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When the mob ruled boxing

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World' heavyweight boxing champ Rocky Marciano (right) signs up for his September 15th title bout with former champ Ezzard Charles (left) at the New York Boxing Commissioner;s office August 3rd. Seated (center ) is Robert Christenberry, chairman of the Boxing Commission, while standing (rear) is Jim Norris, president of the International Boxing Commission. Photo: Getty Images
The evil empire of Frankie Carbo and Jim Norris over boxing in the 1940s and 1950s left the sport’s reputation in tatters and several top fighters in financial ruin. Eric Armit tells the full story

I SUPPOSE I am not the only one of a certain age (don’t ask) who longs for “the good old days”. The days when there were only eight weight divisions and only one world champion in each division and Ring Magazine effectively decided who was the champion.

There were no sanctioning bodies. Well, not really. The North American Boxing Association was kicking about but no one paid any attention to them. Title fights were held over 15 rounds and national titles were prized by fighters as second only to world titles. Tobacco was the addictive substance of choice and if people heard the word testosterone they probably thought it was the name of an Italian-American baseball player. Happy days, right?

Maybe not. Remove the rose-tinted spectacles and rub your eyes. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s there was evil lurking at the very heart of boxing in America.

In the 1950s, America was boxing. Current major boxing nations such as Japan and Mexico played little part at world title level and horizontal was how the Americans described British heavyweights.

Madison Square Garden was the boxing equivalent of Mecca. Television was becoming a force through twice-weekly shows at the Garden and an organisation known as the International Boxing Club (IBC) headed by Jim Norris as President and his partner Arthur Wirtz was the most powerful outfit in boxing.

Businessmen Norris and Wirtz formed the IBC in 1949 along with lawyer Truman Gibson and Joe Louis, the world heavyweight champion who was plotting retirement. Norris, as President and owner of 80 per cent of the stock, was the main man. He came from a family that controlled the grain market in Chicago, he was involved in ice hockey and horse racing and, best of all, he was filthy rich.

In 1949 an ailing Mike Jacobs, through his Twentieth Century Boxing Club, owned the rights to promote at the Garden but the venue bought those rights from Jacobs for $100,000 and turned those rights over to their silent partner Norris, who had exclusive leases on the Garden, Yankee Stadium, New York Polo grounds and other stadiums in Chicago and St. Louis. So Norris had the stadiums but he needed fighters to fill them.

The fledgling IBC saw the heavyweight title as an obvious target, but they were still finding their feet and did not “own” then champion Joe Louis. With the end of his career looming, and with the help of Gibson, Louis had moved to ensure himself of some post-retirement income by convincing the top four heavyweights Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Lee Savold and Gus Lesnevich to give Louis exclusive rights to their services. One of the IBC’s first moves was to pay Louis $150,000 to retire and for him to also to assign to IBC the exclusive rights to Charles, Walcott, Savold and Lesnevich allowing the IBC to promote a tournament to fill the vacant heavyweight title and control the future of the heavyweight division.

IBC had the stadiums and the TV outlets and for the boxers they would need they turned to Frankie Carbo.

ENTER BAD FRANKIE

Since the early 1940’s Frankie Carbo had been building his position of power acting along with his No 2 Frank “Blinkey” Palermo as a promoter, matchmaker and undercover manager for many top level fighters with Palermo bringing to the table Ike Williams, Johnny Saxton, Clarence Henry and heavyweight Coley Wallace (who would later portray Joe Louis in two films, 1953’s The Joe Louis Story and Marciano, which was made in 1979).

Carbo himself had his claws into most of the top lightweights, welterweights and middleweights and was behind the notorious Billy Fox-Jake LaMotta fiasco where LaMotta was stopped in four rounds by the vastly inferior Fox. Although LaMotta initially denied the fight was fixed, he eventually admitted he threw the fight in return for a promised shot at the middleweight title. This was just one example of the power Carbo wielded.

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Billy Fox lands a left on the eye of Jake La Motta during their bout at Madison Square Garden Getty Images

Norris and Carbo began to work together: The urbane Norris was the velvet glove to Carbo’s iron fist. Frankie was unquestionably the power man out of the two.

