Sonny Liston, losing gambler
While writing about a Joe Louis photograph yesterday, I realized how few really good photographs of boxers are out there. Eliminate pictures of Muhammad Ali, the most photographed boxer in history, and you're left with countless black-and-white 8 x 10s of boxers posing, well, as boxers. For the life of me, I can't remember the name of the guy who took this mind-blowing shot of Sonny Liston, the most hated and feared heavyweight champion of all time. I corresponded with him once and he offered to sell me a print of the image, but my memory is such that ... his name is lost somewhere within my gray matter.
Not a lot of men can get away with going shirtless in a Las Vegas casino. But not many people told Sonny Liston what to do. Former Lightweight Champion Beau Jack told me that each of Liston's fists was as big as two of mine, and I have big, ugly hands.
What a wonderful photograph. Liston's face is almost involuntarily terrifying. He's sweating slightly and the warm tone of what I think might have been Kodachrome 64 film enhances the heat of his huge body. The shallow depth of field isolates Liston perfectly from the chaos of the casino and the playing cards seem symbolic of a man who wanted to win - he was indeed champion for two years - but spent most of his life losing.
The stories about Liston's dark life have been told a million times. Born to a family of tenant farmers, he worked the fields starting at the age of 8. Nobody knows what day or year he was born. He ran away and by the estimated age of 18 he was serving five years in prison for robbery. He was a union strike breaker controlled by the mafia, even as he was coming up through the boxing ranks. Once a champion, he was booed more often than cheered. And he died under mysterious circumstances, still a young man, found dead in his Las Vegas bedroom with no signs of foul play.
In this portrait you can see the weight of a man's personal history carried on his face and in his very chest and shoulders.