Sonny Liston.

Overlooking the Missouri River sits a looming landmark — the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP), a facility that has no shortage of famous former inmates. One of the most well-known was Charles “Sonny” Liston, who arrived at MSP in 1950 to serve time for charges of robbery with a deadly weapon and larceny. While incarcerated, penitentiary chaplains encouraged Sonny to take up boxing. With his grand six-foot tall-plus frame, Sonny was an immediate success.

“He was the most perfect specimen of manhood I had ever seen,” Father Alois Stevens told Sports Illustrated in their “O Unlucky Man” article published in 1994. “Powerful arms, big shoulders…. His hands were so large! I couldn’t believe it. They always had trouble with his gloves, trouble getting them on when his hands were wrapped.”

Sonny Liston knocking out Floyd Patterson published by the Agence France-Presse
A photo of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston published by the Agence France-Presse.

Sonny was then spotted by a newspaper publisher who believed he showed promise as a professional. The publisher contacted the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, pledging that if Sonny could be released on probation, he would personally see to it that Sonny received a job and training as a boxer.

Sonny was released in October 1952 and immediately began his meteoric rise to success. He lived and trained at the Pine Street YMCA in St. Louis and worked at Scullin Steel until he could support himself from his professional boxing earnings. Sonny immediately entered the Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing Tournament, where he defeated Olympic heavyweight champion Ed Sanders. He officially turned professional in 1953, defeating Don Smith in just 33 seconds. Nine years later, Sonny knocked out Floyd Patterson in the first round to become the world heavyweight champion. It was the third-fastest knockout in a world championship fight and the first time a defending champion had been knocked out in round one.

Floyd and Sonny had a rematch clause in their contract, so the pair met the following summer in Las Vegas. Sonny prevailed again with another first-round knock-out, but his success was loudly booed.

“The public is not with me; I know it,” he told reporters after the fight. “But, they’ll have to swing along until somebody comes to beat me.”

Despite his athletic success, Sonny struggled with his public image. Due to his criminal record, rumored ties to organized crime, and arrests following his release from MSP, Sonny’s worthiness of the sports hero title was consistently a point of debate. However, Sonny was far from the sullen figure of public opinion. On long walks with his friend Jack McKinney, he would recite comedy routines of comedians like Redd Foxx.

“He could imitate what he heard, down to creaking doors and women’s voices,” Jack told Sports Illustrated. “It was hilarious hearing him do falsetto.”

Liston defended his heavyweight title again in 1964, this time against Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Convinced that Cassius was not a threat, Sonny trained very little for the match. After six contentious rounds, Sonny did not come out for the seventh — citing a shoulder injury. In the rematch, Sonny lost again with an unexpected first-round knockout. The infamous “phantom punch,” which may or may not have landed, floored Sonny until his defeat was called after 17 seconds. To this day, suspicions of a fi x remain unresolved.

Inmate Sonny Liston poses in the MSP boxing ring in the exercise yard.
Inmate Sonny Liston poses in the MSP boxing ring in the exercise yard. He learned to box here. After his release in 1952, he became a professional and eventually won the World Heavyweight Championship.

After taking a sabbatical, Sonny returned to the ring and resumed his winning streak. However, his dreams of regaining a title were dashed in 1969 with a loss to Leotis Martin, a former sparring partner who helped him train for earlier matches. While the loss was significant, Sonny would win against Chuck Wepner six months later in what would be his final match. On January 5, 1971, Sonny’s wife, Geraldine, returned to their Las Vegas home to find Sonny motionless on his bed. It was determined that Sonny had died days before. While his death is officially attributed to coronary failure, many believe foul play was at hand.

Known for his toughness, formidable punching power, long reach, and intimidating appearance, Sonny Liston is still distinguished as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Sonny was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991 — 20 years after his untimely death.