UN-FORGOTTEN BOXING HISTORY: JOHNNY TOCCO & SONNY LISTON

December 27th, 2010 By Pedro Fernandez

TOCCO PRESENT WHEN EX-CHAMP LISTON WAS FOUND DEAD

Johnny Tocco

Johnny Tocco

San 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 Liston After First KO of Floyd Patterson

Sonny Liston After First KO of Floyd Patterson

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.

Pedro Fernandez

COMMENTS

  1. thanks for the article, its clear you love the sport of boxing and some of the people invo;ved i feel the same way about my time as a young amature lt hvy boxing out of camden nj trained by carmine graziano stablemates mike the jewish bomber rossman and pedro soto of puerto rico those were grest times for me and those men were good to me taught me alot about the sweet science and life from 17-20yrs old in the mid 70s till a tramatic accident ended any hope for a professional carrear a bad accident hence the moniker henry the hook lol

    henry v bonner jr on December 27th, 2010 at 11:21 PM
  2. I’m sure many here would like to hear more about Tocco, and about any other Liston anecdotes. (Even younger fans–i.e.,post Baby-Boomers) remain fascinated by Sonny.) Also, what it’s like training with Larry and Marvin.

    Antonino on December 28th, 2010 at 4:44 PM
  3. I traveled alot for work and for enjoyment I visit boxing Gyms in the cities I am working in. In 1996 I made a viisit to Johnny Tocco’s Ring Side Gym in Las Vegas. I’ve been to some gyms in pretty tough area’s. But the Ring side Gym is a tough Gym in a pretty nice area. I had brought my gear to work out, and stepped between the crack dealers to get inside. The gym was filthy and smelled of piss and mildew. I had already made up my mind that a workout was out of the question, but I wanted to meet the man himself. I found him sitting alone in a small office, about ten by ten, surrounded by his boxing memoriblia . I asked him how much he charged to work out, he looked up at me and snarled “Get the fuck out of here’. So, thats my Johnny Tacco story.

    Michael Munoz on December 28th, 2010 at 9:19 PM
  4. Pedro, did Tocco ever tell you what he thought and knew about Liston’s death. I remember that Liston and his wife Geraldine had twin 1969 El Dorado Cadillacs

    Jerome on December 28th, 2010 at 11:05 PM
  5. Were you a bum? (LOL)I don’t remember any piss smell. Thanks for the note on Johnny, my first and only mentor and friend in Las Vegas. He was Johnny, I love him still to this day!

    Pedro Fernandez on December 29th, 2010 at 1:04 AM
  6. He was an old man by then, and wasn’t well, but you have to admit it is a funny story. And I’m glad I got to meet him. As far as being a bum, you must have seen me box.

    Michael Munoz on December 29th, 2010 at 7:36 AM
  7. Some say Sonny Liston died the day he was born. Poor Charles. Nobody knows when and where he was born. Nobody knows how he died. And everything in between is a mystery too. Poor guy. Rest in peace Night Train!

    Can Driver on December 29th, 2010 at 8:49 PM
  8. Michael–boxing seems to be made up of eccentrics! I met Howard Cosell before a talk show on PBS in the mid 80s and my wife, who recognized him from my TV viewing habits, said, “Good to meet you, Mr. Cosell.” He replied: “Young lady, you will remember this moment for the rest of your life.” What a card. . . as obnoxious off screen as on!

    Antonino on December 29th, 2010 at 9:33 PM
  9. Great article. Like everyone else I would like to know how Sonny died. Not heard this theory before! If anyone’s interested I have writen a couple of articles about Sonny. One called Who killed Sonny Liston and this one
    http://socyberty.com/history/sonny-liston-and-the-kennedy-brothers/

    observer1 on April 18th, 2011 at 9:04 AM
  10. Johnny was my only real boxing trainer, as a martial artist in Las Vegas in the 90′s. His gym was dark with the smell of a place where boxers worked their a.. off. He wasn’t a social man with folks coming in looking for a workout, he saved his words for fighters and those words weren’t always easy in your ears. He didn’t want people to come in and talk with their mouth, he wanted them to talk like a boxer- in the ring. He loved Sonny and he told me he was murdered. He was still hurt decades later. I let it go and I think Johnny knew I wouldn’t ask any other questions. He went on to give me some advice on life and my jab He was awesome, he got me into the movie “Casino” and I miss him.

