The following is an excerpt, from pages 83-85 of chapter 7, “This Isle of Joy,” from Jacobs Beach: The Mob, The Garden & The Golden Age of Boxing, by Kevin Mitchell. Copyright © 2010 Kevin Mitchell.
Together, with the purblind acquiescence of other timid types, Carbo, Palermo, and their friends would turn Madison Square Garden into a sordid hall of deceit. Or rather, they made sure it would remain that way. Because, in truth, it had rarely been anything else. For all the mythification and memorable nights, the Garden still stank with as much bad karma as it once did with liniment and cigar smoke. Frankie and Blinky, along with their sharp-suited cohort, Jim Norris, and the smooth-talking lawyer Truman Gibson, robbed boxers remorselessly within its walls and, from the East Coast to the West, they froze out good fighters who wouldn’t do as they were told, arranged results, and controlled titles—perhaps not so brazenly as some before them, maybe not so subtly as some that followed, but with no less enthusiasm.
And yet, remarkably, to this day people talk in reverential tones about the golden days, about how the mobsters might have been killers but they knew how to run boxing, what a sweet guy Carbo was, how Palermo never did them wrong, how Norris always kept his word, how fighters got good paydays.
As Al Certo remembers them, “They were decent guys, they were men of the world. This is not your night, kid, next fight, don’t worry about it, it’s yours, shit like that.”
Al’s from Jersey. He’s been in boxing all his life, as a fighter and trainer. All his memories are good ones, because they are the only ones he wants.
“Like, for instance,” he says, “a fight between Ernie Durando and Rocky Castellani [Madison Square Garden, January 1952]. He beat Ernie already, so this was a rematch. So on paper he would be the winner. It was a national television Friday night fight and Ernie Durando was a tremendous fighter, he was my dear friend. He hit Castellani with an uppercut and he took the shot and both feet were off the ground. Down he went. Boom! It was a lucky shot, you know? It was in the back of the Daily News and you see Castellani, like . . . oh God. Anyhow, they stopped the fight and Castellani’s manager [the gangster Tommy Ryan] jumps in the ring and starts throwing a million fucking punches. He hit everybody! He was the boss of the Mob, a big guy. The story is that he bet $80,000 on the fight. So it wasn’t a fixed fight, right? It was a fight that shoulda gone all the way, but it didn’t. Ernie got lucky. But they were the great years . . . and to fight in the old Garden, even a four-rounder, even a six, you fought a semifinal, hey, wow!”
Bill Cayton, who once owned a leg of Mike Tyson, said not long before he died that he’d heard of only one fixed fight in more than fifty years in boxing. Cayton, an apparently decent man who was properly stiffed by Tyson when Don King came along, must have been either deaf, blind, or a fool—or all three. Gil Clancy shared Cayton’s view.
Dan Parker, the most outspoken, incorruptible, and determined of New York’s boxing writers, pointed out the nods and winks many times in the fifties while more malleable colleagues, including the vaunted Nat Fleischer, longtime editor of The Ring, chose not to look too closely lest pesky questioning upset Carbo and his associates, among them the frightening Frank Costello.
What Parker knew, and where the cynics are partly right, was this: promoters and managers, in each other’s pockets, didn’t need to “fix” that many fights; they only had to own most or, preferably, all the fighters, a lesson Don King learned well. A boxer was either in the loop and got the fights, or wasn’t and didn’t.
“Evidence the New York State Crime Commission secured by wiretapping indicates that Carbo has a voice in the matchmaking decisions of the IBC,” Parker told his readers. “He is supposed to have named the list to matchmakers at Madison Square Garden and has been known to give them orders. No one knows how many fighters the tight-lipped Carbo has a piece of or how often two Carbo warriors square off against each other in a “grudge” battle for the entertainment of televiewers— most of whom, incidentally, haven’t the slightest inkling that such a person exists.”
Carbo’s friends lurked to bad intent across a range of illegal activities. When they gathered at the Garden for the fights, they had plenty to talk about. There was a loose hierarchy and very much a common purpose.
Costello’s power base was gambling, and he had in tow on all the big nights Dandy Phil Kastel, who’d fly up from Miami, his appointed fiefdom, as well as the bookmaker Frankie Erikson. Also there much of the time, shaded and guarded, was Lucky Luciano, whose line was the numbers racket, heroin, and prostitution. Nearby and unapproachable was Joey Adonis, who fixed elections and broke bones on the waterfront. Before they were offed or locked up were Siegel and Meyer Lansky, enforcers who freelanced in Philadelphia. Longy Zwillman ruled Jersey, the Mafia’s American kingdom. They were just some of the faces who peered through the cigar fog at the moving meat in the ring, men most of them owned pieces of.
Idle suspicions? Well, Graziano and Sugar Ray Robinson both testified in the late forties that they’d been offered money to throw fights. So did LaMotta—but only when the damage had been done and his legend had been cemented. Frank S. Hogan, a New York prosecutor not shy of a headline, had hounded down gamblers betting on rigged boxing and football matches in the forties. Isadore Dollinger, a Democrat from the Bronx, declared boxing fans had been “duped, fleeced, and otherwise damaged” by these shysters. Al “Bummy” Davis, a tapped-up and very good welterweight from Brownsville, was under constant surveillance. Saverio Freddie Fiducian, a Jersey heavyweight who also boxed as Freddie Martin, was suspended for “laxity” in reporting a bribe to take a dive at the Garden against Freddie Schott, who stopped him in the ninth. And so it went.