Devil and Sonny Liston

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Overview

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.

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

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.

--Jack Taylor

New York Times Book Review
...hard, tough writing suited to a hard, tough subject...
The Denver Post
...at 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 Liston...to 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.|
KLIATT
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
Georgeiades
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."
Patrick
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316897464
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 12/6/2001
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.57 (w) x 8.23 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Nick Tosches
Nick Tosches
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.

Biography

A highly praised author who seems to base his choice of subjects not so much on eminence as conflicted greatness, Nick Tosches is the best example of a good rock journalist who set out to transcend his genre and succeeded. Having begun in music mags Creem and Fusion in the 1970s, the author’s career took a large turn upward with the publication of Hellfire, his biography of rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis. It didn’t hurt that Rolling Stone anointed it “the best rock n’ roll biography ever written.”

A few years later, Tosches departed from the rock milieu but maintained his attraction to subjects of undeniable power and questionable – if not downright criminal – character. He chronicled the life and times of Sicilian financier Michele Sindona in the now out of print Power on Earth, then scored another biographical home run with his authoritative Dino, about Rat Pack entertainer Dean Martin.

None of these subjects was begging to be written about; nor was the boxer Tosches compellingly depicted in The Devil and Sonny Liston, the blackface minstrel introduced in Where Dead Voices Gather, or the focus of The Last Opium Den. This is where the author’s talent nests: First in his ability to unearth topics that represent history’s alleyways; and second in the courageous, authentic prose he uses to describe them, including liberal doses of ten-dollar-words and allusions to his own role in the story.

Tosches doesn’t get caught up so much in an individual; he works to create an aura. “The lives in [my biographies] are as much about the forces at work beneath, beyond, and around,” he said in a 1999 interview with Salon. “The Liston book, to a great extent, is about those forces more than it's about Sonny himself. I mean, Sonny's life is there in full, but there are other characters and other forces directly relating to various underworlds.” Tosches will take you to his subject eventually; but he might show you through a few detours first. For example, his search in The Last Opium Den begins, “You see, I needed to go to hell I was, you might say, homesick. But first, by way of explanation, the onion.”

Tosches’ fiction work has existed under the shadow of his biographies, something the author wants to change with the ambitious, portentously promoted 2002 release In the Hand of Dante. His first novel about a Mafia scheme to fix the New York lottery, Cut Numbers, was generally well received but largely forgotten; Trinities, “a battle for evil,” was a New York Times Notable Book of 1994 but is now out of print in the States. In the Hand of Dante is a self-referential, layered story that twists the discovery of a 14th-century manuscript into a modern-day thriller also containing Alighieri himself as a character. Whether In the Hand of Dante will be, as its publisher predicts, “the most ragingly debated novel of the decade,” like the rest of Tosches’ work, it has drawn respect and attention.

Good To Know

In the 1970s, Tosches was a hunter of poisonous snakes for the Miami Serpentarium. He was also a paste-up artist for the Lovable Underwear Company.

Tosches has written a screenplay, Spud Crazy; planned adaptations of Dino (by Martin Scorsese) and The Devil and Sonny Liston (with Ving Rhames in the lead) have been reported but disappeared. Tosches told Salon in 1999, "The people in Hollywood that clean out the urinals know more about the movie status of my books than I do." In 2002, FOXNews.com reported that veteran producer Robert Evans planned to make a film based on Tosches’s Vanity Fair article “The Devil and Sidney Korshak,” about “connected” Chicago lawyer. Tosches was slated to write the screenplay.

Tosches, who was not big on higher education, was “schooled in his father’s bar,” according to his publisher’s bio. He spent his teenage years as a porter at Tosches family’s Jersey City joint.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1948
    2. Place of Birth:
      Newark, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      High school

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One

FROM NOTHING


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.

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

From Nothing

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. Friendship between 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.

Read More Show Less

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2006

    Harrowing

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2006

    I learned much about Liston

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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