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The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights

3.56  ·  Rating details ·  374 ratings  ·  60 reviews
A re-examination of the circumstances surrounding former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston's death in Las Vegas in 1970. ...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published October 4th 2016 by Blue Rider Press (first published February 9th 2016)
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Harold Kasselman While I enjoyed the book, the answer for me is no. I was a county prosecutor for 30 years and then a defense attorney. In my opinion, it's pure conjec…moreWhile I enjoyed the book, the answer for me is no. I was a county prosecutor for 30 years and then a defense attorney. In my opinion, it's pure conjecture and unworthy of more man hours. You asked, so I'm telling it like it is for me.(less)

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J. Kent Messum

*Review originally published in the New York Journal Of Books:

Charles “Sonny” Liston, former heavyweight champion turned drug dealer, was found dead in his Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971. It was the ending of a life that had been steadily veering toward rock bottom. He wasn’t quite celebrated or beloved enough for the public to view it as a tragedy. A suspected heroin overdose was nullified with an official death from the coroner listed as “natural cau
Dec 17, 2016 rated it it was ok
I had never heard of Sonny Liston before reading this book. I had to ask my dad who he was & since my dad was a just kid when Liston was fighting he only knew one thing about Liston. My grandfather had told him that Sonny Liston had been paid by the mob lose a fight to Muhammad Ali.

Sonny Liston was illiterate, mean, a drug addict, a womanizer, and a criminal. That's all this book tells you about him. Liston died of heroin overdose because Liston was a heroin addict. This book wants you to think
Joseph Hirsch
Nov 05, 2016 rated it really liked it

The Laura Palmer of the Fight Game (Sonny was born dead)

The subtitle of this book says it all. This is not a book about Sonny Liston; it's a book about the seedy Vegas milieu where Sonny settled after his boxing career ended in ignominy. And even though the book is titled "The Murder of Sonny Liston" one should not expect the kind of revelations from this book that came with "I Heard You Paint Houses," the book about the murder of Jimmy Hoffa. After I read that book, I was pretty sure Frank Shee
Dec 12, 2016 rated it did not like it
Shelves: sports
A generation before George Foreman, Sonny Liston was the biggest, meanest, most fearsome heavyweight in boxing. In an era when the heavyweight championship was still looked upon as having national significance, if only symbolically, Liston's criminal background and alleged mob ties made even the idea of him fighting for the title a matter of heated debate. But for years he was the most obviously deserving challenger. And when Floyd Patterson, the reigning champion, finally gave him a title shot, ...more
Nov 10, 2019 rated it it was ok
The author, in trying to prove Liston was murdered, makes it obvious he wasn’t. The 45 year-old evidence is along the lines of “he said that he said”. The medical reports confirm that it wasn’t even a heroin overdose, as most people think. It was “myocardial anoxia or poor oxygen supply to heart muscles and a coronary insufficiency or insufficient supply of nutrient blood to the heart muscles.”

The most interesting part of the story was a few pages on the 1965 “fight” with Cassius Clay in Lewist
Hewitt Moore
Jan 14, 2019 rated it it was ok
The title is misleading. The author doesn't offer any evidence that Liston's heroin overdose was murder. But the book did provide some interesting background on Liston, Vegas, Ali, boxing, etc, that made the book worth reading. ...more
Harold Kasselman
Dec 26, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

I listened to the audio version of the book. I listened to it on my way from NJ to Florida, and I was totally engrossed. It is worthy of a 4.5 rating. The author obviously did a yeoman's job in his investigation and research. I give him a lot of credit for his work ethic on a case that was closed in 1970-71. Notwithstanding his research and interviews of key players, I was unconvinced that Liston was murdered. The author proffers several barely plausible theories fo
Erin Cataldi
Nov 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016
Admittedly I knew next to nothing about Sonny Liston before I read this book. I'm not much of a sports guru, although I do love boxing movies. All I knew about Sonny Liston was that he was the fallen boxer in the famous photo with Muhammad Ali towering over him. That's it. While this book doesn't go into too much detail about Sonny's early life or early career, it does mention some key facts and picks up the story towards the end of Sonny's life and career. This book doesn't paint a pretty pictu ...more
Sep 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
I received a digital copy of this book through Penguin's First to Read program in exchange for an honest review. I didn't know anything about boxing prior to reading this book, but I still enjoyed the book. The author did a good job of spinning the mystery and the background information that led up to it. The description of Vegas during that time period was also really interesting. Some chapters seemed to ramble off on a different tangent, but there was a reason for that information and it all c ...more
Aug 27, 2016 rated it really liked it
I received this book as an ARC from Penguin. It is a good piece of cross genre non-fiction. It combines True Crime and Sport. I am not a big Sport of Boxing fan. But for those who are or are just getting into Boxing this will be a very enjoyable read.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the history of Las Vegas and how the policing of the city has changed over the years.

