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In the last century, a fighter emerged from the humid torpor of the plantation South whose unstoppable momentum in the boxing ring mirrored the profound carnage of his personal life. Charles "Sonny" Liston's meteoric rise to the heavyweight championship was without precedent, inspiring genuine dread in his adversaries and despair in those who met with his left jab and right cross.
His lethal fistic skills weren't just the tools of sport. The gigantic man's expertise in battery was perhaps the only compass by which he navigated his short life through a world of both sweet innocence and profound evil. As Nick Tosches writes in his new biography of the boxer, The Devil and Sonny Liston, the fighter's life "would reveal a soul that, even amid the darkness in which it dwelt, eluded all concepts of good and evil, of right and wrong, of light and dark themselves."
Though writing in richly textured language, Tosches spares no mundane details in a thoroughly researched examination of a man who defined both the summit of professional sporting potential and its worst possible excesses. In fact, the details of Liston's life are so tangled in a Gordian knot of historical arcana that were Tosches to fully unravel the mysteries and implications, he might very well free the secrets of American criminal society itself.
Tosches squares off against an enigmatic subject that epitomizes an unbreachable fortress of definition in either time or space. Though the author has clearly followed countless leads in his Herculean quest, placing a date for Liston's birth is as impossible as determining its location in a land of shape-shifting, river-flooded farm countryside. It seems, for example, that, in a life where "family" was at best a mutable concept, it would be obvious that no one would even know for sure the genesis of his nickname.
Emerging from the bleak poverty of tenant farmers and sharecroppers "working for halves," Liston moved to St. Louis and grew from reckless, petty criminal to local mob leg-breaker to the most fear professional boxer in the modern history of the sport. With often numbing detail, Tosches has done considerable detective work tracing a life that burned as briefly, brightly, and dangerously as a road flare. At times, the catalogue of people and places becomes a biblical dirge that might test the fortitude of anyone but historians and the most devoted boxing fans, yet it is a story with tendrils that extend as far as the African American's rise from slavery, the insidious influence of the Mafia in American society, and the rise of modern professional sports.
The names connected to this tale are those we've seen reappear, with Keyser Soze's dark persistency, throughout our nation's most troubling times; Sam Giancana, Frankie Carbo, Roy Cohn, Barney Baker, and John Vitale, among many others, make appearances. Meanwhile, other fighters, such as Floyd Patterson (a good guy, as Tosches depicts him) and Mohammed Ali (who Tosches views as something of a corporate clown), are also players in this deeply troubling drama of an African-American champion who attained both the laurels that accompany athletic success and a dark reputation for criminal behavior that made him anathema to the NAACP.
Of course, Tosches addresses the fixed fights, especially the astonishing rematch against Ali: "When Sonny lay down in the first, he showed less acting ability than in the episode of "Love American Style" in which he later bizarrely appeared." Yet while he investigates these moments of shame and infamy, Tosches doesn't rest the foundations of the Liston tragedy on them. Rather, the Liston/Ali saga is one of the underpinnings he uses to show an almost inescapable pattern of fate leading to Liston's mysterious death.
By the time Tosches's narrative arrives at the discovery of Liston's badly decomposed corpse, we're almost asked to accept it as a natural force. Liston -- an illiterate famously terrified of needles and reputedly averse to narcotics died from a heroin overdoes, with a newspaper beside his hat to marke the alleged date of his demise. Yet, while he enumerates the various conspiracy theories surrounding the death, Tosches seems to discount the importance of any single one, as if to say that Liston -- an alcoholic rapist, batterer, and robber, yet a man reported to love children -- was self-destroyed, even if not directly by his own hand.