To obtain fighters, IBC used the commercial approach, which went something like, your fighter will not get a title shot or appear on a big TV show unless we get exclusive promotion rights and a share of your fighter. Carbo’s approach, usually channelled through Palermo, was more physical. Sign with IBC and give us a piece of your fighter or get hurt – and very few had the courage to withstand those threats when the man behind them, Carbo, was a former member of the notorious organised crime group, Murder Inc.

Naturally, some of those left out in the cold complained over the monopoly that the IBC had established and hinted at some dark forces with claims that Norris was just a front for Carbo. The influence of Carbo in owning fighters and fixing fights was known to much of the press but, such was his reputation, only hinted at. Some state commissions also knew, or at least strongly suspected, the power and presence of Carbo but shutting out the IBC would mean the loss of the huge windfall that big fights could generate for hotels, clubs and businesses in their cities and stadiums.

LAW BREAKERS

As early as 1952, the Department of Justice set up a jury to investigate the claims that the IBC and MSG were exercising an illegal monopoly, but action was stymied by the lawyers of the accused by claiming that professional boxing was not subject to the anti-trust laws as enshrined in the Sherman Antitrust Act. The IBC then pursued their case all the way to the US Supreme Court but finally lost in 1955 with Norris estimated to have incurred $500,000 in legal fees.

In the same year, the New York State Athletic Commission decided to hold hearings into the allegations of mobster’s involvement in boxing and called Norris to give testimony.

When questioned over his links to Carbo, Norris stated that his meetings with Carbo were few, accidental and entirely unrelated to boxing. That was a flagrant lie; even then, Carbo was using threats and actual violence to coerce boxers and managers to do business with the IBC.

The whispers of a criminally supported monopoly enjoyed by the IBC/MSG consortium grew to a point where action was taken in a US District court in 1957 to challenge the IBC’s monopoly. Norris had tried to forestall the case by resigning from IBC which was then bought by MSG but the court was unconvinced and ruled that through their control of the promotion of championship fights, and control of major stadia, IBC constituted a monopoly. This was evidenced by the fact that in the period from May 1953, and the case being heard in 1957, the IBC had an “interest” in 36 of the 37 championships fights held in the United States. The judgement limited the MSG for a period of five years from promoting more than two championships bouts in each calendar year and also placed the same limitations on Norris and Wirtz who were ordered to dispose of whatever stock they held in MSG. The court also ordered that the IBC be disbanded and that the Garden and other stadiums that had worked exclusively with the IBC must be leased for a reasonable rent to independent promoters – effectively erasing one part of the empire of evil that had reigned for so long.

That ruling dealt with the IBC and MSG but what of Carbo? His undercover part in the IBC was being uncovered and he was the next one in the court’s sights. For him the beginning of the end came in 1958 when, to avoid a trial where the extent of his role would become public, he pled guilty to the derisory charges of managing boxers and acting as a matchmaker without a licence. He served two years in Riker’s Island prison and was released in 1960.

Unfortunately for Carbo, in the same year as he was released, a Senate Subcommittee led by Senator Estes Kefauver had been set up to investigate ties between organised crime and professional boxing and that turned the spotlight on Carbo. But exactly who was this guy Carbo, often referred to as Mr Grey, who in turn was being described as the Czar of Boxing?

CARBO’S STORY

Paolo Giovanni Carbo was born in Sicily on 10 August 1904. His family emigrated to America and Carbo quickly settled into a life of crime being sent to a reform school before he was even in his teens. He graduated from there to a variety of street crimes and protection rackets. He committed his first murder when he was 20, killing a taxi driver who refused to pay off the organisation Carbo was working for. Carbo pled not guilty and, in the end through plea bargaining, he was sentenced to two to four years but was released after 20 months.

