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Questions remain in "The Murder of Sonny Liston" by Shaun Assael

Blue Rider Press
Shaun Assael's new book "The Murder of Sonny Liston"
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BOOK REVIEW: The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights by Shaun Assael (Blue Rider Press) 2016

If you caught the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-crazed story to cover a motorcycle race and police convention in Las Vegas in 1971, you will recall that that wild tale was part of Thompson’s effort to capture the essence of the “American dream.” But what Thompson (“Raoul Duke”) and his companion found was something dark and menacing as the hope of the “Sixties” truly began to fade and the drug culture took a grim and foul turn in the infancy of the new decade.

It was the same ’71-era Vegas that counted heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston among its residents. And only five days into that “foul year of Our Lord, nineteen-hundred and seventy one,” to quote Thompson, Liston was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose, a victim of his addictions and people who preyed on his notoriety and celebrity.

After all, Charles “Sonny” Liston, one of 20-something kids born in a Depression-era shack in eastern Arkansas, grew up with nothing, made his way to the streets of St. Louis, Mo., only to end up in state prison, a place where this African-American man with huge hands would perfect his boxing skills and engaging in many bloody bouts, emerging the victor in most of them. Sonny was a force to be reckoned with throughout the 1960's, in particular.

This illiterate, self-conscious athlete (who refused to sign autographs because he couldn't write his name) would go on to be internationally known and immortalized on the cover of the most famous album cover ever created: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. I would become familiar with Liston as a teen when I watched The Monkees’ 1968 “trip” movie Head, where Liston appears with the Pre-Fab Four in a boxing segment. Despite Muhammad Ali’s notoriety, skill and anti-Vietnam War stance, the counterculture seemed to embrace the stoic country boy who found himself in a world that seemed to end up devouring him.

Investigative sports reporter Shaun Assael, who wrote the engaging Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour some years back and was a great read, really sinks his chops into this gritty murder mystery involving a seemingly misunderstood heavyweight boxer.

Assael tells us how Liston’s long-suffering wife Geraldine finds her adulterous husband dead and will weep at the funeral begging her deceased partner to tell her how he died. Clearly the sense was that Liston did not die from some accidental overdose, but, as a friend told Assael, “Sonny was murdered.”

But by whom? There is certainly a wide cast of Vegas characters who could have done Sonny in.

All these years later, the immediate cause of Sonny’s death seems plain enough: he shot himself up in his bathroom, stumbled backward in his underwear, and collapsed on his beg. But it’s what happened afterward that turned a seemingly accidental overdose into something suspicious. Over the next week, as methane was building up in his body and his skin was beginning to bubble, no one seemed concerned enough about the champ’s disappearance to investigate it or even apparently knock on his door. It was a sign of how thin his friendships were and how uncertainly he’d been clinging to life.”

Yes, Sonny Liston met a tragic end. And even when Assael knocks on the door of a rogue, former Vegas cop, decades after Liston’s death, and is questioned about his possible role in the boxer’s death, we are still left with many questions.

And with the passing of so many of the figures who might have answers, including Liston’s wife Geraldine, The Murder of Sonny Liston points the reader to a slew of possible answers. But the key word there is possible. With each passing year, the public is less likely to know what really happened to the champ, just like so many celebrities of that era who made their mark in music, sports and art.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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