Historically Yours: Charles “Sonny” Liston, National Heavyweight Champion

Elizabeth Davis
Special to Boonville Daily News

Charles Liston was born in Arkansas sometime between 1929 and 1932. His father, Tobey Liston, was a tenant farmer and abusive alcoholic. Sources differ on the number of children in the family, but Charles was one of the last to Tobey’s second wife. He grew up working in local cotton fields until he left home in his teens.

At 16, Liston was over 6 feet tall, weighed 200 pounds, and did not get along with the local police in St. Louis. He was arrested over 20 times until, in 1950, he was convicted on two counts of robbery with a deadly weapon and two counts of larceny. He was sentenced to the Missouri State Penitentiary where he became one of the prison rehabilitation success stories.

While in prison, Liston became known as “Sonny” and was introduced to boxing by Father Alois Stevens. Two years later, Liston’s life took a turn for the better when he was discovered by a St. Louis newspaper publisher who thought he showed promise. Going to the Board of Probation and Parole, this publisher gave his personal guarantee that if Liston was released on parole, he’d see that he got a job and was trained as a boxer.

Liston became a new man after his release. He trained and lived at the Pine Street YMCA while working at Scullin’s Steel until he could support himself boxing. He picked up grooming and polish from all the managers and businessmen he was around. And, along the way, he even learned to read and write a little.

Shortly after he started training, Liston entered the Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing Tournament in St. Louis and won. From there, he went on to win the 1953 National Heavyweight Championship in Chicago.

His first professional match was on Sept. 2, 1952, where he knocked out Don Smith in a single round in St. Louis. Liston won his next nine fights before losing an eight-round decision to Marty Marshall.

Between 1953 and 1970, Liston won 54 of his 58 matches. Known for his powerful punch, the majority of them were knockouts.

Charles “Sonny” Liston died in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Dec. 30, 1970.

Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008, She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.davis@gmail.com.