Helen Liston and Sonny, 1964.
“When I discover who I am, then I’ll be free.”
In the summer of 1962, Charles “Sonny” Liston and his wife Geraldine were living in the rectory of St. Ignatius Loyola in Denver, Colorado. Father Edward P. Murphy, the Jesuit who took them in, oversaw what the press was calling Sonny’s “rehabilitation.” The priest preferred “reorientation”—a change of direction. The heavyweight division’s number-one contender had been suspended indefinitely in forty-seven states after yet another run-in with the law. He had good reason to change. He would rise at dawn to do roadwork at the City Park golf course and trained at a nearby Air Force base. Weekends were spent at a Catholic retreat house in Fraser. Geraldine, who first met Sonny at a prison dance, said novenas for him at the church.
Father Murphy took it upon himself to teach his functionally-illiterate guest how to read, to heal some of the wounds on his personality. The wounds were old.
“We grew up like heathens,” Sonny said. “When I was a kid I had nothing but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother, and a father who didn’t care about a single one of us.” His mother’s name was Helen, called “Big Hela” by kinfolk. She married his father despite an age difference of about thirty years.
Tobe was his name, Tobin Liston. He was the son of a slave who lived in Choctaw County, Mississippi and who can be found in the 1860 U.S. Census listed among the property of one Martin Liston. Liston’s estate, including his slaves, was valued at $6,825, which placed him far below the planter class. He was just a small farmer who feared Abraham Lincoln and tended his cotton fields alongside four bent black people he wrongfully claimed as his own. Five years later, “the freedom war” ended and the 13th Amendment grew from Lincoln’s grave like a blood-spattered rose. By 1870, Alexander Liston was renting a plot of land not far from his former master’s estate, now worth a paltry thousand dollars and owned by his widow.
Mississippi was not among the states that ratified the amendment that freed him. Resentment hovered in the thick, bleating air. Slavery was soon revived —slapdash like some dead thing that should’ve stayed dead— and black Americans were cast back into servitude as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, into a system designed to keep them in poverty. “The bossman got three-fourths of what you raised,” Helen said. “We had to raise what we ate and then buy shoes and clothes.”
There is no record of Alexander’s feelings about this or anything else, but we know that his son was angry; the son of his son angrier still.
Tobin moved his family and elderly father northward to Johnson Township in St. Francis County, Arkansas. He was, by all reports, a man whose hostility could not be contained in the meager five-foot-five frame God had given him. It spilled out in torrents of abuse and the oversized boy who didn’t pick cotton fast enough and whose silence was mistook for a simple mind, bore the brunt of it. Sonny wasn’t sentimental about his childhood: “The only thing I ever got from my old man was a beating,” he said.
Sonny, Father Murphy whispered, was “kicked around since he was born.” Precisely how long that was has been a long-standing mystery because no one could rightly say when he was born. The date of his birth was never recorded. They rarely were in rural areas during the Depression, especially when it came to poor black folk—unless they did it themselves.
There was a tree on the farm in Arkansas where father and son toiled under a sun oblivious to change. The birth dates of a new Liston generation were carved on that tree as if they had a right to hope. It was chopped down.
In 1950, Sonny was booked for robbery and told police he was born in 1928 or thereabouts. In 1953, he told Golden Gloves officials he was born in 1932 or thereabouts. During the Kefauver hearings in 1960, his massive shoulders strained his suit coat as he leaned into a microphone and said “I was born in 1933.” As champion, he chose May 8th 1932 as his default DOB to fend off the swarming press. They scoffed. His publicity man snapped, “He’s over 21.” In the mid-sixties, when he was banned from fighting just about anywhere except Nevada and Sweden, Dan Daniel of The Ring said “he doubtless is more than 45 years of age.” Before long the Swedish press joined the chorus (“You’re 42 aren’t you?”). Sonny got fed up. Anyone, he started threatening, who doubted he was the age he claimed was calling his momma a liar. But momma only added to the confusion: “I think it was January 18th in 1932. I know he was born in January, in 1932. It was cold in January.”
