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Sonny Liston: A Las Vegas Story

(AP Photo)

Boxer Sonny Liston in posed action, December 1962.

Sonny Liston was one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. 

His very presence, by those who can recall, was menacing. But Liston's life was a mystery to many, as was his death in 1971.

At the time, the Clark County coroner reported his death as being from natural causes. But to most who knew of the legend surrounding the man, Liston’s death remains one of the most enduring mysteries of Las Vegas.

Author Shaun Assael delves into this mysterious world in his book “The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin and Heavyweights.”

Assael is an investigative journalist and a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Assael told KNPR's State of Nevada that he had been working on a novel when he decided he wanted to pursue the truth of how Liston died.

“I turned myself into a cold case cop and try to unravel these 40 years of rumors that have surrounded Sonny Liston’s death,” he said.

Assael combed through old newspaper accounts from Las Vegas at the time and visited the city to speak with people who knew the legendary boxer. After all that research, he said he has come to one conclusion.

“After three years of research, I found so many untold conspiracies against Sonny," he explained, "So many people who wanted him dead that the preponderance of the evidence to me suggested that murder was a far more likely scenario than natural causes or an accidental heroin overdose,”

It wasn't just one person who could have benefited from Liston's death, according to Assael. He said there were several people who wanted him out of the way.

The list includes a drug dealer who thought Liston set him up, mobster friends who were providing him cocaine to sell, but may have also know he was about to be busted in a sting, or the promoters of the up coming Muhammad Ali - Joe Frazier fight, who didn't want Liston telling tales of taking a dive in his fight against Ali five years earlier. 

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw on May 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine. The bout lasted only one minute into the first round. (AP Photo/John Rooney)


Assael said Liston's life and his death shows the double and "conflicted" life he was living. While he would sign autographs while playing blackjack on the Strip and wave to his neighbors in the wealthy enclave of Paradise Palms, he was also strung out on heroin, enforced for a gangster friend and dealt cocaine. 

Along with that, Assael pointed out that while Ali and others were playing a big role in the Civil Rights movement Liston was not involved in his community, but he did transcend the lines between Africans Americans and white communities in the valley like no other at the time. 

Assael said after researching the book he didn't learn to sympathize with the man but he did come to understand him. 

“I certainly came to understand how and why he would have felt fearless in a town that was protecting him,” he said.

Assael be at the Mob Museum at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25, to talk about his book.


Shaun Assael, author, "The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin and Heavyweights" 

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.