When a Picture is Worth More Than a Thousand Words
There’s an old saying, that a picture is worth a thousand words.
But there are also occasions when a picture isn’t quite all that it seems.
That’s the case with an eerie photograph in the corner of the Caesars Palace poker room. This photo (above), taken by legendary photographer Neil Leifer, shows former Heavyweight Boxing World Champion Sonny Liston popped up at a blackjack table. The photo was taken here at Caesars Palace in 1969. Liston was signed as a host and promoter for the casino, which lasted only a short time.
Sonny Liston was a deeply troubled man. He would be dead less than two years after this photo was taken.
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I’ve been working the World Series of Poker Circuit stop here at Caesars Palace. This marks the seventh straight year I’ve covered the event.
One of the many things that makes the Caesars Palace poker room unique is its collection of classic sports photography. Most of the photos upon the walls are instantly recognizable to any sports fan. Iconic images of Muhammad Ali, Vince Lombardi, Joe Namath, Casey Stengel, George Forman, Secretariat, Sonny Liston, and many others adorn the walls while cards are dealt, chips are stacked, and money cycles from pocket to pocket.
Most of the photos show moments of triumph and jubilation. But one grave image reveals something far more disturbing.
The photo sadly and brilliantly captures Sonny Liston as he must have been at the precise moment it was taken. This is a frightened man This is a man who has lost all hope. It’s a haunting portrait of a man staring sheepishly into the camera lens — his eyes seemingly crying out, help me.
Look closely. Look into those eyes. This is not the picture of a boxing champion. Rather it’s the image of a busted and broken man who was used and ultimately discarded by those who profited from his talent and toil.
Sonny Liston’s story is the working man’s story.
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The opening chapter of The Devil and Sonny Liston, written by Nick Toches, haunts me to this day. The book begins with 38-year-old Liston’s lifeless elephantine body lying on a cold stainless-steel table being wheeled into the Clark County Coroners Office, the victim of an apparent heroin overdose. Mind you this was barely five years after Liston had fought Muhammad Ali on last time for the boxing heavyweight championship. The date was January 5, 1971.
To this day, no one really knows exactly how Liston died. His death — and much of his life — remains shrouded in mystery. There’s strong evidence Liston may have been murdered. He often ran in the wrong circles. He hung out with the wrong crowd, perhaps because he had no other circles that would let him in. Being black and illiterate wasn’t exactly a door-opener back in those days. One of the circles he ran with was organized crime.
If the end of Liston’s sad life was a mystery, his beginning was an empty void. Apparently, there’s no official record anywhere of Sonny Liston’s birth. Fitting that this man who would later be described as a “gentle giant” endured a life that was so incomplete, so unfulfilled, so lost, and so sad.
Sonny Liston never stood had a chance.
Some who know his story might insist he had his chance. plenty of chances — and then blew them all. That’s the popular opinion. That’s what history has written. But did this man who was born into an impoverished family of sharecroppers during the depths of The Great Depression ever really have a chance at achieving happiness?
His father was described as a “beast” by those who remember him. He fathered 12 children with his first wife. Then, he spawned another 13 with his next partner — that last of which turned out to be Sonny.
When he was a boy, “Liston’s father inflicted whippings so severe that the scars were still visible decades later,” according to a BBC documentary called Sonny Liston: The Champion Nobody Wanted.
Sadly, violence often begets violence. Liston personified that. After his mother moved the family from rural Arkansas to St. Louis, Liston tried attending school. He wanted to fit in with the other kids. But his classmates often teased him. They made cruel jokes about his illiteracy. So, dropped out and went to the streets.
There were few options for an uneducated black man wandering around St. Louis during the late 1940′s. And so Liston the teenager committed a series of robberies and eventually assaulted a police officer. In 1950, the law caught up to Liston — still a child trapped inside a man’s body. He was convicted and spent three years in prison. No one could have imagined that exactly one decade later this same man would be standing on the canvass at Chicago’s Comiskey Park with fists raised as the new Heavyweight Champion of the World.
But success did not beget success.
Even during his championship reign, which lasted only two years, Liston was loathed by virtually everyone. To the media and tens of millions of boxing fans — accustomed to the charms of previous boxing champs Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano — Liston had about as much marketability as pair of brass knuckles.
Then, in 1964 a brash young fighter from Louisville, KY named Cassius Clay got his own title shot. A year before Clay would transform himself into “Ali” and become engaged in his own life’s controversy, he was boxing’s grand savior. During the training sessions in Miami Beach, The Beatles even stopped by to visit Ali on their historic first U.S. visit. Liston never met The Beatles. And he was the champion.
That February night in Miami, Ali punished Liston for six full rounds. The reigning champ was so badly beaten that he couldn’t come out for the seventh round.
Sonny Liston never stood a chance.
One of the most memorable photographs in sporting history hangs right beside the Sonny Liston portrait at Caesars Palace. This is the famous shot of Ali destroying Liston in the first round with the so-called “phantom punch.” Ironically, photographer Neil Leifer also shot this photograph.
There it is. The conqueror at the top of his game. The defeated down and out.
Five years later, Liston would be posed in an identical position — as an autopsy.
Today, no one much cares much about Sonny Liston. He’s little more than a historical footnote, a single line in a sports almanac. He’s been largely swept aside and forgotten in what’s become a dying sport.
Indeed, it’s hard to have much sympathy for someone who was considered a thug. A big, mean-looking, uneducated black man isn’t who we look to when we bequeath the ultimate gift of humanity — which is compassion.
But if you look — beneath the eyes, there’s sadness. Behind the mass of muscle, there is tenderness. Behind the facade of power, there is vulnerability.
Which brings us full circle to what’s behind all pictures and words. Sometimes there is far more to the story than meets the eye.