He eventually went and got himself a birth certificate, telling the clerk, the press, and his momma that he was born on May 8th 1932. He thought it would settle the matter. It didn’t. A reporter who had befriended him named Jack McKinney revealed the sad truth. Sonny, he said “was so sensitive on the issue of his age because he did not really know how old he was. When guys would write that he was 32 going on 50, it had more of an impact on him that anybody realized. Sonny didn’t know who he was.”
He never would. What began with the crash of a felled tree in Arkansas ended on a night unknown, when a bench in his bedroom crashed under two-hundred twenty pounds of dead weight. No one heard the tree fall. No one heard the bench crash. Both ends of his life, as loose and odd as expected, are all tied up in a big black bow.
Why then does his story seem unfinished?
Somewhere in the back of beyond, an enormous fist is still shaking, not with rage but with regret—the regret of not knowing.
The 1940 U.S. Census reports have been released. Tobin Liston and his family come into view on a rented farm in backwater Smith Township on April 23rd of that year. They moved there from backwater Johnson Township sometime between 1930 and 1934. Tobin was sixty-seven and working on the farm sixty hours a week despite his advanced age. Helen was minding the chores in and around the rented shack and it’s easy to conjure up a picture of her wiping her hands on an apron as she greets the census taker. It would have been her who gave the names and ages of the children: Leo (“17”), Annie (“15”) and Alcora (“13,” called “Cabbie”), and there, between eleven-year-old Curtis and two-year-old Wesley, “Charles L” appears on record for the first time.
His age is given as “10” which means that 1930 is the likeliest year of his birth. However, Helen seemed prone to count the years from birth inclusively. A pointer is found in the 1930 census. On April 28th 1930, Curtis was listed at “6/12” months old (which strongly suggests that he was born in October 1929) and no child named Charles was listed in the Liston household. Ten years later, Curtis was indeed in his eleventh year as his mother claimed, though actually ten years old. Charles was probably in his tenth year, though nine years old.
If Curtis was born in October 1929, then Sonny’s default birthday of May 8th can be put to the wind, barring the unlikely event that he survived a premature delivery in a shotgun shack in a backward county with no doctor in sight. It is almost certain that he was born no earlier than July 1930.
As time stretched away from that census taker’s visit to the farm, Helen began to lose track. She was in her sixties when she said he was born in January (either the “18th”or the “8th”). Nick Tosches found that another sibling’s birth was registered as January 8th and supposed that she mixed them up. Late in life, Helen rummaged through her memory again and claimed he was born in 1927. She seems to have confused the year of Sonny’s birth with Alcora’s, which was 1927. But there’s another scrap of information, easily overlooked, that may end the mystery. Helen said that Sonny was born on July 22nd. Looking past her confusion about the year, we come face-to-face with a summer day that isn’t easily explained away and that happens to fall within the allowable time frame for a viable pregnancy.
—It fits. Perhaps a mother’s memory can be counted on after all.
A birth date emerges out of the thick, bleating air of the Mississippi Delta. Its jagged script, barely legible anymore, is carved on a resurrected tree: 7-22-1930, Charles L.
Photograph by John Vachon from Look Magazine, 2/25/1964.
“Should Patterson Give Title Shot to Liston: Sonny’s ‘Rebirth’ to Help,” Larry Still (Jet, 8/10/61); Jack McKinney’s “He’s Mad and Getting Madder” (Sports Illustrated, 9/24/62), Jack Olsen’s “What’s Become of the Big Bear?” (SI, 5/13/68) and William Nack’s “O Unlucky Man” (SI, 2/4/91), Evans Kirkby’s article in the Milwaukee Journal (5/24/1965), A.S. Young’s Sonny Liston: The Champ Nobody Wanted, (1963), The Ring, September 1967, Nick Tosches’ The Devil and Sonny Liston (2000), UPI-AP “Sought Floyd Rematch” 1/6/71, Rob Sneed’s Sonny Liston: His Life, Strife, and the Phantom Punch (2008) and U.S. Census reports (1860, 1870, 1930, 1940) were resources for this essay.
Springs Toledo can be contacted at email@example.com.