Bob D'Angelo
Dec 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Here is the link to my review on my website, The Sports Bookie. Posted Oct. 18, 2016:

And here is what I wrote:

It reads like a script from the old television show “Cold Case.”

A former heavyweight boxing champion is found dead from an apparent heroin overdose. Undertones of organized crime and racial tension rage in Las Vegas. A police informant points a finger at rogue policeman, then is found dead under mysterious circumstances years later. Maneuvering,
Michael Jordan
Sep 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
As a long time boxing fan, I enjoyed the book for the insight it provided into the troubled life of Sonny Liston and the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas at the time. While I remain unconvinced that the ex-champ was murdered, the investigation was, to say the least, incomplete and it is more than fair to question what really occurred. A highlight of the book is the depiction of various true life characters, particularly some of the cops who held sway in Vegas back in the day. Indeed, truth is stran ...more
Brendan Crowley
“As time passed, Sonny stayed in the conversation but not as an icon on his own. Eventually he became part of other people’s stories. He was the springboard for Ali, the model for Foreman, the guy who always scared (but not faced) Frazier”

Charles “Sonny” Liston was the 25th of 26 kids who grew up with no birth cert and no prospects. Boxing became his escape, albeit temporarily, from a life of crime that saw him serve time in prison for assaulting a cop. His career was dominated by mob control an
Jan 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Charles “Sonny” Liston lived a mysterious life, whether it was when he was born but could not produce a birth certificate, his young adulthood when he was imprisoned, when he was rising through the ranks of boxing to become the heavyweight champion, when he lost to Muhammad Ali twice (with the second fight ending by some accounts due to a phantom punch) and later in his post-boxing life in Las Vegas. When he was found dead in his apartment by his wife Geraldine on January 5, 1971 the medical exa ...more
Simon Zohhadi
It's 2.40 a.m. Just finished reading The Murder Of Sonny Liston. It's an interesting read for reasons, other than the central claim in the book, that Liston was killed; the author does not get close to proving that Sonny Liston was murdered. The original verdict was that the former Heavyweight Champion of the World died of natural causes and although he was a regular taker of drugs, there was not enough drugs in his body to cause the death. In my view, that is more likely to be the truth. Althou ...more
Feb 18, 2017 rated it liked it
The title causes the reader to feel that 'The Truth is Out There'. Feels like a rehash of the movie "Phantom Punch' as it recounts Liston's life in a scattershot manner. At times feels padded as it mentions Sinatra, Howard Hughes, and Joe Louis. Mentions that Liston may have been promised a percent of Ali's future earnings if he took a dive. When Ali and Frazer plan to fight for big $ Liston ends up (conveniently) dead. Swearing. ...more
Jan 24, 2017 rated it it was ok
Not much. Nothing new here. Nothing to see here. The basic conclusion of the book is, "who knows."

Not a colorful history of Vegas, not a treatise in racism. Not much. Maybe if you never heard of Sonny Liston, you would have, at least learned that he had a sad life, a raw deal, and was taken advantage by a bunch of white promoters and fight people. However, I did already know all that.
Margaret Sankey
Sep 26, 2016 rated it liked it
This is less sports history than a investigative journalist digging into the Las Vegas of 1970--with the mob on its far less glamorous last legs, corporate casinos about to move in, redlined into deep racial segregation and rife with opportunistic crime.
Brandon Hodges
Nov 28, 2018 rated it did not like it
If you are a boxer, boxing historian, and or interested in Sonny Liston at all then this book isn't for you. The arguments for murder are weak and all circumstantial or hearsay and you hardly get insight on Liston other than the author trying to paint him as a thug. Boring and disgraceful. ...more
Jim Nesbitt
Apr 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
With an arresting title that slaps a felony tag on an infamous death that was never officially declared a murder, Shaun Assael’s grim and vivid portrait of the violent and predatory life of former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston builds a strong, circumstantial case that he was a man plenty of people wanted to see dead.