The advent of prohibition boosted Carbo’s career and eventually he was recruited by Murder Inc, who acted as enforcers for the Italian-American and Jewish Mafia, and were suspected of over 500 contract killings. By the end of the 1930s Carbo had been charged with more than eight murders but none of the charges stuck due to the reluctance of witnesses to come forward. Not surprising, since after Carbo was charged with the murder of Murder Inc. informant Harry Greenburg – one of the former members of Murder Inc who had also agreed to testify against Carbo – suspiciously fell to his death from a window of a hotel while under police protection. Carbo was also a main suspect in the murder of Ben “Bugsy” Siegel who had overseen the building of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas for the Mob.

With the end of prohibition Carbo moved into boxing and the threats and coercion tactics he had applied in every business he had been involved in worked well for him. The extent of his influence only became apparent during Kefauver’s investigations.

The testimony came from others as Carbo pled the Fifth Amendment i.e. the refusal to incriminate himself (25 times, and Palermo did the same). The lid was lifted by boxers and managers who felt with Norris stripped of any influence, and the US Senate looking to nail Carbo, it was time to talk. And they did.

SPILLING THE BEANS

Former lightweight champion Ike Williams explained how Palermo had fleeced him of much of his ring earnings. Another witness stated that Rocky Marciano’s manager Al Weill refused to allow Harry Matthews, the top-rated heavyweight who had a long unbeaten streak, a fight with Marciano until finally Carbo approved it. By then, Matthews had been unbeaten for nine years, building a run of 51-0-1, but being frozen out. Outstanding future middle weight champion Joey Giardello was another fighter frozen out. Giardello always claimed that he would have received a title shot much earlier if he had been managed by the mob but it was not until he had had been a pro for 11 years, and had 106 fights, that he was allowed to challenge for the middleweight title.

Carbo once claimed he had controlled the welterweight division for 25 years. An illustration was presented with regard to Johnny Saxton. A Carbo/Palmero fighter, Saxton lost the welterweight title to Tony De Marco, another Carbo-owned fighter. Palermo managed Saxton so, of course, there was a return bout clause.

However, there was pressure within boxing for Carmen Basilio to get a title shot he deserved, but was being denied. Even though Basilio was not owned by Carbo he was given a title shot. Saxton was told to waive his right to the return bout with De Marco and assured that he would get his title back. Basilio complicated matters by beating De Marco to win the title and repeated the feat in a rematch.

Saxton got his promised chance and regained the title with a unanimous decision over Basilio. It was a result that was universally condemned, with two judges having Saxton winning by seven points. A promise kept, but the decision caused such a stink that this time it was Basilio who had to be given a return and, taking matters out of the bent judges’ hands, he beat Saxton inside the distance.

GETTING AWAY WITH IT

Top managers such as Jack (Doc) Kearns, Lou Viscousi and Willie Ketchum all worked with the IBC and Carbo. Typical of the deals was this: When Viscousi managed lightweight champion Joe Brown Orlando Zuleta was approved to challenge him but the promoter, a non-Carbo man, had to pay Carbo $5,000 for the privilege and if Zuleta won, Viscousi would get a piece of Zuleta.

A St. Louis police detective stated that Sonny Liston was owned by Carbo and others with Liston’s manager John Vitale and Palermo each having a 12 per cent share, two others, names still unknown, also having 12 per cent each and Carbo 52 per cent.

Carbo made decisions that affected the careers of Jake LaMotta, Willie Pep Tony DeMarco and many many others. To get a title fight or fight on a TV card the fighters needed the approval of Carbo and Norris and that approval was conditionally on the fighter signing a long term exclusive contract with the IBC so even if they slipped up and a non-Carbo fighter such as Basilio won the title they still owned him through the IBC.

Incident after incident was revealed where Carbo and Norris decided the fate of boxers while sitting around a table at a restaurant just across the road from the Garden. It emerged Norris climbed on the gravy train taking cuts and shares from their dealings.

Due to illness, Norris was allowed to give his evidence to the Senate committee in private. Norris was forced to admit that the testimony he had given to the New York State Athletic Commission in 1955 about his “rare” meetings with Carbo was a lie. He could afford to do so as the statute of limitations on perjury was five years and the Senate hearings were held more than five years after he gave his testimony in New York. With the dissolution of the IBC, Norris was no longer involved in boxing but the revelations of his working relationship with Carbo seemed of little consequence.

