This Day in Black History: May 8, 1932

Professional boxing champion Sonny Liston was born.

Posted: 05/08/2014 12:00 AM EDT

The late professional boxer Sonny Liston is believed to have been born on May 8, 1932, in St. Francis, Arkansas. However, prison records and other sources show various birthrates from 1929 to 1932. 

Born to Tobey Liston, an abusive and alcoholic father, and his second wife, Helen, Sonny was the 24th of his father’s children. At age 13, he left his family to live with an aunt in St. Louis, Missouri, after working alongside his siblings in the local cotton fields for years. 

A rough upbringing and little formal education led a teenage Sonny to many run-ins with the police, resulting in more than 20 arrests. He would ultimately learn how to box while serving time in a Missouri State penitentiary and become a professional fighter in 1953. More than six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, Liston certainly had the right stature, menacing presence and genuine passion for the sport. 

He excelled in the ring thanks to his devastating punching power, an iron chin, lightening reflexes and a powerful jab. After being released from prison, Liston quickly became a household name by winning 54 of 58 bouts — mostly through knockouts — from 1953 to 1970. 

All of the leading heavyweight contenders, Roy Harris, Zora Folley, Cleveland Williams and Floyd Patterson, did not stand a chance against the the "World’s Baddest Man." Liston finally met his match at the brash hands of newcomer Cassius Clay, soon to become known as Muhammad Ali, who knocked him out twice and ended Sonny’s revered reputation.

Outside of boxing, Liston also acted in a number of films, like Harlow with Carroll Baker. He died on Dec. 30, 1970, of lung congestion and heart failure in Las Vegas.

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 (Photo: William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)

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