Former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston's life was one big question mark.
Liston didn't know how old he was at any point in his life. He didn't know how many brothers and sisters he had, although it was at least 10. Liston grew up dirt poor and virtually without education in Arkansas. About all he learned was that life was hard, and he could beat up anyone around.
All of those facts helped set Liston on his life's path, in which he made large amounts of money . . . for other people. Fittingly, when police found his body in Las Vegas in 1970, they weren't sure how he died or how long he'd been dead.
If all that weren't enough, Liston was the wrong man at the wrong place when he was champion. America was nervously going through the civil rights movement in the early 1960s; she didn't really want the title-holder to be a seemingly invincible Negro, as his race was called then who kept getting arrested and was said to have connections to organized crime.
It's all fertile material for a new biography, particularly with the perspective of time, and Nick Tosches dives right in with his book, The Devil and Sonny Liston. The most impressive part of the volume is its research. Tosches interviewed almost every shady character who ever encountered Liston, and there were plenty of them. Tosches takes a different approach to biography in this book, and it reads as if it belongs in the true crime section of the bookstore. The actual boxing matches are given little attention. Instead, Liston's early life and his connections with the mob are explored in depth. That's a good decision on Tosches's part. After all, there are other places you can read about Liston's boxing career, but this book goes into previously uncharted territory. And the story is told in a breezy, adult, rat-tat-tat style that would have been right at home in the movie L.A. Confidential.
The Devil and Sonny Liston is an interesting look at an elusive star athlete and personality. It's nice to see someone supply answers to some of those questions about Liston's life.
Budd Bailey writes from Buffalo, New York.