
for their black lovers
to kill Cassius in the ring.
And so they abled these cops
and state troopers,
they were opening up women's
purses looking for guns,
while at the same time nobody
was guarding the doors
or the windows, and local kids
were climbing in.
It was--it was crazy.
[Izenberg] Sonny's plan
was very simple.
He would knock Ali out
in the first round.
He would put such pressure
on him that Ali
would have to fall.
dramatic music
[Majeski] Liston got more
cheers than Ali.
They finally said,
"Well, between these two,
the lesser of the evils
is Sonny Liston.
So we'll cheer this ex-convict
who lost his title
on the stool rather than
root for a guy who says
he's a black Muslim
The challenger,
Sonny Liston.
[cheers and applause]
[announcer] Sonny Liston very
popular with the folks here
in Lewiston, Maine.
No kidding about that.
[Majeski] He enjoyed that.
He sort of basked in that
kind of glory
for the first time in his life.
But then what happens
is the Kennedy assassination
of boxing.
Everybody's got an idea.
Nobody has the truth.
When the fight started,
it didn't last very long.
There was hardly an exchange
when Liston went down.
I was at ringside and I
didn't really understand
what was going on.
I was sitting next
to Howard Cosell who had
a monitor, so we replayed it
100 times right away
to watch it again.
And maybe by the 100th time,
I saw the punch.
I don't know.
[Collins] He did clip him
with a right hand.
How hard it is,
only Sonny Liston knew.
I think the punch that
Muhammad Ali hit Sonny Liston
with in the second fight,
I think it was enough
to knock him down,
especially if he didn't
see the punch.
[Rahmen Muhammad] I told
Muhammad Ali to punch,
then he knocked
Sonny Liston out.
It was them kind of punches
you use in karate.
You know, when you're punching
in karate,
you turn it when you hit.
You know, it's a twist.
Popped him right
on the jawbone.
And the punch was so fast
and so quick.
I didn't know the punch
was gonna knock him out.
But it did.
[Lipsyte] Now it turns into
Ali, he's challenging Liston,
"Get up, chump!
Get up and fight!"
[Majeski] Liston rolls over.
Attempts to get up
and rolls over again.
Ali is shouting and screaming.
Jersey Joe Walcott loses
complete control of the fight.
Finally Liston does get up.
They start exchanging blows.
[Izenberg] Suddenly
Nat Fleischer--
the editor of The Ring
stands on a chair and goes--
Fleisher yells over
to Jersey Joe Walker,
"Stop the fight.
It's over.
The count--He's counted out."
Walcott stops the fight.
Utter absolute confusion.
[Izenberg] A full-throated
roar begins.
Fix, fix, fix, fix.
And I heard that for an hour,
probably, while I was writing.
And still the heavyweight
champion of the world,
Muhammad Ali.
[announcer] One of the most
of all title fights.
[Farrell] There was a real
"fuck you" element here.
I mean, I think it was a kind
of standard wise guy move.
The fix is the first fight.
That's the money-making fight.
The second fight is picking up
the few remaining
chips off the table
and going home.
[Assael] Why fix the fight?
Well, that's where the secret
percentage theory comes in,
which is that Sonny had agreed
to an under-the-table deal
to get a cut of Ali's future
earnings if he went down.
It's exactly what a mobster
would have done
and it's exactly, I think,
what Sonny did do.
The other reason that I think
that theory is persuasive
is the role of Ash Resnick.
He was there at the fight.
Think about it.
That's exactly the kind
of deal Ash was an expert
at making.
[Kilroy] It's not true.
All the stuff about
Sonny Liston having a part
of Ali's purse,
that never happened.
Who would make
an agreement like that?
Who would make an agreement
like that?
That's crazy.
[Assael] Another rumor was
that the Nation of Islam
was sending contract crew
killers to shoot Sonny
unless Sonny took a dive.
My mother says that Geraldine
virtually disappeared
for a few days before the fight
and she didn't know what was
wrong or how to get, uh,
in touch with her.
