December 27th, 2010 By Pedro Fernandez
TOCCO PRESENT WHEN EX-CHAMP LISTON WAS FOUND DEADSan Francisco, CA- Say what you want, but there are probably more dead people that I can respect than there are living. That being said, as 2011 nears I think about some of the people in boxing that are no longer with us. We will start in Las Vegas, where Johnny Tocco ran the “Ringside Gym” on the corner of Charleston & Main from the mid 50′s to the late 90′s.
LISTON, HE DIED IN HIS OWN HAND(S)?
He was a prince of a man who along with another “Sin City” alumni in the late Davey Pearl, were handling former heavyweight champ Sonny Liston at the time of his death. Reports had Liston dying from a Heroin overdose, folklore has him being murdered by the Mafia for refusing to throw the fight (his last) with Chuck Wepner, the same Wepner that Sylvester Stalone developed the Rocky movie character from. Truth be told, and I’m not trying to be funny here, but Liston was found on top of his made bed in his Las Vegas home with his underwear down around his ankles. More than likely Sonny Liston died from a Stroke he suffered while stroking it!
HOUSE WAS LOCKED FROM THE INSIDE
Sonny’s house was locked from the inside, no windows were open or unlocked, this according to his wife, who discovered the body on January 5, 1971 and a LVPD investigation that some say was a “cover up.” Because of the newspapers left on the stoop, it was estimated that Liston died on December 30 or 31, 1970. At the time of his death, Sonny was 50-4 with 39 KOs. Having beaten Wepner in June 1970, Sonny was trying to redeem himself after a brutal one-punch KO loss to Leotis Martin in 1969. Liston’s age was always suspect, as his death certificate stated he was 38. There are many who think Sonny was at least five years older.
JOHNNY’S GENETICS SOLD HIM A LIL’ SHORT
When Johnny Tocco died in 1997, he had just five days prior appeared with me on “Ring Talk Worldwide.” Having had a foot amputated due to Diabetic issues, Johnny was sad and feared he would never get back to the gym, even though he had sold it.
It turned out he didn’t, as Johnny died the following week. My first and truest Las Vegas mentor, Johnny came from St. Louis where he had known Sonny Liston before Sonny even turned professional in 1953.
JOHNNY WAS WELL AWARE OF THE MOB’S POWER
Never one to mince words, Tocco said that when James D. Norris, who ran Madison Square Garden, was busted with mobsters Frankie Carbo (who would return to boxing and manage Frankie Mitchell in the 80s) and Blinky Palermo in 1960, that the Mob’s control of the sport came to an end.
TOCCO’S “SIN CITY” GYM STILL STANDS
There are a ton of memories and historical significance involving Tocco’s gym which is still running full time under new management. When Tocco sold the gym originally to the now defunct BAM Promotions in 1997, he did so because his medical bills were eating him alive. (Another call for Socialized Medicine) When I’m in Las Vegas, I’ve had cab drivers take me to the gym late at night. Dark and shuttered circa 2 AM, I’d exit the cab for a minute or two so I could reminisce about the time I got to spend with the great Johnny Tocco. Being able to watch and work out alongside greats like Larry Holmes and Marvin Hagler, Johnny took special care of me. In closing, knowing Johnny as well as I did, I know I’m not alone when it came to him making one feel special.