Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2017

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For Sonny Liston, a sad, strange ending in Nevada

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Rick Fabroski, a groundskeeper at Davis Memorial Park on Eastern Avenue, stands by Sonny Liston’s grave, Feb. 18, 2008.

Rick Fabroski picks up stray yellow tulips, lilacs and honeysuckle and places them in the metal urn atop Sonny Liston’s grave marker when it is empty. He polishes the urn weekly with a rag and a can of WD-40.

He knew Rocky Marciano and idolized Cassius Clay before he became Muhammad Ali, but Fabroski tends to Liston’s final resting place as if the former heavyweight champion were a relative.

“Out of respect for the guy,” Fabroski, 60, says.

He says the grave marker of Liston, who died Dec. 30, 1970, attracts a few fans a week to Davis Memorial Park’s Garden of Peace.

When Ricky Hatton fought Floyd Mayweather Jr. in December, British boxing fans flocked to Liston’s site in taxicabs.

Just the other day, two people left a funeral and strayed, looking for Liston. The Sonny Walk, Fabroski calls it. They circle, row after row, aisle after aisle.

Fabroski eventually approaches with a soft inquiry and points to Liston’s grave.

“I think they’re expecting more on the headstone,” Fabroski says of the inscription — “A MAN” — below the years of Liston’s life. “It’s real simple. It’s kind of neat having him here.”

A soothing fountain bubbles on the other side of a 20-foot cypress, although traffic and hip-hop music thumping along Eastern Avenue, along with incoming planes at McCarran International Airport, interrupt the garden’s peacefulness.

Traffic to Liston’s grave might pick up with the release of “Phantom Punch,” an independently financed movie in which actor Ving Rhames stars as Liston.

It was filmed in Toronto last fall and is currently in postproduction. Rhames claims to have uncovered the mystery surrounding Liston’s death and will depict that in the movie.

Officially, Liston died of lung congestion and heart failure.

But many believe Liston’s relationship with undesirables led to his fate. An autopsy revealed traces of morphine and codeine in his body, and an arm had fresh needle tracks. His wife, Geraldine, found him, badly decomposed, in their Las Vegas home. Marijuana, heroin and a syringe were found nearby.

Ben “Big Ben” Skelton, who barks at customers when their cars are ready at Fabulous Freddy’s Car Wash in Summerlin, was a regular sparring partner of Liston’s and still questions the official death report.

“Needles and snakes,” Skelton, 84, says with a laugh, describing what Liston feared. “A snake was the only thing that would make him run fast.”

Liston successfully defended his heavyweight championship against Floyd Patterson in July 1963 in Las Vegas. Liston lost the title seven months later, to Clay (not yet Ali), in Miami.

Ali’s first-round knockout of Liston 15 months later in Maine is the focus of Rhames’ movie.

Skelton became close with Liston during the last few years of his life in Las Vegas.

“The mob, that’s who did it,” Skelton says. “They shot him up. He owed those people a lot of money.”

A Metropolitan Police detective searched for Liston’s file for a week but couldn’t locate it.

Meanwhile, Liston continues to draw fans. Some leave newspaper clippings. Two weeks ago someone left a 1971 Kennedy half-dollar.

Two days later the 50-cent piece was gone.

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