Lem Banker Interview
(My friend Sonny Liston)

In the 1960’s, Sonny Liston was the most feared boxer in the Heavyweight division.

It’s been said that just one stare from Sonny in the ring could wither an opponent.

Sonny Liston was one of 25 children. His formative years were tough. He was often beaten as a kid.

In 1953, Sonny turned pro and won 32 of his first 33 bouts. In 1962, he defeated Floyd Patterson for the Heavyweight title. Sonny would go on to lose that title to a young up and coming boxer named Cassius Clay now known as Muhammad Ali.

Sonny Liston was on the comeback trail winning 14 bouts when he was discovered dead in his bedroom on January 5 th 1971.

Authorities said Sonny had died of a heroin overdose, noting the needles that had been found in his home.

The only problem with that was, as tough as Sonny Liston was-----he was deathly afraid of needles.

Could it be that Sonny Liston was murdered?

No doubt about it.

We spoke with one of Sonny Liston’s closest friends, Lem Banker.

Q – Mr. Banker, how did you meet Sonny Liston?
A – I met Sonny when he came to town. I never knew him when he won the championship against Floyd Patterson in Chicago. I met him at the second bout against Patterson in Las Vegas. I met him through my good friend Ash Resnick who at that time was associated with the old Thunderbird Hotel. I was watching him train with some of his sparring partners. I used to hang around with Resnick and gradually we got acquainted. The second fight was in the old Las Vegas Convention Center. He knocked Patterson out both times. The second time he knocked him out in the first round. Then, he did his pre-training for the Cassius Clay Fight in Las Vegas at the Thunderbird Hotel. Then I became kind of friendly with him. I had a health club at the Sahara Hotel and the Riviera Health Club. When he moved to town here he used to come to the health club. Then we became real friendly. I was his closest friend simply because I never tried to make any money with him.

Q – What year did you first meet him?
A – It might have been 1962, 1963. Right after he won the title.

Q – What kind of a guy was Sonny Liston? Was he mean?
A – No. That stare me down was just a hype. He wasn’t mean. He was a nice guy. He had a good sense of humor and he wasn’t stupid. He was shooting craps at the old Thunderbird Hotel and one of the dealers short-changed him. He tried to correct him and get his money. Everybody thought he was illiterate but, sure enough the box man was overseeing the game and Sonny was right. The guy short-changed him. Not intentionally. Just a mistake. As far as reading and writing, he could sign his name. He wasn’t literate as far as doing a lot of reading.

Q – What did Sonny like to do away from the ring?
A – He liked to fish. He liked to hunt. I never went fishing with him. He used to go out to Lake Meade to go fishing. He was good with kids. He donated a lot of his old equipment to the Boys Club here. He was a good family man. With his wife Geraldine, they adopted a little boy Daniel from Sweden when he was a champion doing an exhibition in Europe. The boy was half-black, half-white. He was a good father.

Q – Where is that little boy today?
A – I’m not sure. He might be in St. Louis. Somebody who’s seen him says he’s doing real well. I haven’t heard from his wife Geraldine. She was a dominant wife. She used to tell Sonny just what to do. He was like the most feared man, but Geraldine was his boss. (Laughs).

Q – According to that Variety Fare article published a few years back, Sonny loved to drink. Is that true?
A – This is the God’s honest truth. We used to go away weekends to Los Angeles, to Houston, and he never took a drink in front of me once-----and we used to go out a lot. We’d go out with the wives to a lot of the hotels around town here ( Las Vegas) and have dinner and maybe see a lounge show. He’d never take any liquor in front of me. They accused him of taking drugs which I’d never seen.

Q – I always wondered how a boxer could be a heavy drinker. Wouldn’t it slow your reflexes?
A – Well, a lot of your former champs had problems with liquor and drugs.

Q – When would something like that occur-----during training?
A – In between bouts. I’d never seen Sonny take any drugs. I’d never seen him smoke or take any liquor in front of me. Of course, I wasn’t with him 24 hours a day.

Q – Was Sonny in some way associated with the Mob or the Underworld?
A – No. That’s all B.S.

Q – Why then, do people say that?
A – When he got out of jail, he couldn’t get any big fights. In Philadelphia he did hook up with the guys that control Madison Square Garden-----Blinky Palermo, Eddie Coco, Frankie Carbo. So, that’s how he was hooked up. Just like the fighters today. You can’t get a good fight unless you’re hooked up with Don King or some of the other promoters. It was no mob. You just have to negotiate with the right guy.

Q – Was Sonny afraid of needles?
A – Yeah. This was confirmed by Henry Winston who lives in Oakland, California. When Sonny went to California to get his license to fight Henry Clark, they wanted to take a blood test and he was afraid of needles. When he went overseas as champ and toured England and Scotland they wanted him to take a blood test and he was afraid of needles.

