Did boxer Sonny Liston die of a drug overdose or was he murdered for refusing to throw a fight?

Sonny Liston smiling at the camera, wearing a white shirt.

Sonny Liston

Sonny Liston is in a boxing ring, he is fighting Floyd Patterson who is double over after being punched in the face.

Liston beat Patterson to become champ

CASE DETAILS

Chuck Wepner is holding his hands up in front of him wearing boxing gloves and no shirt.

Chuck Wepner, Liston’s last opponent

On September 25th, 1962, heavyweight boxing titleholder Floyd Patterson battled a 30-year old former convict named Charles “Sonny” Liston for the world championship. In two minutes and six seconds, Patterson was knocked out. Sonny Liston was the new world champion.

Nine years later in Las Vegas, Liston’s wife, Geraldine, arrived home from a trip out of town. She was worried because she hadn’t heard from Sonny for several days. In their bedroom, she found Sonny lying on the bed, dead from what police say was an accidental drug overdose.

According to Geraldine Liston, Sonny’s family and friends have always believed that the official verdict was wrong:

“Sonny never used no drugs. If he did, I didn’t know anything about the drug, and I’m sure I know a dope head when I see one. And Sonny never used drugs.”

Sonny Liston is punching Chuck Wepner in the face.

Liston pounded Wepner, won decisively

The Liston’s housekeeper, Mildred Stevenson, said she suspected foul play:

“I am sure in Mr. Liston’s life he had enemies. And I somehow believe one of them killed him. And I don’t think one man could have done it. I’m sure it took several.”

Sonny Liston’s story began with a lonely bus ride in 1944. Sonny was one of 25 children of a sharecropper in Arkansas. At age 12, after selling a bag of pecans for bus fare, he left for St. Louis, betting on a brighter future. But according to Sonny’s trainer, Johnny Tocco, once there, his path led to prison:

“Most of his prison records were for strong-arming. He would turn in the streets and strong-arm people to get money to make a living. Somebody had to support him. So he did what he had to do to make a living.”

An old white man in a collared shirt and sweater.

Johnny Tocco, Liston’s trainer

Sonny received two concurrent five-year terms for the armed robbery of a gas station. In prison, Sonny put his strength and energy into boxing. When he was paroled after 29 months, he went pro, winning 32 of his first 33 bouts, 22 of them by knockouts.

After his world championship victory over Patterson, Sonny remained champion for 17 months. Then he fought a young man named Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali. Ali’s superior agility simply overwhelmed Liston. He gave up after six rounds. Ali had taken the title from Sonny.

Sonny stayed in Las Vegas after his loss and began drinking heavily. Davey Pearl, Sonny’s friend and unofficial manager, described the period that followed:

“Sonny was really on the downside with his career, and people beat him out of millions of dollars, you know, phony managers. He was very rarely with anybody because he didn’t trust very many people and I didn’t blame him. And it was a shame that most people didn’t realize how nice a guy he really was.”

Three small plastic bags filled with a white powder on a table top.

Three bags of heroin were found in the kitchen

Sonny decided to resume training when Ali lost his title after he refused to be drafted.
Once back in the ring, Sonny won 14 consecutive fights. Davey Pearl signed him to fight Chuck Wepner, an up-and-coming heavyweight from New Jersey. Both fighters had an eye on Ali’s vacant heavyweight title.

Rumor circulated that some gamblers were betting heavily on Liston to lose. Johnny Tocco believes that two days before the fight, Liston met with two of these gamblers:

“I believe that Sonny was approached to drop the fight. He had to be approached because the talk that was around. It seemed to me like they wanted Chuck Wepner win. And the only way they can do that, Sonny would have to be involved.”

On June 29th, 1970, in Jersey City, New Jersey, Sonny took on Wepner. Davey Pearl recalled the night:

“I said, ‘Sonny, everything’s OK, go to work on the guy.’ Well, fifth or sixth round, Sonny told me, and it’s the first time in my life that I’d ever thought I would hear this from him, he says, ‘I’m afraid to hit this guy any more.’ He had hit him so many times in the face.”

