“Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston” is as riveting as it is sad


A viewer need not be a boxing fan to be moved by the story of boxing great, Charles “Sonny” Liston. The documentary began airing on Showtime and the channel’s app Nov. 15, 2019.

For casual boxing fans, those who know the basics of the sport’s history and the legendary names associated with the sport, “Pariah” will fill in some knowledge gaps and provide new information about the boxer’s early life.

More devoted fans might know some of the information presented, but that is difficult to speculate about. What is clear, is that Liston’s story is an American story. Facets of American life during certain parts of history are reflected in Liston’s story. Chaos and disenfranchisement seemed to color the boxer’s childhood and adulthood. That he became a champion boxer along the way is made even more miraculous when the rest of Liston’s life is considered.

Mystery and facts surrounding Sonny Liston

One of the facts of Liston’s life that stands out is his having been born 24th out of a brood of 25 children. The number is staggering. It indicates a lack of access to birth control and subsequently a lack of resources for a family that is so large. It is no surprise then, when the documentary makers and the film’s participants reveal that Liston never learned to read or write. Because of his having grown up in the Jim Crow South, Liston did not have a birth certificate, so his age remained a mystery, even though his birth date is given as May 1932, some listings provide 1930 as his birthdate.

The “Americanness” of Liston’s story should appeal to anyone who appreciates a riveting narrative. From his having been born in a family of more than two dozen children in Sand Slough, Arkansas, to his relatively early death in Las Vegas, plus the question marks surrounding his birth date and his eventual ties to the American Mafia, Liston is a fascinating character who could only come from real-life.

That Liston could not read or write seems a secondary fact in comparison to his boxing abilities. Liston allegedly had an 84-inch reach and was 6 feet one inch tall. Nicknamed “The Big Bear,” Liston is unfortunately known only to a certain generation of Americans and boxing fans through archival footage of Muhammad Ali, who frequently taunted Liston and mocked what he thought was Liston’s limited intelligence. Reportedly, Liston is believed to be able to beat any boxer with the exception of Ali. Ali did beat Liston twice, but that does not necessarily diminish Liston’s skills. The losses certainly do not make him less of an interesting character.

Liston’s story should be a more important part of American history. When he could not make money boxing, Liston got involved with drugs. Liston’s life ended so far from where it had started in so many ways – – the distance between Sands Slough, Arkansas and Las Vegas can be measured, but in some ways, in relation to Liston, it is immeasurable. Also, his dying alone is in stark contrast to his having been born into a crowded household.

While everything in Liston’s life didn’t work out according to traditional measurements, so much of his successes were arrived at against the odds. And those successes are reasons enough to find out about the boxer’s life.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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