When Sonny Claus came to town
It was akin to a photo of the Pope with a highball in hand and Sister Mary Centerfold on his lap. In the racially tense year of 1963, nobody wanted Sonny Liston coming down his chimney or even through the front door.
The menacing then-heavyweight boxing champion of the world epitomized what every white person was most afraid of encountering walking down the street alone at night, and when Liston glowered beneath a Santa Claus hat on the cover of Esquire magazine's December issue that year, it was considered a stunning profanation of the season of Goodwill to Man and Peace on Earth.
"The angry letters began to roll in," wrote Frank DiGiacomo about the episode in Vanity Fair in 2007, "and stunned advertisers proceeded to pull out. Esquire's advertising director would eventually estimate that the magazine lost $750,000 due to the cover."
One of at least 25 children sired by his no-account sharecropper father, Liston learned to box while doing time at the Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery.
He became national Golden Gloves heavyweight champion on the outside in 1953, and after another prison stretch and numerous other clashes with the law, he turned professional and mowed through an impressive roster of fighters (including then-Milwaukee resident Billy Besmanoff, who told me, anent his sixth round technical knockout loss to Liston on Dec. 29, 1959 in Cleveland, that Sonny was "the only man I was afraid of. He was an animal, a mountain. I hit him with everything I had, and he only laughed at me") to become the top-ranked challenger for the title belt then worn by Floyd Patterson.
Patterson was a quiet, decent man who'd marched with Martin Luther King in the Deep South in the early '60s, when sheriffs loosed police dogs on and aimed fire hoses at civil rights advocates. Liston famously declined to involve himself in any of that on the grounds that "I ain't got no dog-proof ass."
Liston never fought at Madison Square Garden because the New York boxing commission wouldn't grant him a license to box in the state on account of his criminal past and his continuing well-known underworld connections.
When the fight with Patterson was arranged for Sept. 25, 1962 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the NAACP begged the champion not to go through with it because civil rights leaders feared that a Liston reign would set the movement for racial equality back two decades.
Two days after he knocked Patterson out in just two minutes and 10 seconds of the first round, Liston held a press conference in Chicago, at which he urged those who doubted that he had it in him to be the kind of role-model the heavyweight champion of the world was supposed to be to "give me a little time.
"Allow me a chance," said Sonny, "to prove I've been re-- "
Then he turned to his "advisor," Jack Nilon, for help with the word that was obviously foreign to the man who could not read and barely knew how to sign his own name. "Finish it, Jack," Liston said.
"Rehabilitated," said Nilon.
It didn't happen, of course, and nine years later Liston, having lost twice in dubious fights with Muhammad Ali, was found dead in his Las Vegas home, having either overdosed on heroin by his own hand or been murdered by his underworld cohorts.
According to Dr. Charles Larson, president of the National Boxing Association in the early 1960s, "When (Liston) became champion we had a hell of a time giving him a decent image. He was always in trouble. He drank too much, he hung around with criminals, punks. We assigned detectives to tail him just to keep him in line ... He especially idolized those who beat the law. To Sonny Liston, those who made a lot of tainted money and got away with it were heroes."
But there was one time, at least, when the Santa hat Esquire later put on Liston wasn't as out of place as a crucifix on a hooker's G-string. And it happened in Milwaukee 49 years ago this Dec. 20.
"Sonny Swings for Santa," was the headline on the sports page of the Milwaukee Sentinel not quite three months after Liston won the heavyweight title. As recounted in the story by Ray Grody, Liston had received a letter inviting him to a Christmas party at Children's Hospital (then located on North 17th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue) from a patient named Michael Morris.
"I had polio when I was a baby," said the letter. "I am having the doctor fix my leg. Then I can walk with my crutches and new braces. Please come and see me and the other children and see our hospital. It is nice."
With an entourage that included Chicago police detective John Grayson [one of Larson's men?], Liston came to the hospital and "spent time with his letter writing friend and the lad's neighbors in two wards," reported Grody. From there they went to distribute presents to the 300 residents of the Milwaukee County Children's Home.
The champion also gave them a pep talk, which Grody paraphrased as, "The road ahead may look tough but if you make up your mind to walk the straight and narrow path, everything will turn out all right."
"It was a scene long to be remembered," wrote Grody, "as the kids looked at this big man of the fistic world with wondrous eyes."
When Santa's helpers adjourned to Fanny's Pancake House at 11426 W. Blue Mound Rd., Ben Bentley, a Chicago boxing promoter and "Liston's personal press relations representative," dished out the new party line to Grody with a ladle:
"You've got to be close to (Liston) to realize that he's quite a guy. He loves kids; he's always for the underdog; he's very witty in his own way and conducts himself like a champion should ... Look, Sonny's no Rhodes scholar, but believe me he knows how to handle himself and the public. He's displayed many facets that surprise people. He's swamped with requests for personal appearances from all over the country and his mail comes by the bushel full."
But so did Liston's continuing brushes with the law, and when Esquire put him on the cover he was the anti-Claus personified. There are still Liston romanticists who swear that beneath Sonny's baleful exterior beat a heart that bled for kids and the downtrodden, but Liston didn't mention them when Village Voice writer Joe Flaherty asked him, sometime in the late 1960s, what he would do if he came into $6 million.
After a few moments of lofty consideration, the scary man in the Santa Claus hat proclaimed, "I'd buy me the finest p-ssy in the United States of America!"
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