‘O Unlucky Man: Fortune never smiled on Sonny Liston’ Analysis
William Nack’s “O Unlucky Man” piece on one-time heavyweight champion Sonny Liston is one of the greatest stories to ever grace the pages of Sports Illustrated for many reasons.
For starters, it’s a big project, going back in time about a man who many might agree had been lost in history. It has a lede so captivating that the reader is on the edge of their seats by the time they finish the first paragraph. And it elicits an emotional response, where, by the end of it, the reader is left reflecting on life after enduring a mix of feelings including sorrow, anger and doubt.
Who was Sonny Liston? Nack takes a long, hard look to find out.
Nack didn’t come up the idea for the Liston story; his editors brought it to him. But at the time, he had begun doing long, narrative non-fiction pieces that were of historical interest for the magazine and he knew this story fit that mold as well as any. It was late 1990 then and Liston had been dead for 20 years – under mysterious circumstances, no less. As Nack described it, his goal was to “cut as near to the truth as I could in telling the tale of the man.”
And that’s just how the story read — like a tale. One of the most striking takeaways from the piece is that it almost came across as a work of fiction. That’s not to say that the reporting was dubious, but Liston’s story could easily be mistaken as a storyline straight out of novel. It’s also what Nack wanted as a writer – to make these historical pieces sound fictitious, despite the clear facts and quotes to support everything reported. That’s what will immerse the reader into the story, rather than a straight sequential narrative of his life story from birth to death.
From the beginning, Nack places the reader in a scene of eeriness. For any story, Nack’s first and foremost goal was to find a lede – widely considered the most important of a story – but for this one, he knew before any actual reporting was done that this would be his lede.
Years earlier, Nack had heard about the events surrounding Liston’s death – mainly that Liston’s wife, Geraldine, discovered his dead body days after his presumed final day alive. She had been away at the time, visiting her mother with their young son in St. Louis for the Christmas holidays, while Sonny was back at their Las Vegas home.
Since this piece was coming two decades later, Nack thought it best to create this opening like a flashback to set the tone and bring it back full circle by the end of it. But in order to that, he needed Geraldine to recount to him bit by bit the immediate lead up to his death. She did, helping hook the reader from the beginning.
Without Geraldine, all that can be said is what was already reported – that she found his corpse lying on the bed. With Geraldine, he also knows that when she found his body it was quiet except for the television playing upstairs, that all the lights were on throughout the house and that days earlier, she had a haunting dream that Liston was in trouble. Once he had that material, from there, Nack said, the rest of the story was fairly easy, stressing the significance of a lede.
However, it was a struggle at first tracking her down and then subsequently getting her to open up about a situation that was still painful for her. She needed persuading, but she did ultimately agree to speak, which is a testament to the importance of persistency when identifying notable sources for a story.
Following that opening scene, Nack transitions into the peak of Liston’s professional career – becoming the heavyweight champion – but it turns out to be a façade. While Liston was indeed the champion after knocking out Floyd Patterson in 1962, few are receptive of his accomplishment in Philadelphia, his home city at the time, hurting Liston internally. By this point, it was clear that this piece wasn’t so much a profile about a boxer, but the tragedy of a human being. Nack, as any writer should, establishes his idea early in the piece to convey to the reader what is about to be explored.
Liston’s life was a complicated one, to say the least – a notion supported as early as birth, where no listed record giving an approximate date exists for the son of a sharecropper. For all his successes in the ring as arguably the most feared fighter of his time, he also had a number of run-ins with police, associated himself with mob members, and was a binge drinker and heroin user – the latter apparently unknown by his wife and closest friends.
Knowing this, it would have been easy for Nack to continue the negative rhetoric about Liston in this piece, as many writers did throughout the boxer’s career. Instead, however, he gave Liston the benefit of the doubt, which is noteworthy because of how it could have severely affected the story’s tone. He wasn’t trying to vindicate Liston and depict him as a model citizen, but he wasn’t going to deliberately follow the public’s preconceived notions of him, either.
Talking to numerous sources from the different areas of his life, Nack provides an excellent sample of how good reporting can drive a story. Rather than taking away from the bigger picture by letting his own opinion drip into the piece, the story’s characters are the ones who detail Liston, with Nack just organizing it in a way that makes it compelling and easy to follow. While many of the story’s details aren’t original, plenty of new information also surfaces, thanks largely to the previously unheard anecdotes.
Still, Nack’s own personal writing voice isn’t devoid from the piece. There are a few instances where the language could be described as beautiful, but it’s neither consistent nor frequent. Again, the reporting itself took more precedence in this particular story. But some of Nack’s main style focuses in any of his pieces – transitions and rhythm – were visible throughout with a close examination.
According to Nack, he wanted his stories to read like poetry – clear and concise with the right amount of syllables in each sentence. Like many poems, too, the narrative of the piece has its ups and downs and is broken up into sections, making the complexities of Liston’s life narrative flow smoothly for the reader. His voice derives from authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and poets like Robert Frost and Seamus Heaney.
At the end, the kicker pulls from the lede, explaining the circumstances of his death – lung congestion and heart failure officially, heroin overdose based on circumstantial evidence, or a possible yet unprovable murder to some – and ending with a scene of his burial place in Las Vegas. The final line of the piece – “Every once in a while someone comes by and asks to see where he’s buried,” says a cemetery worker. “But not many anymore. Not often.” – sums up the point of the story so well, it feels like the moment when a reader closes a long novel for the last time.
Nack’s piece on Liston covers a lot of ground, from its emotional appeals to its new information by way of reporting, all tying back to a former champion. It’s among these reasons why that in honor of SI’s 60th anniversary in 2014, this piece was named one of its 60 best ever. It won’t lead to an exact conversion into something of his own caliber, but Nack’s advice, based largely on his Liston story, in short, is this: find a riveting subject and remember that thorough reporting is the meat and bones of journalism.