Finally, after all the hard years toiling in hothouse gyms and all the years crisscrossing the country as an itinerant journeyman—smoke-filled halls, catcalls and hisses when facing the local hero, narrow losses tallied on doubtful scorecard after doubtful scorecard—Virgil Akins became one of The Chosen.
It took “Honeybear” more than a decade to win the welterweight title, and when he did, it vaulted him into nefarious proceedings that would lead, ultimately, to the downfall of the capo di tutti capi of boxing himself: Frankie Carbo, aka (depending on the day) Mr. Fury or Mr. Gray. And while Akins never openly rued his limited reign as champion the way his successor, the radioactive Don “Geronimo” Jordan, did, he never saw the title as a blessing: “Some get the breaks, and some don’t,” he said once. “Being world champion was the biggest break I ever got, but it didn’t lead nowhere.”
If Akins eventually found himself as a centerpiece in the corrupt axis between corporate misdeeds (epitomized by Jim Norris, the dashing playboy head of the International Boxing Club) and Cosa Nostra greed, he started far from the flashing neon of Sweet-Smell-of-Success-era New York City and its sometimes-murderous curbside royalty.
Akins was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 10, 1928, and grew up, one of ten brothers and sisters, in the Carr Square neighborhood, a rough-and-tumble quarter during the Great Depression. “Where I came from you had to fight to survive,” Akins told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You go to the grocery store or to school and you have to run back. When I was a bitty kid, if I didn’t run I got beat up. Then my sister, Hilda, would have to take up for me. She was three years older and could fight like a boy. The word got around: ‘Don’t bother Virg. You have to fight his sister.’ But after a while, I had to do my own fighting.”
After a brief amateur career, Akins turned pro on his birthday, March 10, 1948. In the late 1940s, St. Louis was long past its moderate heyday as a boxing accessory to the Jazz Age/Prohibition Era. Irregular cards at the Kiel Auditorium were not enough to sustain a livelihood during a time when other cities were staging dozens of matches per month in what amounted to a post-World War II renaissance. To earn a living as a professional prizefighter, Akins became the boxing equivalent of Supertramp, gloving up from Holyoke to Hollywood, with television footing the bill. For years Akins alternated wins and losses with some of the toughest lightweights and welterweights of his era: Freddie Dawson, Joe Brown, Wallace “Bud” Smith, Johnny Saxton, Isaac Logart, Joe Miceli, “Sugar” Hart, and Gil Turner. “It seemed to me,” Akins once said about his erratic results, “that I spent most of my boxing life on a pogo stick, up-down, up-down.”
After Sugar Ray Robinson abandoned the welterweights in 1950 to chase Jake LaMotta, the division essentially became a gangland clearinghouse. Throughout that crooked decade, fighters with mob ties tossed the world title around as if it was a hand grenade with its pin removed. Johnny Bratton, Kid Gavilan, Johnny Saxton, Carmen Basilio, Tony DeMarco, Akins, and Jordan—all performing under the dark command of Carbo and his flunkies, in stark contrast to, and contradiction of, the colorfast memories of those who maintain that the 1950s were some sort of Golden Age.
General know-how and a sizzling right hand kept Akins in the mix year after year despite spotty results, and then, from out of nowhere, he signed to face bruising Tony DeMarco for the vacant welterweight championship of the world (Sort of. Akins–DeMarco caused a rift between discordant jurisdictions, Massachusetts and New York, resulting in split recognition.) This reversal of fortune, for a plugger with a record of 45-17-1, and whose last trip to Massachusetts had earned him a payday of fifty-two dollars, was peculiar, even for the times.
In Jacobs Beach, Kevin Mitchell describes a meeting that took place between Frankie Carbo and an assortment of his prizefight underlings. “What Carbo told them, on one particular issue, involved the immediate future of a so-so fighter from St Louis called Virgil “Honey Bear” Akins. Mr. Akins, Carbo informed them, was to be steered towards the world welterweight title recently given up by Carmen Basilio, a client of his friend Blinky [Palermo], and, to facilitate his smooth progress, he would be placed in various fights that would be judged to his advantage.”
