This is the second installment in Carlos Acevedo’s Rat Bastards series, which takes a look at the fight game’s greatest miscreants.
Before he became just another chalk outline on the cratered streets of 1970s New York City, Thomas Eboli (aka Tommy Ryan) was part of the shady and shadowy boxing fraternity. As a manager in the 1940s, Eboli was only one of dozens of underworld denizens who had made remunerative pit stops at Jacobs Beach. This was, of course, the Frankie Carbo era, when boxing and organized crime were almost indistinguishable.
What made Eboli unique was the fact that he did not need a front for his managerial activities and held a valid license from the New York State Athletic Commission. Somehow Eboli had avoided prison time, or even a conviction, despite decades as a Mob associate and a wordy rap sheet that stretched back to the Jazz Age.
His alias, Tommy Ryan, came from the former welterweight and middleweight champion of the world (circa 1892–1896), who participated in a pair of legendary fights in Coney Island long before Eboli had been born. That was in 1911, in Sicily, before Eboli wound up in Brooklyn, where he eventually accumulated arrest after arrest on charges ranging from gambling to disorderly conduct.
In the 1940s, Eboli made headlines guiding the career of Greenwich Village tough guy Tony Pellone, a fighter good enough to have beaten Billy Graham (twice), Johnny Greco, Bob Montgomery, and Paddy Young, among others. Of course, these results may or may not have been prefabricated in dimly-lit nightspots or the ubiquitous social clubs that dotted Little Italy in those days. Whether or not some of his ledger was counterfeit remains a mystery, but Pellone was very close to his manager. In fact, in 1947, Pellone and Eboli were arrested together, in Greenwood Lake, on charges of “procuring residents fishing licenses to which they were not entitled.” Eboli avoided charges, but Pellone, found guilty, was fined, and earned the embarrassing distinction of being the only boxer ever rounded up by a game warden.
To underscore just how intertwined boxing and the Mob were, consider this: Eboli also managed Vinnie “The Chin” Gigante, a light-heavyweight club fighter who never got past eight-rounders before retiring as a teenager. Here were two future bosses of the Genovese crime family routinely splitting paychecks generated through a sport as dirty as the endgate of a garbage truck.
But Eboli was more than just a manager to Gigante; he was also an inspiration. It was Eboli who introduced the crazy act to keep the law off-balance. And it was Eboli who often feigned illness to avoid testifying at hearings. Subpoenas regularly aggravated his heart condition and left him in Fowler’s position in hospitals across the tri-state area. These comic innovations were direct influences on Gigante, who would gain an extra measure of notoriety in the ’80s and ’90s by shuffling, slackjawed, around Thompson and Sullivan Streets in a scruffy robe and shamming dementia as a way of avoiding criminal prosecution. (Yet another future Genovese boss with boxing links was Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, dear amico of Cus D’Amato, the great reformer whose crusade focused mainly on talented heavyweights who might have capsized Floyd Patterson.)
In the early 1950s, Eboli handled Rocky Castellani, a streaking cutie from Pennsylvania who fought mostly in New York City, where La Cosa Nostra ran boxing. Castellani was a light-hitting technician who would eventually earn a shot at the middleweight title. (He dropped a decision to Carl Bobo Olson in 1955.)
On January 11, 1951, Castellani would face the limited but dangerous Ernie Durando in a Madison Square Garden main event that would draw fewer than eight thousand spectators. Television blowback was in full effect by then, and live broadcasts left cavernous MSG as empty as Fordlandia on most nights. The fact that Castellani had easily outpointed Durando a year earlier at the Garden hardly helped the box-office take.
Through six rounds, a dull repeat performance seemed likely. A nimble Castellani once again was dancing The Bunny Hop under the lights while Durando nearly/merely plodded in place. In the seventh round, however, Durando finally struck.
If there was one thing Durando could do, other than lumber after an opponent, it was punch. He landed a whipping uppercut that short-circuited Castellani completely. Knock-kneed and glassy-eyed, Castellani managed to beat the count, but he was so wobbly that Referee Ray Miller decided on mercy and called a halt to the fight.
That was when the fireworks began.
No sooner had Miller stopped the fight than Tommy Ryan ducked through the ropes and charged the referee. He took several swings at Miller before the ruckus broke up. It is likely an indication of just how notorious Ryan was that Miller refrained from flattening him. As a solid featherweight in the 1920s and ’30s, Miller had knocked out Jimmy McLarnin and had beaten Billy Petrolle via a narrow decision. There was no telling what Miller, most famous for replacing Ruby Goldstein in the Joey Maxim–Sugar Ray Robinson inferno, could have done to Ryan had he decided to cut loose. Later he would testify coyly to a grand jury: “He started throwing punches, but I was not struck a blow.”
