What most sports fans know about Sonny Liston can be boiled down to two photographs: Even the boxing dilettante has seen the shot of Liston on the mat, a younger, smaller Cassius Clay standing over him and sneering after a first-round knockout in May 1965. Slightly less familiar is a picture taken years later, of Liston hiding under a robe and towel, staring at the camera with sunken eyes, looking like the most pathetic sack ever to hit a heavy bag.

Brian DeVido would probably prefer the pathetic-sack shot. Ask the 32-year-old Herndon, Va., native why he chose the controversial, star-crossed boxer for the soul of his first novel, Every Time I Talk to Liston, and he points to the fighter’s troubled mystique. “In modern-day society, they look at Liston as this brute, this uneducated ex-con,” he says. “[But] there was a depth to him people didn’t see. Even though he was a tough guy, he had a sadness.”

Liston is a guiding spirit for the novel’s hero, Amos “Scrap Iron” Fletcher, a journeyman nearing the end of his career. At the beginning of the story, Fletcher is coming down from the apex of his boxing life, fighting on a Vegas undercard as little more than fodder for the careers of young up-and-comers. “He’s the kind of guy you fight, and if you can’t beat him, you’ll never get to the top,” DeVido says. “If you can, he’s just a measuring stick.”

DeVido sketched Fletcher as a portrait of the countless fighters who spend their lives in the shadows of the stars, working as sparring partners, never making much money. It’s a subject DeVido knows something about: As a student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in the early ’90s, the longtime fight fan joined the school’s boxing club. Within three years, he had won the Virginia Golden Gloves heavyweight championship.

There remain a few physical hints of DeVido’s champion-fighter past: His lean, almost gaunt face sits atop a frame that’s still imposing, if a few years removed from truly bulky. As a fighter, however, DeVido never had much in common with the Big Bear. Maynard Quesenberry, who coached DeVido at Virginia Tech, says his game was more cerebral than Liston’s, which relied largely on physical dominance. “[DeVido] was a thinking fighter,” Quesenberry remembers. “It was, I’m gonna figure out how to beat this guy….He thought his way through fights.”

After he won the championship in 1994, DeVido hung up his gloves at the age of 22. “I wasn’t gonna turn pro,” he says, “and I didn’t want to put my body through fighting.” Instead, he became a sportswriter for newspapers in San Antonio and Roanoke, Va. After working in the business for several years, DeVido enrolled in a master’s program in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he penned the first draft of Every Time.

Since the book was published by Bloomsbury USA earlier this month, DeVido has been keeping busy with the usual rounds of author appearances and interviews. In June, he’ll be the keynote speaker at the annual Sport Literature Association conference in Williamsport, Pa. But DeVido, who now works at a Silver Spring tax-consulting firm, says his literary ambitions extend beyond the boxing ring. His next project, in fact, is a thriller centered on another ill-fated historical figure: 19th-century writer Stephen Crane.

“I don’t want to be known as just a boxing novelist,” he says, “but there’s worse things you could be called, I guess.”

—Mike DeBonis