ESPN investigative reporter Assael (Steroid Nation, 2007, etc.) builds a strong case that the boxer was murdered, but why and by whom remains a mystery.
As the author makes clear, there were plenty of people in Las Vegas who might have wanted Sonny Liston (1932-1970) dead. He was dealing drugs with a recklessness that would have made him a prime target to turn informant, and he had long insisted that he would have a big payday coming from any purse Muhammad Ali won, renewing suspicions about his own losses to Ali. But who marked him for death? Was it the drug-dealing beautician who had been busted along with Liston only to see Liston set free? Was it the celebrated trumpeter who dealt heroin and used Liston as a collector until he worried about surveillance? Was it the casino mogul whom the FBI considered “the fix point” of the two losses to Ali? Was it the Nation of Islam? Much of the account of Liston’s decline into a former champ “strung out on junk and pouring drugs into the bloodstream of a sick neighborhood” is old news, as are the accounts of his life and his fights (and those of others) that fill much of this book. But the last third raises some provocative questions and possibilities, based on the charges of an informant about a cop gone rogue who might be the key to it all. The informant later died under mysterious circumstances, as did Liston, and the author concludes, “finding the killer of [the informant] will unravel the real story of what happened to Sonny Liston.” In the meantime, we have the coroner’s conclusion that the 38-year-old boxer “died of natural causes,” thus precluding further investigation at the time. We also have the earlier published report that his death “may have been caused by an overdose of heroin,” which in these pages doesn’t seem like an accident.
Assael offers a good starting point for another book to build on his revelations.