As I was growing up, I always considered myself a quasi-Boxing historian. One part of my interest in Boxing was the lineage that followed the champions in the various weight classes. Of course, the lure of the Heavyweight Division was too much to resist - therefore I sought to learn about the various champions. Sonny Liston, who was Heavyweight Champion from 1962 through 1964 was someone who was well known to me. Being a Muhammad Ali fan, I knew him as the man who Ali (then Cassius Clay) dethroned for the Heavyweight title. I also knew him as the fighter who defeated the first two-time Heavyweight Champion, Floyd Patterson. There was also a wealth of stories that were told about Sonny Liston- namely his alleged connections to organized crime, his alleged participation in both of his fights with Ali, and of course his mysterious death. What I didn't know was much about Sonny Liston the person. This HBO Sports presentation, "Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion" does an outstanding job at providing much more insight into this most interesting and controversial figure.
As the sport of Boxing moved away from network TV toward Cable and Pay Per View outlets, HBO became a major partner in many Boxing promotions. As a result HBO has assembled a wealth of Boxing knowledge and thus is qualified to deliver a this documentary. Ross Greenberg is the executive producer of this documentary and does a terrific job at assmebling the life story of Sonny Liston. The story is basically told by many people who were close to Sonny Liston- this includes Sports Writers, Boxing Historians, Sparring Partners, FBI Agents, Police Officers, as well as Sonny Liston's widow Geraldine and the man whom Sonny defeated for the championship, Floyd Patterson.
While I had heard many of the stories about Sonny Liston's "connections", I never realized that this was a figure who was really considered the "bad boy" of Boxing during this period. Liston definitely had a troubled youth and young adulthood and in some ways. This carried over into the early days of his career and gave him a very bad reputation - especially with the Police in many cities. While I don't think it's fair to compare him to the 1990s version of Mike Tyson, you can definitely see some similarities to how they conducted themselves and how they grew up. The documentary makes one interesting comparision made when they discuss Floyd Patterson fighting Sonny Liston. They compare the fear that Patterson had of Liston when they got into the ring of their first World Championship match similar to the fear that Michael Spinks had when he got into the ring for his fight with Mike Tyson. After defeating Liston, the documentary goes into how Sonny Liston really sought to seek recognition to the public. The documentary goes into how Liston displayed this "day and night" image. By day, Sonny would often be outgoing and friendly (the documentary shows some great footage of Sonny with children), while at night Sonny still had many mysterious connections with shady characters - especially the mob.
There were a lot of interesting tidbits I picked up from this documentary
- They discuss the controversy around his birth certificate. It turns out that nobody really knows when he was born. He had a Birth Certificate made up when he started Boxing.
- The documentary does a nice job at showing how Sonny Liston moved around. First from Arkansas to St. Louis, then to Philadelphia, then to Denver, and finally to Las Vegas. In many of these cities, they do an excellent job at portraying both Sonny's problems with the law and how he was also harassed by the Police.
- The documentary spends a good chunk of time explaining where Sonny Liston's mob connections came from. They basically present how Sonny had connections in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas.
- I found it shocking that when he returned to Philadelphia after winning the title from Patterson, there was no celebration. Today, Philadelphia is a city that reveres its heroes, so this story surprised me.
- The video really paints a picture of Floyd Patterson as a class individual. I knew Patterson was a good guy, but got a whole new respect for him. This is done through some of Patterson's accounts that are made directly on this documentary, but is also done by others in the video.
- There is a good chunk of the documentary devoted to the two fights with Ali (Cassius Clay). I guess one thing that disappoints me is that there are no direct accounts from Ali himself on Liston. I'm not sure if Ali declined to talk or whether HBO decided not to pursue him. I do think if this was included, this would have made the documentary even better. They spend some time going through both fights were allegedly fixed and present arguments from both sides. They talk about how Liston was very much out of shape for this first fight - and why this occurred. They also talk about how Liston took the rematch seriously. They do a great job with the rematch Ali gave Liston - presenting footage of this fight in both color and black and white. Finally, there is some interesting information about Ali's relationship with the Muslims.
- I learned quite a bit about Liston after the Ali fight - on how he tried to continue his career. Much of this info I did not know about.
- They spend some time discussing some of the strange circumstances surrounding Liston's death.
- Great accounts by the Police Officers investigating Liston's death and FBI Officers who were investigating the fight fixes.
Overall this is a very good documentary. This will not only interest the Boxing fan, but I even think this will be a compelling story for someone who really isn't into Sports. It's a documentary one will probably several times- highly recommended.