Back in the 1970s, a friend of mine, ex-boxer Mike DeJohn from Buffalo, NY, was working at the Sahara. I used to see Mike occasionally at the Paradise Spa way south on the Strip. Mike told me one day that when he fought Liston, he hit Mike so hard, Mike had to lie down. And DeJohn was no slouch.
In 1961, a group headed by Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, two mobsters, bought Liston’s contract. One year later on September 25, Liston beat heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson. Defending his second title as a 7 to 1 favorite, Liston lost to Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali. (Photo above)
On Jan. 5, 1971, Liston's body was discovered by his wife, Geraldine, in their Las Vegas home. She’d been away visiting family. Coroners determined he had died at least a week earlier. The cause of death remains a mystery. Officially, Liston died of heart failure and lung congestion, but needle marks found on his arm suggest he may have died of a heroin overdose. Some believe mobsters murdered him. At least one acquaintance suggested Liston was involved in a loan-sharking ring and was demanding a bigger take.
"Ultimately, the true cause of Sonny Liston's death was the mystery in him," Nick Tosches wrote in The Devil and Sonny Liston. "He rode a fast dark train from nowhere, and it dumped him from that falling-off place at the end of the line."