By Christopher ZoukisImage courtesy boxing247.com
Las Vegas, Nevada. Sin City, it used to be called. Now it’s glimmer and glitz, plastic flesh and plastic credit cards. Where America, and most of the world for that matter, goes for fun. But fun, I have discovered, can be a very passive program.
In the summer months, it’s hot in Las Vegas. And bright, because the sun glares down as if through God’s magnifying glass. Sitting in the midst of convection waves, as the heat bites the white dust and then shimmers back up, is Paradise. Paradise Memorial Gardens, a cemetery.
Like the Garden of Eden, this Paradise has its serpent, too. A bad boy. His grave marker stands white in the sun; it is a simple headstone. Beneath it rests the bones of a large man – when he was alive anyway – who had the disposition of a rhinoceros.
The epitaph on the stone says it all: “Here lies a man.” The by-God truth – and what a man.
Charles L. Liston, aka Sonny Liston. May 8?, 1932 – December 30?, 1970. The question marks indicate a lack of certainty. For Sonny didn’t know precisely the day and the year of his birth, giving different dates at different times. Some believe he entered this world as early as 1927.
And his death, well, even the authorities don’t know for sure. When his wife discovered his body, he’d lain there dead about a week. Finding no hint of foul play, the police declared his death the result of a heroin overdose. Some doubt this, suspecting Mafia intervention. So what it comes down to is this: no one really knows, or cares.
It doesn’t really matter. What matters is this: Sonny was born in the wrong time and the wrong place to the wrong parents. And Sonny was born old. The kind of person people are talking about when they say someone is an “old soul.” What the right time and right place would be, or who the right parents would be, even the right age, I don’t know. Even as a youngster Sonny was like the Skin Horse in the Velveteen Rabbit: “He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces.”
The wrong place was Arkansas, one of those places that are so podunk they’re not even called cities or villages. They lack so much status they’re called townships. Indeed, my dictionary defines a township as “a division of a county, constituting a unit of a local government with administrative control of local schools, roads, etc.”
Johnson Township, St. Francis County, Arkansas.
The wrong parents were Tobe Liston and Helen Baskin. Tobe, abusive and crude, taught his progeny the effectiveness of violent force. They acquired it through a sort of personal apprenticeship: Tobe hit them and they learned. Sonny was one of seventeen children.
No glamour at all.
To those who knew him, close friends and family, and children – especially to children – Sonny was gentle and kind. But to the world, he was a barbaric process instead of a description. And descriptions are much easier to deal with than processes. Processes have a nasty habit of continuing even when you don’t want them to.
Liston’s eyes: the eyes of a dog that’s been abused, chained, starved – sad yet resolute in their desire to please, to discover what needed to be done to receive affection.
Incarcerated for robbery while in his teens, in prison he learned to box. He discovered the power in his fists. After his parole, like Prometheus unchained, he battered his way through the amateur ranks of the boxing world, eventually winning the Golden Gloves.
Between 1953 and 1960, Sonny rocketed up through the professional boxing ranks, and served another nine month stretch in prison. Defeating Eddie Machen, Sonny wanted a shot at the title, held by Floyd Patterson. Patterson, though, alarmed by Sonny’s sheer physical power, avoided the fight, saying Sonny was Mafia owned and managed. This declaration, an example of informational hygiene (also known in some quarters as bullshit), camouflaged Patterson’s intra-racial attitude toward Sonny: that Sonny was unfit, as a black man, to be champion.