Think boxing is corrupt? This is nothing compared to ’50s
The great Ike Williams signed a managerial contract with mobster Blinky Palermo and ultimately paid a price. Photo / THE RING
A month can hardly go by in this business without some scandal or another bringing boxing’s integrity, if you’ll pardon the expression, into question.
Some judge turns in an indefensible scorecard. A fighter is busted for steroids. Another is found to have loaded hand wraps. A governing body creates yet another “world championship” title. And so on.
Last weekend’s Paulie Malignaggi-Juan Diaz fight in Texas, whose precise outcome Malignaggi predicted with uncanny accuracy, is viewed by many as yet more evidence of contemporary boxing’s corrupt and ultimately unfixable infrastructure.
If you’re among those whose patience for and loyalty to the sport are on life-support from all the seemingly dirty goings-on, consider the possibility that things could be worse. Really worse. It could be the 1950s again.
That’s right. The very era that many recall as one of the sport’s true “golden” ages was so brazenly filthy and infested with gangsters and other ne’er do wells that the Jan. 31, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated concluded an investigative piece on the state of the sport’s with the sentence: “Boxing today is a national scandal.”
And this was the era of Rocky Marciano and Carmen Basilio, of Gene Fullmer and Willie Pep, of Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta and Sandy Saddler.
This was Archie Moore’s time and Kid Gavilan’s and Rocky Graziano’s and Ike Williams’. These are giants of the sport and the stars of the era. If there was a pound-for-pound list then, all would have been on it. Today, they are in the Hall of Fame.
But it also was the era of Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo and the Manager’s Guild and Jim Norris and the IBC. Put simply, organized crime controlled the fight game, particularly on the East coast. Period.
The cretins running things today have nothing on this crew.
Many of the fighters of the earlier era steered clear of the mob, even if they couldn’t help but be touched by its influence. Others had little choice but to play the game.
LaMotta famously threw a fight against Billy Fox in 1947 in return for a shot at the middleweight title. He confessed to it during a Senate subcommittee investigating corruption in boxing and later talked about it to author Peter Heller, among others.
“I purposely lost a fight to Billy Fox because they promised me that I would get a shot to fight for the title if I did,” LaMotta said. “See, today it’s a little different. If a fellow deserves a chance at the title people will argue for it, they will speak up, or the newspaper people will speak up. But in my time there were a lot of guys that deserved chances to fight for the title ÔÇª but because they weren’t on the ‘in’ they were left out.”
LaMotta wasn’t the only one. The New York State Athletic Commission suspended Graziano in 1947 for failing to report a pair of bribe offers.
Graziano always maintained his innocence, saying years later, “Somebody called me on the phone in Stillman’s Gym, says, ‘I’ll give you $50,000 to throw this here fight,’ and I told the guy to go take a crap for himself. But then the D.A. got wind of it. They says you’re supposed to report that. I says how can I report a thing, anyone can come over and tell you.”
But Jack Bonomi, chief counsel to the Kefauver Committee, which got LaMotta to confess that he took a dive against Fox, reportedly told writer Jack Newfield that the mob controlled Graziano’s career.
Pep, who is generally recognized as the greatest featherweight ever and one of the best regardless of weight, almost certainly took a dive against Lulu Perez in 1954.
A ton of late money made Perez a 4-1 favorite, despite Pep’s number-one ranking and the fact that he’d gone 23-1 since his loss to Saddler. Perez stopped him in the second.
In 1981 Sports Illustrated published a story that suggested Pep threw the fight for $16,000. Pep sued for $75-million and lost. The jury deliberated just 15 minutes.
Lightweight Art Aragon, the original “Golden Boy” and a real media darling of the era, was involved in several suspicious fights. Tommy Campbell testified in 1956 that he took a dive against Aragon in 1950, and the California State Athletic Commission investigated judges who awarded Aragon a disputed decision over Chuck Davey in 1954.
Palermo, a “business associate” of Carbo, managed welterweight champion Johnny Saxton, who won a decision over Gavilan in 1954 even though 20 of 22 boxing writers at ringside thought Gavilan should have gotten the nod.
He also managed Williams, who most historians agree is one of the top lightweights ever. Williams said in 1971 that he signed with Palermo because the Manager’s Guild had blackballed him and prevented him from getting fights even while he was champion of the world.
“So Blinky says, ‘Ike, listen. You sign a contract with me, I’ll straighten out the Guild.’ So I says OK. It looked pretty good, because I couldn’t get any fights anyway.”
Later Palermo came to Williams with an offer before his title defense against Jimmy Carter.
“Blinky says, Ike, they want to give you $50,000 to lose the fight. Six months time he’ll fight you back again and lose it back to you.’ I said no,” Williams recalled.
Williams lost the title to Carter anyway and said that there were several big fights toward the end of his career for which he didn’t see a dime.
Don Jordan, who reigned briefly as welterweight champion toward the end of the decade, told Heller in 1970 the degree to which the mob was involved in boxing.
“Every fight in the country they were involved in,” Jordan said. “They controlled it from the very beginning. Fights I fought were prearranged, before I even entered the ring. I knew who was going to win and who don’t (sic).”
It’s no consolation to Malignaggi and others who feel fight game politics has wronged them, but consider the words of Robert Christenberry, the New York Athletic Commission chairman in the ’50s, who wrote shortly after taking office that these “…Two serious problems, gangster influence and the threat of monopoly control, have combined to produce … the gravest crisis in [boxing's] history.”
Our sport is far from perfect, and faces many of the same problems it always has. But we’re making progress.
Some random observations from last week:
The first installment of HBO’s Mayweather-Marquez 24/7 was fine, but things sure were more fun when Floyd Jr. and Sr. were feuding. The elder Mayweather, once charmingly arrogant, comes off as emasculated now that he’s back in his son’s camp. ÔÇª
Did Tavoris Cloud really say after belting around Clinton Woods for 12 rounds that he doesn’t go into a fight looking for a knockout? Please. And the Kardashian sisters don’t go to the club looking for Paparazzi. Cloud throws every punch like he gets a bonus if his opponent ends up in a coma. ÔÇª
Cloud sure knows how to punch, but he still has to learn how to fight. If Woods were more energetic, things could have turned out differently. Right now, the top light heavyweights wreck him. But maybe not for much longer. ÔÇª
For all of Randall Bailey’s punching power, his chin is pure tissue paper. ÔÇª
Showtime ran Corrales-Castillo I late Wednesday night. A word to the wise: Don’t ever watch that fight just before going to sleep. An hour later I was still oohing and aahing, and for a change it wasn’t because I was watching Cinemax. ÔÇª
Am I the only one who can’t listen to “Thunderstruck” on the radio anymore without getting all depressed? ÔÇª
Speaking of Arturo Gatti, his widow, Amanda Rodrigues, is suing the state of Pernambuco in Brazil for “wrongful accusation of murder.” If she didn’t kill him, good for her. If she did, she is the living embodiment of amorality. ÔÇª
If you’re scratching your head over the apparently miraculous recovery Vivian Harris has made — he’s been cleared to fight already — remember that he looked like a guy discussing the latest baseball scores 10 minutes after “collapsing” against Noe Bolanos. ÔÇª
For all of boxing’s vulgarities and lies, it still can save a young man’s life. Ask Cloud and the hundreds of others just like him.
Bill Dettloff can be reached at [email protected]