When Sonny Liston’s dead body was discovered in a Las Vegas bedroom it was already decomposing. His death has never been satisfactorily explained, was he a victim of a random attack, the wrong end of a mob hit or self-imposed drugs overdose. The mystery and Liston’s dark reputation has calcified with time. It is impossible to pick up a book on the history of boxing without Liston dominating the list of fearsome and lawless champions.
What is not in doubt was that Sonny Liston was the most feared heavyweight of a golden era. He was an unreformed street robber, a jailed felon and brute of man who only took up boxing in a penitentiary in Missouri. Liston came to personify the macabre criminality of the ghetto and in a now infamous quote, the Village Voice critic Joe Flaherty once described him as “a blatant mother in a fucker’s game.”
The history of boxing will always contest that Sonny Liston paved the way for Muhammad Ali when he threw a title fight against the then Cassius Clay to satisfy a mafia fix and deliver fast money to the mob. He is now seen as the summit of boxing corruption and the dark side of African-American street life, but what few have ever ruminated on is Sonny Liston’s thoughts on Scotland and his brief transformative experience in ‘Bella Caledonia’.
Liston came to Scotland briefly in 1963. It was a short but hugely memorable visit where he struck up many friendships and was pursued daily by the nascent paparazzi of the day, drinking in Glasgow bars, sampling whisky from distillery vats and most spectacularly of all taking to streets in a gigantic kilt requisitioned form a retired drum major. He had come as part of a boxing exhibition and fought on the under-card of a British title fight at Paisley Ice Rink where Scottish flyweight Walter McGowan defended his Commonwealth title against the diminutive Jamaican Killer Salomon. Liston stole the show by lifting both boxers aloft in either arm, still dressed outrageously in full highland dress and swearing allegiance to the McBeth clan tartan.
One moment that enthralled the Scottish media was when Liston, a rock-hard black man kissed the blonde majorette of the Braemar Girl Pipers, a kiss deemed illegal or immoral in the southern states of Liston’s childhood.
Liston fell in love with Scotland and described it as the friendliest place on earth comparing it unfavorably to his native America where he was reviled as a criminal and where he had been the victim of savage racism, as the child of a sharecropping family of thirteen children in Arkansas. “I am warm here,” he told the Scottish press-pack, “because I am among warm people and I feel that and react to it. When I return to the United States I will be cold again, for the people there are cold to me now and have treated me badly in the past.”
Liston’s hatred of America was in part stoked by the civil rights disputes of the era and the institutionalized racism of the deep south but it went beyond race. When he won the heavyweight championship of the world, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) the most powerful black organization of the era sided with the incumbent champion Floyd Patterson characterizing him as a gentle and articulate black man, and casting Liston as a charmless hoodlum and convicted robber. He had been rejected publicly by his own people.
Sonny Liston’s kilt was promotional schtick and his attempts to play the bagpipes in a Glasgow street were woeful but there is little doubt that Scotland connected with him in ways that his native America did not. He had grown up an obsessive fan of old school R&B music, trained to Jimmy Forrest’s ‘Night Train’ and liked to sip J&B whiskey listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Loch Lomond’, and arrived with a bizarre notion that Scotland was a land of wonder. Paradoxically, his family could trace its tangled and illiterate roots back to slavery and to a Scottish farmer Martin Liston who owned slaves in Choctaw County, Mississippi.
Liston love for Scotland was not short-lived. On his return to the USA he looked into gaining Scottish citizenship (although no such independent identity existed) and tried to adopt Peter (Petie) Keenan Jr. the son of the Scottish promoter, convincing the boy’s parents to allow the boy to travel to Las Vegas to spend Christmas with the childless Liston and his wife in Denver. The young Keenan to America to be treated like their own son, lavished with Christmas gifts and met the legendary Joe Louis who by then was a down and out heroin addict.
Liston arrived in a Scotland where ignorance and racism were just beneath the surface and to a city scarred by its own local pathologies. The Bible John murders were yet to happen but Ian Brady had just left Shawlands Academy and moved south to Manchester where he had committed the first of the Moors Murders. But darkness was easily outshone by a solidarity of well being and a willingness to be open to visitors. Although the myth of Scottish friendliness can be sentimentalized there is no question that Liston felt something special that he had not experienced before in a brutal life at the savage end of violent sport – it was a warmth and humanity.
We have precious few studies of how humanity works collectively but it was there again on the streets of Glasgow during the Commonwealth Games and in the aftermath of the horrendous tragedies at Clutha Vaults and George Square. We only casually understand this lived and welcoming common-weal a power that neither de-industrialization nor austerity has successfully chased away. Apart from fine words from agencies like VisitScotland there has never been a comprehensive audit of Scotland’s deeper values, those underlying characteristics which are not measurable by the price of oil, or by the board of Standard Life. They are the standards of life frequently forgotten when raw politics come into play.
For one week in 1963 the most dangerous and hated man in the world felt he had found his home. When he finally left Scotland, by his own admission he left a better person, determined to return. Sadly, Liston never returned and instead was dragged deeper into the heartless gangsterism of Las Vegas where he eventually died, alone.
Stuart Cosgrove is the author of ‘Detroit 67’ which will be published in March