BOXING AND THE MOB: THE NOTORIOUS HISTORY OF THE SWEET SCIENCE
By Jeffrey Sussman
Rowman & Littlefield, $34, 216 pages
When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I used to visit the Passyunk Gym at Passyunk Avenue and Moore Street in South Philadelphia. As an amateur boxer and aspiring writer, I enjoyed watching the fighters train, spar or simply hang out at the famous gym. Some of the most well-known professional boxers of the day, such as heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and middleweight champion Joey Giardello, used to visit the Passyunk Gym. Also in attendance were the ubiquitous gamblers and mobsters.
I recall a short, elderly man who sat quietly at ringside while everyone treated him like royalty. In the world of boxing at the time, Frank “Blinky” Palermo, a member of the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra crime family, was indeed royalty. Along with his partner, Frankie Carbo, a New York Lucchese crime family member, Palermo managed and controlled many of the professional boxers around the country.
Palermo and Carbo are two of the mobsters involved intricately in the sport of boxing that are covered in Jeffrey Sussman’s “Boxing and the Mob: The Notorious History of the Sweet Science.”
“This book is about the intermarriage of mobsters and boxers, of fixed fights and the millions of dollars earned by mobsters through the 1960s, right up until the time when Frankie Carbo and his minions were given long prison sentences,” Mr. Sussman writes.
Mr. Sussman profiles the shady promoters and managers who controlled boxing from the sport’s early days in America. The book charts the gangsters’ involvement in boxing beginning with Arnold Rothstein, the New York gambler who was suspected of fixing the 1919 World Series.
Mr. Sussman calls Rothstein a “visionary” and the father of organized crime who turned gambling into big business. Rothstein mentored some of the most notorious mobsters in crime history, such as Charles “Charlie Lucky” Luciano, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky.
Rothstein found boxing an easier sport to fix than baseball, as there were far less participants to corrupt. Rothstein’s aide in corrupting boxing was Abe “Little Hebrew” Attell, who had been the featherweight champion from 1906 to 1912.
“He was a champion boxer, a bagman, and enforcer for Arnold Rothstein, and a gambler who had a thumb on the scales of many fixed fights,” Mr. Sussman writes. “Any history of boxing in the United States in the twentieth century would have to shadow the career of Abe Attell, for his presence unlocks the secret of many fixed fights. At ringside, in boxing gyms, at training camps, Abe Attell was a presence that indicated something was not on the level.”
After Rothstein was murdered during a card game, Attell’s close associate was Owney “the Killer” Madden. Madden owned Primo Carnera, a 6-foot-7 heavyweight boxer. Madden paid respected boxers to “take a dive” during their bouts with Carnera. Carnera believed he won the fights fairly. He became a champion, but Madden cheated him out of most of his money. Madden later discarded Carnera, but with the help of his former opponent Max Baer, Carnera found his fortune later as a professional wrestler.
Madden, an English immigrant, was in his youth a notorious street gang killer. After a prison stint, he used his reputation as a murderer to start several businesses, including the famed Cotton Club. He later retired to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he operated a refuge for “wanted and unwanted” criminals.
“He had the hard, cold eyes of a killer, the eyes of a gray wolf before it lunges at a deer. He was Frankie Carbo (commonly referred to as “Mr. Gray” or “The Gray”), the man who would invade, conquer, and corrupt the world of boxing,” Mr. Sussman writes.
Prior to his involvement with boxing, Carbo was a professional hitman with the mob’s infamous “Murder, Inc.” Carbo’s partner in boxing crime was Frank “Blinky” Palermo, a mobster known as the “Numbers King of Philadelphia.”
“Palermo, was a short and short-tempered man, not much more then five feet tall, who always seemed to operate on the edge of anger. He reminded some people of an angry bulldog,” Mr. Sussman writes. “Ultimately, in addition to owning boxers and promoting matches, he was Carbo’s muscleman, the guy who threatened recalcitrant boxers and devious managers that they had better accept Carbo’s deals, no matter how unfair and onerous they were. Few had the courage or the foolishness not to go along.”
Carbo and Palermo were behind the fixed fight between Jake LaMotta and Billy Fox, which was later dramatized in the Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro film, “Raging Bull. “They were also behind the two contentious fights between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali.
“Boxing and the Mob” is an interesting and insightful book that chronicles the dramatic and colorful stories of mobsters and boxers.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.