Devil and Sonny Liston

Devil and Sonny Liston

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by Nick Tosches

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Nick Tosches's brutal, stunning, and widely praised biography of Sonny Liston-the world heavyweight champion who hit harder than any man alive, and who embodied everything that is compelling and terrifying about boxing.

Author Biography: Nick Tosches was born in Newark and schooled in his father's Jersey City bar. He is the author of Dino, an acclaimed


Nick Tosches's brutal, stunning, and widely praised biography of Sonny Liston-the world heavyweight champion who hit harder than any man alive, and who embodied everything that is compelling and terrifying about boxing.

Author Biography: Nick Tosches was born in Newark and schooled in his father's Jersey City bar. He is the author of Dino, an acclaimed biography of Dean Martin, among other books. He is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
...hard, tough writing suited to a hard, tough subject...
The Denver Post once biography and meditation...boast[s] the author's trademarks: insight and raving excess. One doesn't so much read a Tosches book as experience it...
Austin Chronicle
Tosches is smooth and cool and in control here...tells a captivating, tragic tale.
Washington Post Book World
Tosches can't write a dull book, especially when he's animated, and he's animated here...
Entertainment Weekly
Tosches' hard-bitten prose is well suited to the task of bringing vividly seedy life...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Tosches has always been drawn to the lives of dark and mysteriously flawed or fallen public figures--Jerry Lee Lewis in Hellfire, Dean Martin in Dino--and in one-time heavyweight champ Charles "Sonny" Liston he has found his biggest and darkest figure yet. Born in abject poverty in eastern Arkansas, Liston grew up to be a quiet, inarticulate youth who, after moving with his mother to St. Louis, put his only talent to work: intimidation. Knocking over gas stations and grocery stores, he ended up in a penitentiary doing eight years. His brawny build and huge hands made him an invincible force in the prison boxing program, which earned him an early release but delivered him into an enslavement from which he never escaped. Tosches marshals prodigious research to prove that, early on, Liston became captive to organized crime at a time when boxing was ruled by a mob syndicate. This is a very sad tale of an illiterate man who became useful to figures who had their own agenda: making money. Tosches finds people close to Liston who claim the fighter told them that his first bout with the man then known as Cassius Clay was fixed (with the mob taking down $2.1 million by betting on the 7-to-1 underdog); others strongly imply that the outcome of the second fight--that of the infamous "phantom punch"--in Lewiston, Maine, was also a foregone conclusion. Events around the beleaguered and bewildered Liston whirl at dizzying speeds--the Kefauver investigation of boxing, the war in Vietnam, the rise of the Nation of Islam, the cultural roar of the 1960s generation--and Tosches is a master at keeping his finger on the pulse of the period and his eye on the pitiable Sonny. Throughout, though, what is most remarkable is Tosches's empathy for the fighter derided as "a bear," a "hoodlum" and, by the loquacious Ali, as simply "ugly." In Tosches's hands, Liston is an unfortunate victim of people much worse than he, and the boxer emerges with a kind of mute dignity: this man "who neither knew his age nor felt any ties of blood upon this earth nor saw any future knew only that he was nobody and that he had come from nowhere and that he was nowhere." In a prose style that runs like a hot improvisational jazz riff, Tosches makes a somebody of a nobody, and along the way brings more than a few reputations down a good notch. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Slavery as a concept is usually associated with the 19th century, the Civil War, and such documents as the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th-16th amendments (The "Reconstruction Amendments"). However, few people realize that slavery's powerful effect on the lives of African Americans living in the South was felt well into the 20th century. The desire for a better living conditions and racial tolerance led African Americans to northern cities. Young Charles L. Liston�who would be known worldwide as "Sonny" Liston�was no exception. He joined his mother, Helen, in St. Louis in 1946. There, he began a tumultuous boxing career that included associations with organized crime, government corruption (the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa), African American revolutionary activities (Malcolm X), heavy drinking, and suspected involvement in a Las Vegas murder (he was later cleared of the charges). Tosches' style mirrors the tough and rocky world of professional boxing, with details on bouts with Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Herman Schreibauer of West Germany, Marty Marshall, Joe Frazier and others. Teachers and librarians may need to know that the use of expletives is frequent. Category: Sports & Recreation. KLIATT Codes: SA�Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Little, Brown, Back Bay Books, 266p. illus. index., , Charleston, WV
Liston's story has been well documented, but until now it has never been imbued with the kind of lyricism that Nick Tosches has previously brought to bear on such subjects as Jerry Lee Lewis (Hellfire) and Dean Martin (Dino). The Devil and Sonny Liston is as much about Liston and boxing as it is about the darkest side of the American dream.
Time Out New York
Esquire Magazine Editors
In The Devil and Sonny Liston, Nick Tosches (author of the notable Dean Martin biography Dino gives us the fullest portrait yet of this troubled man...Told in the spare, muscular prose Tosches is know for, Liston's story is the tale of a man who, as one acquaintance noted, "died on the day he was born."
A carefully researched biography of a man who so effectively closed himself off to the world that no one ever got truly close to him . . . Tosches has a talent for getting inside the skin of such men . . . Hard, tough writing suited to a hard, tough subject.
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
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5.57(w) x 8.23(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The corpse was rolled over and lay face down on the metal slab. It was then that the coroner saw them: the copper-colored whipping welts, old and faint, like one might imagine to have been those of a driven slave.