October 29, 1957. In a grisly, see-saw battle, Akins recovered from a knockdown (as well as a prolonged beating in a late round) to stop DeMarco in the fourteenth before a partisan crowd at the Boston Garden. “I know my first fight with Tony was my greatest fight,” Akins told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It was one of the best fights held in the welterweight division. It was the most exciting, satisfying night of my career.”
Three months later, Akins repeated violently, this time stopping DeMarco in the twelfth round, but all these stirring wins got him was entry into an odd tourney to determine the recognized welterweight champion of the world. Akins would square off against his old nemesis Isaac Logart (with whom he had split two fights previously) and the winner would face Vince Martinez, now forgotten but once at the center of mob conflict. A handsome stylist from Paterson, New Jersey, Martinez had built a record of 60-5 and a following among bobbysoxers throughout the Tri-state Region. But no matter how nifty his moves in the ring were, Martinez could not elude the stranglehold of Frankie Carbo & Co. In 1954 Martinez had received a bribe offer from a pair of tough-looking overcoats: $20,000 in exchange for a flop job against Carmen Fiore in Madison Square Garden. When Martinez reported the overture to the New York State Athletic Commission, he was put under armed guard by District Attorney Frank Hogan—right up until the opening bell. That was the first time Martinez ran afoul of the boys in the back room. Then, after falling out with his well-connected manager, “Honest” Bill Daly, Martinez found himself struggling to find main event fights. Eventually, Martinez reconciled with Daly and—presto!—he began headlining once again. He was already twenty-nine years old when he was matched with Akins in Madison Square Garden and the odds-on favorite to win the welterweight title.
First, however, Akins would have to reverse his loss to Logart. That he did, on March 21, 1958, via sixth-round TKO, but his win was overshadowed by the potpourri of subpoenas handed out at ringside by servers on behalf of the District Attorney. Half the crowd of Jacobs Beach, it seemed, received writs. It was this fight, between two journeymen with hitherto limited futures, that sent Frankie Carbo to prison. Mr. Gray, looking to retain control of the welterweight title, had overstepped with Akins, and soon he would be indicted on charges of undercover matchmaking and undercover managing, to which he pled guilty and received a sentence of two years at Rikers Island.
On June 6, 1958, Akins obliterated Martinez at the Arena in St. Louis, scoring nine knockdowns before referee Harry Kessler finally, belatedly intervened. Given the fact that Martinez had never been stopped in sixty-five outings, it was a shocking result. So shocking, in fact, that Sports Illustrated hinted at inconceivable skulduggery. “That night, the St. Louis police intelligence squad picked up Blinky Palermo, a Carbo errand boy, and found him carrying an assortment of sleeping potions, including Seconal. At the time there was no special reason to believe that Blinky was using the drugs for any purpose other than, as he put it, to ease his aching back.”
Akins was now the undisputed welterweight champion of the world. Not long after winning the title, however, he was back on the ham-and-egg circuit. He lost a pair of decisions—along with his championship—to the unruly Don Jordan in 1959 and never contended again. He fought on, now as a trial horse, losing as often as he won, until a detached retina forced him to retire a few years later.
His final record of 60-31-2 was as undistinguished as his title reign had been, but his sudden ascension was as violent as it was surprising: In less than a year, a furious season or two, from October 1957 to June 1958, he had trampled topflight contenders with a zeal he had rarely shown before. Still, those kayos, that brief moment of glory, left Akins with a permanent case of the blahs. “A dark cloud has been hanging over my head since the night I won that title,” he would say, years later. “Nobody expected me to beat Martinez, including all my friends. They even bet on Martinez and when I saw them they’d say, ‘Hey, I lost a lot of money because of you.’ Even my cousin bet against me. He was mad at me for years and every time he’d see me, he’d say, ‘You owe me money.’”