New Book Details Boxing Legend Sonny Liston's Final Days, Heroin Addiction

By Seth Ferranti 10/18/16

The Fix spoke with author Shaun Assael about his new book, The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin and Heavyweights.

New Book Details Boxing Legend Sonny Liston's Final Days, Heroin Addiction
via author

As the nation is gripped in a much-hyped opioid crisis, ESPN journalist Shaun Assael reminds us that heroin has always been a scourge on our communities. In his new book, The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights, out today, Assael recounts the last days of former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston.

Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home in 1971, a victim of an apparent heroin overdose. But Assael found out that no one thought Liston’s demise was accidental. Approaching the boxer’s death as a cold case, he uncovers a glorious and grimy era of Sin City, a world where the ex-heavyweight champ sunk into drugs and crime.

“By the time you meet Sonny in 1970, heroin seemed to be something that he could manage in as much as one could ever manage such thing,” Assael tells The Fix. “By the end, though, what was clear—because he was also doing cocaine just like much of everybody in Las Vegas at the time—was that time was beginning to catch up with him, yet he couldn’t take his foot off the gas.”

Sonny Liston won the heavyweight championship in 1962, knocking out legend Floyd Patterson, after emerging from prison. With over 20 arrests and serious connections in the mafia, Liston managed to have a foot in both the boxing and criminal worlds. After losing two consecutive fights to Muhammad Ali, including the infamous “phantom punch” match, Liston was in the later stages of his career and attempting to capitalize on his fame in Las Vegas, while still maintaining the lifestyle he was accustomed to.

“Sonny had a junkie cocktail waitress as a mistress. He had drug dealers as friends. He was partying as hard as anybody,” Assael says. “What makes that concerning and what I write about in the book is that he seemed immune to all the enemies that he’d made that were circling him. One of the key parts of the book that nobody has really explored is that the feds had targeted Sonny for an undercover drug buy and were looking to jam him up and make him wear a wire on his friends. Had he not died, Sonny would have been months away from being arrested in a federal drug sting, no doubt.”

The biggest surprise to Assael in his research was the state of Sin City as the decades changed in 1970. "What that showed me was that for all the glamour there was still terrible crime and race riots that were tearing the city apart,” he tells The Fix.

“The schools were on edge and with the Vietnam War protests and the burgeoning black power movements, there was a lot going on in Las Vegas and there were a lot of opportunities for a celebrity like Sonny Liston to get involved. The fact that he didn’t was a big part of this book, because it was a big part of his legacy. The misfortune of fighting in the era of Muhammad Ali and getting into drugs.”

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.