Skip to content
Home » The unexplained death of heavyweight champion Sonny Liston

The unexplained death of heavyweight champion Sonny Liston

  • by
  • 5 min read

Heavyweight puncher Sonny Liston, famed for his rivalry with Muhammad Ali, left this world under a cloud that still hangs today.

The death of the former undefeated champion remains one of the greatest mysteries in sporting history.

On January 5, 1971, Liston’s wife found him slumped at the foot of the bed in his Las Vegas home after an apparent heroin overdose.

However, friends say he was terrified of needles. That Liston would never have injected himself with the fatal dose. This led many to speculate that the mob whacked him.

Geraldine Liston had spent the Christmas period with her mother in St. Louis. She grew increasingly concerned when he failed to answer her calls, so she returned to Las Vegas. He found his decomposing body alongside a glass of vodka and a bag of marijuana. She called the police several hours after contacting a doctor and her lawyer.

Investigating officer Sergeant Dennis Caputo found a small bag of heroin in the kitchen but no syringe.

The death of Sonny Liston

Death was ruled a natural cause, and Caputo accepted the verdict. There were heroin metabolites in Liston’s blood, and Caputo suspected an overdose.

He described Liston as a part-time user and suggested that Geraldine or another family member might have removed the syringe out of shame.

Yet very few people connected to Liston accepted that he overdosed.

Among the vast universe of people I talked to, nobody doubted that Sonny was killed,” said ESPN journalist Shaun Assael, who wrote a book called The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights.

“It was just a matter of who they were pointing the fingers at. His body was so badly decomposed when the cops found it. There was no way to rule out blunt force trauma or anything else. I firmly believe it was not an accident.”

Sonny Liston

A Pathological Fear of Needles

According to Assael, evidence suggests many people wanted to see the former heavyweight champion dead. That five or six could have pulled it off.

Another Liston biographer, Rob Steen, noted that Liston was terrified of needles. His former trainer, Johnny Toco, said he would avoid doctors due to this phobia.

Liston’s dentist and friend Davey Pearl and Father Edward Murphy confirmed that.

Another trainer, Willie Reddish, noted that Liston canceled a planned tour of Africa as he did not want the inoculation injections.

Tocco said that Liston was involved in a car crash just before his death and was taken to the hospital with whiplash.

While at the hospital, he was injected, and Tocco claims that this explains the injection mark the coroner found on Liston’s body.

“He said: ‘Look what they did!’ And he was pointing at some little bandage over the needle mark in his arm. He was angrier about that shot than he was about the car wreck.

A few weeks later, he still complained about that needle mark. To this day, I’m convinced the coroner saw that hospital needle mark in his exam.

The Motive

So why would anyone want to kill the former heavyweight champion of the world? Liston was a man mountain with ham fists, brutal punching power, and the sort of death stare that would leave opponents weak at the knees.

His chequered past was legendary, littered with tales of beating police officers to a pulp, armed robberies, and jail stints. Nobody wanted to fight him, and traditional promoters did not want to associate with him.

That is where the mob came in. He turned to organized crime leaders for assistance. They set up the sort of fights that he nobody else could.

Liston blazed a trail of destruction through the heavyweight division, tearing vaunted rivals apart with consummate ease and scowling while he did it.

He beat Floyd Patterson in just two minutes and six seconds to clinch the heavyweight crown. However, it left him in the mob’s pocket.

Liston’s credibility was destroyed by two farcical defeats to the up-and-coming Muhammad Ali. He went into the first fight as the overwhelming favorite, while Ali was the 7/1 underdog.

In an eagerly anticipated rematch, he went down to Ali’s infamous phantom punch in the first round. He stayed down.

A Descent into Crime

Even his wife said that fight was fixed. Liston retired with a 50-4 record after refusing to throw a fight against Chuck Wepner. He then moved to Las Vegas.

By death, he was a forgotten champion. In addition, Liston was seen as a mere thug and a mob tool. He drove about Sin City in a pink Cadillac, collecting debts and selling drugs.

Steen believes he is no longer helpful to the mob. He knew too much. They decided there was too big a risk in keeping him alive.

Assael said Liston was making much noise about being owed money from his fights with Ali. At the time, Ali was about to fight Joe Frazier in a massively hyped bout.

Furthermore, they say the mob wanted to silence Liston. A mob hitman called James John Warjac is one potential killer. His son, Greg Swaim, wrote a book called Warjac: Most Wanted, and in it, he claimed that his father helped kill Liston via an enforced heroin overdose.

“You don’t find other boxing champions dying in that way,” said Steen. “But, then again, boxers usually didn’t have the depth of involvement with the mob that Liston had.”

Follow WBN: Facebook, Insta, Twitter.