And then when she did
see her,
she said she'd literally
gone white.
The black Muslims somehow
got to Sonny.
[Rahmen Muhammad] Hogwash.
The whole story is this.
I got a letter from the
honorable Elijah Muhammad
and told me, said just don't
get Cassius Clay.
Try to get Sonny to be
a Muslim too.
So I tried to get to Sonny,
but they wouldn't let me
get to him.
[Assael] After the second
fight, Sonny's a dead man.
He's not only just reviled,
I mean, he can't even
get a job.
Boxing commissions
won't license him.
So the way Sonny sees this,
you know,
let Joe Louis
be America's hero.
Let Ali be a voice
of a generation.
You know, fuck it.
Sonny moves into this
called Paradise Palms thanks
to Ash Resnick who gets him
a sweet little deal on a
bungalow on a winding street.
[Gentry] That was a very
neighborhood at the time,
and people were just so up
in arms not only that my father
would arrange to have the home
sold to a black person
but to Sonny Liston,
of all people.
[Assael] He suddenly right
there on the fairway
of the Stardust country club,
he's able to go running
in the mornings,
waving at his famous neighbors.
Going to a little golf club
in the afternoon
where he might run into
Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin
or Sammy, you know,
drinking cocktails.
On the face of it,
Vegas was great.
The problem was that,
you know,
Sonny didn't have any nest egg.
He was cut up.
He probably didn't even know
how much of himself he owned.
[Roberts] Sonny's money has
been going
a lot of different places.
And it's not going to him.
He's not a wealthy man.
All he knows is fighting,
so you keep fighting.
That's what fighters do.
Fighters keep fighting until
they can't fight anymore.
Until they get defeated
too many times
or they die.
[announcer] How about
Mrs. Liston?
What does she think about
all this fighting
and your activities?
Well, she think that I should
have got another--
picked out another sport.
What other sport?
except for fighting.
[Roberts] The so-called
was really a sad
downward arc.
He was--he was on the skids.
It was over.
He was--it became clearer
and clearer he was not
going to make it back.
[announcer] Yeah,
right by Martin! Oh!
Liston was not the fighter
he had once been.
I think there's no question
about that.
[Kilroy] It was over then.
Sonny became
the perfect opponent,
fighting here, fighting there,
picking up the payday.
[Collins] Sonny had one last
He fought a guy called
the Bayonne Bleeder.
Chuck Wepner.
[Farrell] Sonny's last fight
against Chuck Wepner
is very, very interesting.
He factors into the story
I think in a major way.
Liston was not brought into
that fight to win.
I believe the Wepner fight
was a deal that went
terribly, terribly wrong.
In the first round,
Sonny Liston comes out
and throws a left hook, and
Chuck Wepner's eye breaks open
above his right eyebrow,
and there's a cut,
and it starts bleeding.
And every time he hit Wepner,
Wepner would open up
another cut.
It was a gory, bloody mess.
As the rounds went by,
Liston couldn't find
a place to fall.
Wepner is increasingly
beat up,
and eventually the fight
gets stopped
because of the cuts.
Liston won the fight.
So it's a series of
where nobody does exactly
what they're supposed to do.
[glass shatters]
The mob lost a lot of money,
and there were
dire consequences.
[Majeski] Soon after that, he's
pretty much down to his own.
Where does Sonny Liston go?
What does Sonny Liston do?
He went back to where he was
at the beginning of the career.
To the St. Louis streets.
He went back to the west side
of Las Vegas.
Same element,
different location.
He was always involved
in a criminal culture,
whether by choice
or necessity.
Sonny went to what
he knew best.
[Jeffries] The west side of
was not very different at all
from other black communities
across America.
Uh, high concentration
of poverty,
uh, low job opportunities,
and rife with crime,
uh, in part because they became
areas where crime,
uh, became tolerated.
Sonny Liston had a beautiful
home on the golf course--
Las Vegas golf course.
But he also was there on
the west side quite a bit.
Sonny came to the west side
to let his hair down,
to be with his people.
