"The Devil and Sonny Liston," by Nick Tosches. Little, Brown & Co. 272 pages. $24.95.
One of the most interesting aspects of race in America is that it has always allowed convenient judgment: White, good. Black, bad.
Boxing probably was the only profession that could get away with institutionalizing that proposition with impunity. With his latest book, Nick Tosches offers further confirmation in the tragic life, and death, of Sonny Liston.
After Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion, the boxing industry was in perennial search for a "white hope." The supreme irony was that on occasion, the best "white hope" was a black man. Bad for race relations, good for the box office.
Floyd Patterson, the champ, filled that role until Liston took the heavyweight crown in a first-round knockout. It was Floyd the Good and Sonny the Bad forever.
The race angle was hype for the fight game once African-Americans were in the profession to stay. But, the practice was symbolic of much more than boxing: it reflected generally on deep racism in some quarters of white America and the low status of blacks. Tosches zeroes in on that racism.
Sonny Liston was from a staggeringly impoverished family and he was demonized for it. Sometimes, "boy" and "nigger" were the best compliments accorded him. The media were not shy about calling him an animal, beast, savage, monster, cannibal, devil, goon, slow, retarded, dumb, gorilla, jungle cat, among other slurs.
It was a time when "being a credit to his race" was the best way to appeal to whites. Floyd was, Sonny wasn't, and Liston paid the price. Patterson was accepted as representing the best aspirations of the race, as was Joe Louis, while Liston was deemed a threat to that effort.
Tosches crafts a mixture of deft and harsh reporting and writing in describing the plight of the hapless Liston; there was no way Liston could counter his reputation and non-acceptance even by many, if not most, blacks.
The writer is sympathetic, for the most part, but not as sensitive (or knowledgeable) about blacks as was, say, James Baldwin, who rejected the wisdom of the day that Liston was stupid: "in fact, he is not stupid at all."
Baldwin got it right, more than any other writer -- more than Tosches, more than Norman Mailer -- when he wrote, in "The Fire Next Time," that, "Liston is a man aching for respect and responsibility."
Tosches skirts with that notion. He gives decent history lessons -- sometimes too much, and often irrelevant asides -- on slave societies from before Aristotle, on Africans' contribution to the trade (as if for balance) and Liston's genealogy.
Tosches' tale is spun in touching language, but he lapses into "black talk" that is affected and strained and unnecessary. Liston's background and profession were so harsh that he did not need that kind of embellishment. He threw fights, he was a Mob enforcer and also a victim.
The writer accepts that Liston, as Joe Louis and most fighters before Muhammad Ali, did the mob's bidding, or else. But, he rejects the belief of some that the Mob might have offed Liston, instead believing that he died of a drug overdose.
Who knows the truth? Despite some fine writing, we'll have to await another book to take us beyond the obvious about the life of Sonny Liston.
Paul Delaney, a former reporter and editor for the New York Times, is director of the Center for the Study of Race and the Media at Howard University.
Pub Date: 04/16/00