Q – Had you ever known him to use hard drugs?
A – No. I knew he was hanging around some drug dealers because the Sheriff, Ralph Lam, who was a good friend of mine told me before Sonny died, ‘Tell Sonny he’s hanging around with some bad people on the west side of town’. The west side was a bad section. The Sheriff told me they were gonna bust these guys and (to) give Sonny a warning. And they’re the guys that killed him. I think they promised him something and he must’ve gotten rough with them and they gave him a Mickey Finn. It was a Christmas holiday. He was over to my house with his wife and little boy and they went back to St. Louis. It was maybe 3 or 4 days before Christmas and we exchanged gifts, my family and the Liston’s. A few days after Christmas the housekeeper Mildred called me, she went to clean the house and found Sonny dead.

Q – What was Sonny’s wife doing in St. Louis?
A – She was visiting her mother and I think she had a daughter from a previous marriage.

Q – Didn’t Sonny have any neighbors?
A – Sonny bought the house from Kirk Kerkorian. He owns M.G.M. He owns The Mirage. He owns The Bellagio. He owns Chrysler. He’s one of the Wealthiest men in the world.

Q – Was there any security in that house?
A – Security.

Q – You know an alarm system.
A - No. He didn’t need any security.

Q – According to “Unsolved Mysteries” t.v. show, which ran a segment on Sonny Liston, Sonny’s family and friends believe he was murdered. Do you believe there’s something suspicious about Sonny’s death?
A – Yeah. When he came back from the Wepner fight he got $13,000. That’s all he got. He owed me $10,000 ‘cause I moved a bet for him. He bet against Jerry Quarry. He paid me the $10,000 on the plane. We went back together, just us, on this TWA plane. We came in with Davy Pearl, who’s still around and Johnny Tacco. They were in his corner. They paid him in a paper bag, small bills. He gave me the ten and he had three left for the fight. He was hanging out with some bad people and I think they promised him some deal, whatever it was and they might’ve reneged and most likely they gave him a Mickey Finn. They knocked him out. There were needle marks on his arm and as far as I know, he would never take any needles.

Q – Why would Sonny hang around drug dealers?
A – Well, I guess everyone wants to hang around with a celebrity. An awful lot of people. There were so many guys that wanted to promote him and hang around with him. Las Vegas is like that.

Q – Was he on the comeback trail at the time of his death?
A – No. He was probably 10 years older than what it said on his birth certificate. He’s buried out here you know. I go visit his grave. He’d seen his best days. It’s tough for a heavyweight between bouts. A lot of times nobody wanted to fight him. Between fights he’d gain 10-15 pounds. The last fight he fought was his sparring partner, former sparring partner, Lee Otis Martin. He took this on a 2 week notice. World Wide Sports on ABC had an open date that Saturday afternoon at the Hilton Hotel. Sonny was in Tucson, Arizona making an appearance on a t.v. show American Lovestyle. He wasn’t in shape for that fight. He was beating the hell out of Lee Otis Martin and I think it was in the 8 th Round, Martin hit him once and he collapsed. It wasn’t a dive or anything like that. He just ran out of gas. Everything caught up with him. But, he was an awesome guy when he was fighting regularly. Johnny Tacco who had every great fighter down here from Foreman to Tyson said nobody hit harder than Sonny.

Q – Why were Sonny’s finances so bad? Where did all his money go?
A – Well, he really didn’t get any big paydays. There was always a cut with the promoters and the trainers and living expenses. After he died, his wife went to work as a hostess in the Riviera Hotel. I think she got ripped off by some guy for the few bucks she had and ended up going back to St. Louis.

Q – What a sad story.
A – There’s an awful lot of athletes that end up going broke.

Q – Had Sonny not died that day in January 1971, what do you think he would’ve done with his life? You said his best days in boxing were behind him.
A – I tried to make him a host at the Sahara Hotel. I’m not sure. He never trusted the cops. He was abused an awful lot. They used to lock him up for no reason at all. They really picked on him.

Q – Why?
A – Because he had a reputation as being a Bad Boy, but, he really wasn’t that bad of a boy. He played the part for the fights. We were down in Houston at the Astrodome. Terrell was fighting Muhammad Ali. I went down there with Sonny prior to the fight at the weigh-in. When Ali saw Sonny he hugged him and said ‘This is a real man’. All the fighters, all the sparring partners liked Sonny. He was like their leader. Some of the reporters gave him bad write-ups. If you got to know Sonny he was just a regular guy. Had a good sense of humor. He liked to go to different shows to see Little Richard, and Sammy Davis. He was a great dresser. He had a tremendous wardrobe. He was good to people around him. If anybody came up to him for an autograph, he never turned them away. I miss him and Joe Louis.

Q – Yeah, they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
A – Well, they might, but, I haven’t run into any.

© Gary James All Rights Reserved