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Tragic tale of the great Sonny Liston and his bare gravestone ...a man unloved to the end

oliver.holt@ Holt Oliver

BeFORe the Formula One caravan arrived in Las Vegas last week, I took a taxi a couple of miles down east Flamingo Road, away from the Strip and its neon to the suburb that was called Paradise Township back in 1966 when Sonny Liston bought the house at 2058 Ottawa Drive.

Liston’s career was heading into decline by then, after the back-to-back defeats by Muhammad Ali in 1964 and 1965, in Lewiston, Maine, where many believe he took a dive. Most days, he would walk or cycle the mile or so along the quiet, affluent streets to the place where Joe Louis lived at 3333 Seminole Circle.

The two men would sit on Louis’s bedroom floor and shoot craps for hours on end. Louis, once revered as the Brown Bomber, was long retired by then and soon he would be working as a greeter at the newly opened Caesars Palace. He was the closest thing to a hero that the much younger Liston had.

Louis was one of the great American heroes of the 20th Century, a fighter who brought joy and escapism to Americans during the depression of the 1930s and who enlisted in the army during the Second World War. More than 60 million of his countrymen tuned in to his rematch with Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in 1938.

By the time he started hanging out with Liston, though, Louis had become a heroin and cocaine addict. Nick Tosches’ brilliant book about Liston, Night Train, quotes a mutual friend of the two fighters as saying Louis was a craps degenerate, ‘an alchemist who turned money into s***’. Soon, Liston was starting to hit the skids, too.

I had been standing outside the house on Seminole Circle, a shallow cul-de-sac off east Desert Inn Road, for a couple of minutes, trying to make out the house number and thinking it looked so dilapidated it might be derelict, when I heard a voice and turned to see a smartly dressed middle-aged woman marching towards me.

Her tone was uncompromising. She wanted to know what I was doing there. I told her I was interested in the history of great fighters who had lived in Vegas. That did not mollify her. She said there had been break-ins at the old Louis house. I told her I wasn’t planning on breaking in.

That did not mollify her, either. Quite the opposite. She said there had been problems with squatters. The house had been damaged by fire. She said she had made calls when she saw me standing outside. ‘The police are coming,’ she said. ‘And people with guns will be coming, too. Just so you know.’

I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth but I didn’t wait around to find out. I walked towards Ottawa Drive, down the quiet side roads that Liston would have walked down until I came to the modest house that backs on to the 16th fairway at what is now the Las Vegas Country Club, the house where Liston lived and where he died. An olive tree, a symbol of peace, dominates the small front garden, a couple of newly planted oleanders guard the steps leading up to the modest frontage of the house and a pile of bricks lie in front of the ochre-coloured garage doors.

An estate agent website suggests the house is for sale. Not that its history will help it. America loved Joe Louis but it did not love Sonny Liston. It was scared of him and, for a time, before the Ali fights, it was in awe of him.

He was such a formidable fighter, his style so brutal and overwhelming that most felt he was invincible. He was characterised as a monster.

He won the world title by demolishing Floyd Patterson in Chicago in 1962, knocking him out two minutes into the first round. Sports Illustrated writer Gilbert Rogin observed that ‘that final left hook crashed into Patterson’s cheek like a diesel rig going downhill, no brakes’.

Louis was at that fight. ‘Nobody’s going to beat Liston, ’cept old age,’ he said. Liston, who had emerged from a childhood of rural poverty in Arkansas, whose place of birth, date of birth, and age at death, remain unknown, and who was the object of persistent rumours that he was controlled by the Mob, was feared and despised by white America.

The American poet, Amiri Baraka, called him ‘the big, black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in’. That was still a time when white America demanded black sportsmen play by its rules — Louis was told he must never be photographed with a white woman — and Liston was treated with outright hostility and only thinly veiled racism by press and public alike.

He kept bad company in Vegas, which is easy to do. When his wife came home from a week-long trip in January 1971, she found his decomposing body in the bedroom of the house in Ottawa Drive. The coroner’s report was inconclusive. Some said he had died of a heroin overdose. Most believed he was murdered by the Mob. He was 38, the records say.

I took one more cab ride, a few miles south to Paradise Memorial Gardens, where the planes fly in low over the cemetery as they come in to land at the airport and the Strip is framed against the mountains behind it. You have to work hard to find Liston’s gravestone.

It is in a section not far from the entrance, not far from a row of children’s graves, decorated with toy trucks and a Captain America and rubber ducks left there on the Day of the Dead a couple of weeks earlier.

Liston’s grave is bare and the inscription short. It carries his name and the year of his birth and death. And then two words, and only two words: ‘A MAN.’

The woman warned me: ‘The police are coming. And people with guns will be coming, too. Just so you know’





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