As the world once hypnotised by Muhammad Ali watches the inexorable decline of the most important sportsman of the 20th century with a mixture of admiration, pity and disbelief, compelling evidence has finally emerged about the death of the anti-Ali, Sonny Liston.A tragic mystery now in its fifth decade, it will surprise few that the latest chapter reads like a deleted scene from The Godfather.
In 1962 the Mob-managed ex-con with fists like hams captured the world heavyweight title for the Mafia with brutish nonchalance, demolishing Floyd Patterson in two minutes; three years later, in the second of his fruitless and endlessly controversial duels with Ali, a farcical first-round knockout in Lewiston, Maine, extinguished what was left of his credibility.
On 5 January 1970, he was found lying at the foot of his bed in the Las Vegas home where he had spent the loneliest of Christmases. The coroner cited natural causes stemming from lung congestion; Geraldine, Liston's fiercely loyal wife, claimed it was heart failure; nobody else was convinced on either count, not least since one of the victim's arms bore needle tracks.
According to Warjac: Most Wanted, a newly completed book by Greg Swaim about his late father, Dale Cline, aka James John Warjac, the Mob hitman admitted he had helped kill Liston via an enforced heroin overdose, a popular Mob execution technique. Feared inside the ring, loathed outside, he needed the aid of gangsters to secure opponents.
So long as he was winning he was useful; after Lewiston, he became increasingly dispensable.
Unwilling to ingratiate himself, he did little to help his own cause.