An enraged Eboli would continue his rampage in the dressing room. This time the victim would be IBC matchmaker Al Weill, best known as the (undercover) manager of Rocky Marciano. When Weill visited the dressing room after the fight, he was immediately attacked by Eboli and his brother, Pasquale, aka Patsy Eboli. It was the kind of beating that might have been filmed for a particularly bleak boxing noir. This scenario would include the wary witness, Al Weill, who preemptively announced that he would have difficulty in identifying his assailants. “My glasses were knocked off and busted right away,” he said, “and I couldn’t see anything but a lot of fists flying.”
When it was over, Weill wound up in the hospital, where a suspected fractured jaw and broken ribs kept him overnight. Tommy and Patsy were arrested and charged with assault.
What was it that had driven Eboli into such a frenzy? The prospect of a fix—the ever-present outcome of so many fights during the Mob era in boxing—seemed possible given the fact that Durando was a 2-1 underdog. But there was no question about the result—Durando had obliterated Castellani with a single pulverizing shot. Al Certo, a boxing lifer, once told Kevin Mitchell what was behind the commotion. “Ernie Durando, from Bayonne, was a tremendous fighter. He was a dear friend of mine. Anyway, he hit Castellani with an uppercut and the photographer took a shot and his feet were off the ground. What an uppercut! Down he went. Boom! You know? It was a lucky shot. It was in the back of the Daily News. You could see Castellani flying. Oh boy. Anyhow, they stopped the fight and Castellani’s manager jumps in the ring and starts throwing a million fuckin’ punches. He was hittin’ every-fuckin’-body, including the referee. He was a boss of the Mob in New York. The story was that he’d bet $80,000 on the fight. So it wasn’t a fix. You know? Ernie got lucky.”
It was the kind of luck that a murderous underboss could not stomach. After the chaos had settled down, Robert Christenberry announced that a hearing would take place and that Eboli faced the loss of his managerial license. “My license?” Eboli responded when asked about the forthcoming hearing. “When I see Christenberry in the morning, I’ll hit him in the mouth with it. That’s what I think of the current boxing setup. I’m speaking loud, so everybody can hear me.”
Christenberry certainly heard. “If Ryan has been quoted correctly, this can mean suspension for life,” he said. “I intend to remove all undesirable characters from the sport. If boxing is to be a brawl, I want no part of it.” Eboli would probably have been happier if Christenberry had wanted no part of boxing before he, Christenberry, stripped him of his license and banned him for life. (On the assault charge, Eboli eventually pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence and a $500 fine.)
In the end, Eboli left boxing far behind, outstripping dozens of mafiosos who had dipped their crooked toes into the fight racket. Frankie Carbo, the undisputed czar of the fight racket, may be one of the most famous mobsters ever associated with boxing, but he never reached the heights that Eboli did in the LCN.
In 1959, when Vito Genovese was convicted of drug trafficking, Eboli became part of a strange triumvirate (which included Mike Miranda and Jerry Catena) that ostensibly oversaw day-to-day operations of the borgata. Ultimately, however, it was Genovese who ran the outfit from his cell in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. When Genovese died, in 1969, Eboli was promoted to acting boss. In no time, the unpopular Eboli morphed into what Jimmy Breslin would call a “loud target.” (Louder in more ways than one, perhaps. Here is how mafia turncoat Al D’Arco described Eboli: “He rode around in this Cadillac El Dorado with a purple roof and a cream-colored body. He dressed like a million dollars. Everything about him said, ‘Gangster.’”)
During the early 1970s, a gang war broke out in New York City as a result of the killing of Joe Colombo in June 1971, a very public rubout that took place during an Italian Unity Day gathering at Columbus Circle. From that point on, the local tabloids rarely lacked bloody Weegee-like snapshots for their front pages.
There were any number of soldiers, associates, and capos snuffed out on the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, and Little Italy, stuffed in car trunks or shot in restaurants. There was Crazy Joe Gallo, radical chic symbol and pal of Jerry Orbach, who was spectacularly ambushed at Umbertos Clam House on Mulberry Street. And then there was Tommy Eboli. On July 16, 1972, Eboli, sixty-one, was gunned down in Canarsie after a tryst with his goomar. A truck pulled up to his Cadillac parked on Lefferts Boulevard and a triggerman opened fire, hitting Eboli five times with .32-caliber slugs. When the shooting was over, his chauffeur dragged his limp body out of the bullet-ridden car and laid him down in the middle of the street. Then he burned rubber into the dead of night. No one was ever arrested for the murder of Tommy Ryan.