    Colin Hubbard on August 1st, 2011 at 11:28 AM
  11. Johnny was one of the greatest characters in Vegas. Any boxer who was anyone frequented his gym. I remember Johnny saying that Liston was murdered. He was terrified off injections and would never have overdosed. Johnny loved to tell that story. Johnny may be gone but he will never be forgotten. I can remember Hagler and Tyson training for fights there. I don’t think I ever heard a bad word about Johnny. He lived and breathed boxing and Vegas will never be the same without him. Linda Platt, boxing photographer

    Linda Platt on January 18th, 2012 at 1:37 AM
  12. Ms. Platt, first allow ne to thank you for the post on Johnny Tocco. I used to call him the Godfather of Las Vegas boxing gyms. He was on my radio show the Sunday before his death. He had one foot amputated due to Diabitis, as he told me this and I could sense that he had given up on life, all the while I was crying and hitting the cough or mute button when we were on KNBR radio because I remembering having leaky eyes and I got choked up was fighting back tears when Johnny repeated the story on how we met, what I told him, what he told me, he was proud of amateur carreer, how he convinced Goody Petromelli (Marvin Hagler) to allow me to work out at the gym while Hagler trained. Marvin wasn’t the stone cold killer of 1985 in 1987 when he faced Ray Leonard, I could sense that and saw Hagler at about 3:30 or 4 PM walking on Paradise Rd. in Las Vegas, which runs ajacent but to the Las Vegas Strip. arvin looked weird, he was in his own world, Goddy Patronelli was trying to Hagler but he was ignoring him. We went back to Vegas and bet on Leonard to win. Sat in $300 seats, elevated ringside and first row and Hagler lost more of the 12 “little fights,” that a 12 round fight is. You TAKE it from the champ, that’s the BS you hear. Usually from the fans of a fighter that lost bit got a gift decision. If you beat him 7-5 in rounds, ypu’ve won the fight.

    As for Johnny, he has some quotes was I thinking about putting in a book in the next year or so.

    Pedro Fernandez on January 18th, 2012 at 4:37 AM
  13. It’s fun to read the old stories about Johnny and remember some of my own. I first started training at Johnny’s in the late 80′s and the only reason Johnny let me train there was because I did exactly what he told me to do and sparred with whoever he told me to and in return I’d sit in the office and listen as Johnny would tell me stories. I had no idea at the time how precious those days would become. Upon finishing my workout I’d step over his trusted companion and faithful yellow lab and sit in his office as he’d describe the bet he was about to place on Buster Douglas after Greg Page had floored Tyson while training in Japan. He also spoke of how George Foreman was the hardest puncher he’d ever seen because he’d shake dust down from the rafters while hitting the heavy bag. Great times!

    Jim Kilfoyle on February 16th, 2012 at 11:17 PM
  14. Pedro,
    Weren’t you a boxing referee in the 80′s? The stories I can tell about Tocco could go on forever. He used to let me in to photo all the boxers who many times trained secretly at his gym. One of my favorites was Mike Tyson. Tyson adored Johnny. Towards the end, Johnny lost his beloved wife. He bought a dog and used to walk it in the alley behind the gym. I didn’t know he lost his foot to diabetes. I remember he had this great electrical muscle stimulator he would use on the fighters when they had aches and pains. It was from the 40′s. He used it on my hand when I was injured in a fight at Caesars years back. He used it on many boxer’s hands. Hagler used to train at Tocco’s along with most of the greats. I loved Johnny’s office and the cigars and just listening to his boxing stories. He was a one of a kind. I often wonder what his gym is like now. Linda Platt

    Linda Platt on February 19th, 2012 at 9:19 PM
  15. Pedro,
    I am thinking of Ferdie Hernandez, the boxing ref. Did you know that Greg Page, or so I read is in a wheelchair? Brain damage? Linda