If you’re expecting Assael, a former investigative reporter for ESPN, to definitively prove his case and single out Liston’s killer, you’ll be disappointed and miss the point of
Jun 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
If you are at all inclined toward reading this book, you should do so. Author Assael delivers on two counts. The title suggests this is an investigative work, plus the pages pack a rich story as a complement. Pick your pleasure and appreciate both.

Most readers will pursue this work for the tale's murder-mystery aspect. The depth and commitment to digging for facts are admirable. There is plenty of meat to chew, served in courses easily digested. Will you be satiated, comprehending that Charles "
Cyan Night
Dec 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Sonny Liston is a fascinating character. He was born and raised in very difficult circumstances - abused, neglected and was almost invisible to the world - an irony for a child who grew up so large. He somehow managed to become one of the best fighter not simply for his generation but also regarded often as top boxer of all times. As a man he was full of flaws, but not without virtue. Yet most people only saw him as a junkie, womaniser and an illiterate angry black criminal. And so his death was ...more
patrick Lorelli
Sep 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sports-biography
This is a 2016 publication, I am just now getting to the review. I am someone from a generation that was raised by a father that boxing was a way of life for him when he was growing up in the ’30s and then fighting in WWII and Korea. It was baseball, boxing, football and how to play cards. I digress. This book about the murder of Sonny Liston, or what the author and most people felt was a murder is still a cold case. As much as, the author put forth a fantastic effort it just led to one dead end ...more
Cal Nordt
Jun 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was very well written, capturing the seamy side of Vegas in all its glory, and a real page-turner. I knew almost nothing about Sonny other than his fights. A fascinating book also about the pervasive influence of crime in the growth of Las Vegas, including Mafia figures, but covering the later times when the Mafia no longer ran the show. I loved it!

I was in the trade show transportation business and was forced to deal directly with a Mafia Teamster Steward in New York City and didn't find
Michael  Malone
Jan 05, 2020 rated it liked it
Lively summary of what happened to the fearsome heavyweight.
I learned of the book after watching a Showtime documentary on Liston, and found the doc more interesting and entertaining than the book, maybe because I didn't know much about Liston and the film was my first glimpse at him.
Assael does a lot of reporting around Las Vegas, where Liston died, and unearths some compelling characters.
But one issue is the title. Liston's death was deemed a heroin overdose. While plenty of questions exist
Sep 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I was very excited to read this book. And it did not disappoint. Growing up, male members of my family were huge boxing fans, as was I. I heard a lot about Sonny Liston and was always interested in his life as well as his death. This book was a very good beginning for me to learn about these things. The writing was good and flowed. To learn about Vegas, boxing and the mob was an added bonus. Any boxing fan should read this book. After reading this book, I think there are unanswered questions tha ...more
Brandon Abraham
Nov 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jason McCracken
Nov 17, 2019 rated it it was ok
There's a tiny bit about Sonny Listons early life, a bit about 6 of his 50+ fights, almost nothing about "the phantom punch" which is the one thing Liston is most known for, then it just becomes a list of unsubstantiated rumours. There's not a single scrap of evidence shown for how a Heroin addict who died of a Heroin overdose was murdered. I did learn a few things I didn't know about Joe Lewis but honestly, don't waste your time reading this. ...more
Mar 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
A short and well researched book on Liston and his possible murder. The list of suspects seems endless but bizarre that Assael never considers The Nation of Islam as having a possible reason to be shot of Liston. Also provides another exposé of the seedy side of Vegas in the 60s and 70s. Well worth reading
Leah Dickenson
Apr 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting story, as Liston is a tragic figure and clearly his death is suspicious. But felt like this book didn’t give much insight into Liston as a person. It could be the passage of time between the events and the writing of the book but there felt a distance in the writing. Maybe I was expecting something more gritty, but the way these murky events are told appear clean and clinical.
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