To say that Charles Liston had been a slave would be to render cheap metaphor of the life of a man. And yet those scars on his back were as nothing to deeper scars, the kind that no coroner could ever see, scars of a darkness far less imaginable than those from any lash. Charles Liston, the most formidable of men, the most unconquerable of heavyweight boxers, had been enslaved by the forces of that darkness: enslaved, conquered, and killed by them.

Born with dead man's eyes, he had passed from the darkness of those scars on his back to the darkness of the criminal underworld, to a darkness beyond, a darkness whose final form was the last thing his eyes ever saw.

I remember the figure of Sonny Liston from my boyhood: distant, ominous, enigmatic, alluring. It now strikes me as odd — looking back at that boyhood — that a black man could have fascinated me so. In 1962, the year that Sonny won the heavyweight title, I was in the eighth grade of P.S. 24 in Jersey City. The school was predominantly black, and intramural racial conflict was the fore-most extracurricular activity. There were skirmishes every day, full-blown gang fights every Friday afternoon: black against white, white against black. The mutual hostility had always been there, but in the fall, winter, and spring of 1962Ð3, the brew of that hostility boiled over. Friendshipbetween black and white was driven underground, or ended. The punishment for consorting with the enemy was to be beaten, damned, persecuted, and ostracized, not only by one's own kind but by the enemy's kind as well. To black and white alike, such behavior was contra naturam, an assault and a crime against all that was as it should be.

At this same time, LeRoi Jones was writing a novel about the evil spirit of those days. In The System of Dante's Hell, published in 1965, it was as if Jones, setting out to exorcise evil, was overtaken by it, and his book emerged as one of the most powerful and beautiful expressions of blind hatred and its wages since the Pentateuch. The hell he chose in which to set his story was the city of Newark, where he had his roots, and where I was born and partly raised. I must have read the paperback in 1966, and I was in Newark in the summer of 1967 — the Summer of Love, those hippie assholes called it — when the riots flared. For me, it was like the force of Jones's vision erupting from the underworld regions through the streets. I loved it. It had nothing to do with black and white, it merely was: an emanation of all that destroys us from within, wild and deadly and beyond the lie of law. I remember the old Jewish shopkeepers fleeing, painting the words SOUL BROTHER on their storefront windows, in the vain hope that their enterprise would be perceived as black and therefore spared.

But no one, black or white, was spared. There was much talk about "black rage" — a catch phrase that was brought to us by the same mass merchants who brought us "summer of love" — and blacks themselves bought into it, for the black is no less a fool than the white and will cling to any rationalization that masks or justifies, however fatuously, the part of our nature that seems to belie our humanity: the part of our nature that, in our vanity and denial, we have come to call inhuman, a word that has barely changed since the Latin inhumanus of the ancient Romans, whose empire was built upon slavery.

As I remember those old Jewish shopkeepers hurriedly painting their windows, so I remember the self-proclaimed black radicals, like Jones, having their dashikis made by those same old Jewish tailors. It was as close to Africa as they had ever been, the corner of Broad and Market in downtown Newark. A little old Jewish tailor stitching raiments of polyester pride for a bunch of guys who were suddenly talking about slavery as if it were a personal experience and about Africa as if it was their true home. It was a minstrelsy skit of a new age: the angry young Afro-American and his tailor.

LeRoi Jones, 1964: "Sonny Liston was the big black Negro in every white man's hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under." Liston, wrote Jones, was "the bad nigger," the "heavy-faced replica of every whipped-up woogie in the world."

But nobody ever saw Sonny Liston in a f*ing dashiki. Sonny Liston knew — you could see it in those dead man's eyes — that there was no black and white; there was only that hallway: your hallway, my hallway, Jones's hallway, the unlighted hallway of the world.

I think now that my boyhood fascination with Sonny Liston had to do with his being as feared and hated by blacks as by whites. He was the ultimate outlaw. Man, those narrow-lapelled sharkskin suits, that felling left and that slaughterhouse right, and that scowl: his badness transcended race.

As years passed, the more I learned of boxing, and the more fighters I saw fight, the more I knew that there was no other fighter like Sonny Liston. There never had been, and there never would be. And the more I lived and learned of other things, the more I began to feel that the secret history of Sonny Liston would reveal one of the greatest Mob tales ever told, a tale that ended in a murder mystery whose solution seemed to be lost forever, as gone as that night when Sonny's dead man's eyes went dead for good. I did not know that it would also reveal the forces of another, unexplored darkness, an underworld unto itself. And I did not know, above all, that it 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.

Meet the Author

A journalist who has also written three novels, Nick Tosches is an acclaimed biographer whose unconventional books -- Dino and The Devil and Sonny Liston among them -- illuminate some of America's more controversial, overshadowed talents.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Newark, New Jersey
High school

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The Devil and Sonny Liston 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Nick Tosches can be an acquired taste - and many people never acquire the taste. He overwrites, wanders well off subject, has highly subjective readings of his subjects (and that is being kind to him) and seems to love to wallow in his own seaminess and misery. Somehow, though, he keeps it in check here and his portrait of Liston, heavyweight chump and loser extraordinaire, works perfectly. His ripping apart of the autopsy results seems almost incontrovertible. All in all, a terrific work.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed the Devil and Sonny Liston. I learned quite a few things about the troubled man. I had no idea about his struggle with internal demons and sordid past. It was enjoyable to read.