Frankie Carbo And The Mob Stranglehold On Boxing In ‘The Good Old Days.’
Boxing aficionados, those long time devotees known as ‘die hards’ have frequently been known to lament the cynical shenanigans of the sanctioning bodies that blight the world boxing landscape today.
Whilst decrying the logical insanity of an industry that entertains up to five men claiming to be the ‘world’ champion in the same weight category simultaneously, the ‘die hard’ will usually hark back to ‘golden era’ of 8 divisions and a single World Champion at the helm of each.
The simple notion of a universal kingpin atop each of the ‘natural’ weight classes might sound like heaven to the modern boxing fan who has grown weary of spurious terms like regular, interim or ‘diamond emeritus champion.’
But for many of the leading fighters in the gangster controlled monopoly of the 1950s, the situation was far from idyllic and a sight closer to hell.
Boxing will never be entirely free from the redolent odour of organised crime and skullduggery but if ever a man set the bar for the enduring and seedy, romantic movie stereotype then it was Franke Carbo.
Born John Paul Carbo on New York’s East Side in August 1904, at the height of his power there is little doubt that Carbo wielded more influence than any other individual in boxing and was able to control the careers of several world champions and top contenders.
At the age of 18 he was arrested for assault and grand larceny but it seemed like mere frippery when, two years later, he was charged with shooting a butcher to death in a poolroom on East 106th St. It is said that Carbo and the butcher, one Albert Wellman, were arguing over the rightful ownership of a stolen taxi cab. At the time he was known by various aliases including Franke Carbo, Frank Fortunato, Frank Martin , Jimmy The Wop or Dago Frank and duly went on the run to Philadelphia to avoid arrest.
It wasn’t long before he was collared during an unsuccessful hold up in the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ and sent back to New York to face charges of first-degree manslaughter.
Convicted and sentenced to two to four years in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, the restless budding mobster absconded and remained a fugitive for four years before being apprehended once more.
Assuming that my readers are chiefly interested in boxing and its peripheral stories, it would seem unreasonably time-consuming to chart Carbo’s extensive rap sheet and the trail of corpses attributed directly or indirectly to his malevolence. Certainly, by 1947 he had been acquitted of two more murders and is also fabled to have fired the fatal shots at Bugsy Siegel, a leading gangster who is generally regarded as the pioneer of the Las Vegas gambling Mecca.
Carbo’s entry into the boxing scene occurred a decade earlier when ,in 1936, the mobster Gabe Genovese was managing World Middleweight Champion, Babe Risko, and brought Frankie in as a partner. In 1959, Genovese was eventually sentenced to two years in the notorious state penitentiary of Riker’s Island for operating as an undercover manager after a trial in which the District Attorney labelled him ‘an evil and degrading influence on professorial boxing for over two decades.’
By the late 1940s, Carbo was established as a major influence in the fight game, openly acknowledged as the underworld commissioner of boxing who would use bribery, bullying threats or blackmail in order to adjust various situations to his satisfaction. His penchant for dressing in expensive, tailored grey suits gave rise to the nickname ‘Mr. Grey’ or ‘The Man In Grey.’
His main associate and front man was Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo who held legitimate licenses in various states and managed world champions such as Ike Williams and Johnny Saxton.
Palermo had commandeered the contract of Williams, after Ike had dispensed with the services of his first manager, Connie McCarthy on the grounds that the latter was continually drunk and palpably unfit for the role.
McCarthy went to the infamous Boxing Managers’ Guild and Williams was duly blacklisted. Palermo promised the all time great lightweight that he would ‘straighten everything out’ if he took over the boxer’s contract.
Williams scarcely had much choice and subsequently landed the big fights he was looking for , culminating in the World Lightweight Championship, but later admitted, ‘Palermo just robbed the hell out of me for money.’
For all his omnipotence, one fighter that Carbo and his cronies apparently had scant ability to leverage was the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson. In his memoirs the original sugarman recounts Mr.Grey’s frequent lament that,’You’re a great fighter Robinson but if only somebody could just TALK to you…’
Despite several approaches from members of the ‘fraternity’, Robinson always resolutely refused to throw a fight, an industry slang term for losing deliberately.
Nonetheless, it is said that Sugar Ray did agree to carry Al Nettlow, a Palermo managed fighter, for the full 10 rounds of a non title fight at the Philadelphia Convention Hall in December, 1942. The arrangement was rendered academic when, in the third round, Nettlow landed a hard right hand which angered Robinson sufficiently for him to throw a reflexive, devastating left hook which ended the fight there and then.
