FEW fighters have the capacity to intrigue like the late, great Sonny Liston, whose early death – either by murder or drug overdose – will probably never be explained. Even his birth year is subject to conjecture. Was Liston 40 when he died, in 1970, or several years older? He has no official birth record, so we may never know. Then there are his early years of armed robbery and prison time, rumours of mob involvement and fixed world title fights.
But Sonny could draw the crowds even without the intrigue and controversy. Back when he was heavyweight champion of the world, he was a magnetic figure, despite his menacing demeanour. In September 1963, reigning world champ Liston came to Britain to box a series of exhibitions, and headlines about his stay dominated the Boxing News columns. His arrival came just two months after the first Muhammad Ali-Henry Cooper fight, and though Liston’s engagements were not proper bouts, they generated almost as much excitement.
London was the first UK city to see the world champ in action, but on September 16, Sonny took his sparring and training act to Newcastle’s New St James’ Hall where Mickey Duff was promoting. Liston arrived in the North East city on the night before the show, and was mobbed by fans when he left the train at Newcastle’s Central Station. Next morning, after a bacon and egg breakfast in his suite at the Royal Station Hotel, he took a stroll around the city. Soon recognised, an entourage of several hundred curious admirers followed him back to his hotel. Later that day, a huge throng gathered outside the hotel to see Sonny depart on a white horse, which he rode to the afternoon weigh-in.