Picks and Pans Review: Sonny Liston: the Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion

updated 05/29/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HBO (Thurs., May 25, 8 p.m. ET)

A-

This absorbing documentary recounts the sad, strange saga of heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston. Born the 24th of 25 children to a tenant farmer in Arkansas, Liston hitchhiked to St. Louis when he was 13. He first got involved in boxing while serving a prison term for armed robbery in Missouri. (To get a boxing license, Liston's trainers had to manufacture a birth certificate since no one knew when the fighter was born.) Liston rose to become heavyweight champion despite substantiated ties to organized crime and frequent run-ins with police. Liston was a punishing puncher but his most fearsome weapon may have been his malevolent stare. Sportswriter William Nack says that when opponents saw Liston glaring at them across the ring, they would "start bleeding during the national anthem."

Most of this profile is devoted to two controversial events: Liston getting KO'd by recent Islamic convert Muhammed Ali in the first round of their rematch in tiny Lewiston, Maine, in 1965 and the murky circumstances surrounding Liston's death in 1970. Though the coroner ruled that he died of natural causes, rumors of a drug overdose or a Mob hit persist. As this film indicates, Liston's life had mythic and tragic elements.

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