    Linda Platt on February 19th, 2012 at 9:20 PM
  16. Johnny Tocco also had a famous kickboxer who trained at his gym regularly. His name was Dale Cook. He later renamed himself Apollo Cook. Everyone who trained at at Tocco’s gym loved Johnny. In my 10 years in Vegas photographing boxers at his gym, none ever had a bad word to say about him. When it came to training, Tocco was a no nonsense trainer. He was so professional yet he took time to talk with visitors. When Tyson and Hagler trained there, he locked the gym so they could concentrate on their training. I sure miss Johnny. RIP. Linda

    Linda Platt on February 19th, 2012 at 9:25 PM
  17. Dale Cook was a great guy I trained beside at Johnny’s. Mr. Tocco was on my show the Sunday before he died and the Network I was with never sent the tape. I miss him much and live an Elvis fan, I’ve went by the gym, sometimes late at night. He was my first real Las Vegas mentor, followed by Chuck Minker. They are both gone. Johnny was CLASS!

    Pedro Fernandez on February 19th, 2012 at 11:21 PM
  18. Greg died about two years ago. His wife Patricia passed in September. I MC’d a benefit to raise money for him many years ago in upper Illinois, it was for Greg and Gerald McLellan, who had also been seriously injured in a fight. What was sad was that soon after the State of Kentucky settled the suit the Page’s had filed against then for having a unpadded ring, in other words, when Greg fell out of the ring, he hit his head on pure steel. Anyway, they lived in near poverty, got the settlement and they were both dead within two or so years. Truly sad!

    Pedro Fernandez on February 20th, 2012 at 12:52 AM
  19. His gym went from Johnny to some construction guys who ran BAM Promotions. They sold it to its current owner. I went in there and I have to admit, I held back tears until I got back in the car that was parked in Johnny’s little parking lot in the back. The same lot that Bruce Curry tried to shoot trainer Jesse Reid Sr. from. I trained alongside Cook, Ron Lyle, Johnny even got the Hagler camp to let me train there when Marvin was working out. Tyson was the only guy Johnny couldn’t get me in with. Wonderful memories, thanks for bringing this up Linda.

    Pedro Fernandez on February 20th, 2012 at 12:57 AM
  20. Pedro-I always enjoy your website. But,I believe that the Curry shooting occured at the Golden Gloves gym. However, thanks for the memories of one of my mentors, the great Davey Pearl,who was so important to Toby Gibson and my boxing careers. I miss them both.

    chuck giampa on June 4th, 2012 at 4:01 AM
  21. Positive, almost certain it was Tocco’s. I wrote fondly about and admired all 3. Say hello to the Mrs. Respect always, Pedro

    Pedro Fernandez on June 4th, 2012 at 6:30 AM
  22. It is so good to hear the old stories about Johnny, the other trainers and boxers. Thanks for filling me in, Pedro, about Johnny and Greg Page. I had no idea since I have been teaching for the past 17 years in Reno. I remember Dale Cook. He trained for years at Tocco’s Gym. Those were the days. I remember hearing that Tyson had been dropped in training while in Japan. Johnny always had a story to tell. I probably saw you training Apollo Cook as I was at the gym almost daily. There was always someone of stature there. I miss Johnny and his stories to this day. I left before the foot was amputated but remember Johnny walking his big old brown dog in the alley behind his gym. Last time I was in Vegas some years ago, I passed the gym and the front door was closed. Linda

    Linda Platt on July 21st, 2012 at 8:35 AM
  23. Thanks, Linda. I miss him as well!

    Pedro Fernandez on July 21st, 2012 at 10:55 AM
  24. I was in Vegas about two years ago. Drove by Tocco’s Gym and didn’t want to go in. It’s not the same without Johnny sitting there and telling his boxing stories to me. There will never be another Johnny. Is Boza Edwards still living in Vegas? There were so many great fighters who came to Tocco’s Gym.

    Linda Platt on August 18th, 2012 at 12:20 AM
  25. I just came across this article and really enjoyed reading your comments.It is nice to hear such great things about my Grandfather. He was definitely a great man.I used to hear certain bits and pieces of stories from him and my Father and really was in Awe of his life and the people he was fortunate enough to work with and be around.

    Dominic Tocco on November 29th, 2012 at 3:14 PM

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