Later that evening, Robison went down to a newsstand where Palermo was known to hang out and explained, ‘It was an accident. I just happened to catch him.’ Opting to take a sanguine view of the botched operation, Palermo smiled and shrugged his shoulders before saying, ‘It’s alright Ray, there’s nothing we can do about it now.’
50s heavyweight fringe contender, Coley Wallace is best remembered for playing the lead in ‘The Joe Louis Story’ but always felt he’d have had a better chance emulating the Brown Bomber off-screen were it not for Palermo’s crooked exploitation.
Speaking in 1996, Wallace recalled that he wasn’t paid for two of his professional fights, a fourth round KO over Bill Williams in 1953 and his ten round reversal to the great Ezzard Charles three months later in San Francisco.
“I don’t recall what my purse was for the Gilliam fight but I was supposed to receive $20,000 against Charles.”
Palermo handed the fighter $3,000 with no explanation regarding the discrepancy.
When pressed, Palermo said that the missing $17,000 had been swallowed by unforeseen expenses.
Coley turned pro after beating Rocky Marciano in an amateur tournament in 1950 but any dreams of repeating hat feat for the heavyweight championship of the world never came to fruition. “I beat Marciano easy in the amateurs but they wanted a white champion,’ he lamented. “Blinky told me if I wanted to fight Marciano I would have to take a dive. I told him, ‘No, forget it.’
That was the fight game in the 1950s. You kept quiet or you didn’t fight. I just let it go. That was boxing. I didn’t fight for the title but I have my pride. Frankie Carbo controlled boxing. You had to go to him and the way to Carbo was through Blinky.”
Carbo’s catalogue of crimes and coercion would amply fill a book but, for the sake of a denouement, it seems that the blame for the most notorious ‘heist’ in fistic history can also be laid at his door.
When Cuban hall of famer, Kid Gavilan made the first defence of his World Welterweight Title against popular Irish American contender, Billy Graham, on August 29, 1951, a near riot ensued at Madison Square Garden.
A few days before the fight, Graham’s manager, Irving Cohen, got a call to visit Franke Carbo in the bar of the Forest Hotel, a block away from the famous arena. Not a man to mince words, Carbo immediately said, “You want your boy to be the champ…? Give me 20 percent and you’ve got the title.” When Cohen, by all accounts a steadfastly honest man, told him it was wasn’t possible, the man in grey bent closer to him and whispered, “You go and talk to Graham. He’s got the final say.”
Graham turned out be equally scrupulous and declared that we would rather not have the title if it meant double-crossing his friend and manager, Pete Reilly, in order to get it.
Cohen went back to Carbo and told him no deal whereupon the gangster asked, “Does this kid know that he’s not going to win….? He’s got a lot to learn about life.”
The fight went the full 15 rounds and, while closely contested, Graham appeared to have the edge in the majority of those stanzas and always looked in front. Nonetheless the decision went to Gavilan, much to the displeasure and rancour of several thousand volatile spectators who believed they had witnessed a cynical robbery.
Referee, Mark Conn, scored it even but under New York rules, if fighters were level on the cards then the points system was used and he voted for Gavilan ten points to seven. Judge Frank Forbes had the same score in rounds but gave it to Graham eleven points to seven. Arnie Schwartz had the casting vote and called it nine round to Gavilan and six to Graham thus saving ‘The Hawk’s crown via spit decision.
Graham stood dumbfounded in ring centre as his angry supporters came out of their seats and stormed the aisles while screaming threats toward Conn and Schwartz as police officers and security kept them at bay.
Legendary Garden matchmaker, Teddy a tenner, a neutral observer, saw it for Graham ten rounds to five.
Many years after the enduringly controversial decision, Artie Schwartz lay dying in a New York hospital and asked his nurse to send a message for Irving Cohen to come and see him. When Cohen arrived, the stricken patient looked up and said, “You know, Irving, I’ve got to get this off my chest because you are a very decent fellow. When I voted for Gavilan against Graham, I had to do it. The boys ordered me to do it. I couldn’t help myself and it’s bothered me ever since. I’m sorry, Irving, for that I did to you and Graham.
Cohen took Schwartz’ hand and said, “It’s ok, Artie, I understand.”
Carbo’s luck finally ran out in the late 50s with the collapse of the IBC as its president, James D.Norris was found guilty of monopolistic practices.
One early morning in May, 1959, Carbo was arrested during a raid at his house in Camden, Nee Jersey. Attempting to escape through a rear window he was confronted by two detectives with guns drawn and is said to have meekly surrendered.
He had $2, 800 in cash in a trouser pocket.