Overlooking the Missouri River sits a looming landmark — the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP), a facility that has no shortage of famous former inmates. One of the most well-known was Charles “Sonny” Liston, who arrived at MSP in 1950 to serve time for charges of robbery with a deadly weapon and larceny. While incarcerated, penitentiary chaplains encouraged Sonny to take up boxing. With his grand six-foot-tall-plus frame, Sonny was an immediate success.

“He was the most perfect specimen of manhood I had ever seen,” Father Alois Stevens told Sports Illustrated in their “O Unlucky Man” article published in 1994. “Powerful arms, big shoulders…. His hands were so large! I couldn’t believe it. They always had trouble with his gloves, trouble getting them on when his hands were wrapped.”


Sonny Liston knocking out Floyd Patterson published by the Agence France-Presse
A photo of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston published by the Agence France-Presse.


Sonny was then spotted by a newspaper publisher who believed he showed promise as a professional. The publisher contacted the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, pledging that if Sonny could be released on probation, he would personally see to it that Sonny received a job and training as a boxer.

Sonny was released in October 1952 and immediately began his meteoric rise to success. He lived and trained at the Pine Street YMCA in St. Louis and worked at Scullin Steel until he could support himself from his professional boxing earnings. Sonny immediately entered the Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing Tournament, where he defeated Olympic heavyweight champion Ed Sanders. He officially turned professional in 1953, defeating Don Smith in just 33 seconds. Nine years later, Sonny knocked out Floyd Patterson in the first round to become the world heavyweight champion. It was the third-fastest knockout in a world championship fight and the first time a defending champion had been knocked out in round one.

Want to hear more of Sonny's story? Head over to Jefferson City Magazine to read more.

Missouri State Penitentiary

Decommissioned in 2004, the Missouri State Penitentiary was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi. The prison was 100 years old when Alcatraz began taking inmates…