The fact he did something
with nothing
is what they respected him
Whereas on the strip,
they just look at him
as a loser to Ali.
Every morning he would go
to Friendly Liquor Store
and buy two bottles of wine
before he--
to start his day out.
And we'd had 16 murders
in one year
in that one bar alone.
Uh, when the police got a call
at Friendly's,
they answered those calls
in force with shotguns.
It was a dangerous place.
The people that he was hanging
out with were killers.
They would kill you
in a heartbeat.
Of course now, he wore a .38
on his ankle,
so he was pretty well in
with the crew.
One of the more colorful
figures that Sonny was hanging
out with was a jazz musician
named Red Rodney--
Robert Chudnick.
Somebody who was there
at the founding of bebop.
Played with Charlie Parker.
He was a jazz musician by day,
a heroin dealer
and head of a criminal gang
by night.
Sonny was no stranger
to hanging around
with two-bit gangsters.
The problem is that he was
the king of the west side,
but he was also the king
of the things that were done
on the west side.
And that began to pull him into
the darkness that he wouldn't
get out of.
It turned out my dad
and Sonny were doing some kind
of dealing together--heroin.
My dad saw that Sonny
kind of liked me.
We had a little rapport
together and so I went with him
a few times to pick up
some money on collections.
He let me go with them.
He knew that guys his age
made fun of him behind his back
'cause he was dumb, you know,
and he didn't read or write,
this and that.
But kids weren't like that.
They considered me a kid,
you know.
I never felt afraid of him.
[Assael] The thing about Sonny
dealing drugs on the west side
is it couldn't have happened
at a worse time.
America's public enemy
number one in the United States
is drug abuse.
In order to fight and defeat
this enemy,
it is necessary to wage a new
all-out offensive.
[Assael] Nixon's policy
in Vietnam
had caused his poll numbers
to sink
and he needed something
to rescue him.
So he launched an all-out
offensive on drugs,
which meant the number
of drug cops in Vegas
was starting to climb.
[Gandy] All of the narcotics
divisions were beefing up.
We were getting influxed with
money for the war on drugs.
And everybody was just
so well-known.
It was just a matter of time
before they brought him down.
In February, 1969,
myself and two other agents
from the L.A. office
of the Bureau of Narcotics
and Dangerous Drugs
had an arrest warrant
for one of the bigger
in the west side of Las Vegas--
Earl Cage.
[Gandy] Earl Cage
was very, very dangerous.
In fact, we think that he
killed one of our informants,
but we couldn't prove it.
He was a very dangerous man.
[Alden] We went over to his
residence to arrest him.
We made forced entry.
The first person I saw was the
former heavyweight champion
of the world, Sonny Liston.
On the other side of the bed
was the defendant, Earl Cage.
And I'm thinking, "Now what?
We got a serious problem here."
And then two detectives
came in, and they said,
"Sonny, you come with us.
We're gonna take care of this.
You come with us."
Sonny was released
that evening.
He was the only person
that wasn't charged
and subsequently convicted.
If I were Earl Cage,
I would definitely think that
Sonny was the one
that did me in.
[Gandy] But Earl was slick.
He would wait until the time
was just right to get you
so there was no suspicion.
[Assael] But what was more
dangerous for Sonny
than crossing somebody
like Earl Cage
was talking about
the cut he had
of Ali's future earnings--
the secret percentage theory.
And the reason is that
Ali-Frazier was
about to happen--
The biggest fight purse
in boxing history,
$5 million.
And Sonny was walking around
the west side
telling people that he had
a cut of it.
[Geran] We first started
about Sonny Liston owning
a percentage
of Muhammad Ali's contract
from the barbershop.
He was getting a shoe shine,
and the shoe shine man
was taunting him about
his loss to Ali.
Sonny just started boasting
"Ali works for me.
I own a percentage of him.
You know?
I'm the one who really won."
[Assael] There were a lot
of people
who didn't want the curtain
on what happened
in his second fight with Ali.
