Was Sonny Liston Murdered? Overdosed Heavyweight Champ Hated Drugs And Needles

Posted: March 13, 1989

I would be remiss if I didn't record the shocked disbelief among Sonny Liston's many local friends when it was learned the former heavyweight champion had been found dead in Las Vegas.

Sonny's body was discovered on Jan. 5, 1971, by his wife, Geraldine, in their luxury home adjoining a country club in Paradise Valley, two miles east of the famed Las Vegas "strip."

Geraldine, just back from an extended tour of holiday visits with relatives and friends, had been away from the house for 10 days. When she found her husband's body, arched backwards over a broken bench at the foot of their bed, it was estimated he had been dead for a week.

As the details became known, pals from the fighter's old neighborhood in West Philadelphia - people like Ray Munson, Billy Morefield, Dorsey Lay, Johnny Natchez and Teddy King - phoned the papers to protest that the story the wire services were carrying had to be wrong.

I remember how fully I shared their skepticism.

It was not the fact of Sonny's death, in itself, that we couldn't accept. We were all too aware of how self-destructive he'd seemed since his back-to- back losses to Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali in February 1964 and May 1965.

But what we found almost impossible to believe were the unseemly circumstances in which the big guy was reported to have died.

According to the coroner, there were traces of decomposed heroin in Liston's tissues and a quantity of heroin was found on the premises. Although the former champ had been dead too long to allow for definitive conclusions, investigators said puncture marks in his arms indicated he'd used needles.

As a guy who had made more than an average share of mistakes, Liston was generally tolerant of imperfections in others. But the notable exception was his hostility and contempt for drug users.

To those who knew how deeply he felt about this, the suggestion that Sonny Liston may have died of an overdose while mainlining heroin was more than simply incredible. It was downright obscene.

"No way!" said Dr. Nick Ragni, after hearing about the puncture marks in Liston's arms."There was nothing Sonny feared more than a needle. I know!"

Nick Ragni had been Sonny's dentist when the Listons resided in in this area.

According to Ragni, a boxing enthusiast whom Sonny liked and trusted, no dental procedure was too painful to overcome the fighter's stubborn refusal to be injected with Novocain. Not even root canal!

"I'm convinced Sonny would never use a needle on himself," Ragni said. ''If there were needle marks on his arms, for whatever reason, someone else

put them there when Sonny was incapable of resisting."

In the argot of the underworld, there is a form of execution known as a ''hot shot." It's the deliberate injection of a victim with a dose of heroin too large and/or pure for the system to withstand. For obvious reasons, the technique is almost foolproof.

If the victim is a known drug user, it's logical to assume the overdose was accidental.

In the case of a victim with no record of drug usage, but who is known to have had criminal associations, police are often satisfied to view the death as good riddance and file it away as a routine OD, without troubling to investigate any further.

The amount of dosage needed to kill depends on the victim's past exposure to the drug.

Obviously, it takes no great adjustment in quantity and quality to supply a fatal boost to a steady user.

But for a non-user, it usually involves forced injection at the point of a gun.

To this day, not one of the people who knew him best believes Sonny Liston ever voluntarily injected the stuff he considered poison into his own veins.

Most of them (myself included) are convinced he was killed by a "hot shot" administered at gunpoint.

Given his troubled background, there's been lots of conjecture as to the motive for killing Liston. The most persuasive story I've been told is that he'd moved into loan-sharking in Vegas, fatally alienating mobsters who considered that to be their turf.

Being on leave from writing when Sonny Liston died, I missed the chance to pay my final respects.

So I'll conclude this series Wednesday with a personal requiem for the heavyweight.

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