Sonny Liston: We Need Him Now

Sonny Liston: We Need Him Now

By Paul Gallender

I’m looking forward to being vaccinated against Covid-19. Though I’m healthier than most people my age, I’m at risk of dying from the virus because I take medications that suppress my immune system and I’ll be taking them for the rest of my life. 

I bring this up because surveys have shown that a lot of people have serious reservations about getting vaccinated, a sentiment that is particularly prevalent in the black community. I find that to be both unfortunate and tragic. 

If I were to urge people of colour to get vaccinated as soon as they can, I doubt my words would be taken seriously, though I might get a few laughs. But if Charles “Sonny” Liston were to have said the same thing, and to have received his vaccination on television, I believe a lot of people, black and white, would question their reluctance and previous assumptions. Here’s why I think that.

Anyone who knew Sonny Liston well would tell you that he loved his wife and children of all colours, that he was a very funny and charitable man, that he was a loyal and valued friend, and that his fear of needles was both profound and legendary. 

“He had a deadly fear of needles,” said referee Davey Pearl. Dr. Nick Ragni was Liston’s dentist in Philadelphia and remembered the fighter refused a shot of Novocain under any circumstances, even when facing a root canal. “There was nothing Sonny feared more than a needle. I know!” said Ragni. “He was afraid of needles,” echoed his dear friend Father Edward Murphy of Denver. “He would do everything to avoid taking shots.” According to his trainer Willie Reddish, Liston had to cancel a planned tour to Africa in 1963 because he refused to get the required inoculations.

“Sonny Liston hated needles,” said trainer Johnny Tocco. “He wouldn’t even go to a doctor for a checkup, for fear some doctor would want to stick a needle in him.” Tocco visited him in the hospital after his car accident shortly before he died and said Sonny was angrier about the shot the doctors gave him than he was about the car wreck, and that he was still complaining about the needle mark a couple of weeks later. 

When Henry Winston helped Liston get licensed to fight in California, the fighter balked at the mandatory blood test. “Let his doctor tell you how much trouble we had with the big gorilla just to get him to give blood,” said Winston. “He wouldn’t do it. I had to walk him down to Jack London Square and we laughed about it. ‘You big chump,’ I told him.” 

When Liston had to pass a blood test before his final fight against Chuck Wepner, he almost fainted. All of Sonny’s friends scoffed at rumors that he died from a self-inflicted drug overdose. “If heroin was in his veins, somebody other than Liston shot it in,” said his close friend Joe Louis.

If I had been close to Sonny at a time when the world was faced with a deadly pandemic similar to the one we’re all facing today, I believe I could have convinced my friend to overlook, if not overcome, his epic fear of needles, not for his own good, but for the common good. I wouldn’t have taken no for an answer. I would have told him that the respect and acceptance he always craved, but never received, may have finally been within his reach simply by taking a shot in public. 

Sonny Liston was nobody’s role model when he was alive and he certainly wasn’t a saint. However, I’m confident that if he could have done something to make the world a better place he would have moved mountains to do so. Being administered a shot in public would have required no such effort on his part.

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