Sonny Liston is sprawled on a bed, he is wearing a white t-shirt, boxers and socks. There is a lamp on the bedside table.

Liston’s body was discovered by his wife

By the 9th round, Sonny had beaten Wepner so badly that the fight had to be stopped. Wepner needed 54 stitches in his face alone. Sonny Liston had won the fight, but the victory might have cost him his life.

Just six months later, Sony was dead. In his kitchen, in plain view, investigators found three small bags of heroin. A small amount of marijuana was also discovered in Sonny’s pocket, and a syringe was found near his body.

Detective Spencer Lemmon, now retired, investigated the scene:

“In my opinion, it was either a natural death or self-induced drug overdose. And the only reason I dwell on the drug is simply because of what was found in the kitchen.”

An autopsy discovered needle marks on Sonny’s right arm. The official report stated that Liston had died of a cardiac arrest after injecting himself with heroin. But according to Coroner Otto Ravenholt, only small traces of heroin by-products were found in his body:

“There was some trace of morphine and codeine found in the kidney tissue. But the level of drugs in hisown tissues did not indicate that it was an overdose type of drug death.”

What then of the needle marks? Only one month before his death, Liston was briefly hospitalized. Davey Pearl theorized that the needle marks came from the IV he received at that time:

“He hated needles with a passion. A few times, you know, he’d start to get a runny nose, or something like that, a little cold, and I say, ‘C’mon Sonny, I’ll take you to the doctor.’ He wouldn’t go to the doctor.”

Mildred Stevenson, Sonny’s housekeeper, backed up Pearl’s claim:

“Mr. Liston would not go for common shots, for colds, or flu, because he hated the needle to that extent. He was a strong healthy man, he was not depressed, he was not prone to suicide, certainly. I think Mr. Liston was killed.”

And old friend of Sonny’s, Lem Banker, felt that Sonny had messed with the wrong crowd:

“Yeah, I think Sonny Liston was murdered. I think that somebody promised him some sort of a deal. At that time, Sonny had no income. He was hanging around with the wrong crowd. And I told Sonny, I says, ‘Keep away from these people.’”

If Sonny Liston was murdered, why were there no signs of violence? Some believe that his drink was drugged, he was taken home, and then given the fatal injection. If this theory is true, why were such minute traces of chemicals found in his body? Even if he had committed suicide, why would he have injected himself with such a small dose of heroin?

To this day, Sonny Liston’s death remains shrouded in mystery. His wife, Geraldine, hopes her husband will be remembered for the kind of person he was, not for how he died:

“I often wonder what actually happened, but I don’t know. He did come from nowhere, to get where he was, and I’d like the world to know that he was a good husband, he was a good man. That’s the way I’d like the world to remember him.”


Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season two with Robert Stack and season two with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.

17 Comments

  1. John Doe

    So much conjecture and nothing to conclude. He clearly threw the 2nd fight for reasons unknown.

    Reply

  2. Doug

    Someone lost a lot of money! when he took a dive with Cassius Clay.

    Reply

  3. Glen Lynch

    Let’s get one thing straight, Sonny was not a drug addict. I knew him from the gym and I knew his Manager Dick Sadler. Another thing, Sonny “could” read and write and was not a dumb person. He just didn’t trust people and I don’t blame him. The business of boxing is tough. Lastly, when Sonny’s wife said that he didn’t take drugs, she should be believed. A good investigative reporter could probably get to the bottom of all this.

    Reply

  4. hal Pritzker

    Sonny once was arrested for impersonating a human being.

    Reply

  5. Laura Gutierrez

    was he left handed or right handed? the marks were on his right arm, can we confirm his dominant hand? the ‘crime scene’ description seems staged and it’s a little weird how he died but nothing medically indicates an overdose…

    Reply

  6. carl george

    I believe that Liston overdosed because self conscious and he felt his career was too overwhelming do to the drugs he was taking. so all that guilt that was in his body probably caused him end his life as well as him wanting to be alone.

