Sonny Liston: Inside the Famed Muhammad Ali Opponent's Mysterious Death

With One Night in Miami earning rave reviews from viewers and critics, there is an extra emphasis being placed on the historical figures from the film. Many are focusing on Cassius Clay and his decision to become Muhammad Ali while others are learning more about his opponent in the boxing ring, Sonny Liston. Their research into the former heavyweight boxer leads to questions about his death and the circumstances surrounding it.

According to the BBC, Liston was found dead at his Las Vegas home in January 1971. The coroner ruled that he died from "natural causes," but this did not end the story. There are still many that believe that the truth surrounding the former heavyweight's death is "far darker." Some claim that his death was tied to the mob.

Liston's wife Geraldine was the person that found her husband dead. She came home and found newspapers piled up at the door of their Las Vegas home. She went inside through unlocked doors and discovered that the home was shrouded in darkness. Geraldine also noticed a "sickening smell."

"I thought he must have cooked and left something on the stove," Geraldine said in an interview years later, per the BBC. "But I went in the kitchen and I didn't see anything there." She followed the smell upstairs and discovered her husband at the foot of their bed wearing only his underwear. Liston's body was bloated and he had dried blood under his nose.

Geraldine reportedly called her lawyer and a doctor before calling the police. The doctor came to the house in Paradise Palms and only confirmed that the heavyweight boxer was indeed dead. Geraldine then contacted the police, who arrived at the home after midnight.

"The call came over dispatch and we were aware that it was the Liston residence," Sgt. Dennis Caputo told the BBC during a 2019 interview. "But in Las Vegas, it wasn't unusual to get high-profile calls like that. For me, it wasn't a big deal." He continued and said that the home was "very nice" but that it didn't look like it had been lived in too much.

Caputo said that the police officers searched the home but didn't find anything to suggest that something sinister had happened. There were no visible weapons, signs of a struggle and no apparent signs of forced entry. He noted that there was a small bag of marijuana and a glass of vodka next to Liston's body, as well as a small amount of heroin in the kitchen. However, there was no syringe.

While there are differing reports about whether Liston had needle marks on his arms, the autopsy showed traces of morphine and codeine commonly produced by the breakdown of heroin. Some people said that he had died of an overdose and alleged that Geraldine had hidden the syringe before the police arrived. Others said that the heavyweight was afraid of needles.

Amid the questions about his alleged drug use, there are also comments about how the mob reportedly created matches for him after a stint in prison. Several historians claim that Liston's management was the mob, including Frank 'Blinky' Palermo, an associate of Mafia hitman Frankie Carbo.

Adding to the speculation about Liston's ties to the mob and his subsequent death is a rematch with Ali. The pair met during a highly-anticipated match in Maine, but Liston took a "phantom punch" and landed on the mat after only 104 seconds. Ali screamed at his opponent to get up, but Liston just rolled and stumbled. This moment became an iconic photograph, but several people said that Liston had taken a dive for the mob.


Michael Green, a board member at the Las Vegas Mob Museum, spoke to the BBC and said that Liston's knowledge of the mob might have led to his death. "Hits on mobsters were generally in connection with the fear they were going to talk," he told the outlet. "If you go back throughout [Liston's] career, and the mobsters who were involved in it, and what he had done as an enforcer, he was the man who knew too much."

There is no definitive answer about whether the mob had Liston killed or if he simply died from a heart attack or a drug overdose. Countless theories persist decades after Geraldine found his body at their Las Vegas home. Now, these theories are drawing attention once again with the release of One Night in Miami.