Norris had been part of a consortium which purchased the Chicago Blackhawks in 1946 and was chairman of the team when the club won the Stanley Cup in 1961 leading to Norris being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962.

He had suffered from heart trouble for some time and died in February 1966 when his reported net worth was $250 million. For context on his fortune, many of the fighters he screwed, like Ike Williams, died penniless. True to his IBC business practices, just before his death Norris arranged for a National Hockey League franchise to be awarded to St Louis even though no one from St Louis had applied for the franchise; Norris just happened to own the St. Louis Arena.

CARBO’S END

The Kefauver hearings did not finish Carbo. Carbo still owned the welterweight title, which was now in the hands of Virgil Atkins. A proposal was made for Atkins to defend against Don Jordan in December 1958. It looked a safe match for Atkins as Jordan was in poor form.

Jordan was managed by Californian Don Nesseth, who had no ties to Carbo and neither did his advisor, Californian promoter Jackie Leonard.

Just to cover themselves in case of an upset, Palermo contacted Leonard and Nesseth and told them that Carbo wanted 50 per cent of Jordan or the fight would not go ahead. Nesseth was reluctant to agree to this. Leonard was aware of Carbo’s reputation, so he called Truman Gibson Jnr, who knew Carbo.

Gibson advised Leonard to pretend to agree to the proposal but not to go through with the deal. Leonard mentioned Carbo’s reputation, but Gibson assured Leonard that the days of gangsters and enforcers were a thing of the past. Trusting Gibson’s word, Leonard flew down to Florida and told Carbo it was a done deal. Jordan won the title and Nesseth refused to sign Jordan over to Carbo.

An angry Carbo ranted over the telephone to Leonard saying, “Just because you are 2,000 miles away, that’s no sign I can’t have you taken care of.” Leonard was given police protection after his home was fire bombed. He then made the mistake of going out without his police protection. As he was closing his garage door, he was attacked with a piece of lead piping, beaten and hospitalised.

This was one piece of brutality too far. The Californian State Commission and the Los Angeles Police Intelligence unit decided to go after Carbo. It is not clear how much success they might have had but, crucially, they had a powerful ally: The FBI.

In November 1957, outside the small town of Apalachin in New York, local and State law forces had stumbled on a meeting of Mafia bosses from all over the USA. They raided the meeting and more than 60 of the Mafia bosses had been detained and indicted. Before this there had been some doubts as to whether there was a nationwide criminal organisation. Now the FBI knew otherwise.

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Frank “Blinky” Palermo gesturing to UPI photographers after his arrest in part of a nationwide FBI crackdown on boxing figures. Palermo is being charged with trying to “muscle in” on world welterweight champion Don Jordon’s earnings Getty Images

The FBI was looking to build on that success in Apalachin and Carbo was an obvious candidate. In 1961 Carbo, Palermo, Truman Gibson Jr and two of Carbo’s enforcers were arrested and charged with extortion and conspiracy against Don Jordan. Gibson was only charged with conspiracy his part in the affair being his assurances to Leonard that it was safe to dupe Carbo. With a young US Attorney General Robert Kennedy handling the prosecution Carbo was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison and Palermo to 15. Carbo was initially incarcerated in Alcatraz but later switched to prisons in Washington State and then Illinois. He was eventually granted early parole due to ill health and died in Miami Beach in 1976. Palermo served just seven-and-a-half years. He returned to his previous base in Philadelphia and, for a while, it was rumoured that he had a share in the earnings of heavyweight title challenger Jimmy Young. Ultimately, he was never a force again and died in 1996 at the age of 91. The final chapter in the story of the attempt by Carbo and Norris to monopolise boxing.

The good old days? I don’t think so.

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  • Interesting times, interesting article.

    I wrote a book on the subject, for those who are interested. Still available on Amazon. Enjoy

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