The basis for SHOWTIME Sports Documentary Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston
A daring investigation into the mysterious death of Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston, set against the dawn of the 1970s, when the mob was fighting to keep control of the Las Vegas Strip, Richard Nixon was launching America's first war on heroin, and boxing was in its glory days.
On January 5, 1971, Sonny Liston was found dead in his home—of an apparent heroin overdose. But no one close to Liston believed that his death was accidental. Digging deep into a life that Liston tried hard to hide, investigative journalist Shaun Assael treats the boxer’s death as a cold case. The result is a page-turning whodunit that evokes a glorious and grimy era of Las Vegas.
Elvis Presley was playing two shows a night at the International. Howard Hughes was running his empire from the penthouse suite of the Desert Inn. And middle America was flocking to the Strip, transforming it from an exclusive playground for the mob to a mecca for corporate dollars. But the city was also rotting from within. Heroin was pouring over the border from Mexico, and the segregated Westside was on the cusp of a race war. The cops, brutally violent, were barely holding it together.
Driving through town with the top of his pink Cadillac down, Sonny Liston was the one celebrity who was unafraid to bridge the two sides of Las Vegas. Cashing in on his fading notoriety in the casinos, he was dealing drugs, working for a crime syndicate, and trying to break into Hollywood—all with a boxer’s faith that he could duck any threat, slip any punch. Heroin addiction was the only knockout blow he didn’t see coming.
The Murder of Sonny Liston takes a fresh look at the legendary boxer, the town he called home, and one of America’s most enduring mysteries.
Writing with the flair of a mystery writer and the attention to detail of an investigative journalist, longtime ESPN staffer Assael (Steroid Nation) dissects the suspicious death of former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston, whose body was found in his home on Jan. 5, 1971, having been dead for several days. Liston, who according to the coroner's report died from natural causes, was no stranger to criminal activity in gritty and volatile Las Vegas in the 1960s, and many theories emerged over the years that he was murdered. The engrossing depiction of Sin City's corrupt cops, malevolent mobsters, and drug dens follows in the footsteps of Nick Tosches's The Devil and Sonny Liston and features fresh interviews with investigators, politicians, and criminals who ran the city at the time, including a key suspect who reveals his own theory about Liston's death. Assael reports diligently on Liston's life and inner demons as well as the Las Vegas scene and uses his investigation to frame the narrative, writing in the first person without overtly inserting himself. Though the inconclusive ending may disappoint readers, Assael's journey into the seedy underworld of the Las Vegas's past is worth the ride.