There were a lot of people
who had an invested interest
in shutting Sonny up.
Around that time, people saw
Sonny and Ash fighting.
Ash had to be careful.
There are FBI memos that call
Ash the linchpin between
corruption and boxing--
the mob and boxing.
I mean, the feds were actively
going after Ash.
[Gentry] My father was always
concerned about
his associations.
And I'm sure my father
didn't want to be around him
at the time.
[Assael] Ash didn't want
anything to do with Sonny,
but remember, a lot of people
didn't want to have anything
to do with Sonny
at that point.
Increasingly even including
Geraldine who was scared about
how far off the edge
he was going.
He was getting into cocaine
more and more.
He was getting into everything
more and more.
And he didn't have anything
to anchor him anymore.
It was about late 1970,
and my dad and Sonny had
a falling out somehow.
He said, "Look, I don't want
Sonny coming around
and we're not
seeing him anymore.
Don't go over there."
And so he had
to go out of town,
and then Sonny came over
the next night.
He just went right by me,
pushed me out of the way,
went into my dad's room,
and I could hear a lot
of things banging around
in there.
He was opening drawers,
looking through stuff.
Uh, I don't know
if he found anything,
but after a while he just left.
My dad came back
a couple of days later
and I told him what happened,
and he was really pissed, man.
He said, "Mark,
I have to tell you.
I have to stress this.
Do not go over
to Sonny's house anymore.
His days are numbered.
I'm telling you."
That's the way he said it.
[Izenberg] I'm in Vegas
for another fight.
And I walk up to the Stardust
and I see Sonny putting a tip
down on the table
and all these dirty dishes.
So I go in and Sonny says,
"Hey, how you been?
How you doing?"
I said, "Fine, how are you?"
"Good," He said.
"Did you eat yet?"
And I said, "No."
And he said, "I didn't eat,
Let's have breakfast."
That showed me how lonely
at that point of his life
Sonny Liston was.
And actually, probably was
the last time we ever spoke.
[Assael] December, 1970.
Sonny's getting even more
out of control.
Geraldine goes to visit her
family in St. Louis.
It's the last time
she sees him alive.
Geraldine comes home
from vacation.
Smells something.
Doesn't know what it is.
Goes from one room to another.
Follows the smell
up to their bedroom...
...where she finds her husband
slumped backwards
and in advanced state
of decomposition.
She races out of the house
and to the nearby home
of a friend.
They come back to the house
at around nine.
It's not until midnight
they make
the first call
to the police.
[Gandy] There was sheriff's
running over the place
like ants.
They were everywhere.
It was gruesome.
He had obviously been dead
for four or five days,
'cause he was literally full
of methane gas.
It was real bad.
I don't really know how
to explain it.
Uh, here one of your childhood
laying there bloated, you know.
And I just thought it was
a terrible disrespectful way
for him to go
and not be found, that's all.
I just, uh--
It was startling.
How he died.
He died alone.
I just kept thinking he was
by himself, you know?
And what happened to him?
I just always wonder
what happened.
Sonny Liston, the fighter
that Muhammad Ali
used to call the big ugly bear
was found dead today
in his home in Las Vegas,
He had been dead about a week
before his wife returning
from a trip found the body.
Investigators say there was no
sign of foul play,
but they found some substances
they think may be drugs.
[Collins] Geraldine not calling
the police until three hours
after finding Sonny's body
is strange.
There are a lot of theories.
Um, one was that there was
quite a stash of heroin
at Sonny's house and they
needed to get it out of there.
[Gandy] But the police had
a balloon of heroin
It seemed strange that she
wouldn't have disposed of it
to save Sonny's reputation,
if nothing else.
I don't know where she went
or who she talked to or what,
but that seems
very strange to me.
[Roberts] An athlete dies
at a young age.
There's some heroin
found in his system.
Now the question is,
did Sonny take drugs?
There are innumerous friends
of Sonny that would have come
forward and did come forward
and said,
"He would never have shot
He was petrified of needles.
dramatic music
Well, if there's heroin
in his system,
did somebody else shoot him
full of heroin?