    Reply

    • Kelly Alexander

      You know burnt about either Mr Liston’s personality, nor about heroin – and drug use/addiction,

      I’ll keep this brief; the only way he should’ve ingested heroin was sniffing or smoking it – but the amount found in him is not enough to kill a person of his build. Heroin – like all drugs – is metabolised in the body (it breaks down) into morphine, and again – there’s barely any in his body.

      Just like what happened (sadly) to Ms Monroe after her tragic death (N-O, it wasn’t suicide not was it the mob, or anything else so ridiculous. The DA, Tom Minor knee this and because of privacy laws – NOT affecting her – he could never – LEGALLY – say specifically what happened other than to say it was a ‘tragic accident’. To this day – even with this event amount of information, oriole foolishly insist it was sine nefarious plot. It wasn’t), and what happened to Mr Liston has saldly besmirched the man’s memory.

      I agree with his wife, Geraldine, and hope people will remember him for his abilities and his terrific Esquire magazine cover as Santa.

      For someone like you, who has no understanding of the aforementioned, hypothesising is really something your best forget – and instead try to understand yourself better, and try to improve that.

      Reply

  7. Larry wheels

    I used to talk with Art Lauwri who was the boxing commissioner back then. He told me Liston was backed by Frankie Carbo and Palermo and the second fight was fixed. He refused to have it in Nevada. He told me Liston was given a hot shot.

    Reply

  8. haydarbohassin

    Liston was not murdered. His life style and his contact with the wrong people. He was a good heart

    Reply

  9. peter shirtcliffe

    I remember liston’s death very well, it is a matter of conjecture on whether it was accidental or murder, personally I think it was not murder, even if he had crossed the mob, they would not have killed him. I felt sorry that he had died relatively young and that his death, like his life was shrouded in mystery. Night Train, his biography gives fascinating insights to the man and is well worth a read.

    Reply

  10. Bernard Short

    I remember this segment because Sonny’s friends had told him to keep away from these people because all they care about is their Money but he didn’t listen because I remember the part when he was given a drink which was then spiked with a drug or something then I remember seeing a couple of men bringing him home then throwing him onto the bed then removing his clothing leaving possible fingerprints whatever then I remember seeing someone injecting him with a massive dose of heroin then leaving him to die just before planting drugs in the kitchen & jacket but back in the 70’s if the forensics had taken the clothing plus the drugs & lifted fingerprints chances are that they could’ve had a suspect or a few then they would’ve close this case decades ago.

    Reply

  11. S Huff

    I know he was murdered by the mob, know come and get me!

    Reply

  12. Anonymous

    I know he killed!

    Reply

  13. sherry

    well my son kyle would never steal from an older woman credit card unless kesley told him to she alwys faked syciors in the bathroom flooring but yes she was something going out for candy at midnight she another killer my friend

    Reply

  14. Bernard Short

    I remember this story here because I remember Sonny’s friends told him to keep away from those people because they are a group of gamblers who only care for is Money because I’ve seen the story because back in the early 70’s Police didn’t have all of the forensics to complete the case & if so if they could’ve scan the little dope bags found in Sonny’s jacket & house & if a fingerprint was then lifted from those bags or his clothing chances are that they could’ve had a suspect or 2 plus more arrests would’ve been made then the case would’ve been closed right there & now but I haven’t seen or heard of any updates.

    Reply

  15. Mulder

    Best way to try and kill this guy would be to drug him. I believe he DID throw the second Ali fight. And just gave up in the 1st one. This guy should be remembered as one of the most devastating punchers of all time, Great Boxer. He did have Mob ties tho. The Nation of Islam tried to intimidate him regarding the second fight with Ali. Which is why I think he threw it. Not saying ALI wouldn’t have won. Just saying he threw it.

    Reply

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