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Sonny Liston was introduced to boxing while serving time in a Missouri State penitentiary. He became a professional fighter in 1953.
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Sonny Liston was born circa 1932 in St. Francis County, Arkansas, to an abusive and alcoholic father. Liston had trouble with the police as a teenager and was arrested more than 20 times. He learned to box while serving time in a penitentiary. Following his release, he began a boxing career, winning 54 of 58 bouts from 1953 to 1970. Known for his powerful punch, the majority of his victories were knockouts. He died circa December 30, 1970, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Boxer Sonny Liston was born on May 8, 1932 (there is some speculation about his year of birth, but most sources state sometime from 1929 to 1932), in St. Francis County, Arkansas. The son of tenant farmer Tobey Liston and his second wife, Helen, Liston was the 24th of his father's 25 children. Along with his many siblings, Liston grew up working in the local cotton fields. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and Liston left at age 13 to live with an aunt in St. Louis, Missouri.
In St. Louis, Liston quickly encountered problems with the local police. At the age of 16, Liston—more than 6 feet tall and weighing 200 pounds—became a menacing presence in his neighborhood, occasionally working as a strike-breaking labor goon.
He was arrested more than 20 times. In 1950, he was convicted of two counts of larceny and two counts of first-degree robbery; he spent more than two years in the Missouri State penitentiary in Jefferson City. While Liston was incarcerated, prison athletic director Father Alois Stevens introduced him to the sport of boxing.
Paroled in 1952, Liston quickly captured the local Golden Gloves championship. He became a professional fighter on September 2, 1953, when he knocked out Don Smith in a single round in St. Louis. Auspiciously, the massive man known as "The Bear" then won his first nine fights before dropping an eight-round decision to Marty Marshall.
Liston's career was interrupted for nine months beginning in December 1956, when he was sent to the St. Louis workhouse for assaulting a policeman and stealing the officer's gun. After his release from prison, Liston relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where his career quickly flourished again.
Liston won 26 consecutive bouts, moving inexorably toward the heavyweight championship. Known for his scowling at opponents, he combined an intimidating ring presence with awesome power. His heavyweight title-winning victory on September 25, 1962, was indicative of his powerful style: After a mere two minutes, he knocked out Floyd Patterson, which marked the first time in history that a reigning heavyweight champion was counted out in the first round.
As the top fighter in the world, Liston became an easy target for sports columnists who remarked frequently on not only his menacing demeanor and vicious punching power but also his criminal background. Liston, who posted a career record of 50 wins and 4 losses with 39 knockouts, reveled in this role of the fighter America loved to hate.
Liston scored another knockout in a rematch with Patterson, but his 17-month reign as heavyweight champion ended at the hands of a brash fighter named Cassius Clay.
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