Now we get in, well,
if somebody else did,
was it murder?
If it was murder, why did they
murder Sonny Liston?
[Farrell] Depending on what
your point of view is
and what your agenda is,
that will determine
how you feel he was killed.
I've been told that Liston
was killed because
of the Wepner fight.
The mob lost a lot of money,
and I know that it's something
that everybody involved
would have done.
Another person who wanted
to see him dead was Red Rodney,
who was a cautious criminal.
The last thing he wanted
to see was Sonny Liston
shooting his mouth off
about the drug gang
that he was running.
[Rodney] I remembered that
my dad and Sonny had
a falling out somehow.
My dad was real pissed.
So, you know, I asked him,
I said,
"Did you have anything
to do with that?
Or do you know about that?"
And he goes, "No."
That's that.
But he left town a couple
of days later
because he knew the cops
would be coming around.
But I don't think he had
anything to do with that.
I really don't.
[Assael] There is a theory--
a extremely persuasive one.
A former police informant
walks into the Vegas Metro
Police Department with a story
about a hero cop
who broke bad.
The very first thing
he said was,
"That cop killed Sonny Liston."
This informant said Ash
Resnick wanted Sonny dead.
Ash hired the cop
to kill Sonny Liston.
The more he talks,
the more detail he gives.
The investigators didn't want
to believe him
because it was the guy that
they all considered a hero cop.
It was Larry Gandy.
Killing people really does
something to you.
And it scars you for life.
It made me sick that somebody
would accuse me
of killing somebody for hire.
I am not a contract killer.
And never would be.
I sought out Larry Gandy
who was the man who was
supposedly the hitman
on my father's behalf.
And he said he'd
never met my father.
I don't believe that my father
was capable of hurting anyone.
Especially someone he revered
as much as he loved Sonny.
[Gandy] I think Sonny Liston
was killed because of the raid
that went bad
on Earl Cage's house.
He had motive, opportunity,
and means.
Rumor, rumor, rumor,
story, story, story.
That's the story
of Sonny's life.
[Assael] The medical examiner
just figured natural causes
was the easiest way
to just end it.
And that's what happened.
There was no
homicide investigation.
Sonny's death
was Sonny's death.
He was given a funeral,
a send-off,
with a procession
up the Las Vegas strip.
Dead and buried.
I don't know.
I really don't know whether
Sonny, um, overdosed
or was murdered.
It's much easier to deal
with the idea that there were,
you know, powerful forces
that finally did in
this powerful man.
I think that's easier
than just saying,
"Hey, you know, we're--
we're all complicit
in the Sonny Liston story."
[Jeffries] I think there's
culpability to go around.
America is responsible,
not just white America
but black America as a whole
for really shaping the life
and determining to a certain
extent the fortune and fate
of Sonny Liston.
[Izenberg] And the people on
the sidelines can say,
"Well, he should have changed
after this.
He should have changed."
Nobody tried to hitch me
up to a mule in Arkansas
when I was 11 years old.
Nobody had me hitchhike
all the way to St. Louis
to meet my sister and mother
who I hadn't seen
in three years.
And nobody said, "How else
can I make a living?"
So this is who he was,
and this is what he was.
[Jeffries] I don't think
it's a wonder
that he died when he did.
I think it's a wonder
that he didn't die earlier.
I don't think it's a wonder
that he didn't hold on
to the championship longer
than he did.
I think it's a wonder
that he made it
that far to hold it at all.
[Majeski] Sonny Liston's fate
was sealed in the womb.
He reached the stars,
and when he grabbed the star,
it burnt him up.
There was nothing left
in Liston to give.
[Tyson] Sonny Liston should be
remembered as a great fighter.
Once he's champ,
he's always champ.
That's always gonna be
his identity.
People will always
call him champ.
[Reddish Jr.] Charles Sonny
He was a man amongst men.
And that's the story.
I tell the world, "I'm glad he
came through my way one time."