Dim lights barely puncture the cigarette-fueled mist that envelops the room. The smooth sound of Louis Armstrong glides across the air, soothing the ears of New York’s biggest players and high-rollers as they sip the most refined scotch money can buy and talk about the world.
The time is 1950’s New York; the place is Toots Shor bar, on 51st Street Manhattan, and everything about it is effortlessly cool.
In the corner sit four particularly shady men, who seem uninterested in socializing with the other drinkers of the day. The eldest of these is Jim Norris, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in American sport during the mid-20th Century.
There isn’t a lucrative pie this wily operator doesn’t have his finger in; champion racehorses, the National Hockey League and Madison Square Garden; Norris is a major influence in all three, along with holding his primary title of President of the International Boxing Club.
This club is THE organization in boxing throughout the 1950s, and Jim Norris is the man with the connections to ensure it stays that way.
Sat to Norris’ left is the most intellectual of the four, equipped with his trademark heavy-framed glasses and none-too-flashy suit, Truman Gibson.
A qualified lawyer and influential campaigner for black rights in the political and military fields, Gibson was now deeply engrossed in the complex world of professional boxing having excelled whilst managing former heavyweight champion Joe Louis.
A shrewd legal mind and uncanny eye for business opportunity had turned Gibson into one of the International Boxing Club’s biggest assets, often acting as the friendly public face of an organization long associated with New York’s murky underworld.
The two other men at this table are primary reasons for this unwelcome association.
Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo were two of New York’s most notorious mobsters, both serving lengthy spells in prison at some stage for murder.
Carbo is the brighter of the two, spotting the riches that could potentially be made from the profitable world of boxing promotion, a much cushier job than his previous employment as a gunman for Murder Inc.
Palermo, on the other hand, is the muscle; a squat little bull of a man with a fuse liable to blow at the slightest flicker. Carbo, while no stranger to a spot of intimidation, gives the orders; Palermo carries them out, often going violently beyond what was asked of him.
British journalist Kevin Mitchell, who wrote extensively about the mob and boxing in his book ‘Jacobs Beach’, is very clear on the type of man Frankie Carbo was.
“He was a charmer, looked after his mum, all that stuff. But he had this split personality; he could be ruthless, aggressive, one of the scariest guys you’d ever meet. They called him 'Mr. Grey', because he just stayed in the shadows.
"He didn’t want a public profile; he wanted to do things in private, without people knowing his face. That’s just how he operated, a nameless face who was arguably the most powerful man in boxing at that time.”
It was Carbo, ably assisted by Norris, Truman and his murdering mate Palermo, who sat at his table in the sublimely classy Toots Shor bar and decided the fate of the world’s top boxers. And given the vast number of talented fighters in the 50s, especially compared to today’s standards, this was a lot of dreams to be juggling with.
Sports like American Football, basketball and baseball were not the financial juggernauts they are today; a career in boxing was arguably the most appealing and potentially lucrative to any promising athlete in the world, with the title of World Heavyweight Champion the biggest in all of sport. Put simply, boxing was massive.
Yet, for the great fighters of the day it didn’t matter how much hard graft they put in, how many long hours they spent running the roads or how many punches they threw with venom into the heavy bag. To get to the top, unless they were absolutely exceptional, it was a case of who they knew rather than what they knew if they intended to get ahead.
Mike Silver, boxing historian and author of the acclaimed book ‘The Arc of Boxing’, explains further: “The mob's influence was pervasive during the 1950s primarily because they controlled the International Boxing Club - the sport's major promotional outfit. And since the IBC controlled televised boxing that gave the mobsters even more power.
"Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo controlled the lightweight and welterweight championships. In addition they had silent partnerships in the management of many top contenders desirable to television.
“I'm not saying that every fight was fixed but a number of lightweight and welterweight championship fights were fixed, either by paying off judges or one of the fighters agreeing to throw a fight. Many other non-title fights were fixed as well.
"It was very easy to fix a fight as you only had two men competing so you just had to get one of the fighters to cooperate. The only positive thing to say about mob control in the 50s was that important bouts got made and the business ran smoothly. But it was corrupt in many ways and that corruption eventually rotted the sport from the inside.”
Boxing historian Ray McCormack agrees. “The mob's influence was enormous and everyone knew it, but it was hard to prove. Dan Parker of ‘The New York Mirror’ was a crusading reporter against the mob in boxing, and there were a few others such as the famous Jimmy Cannon. But a lot of writers were getting payoffs from promoters and managers to look the other away and ‘promote’ fighters. This practice was not new. It's as old as boxing itself.”
The mob controlled it all, from the trainers and managers to the reporting journalists, with a combination of intimidation and financial backing ensuring everybody the mob wanted was under their control. To break this cycle, a man far-removed from boxing’s jurisdiction was required to take a stand.
This man was Estes Kefauver. Born in Madisonville, Tennessee, Kefauver was the very personification of the word ‘nerd’.
A childhood spent trawling through works of Shakespeare was followed by a law degree from Yale, where a thirst for politics and government was developed, and eventually quenched with his election to the Senate in 1949.
A thoroughly decent and trustworthy man, Kefauver believed in the goodness of men, believed in America’s morals and treated all those that stepped into his office, be they white, black, purple or green, with the utmost dignity and respect.
Organized crime disgusted him. The criminal work of the mafia, where decency was considered irrelevant in the endless pursuit of personal satisfaction, went against all the principles he longed to believe in. So once Kefauver had his hands upon some real reins of power, he wasn’t going to squander the opportunity.
He set about ending organized crime with a verve and vigour seldom seen in politicians, a breed whose grand speeches and preaching of ethics are rarely backed up by action. He ignored political bartering, ignored compromise and slowly, despite making several mistakes along the way, got the job done.
It was in 1960 that the Kefauver Committee was finally able to bring justice against boxing’s illegal ruling classes, because of a fighter, these murdering mobsters had deemed too unstable to consider a serious investment.
Don Jordan, a talented if erratic welterweight, was identified as a potential champion by the most legal of this unholy foursome, Truman Gibson. With this influential backer supporting him, Jordan, with a less than impressive career record, suddenly found himself thrust into a world title shot against the recently crowned champion Virgil Akins.
Jordan, despite being an overwhelming underdog, won. This unremarkable fighter, a man whom the mob had thrown into a title match without yet negotiating their stake in him should he emerge victorious, was now a world champion ready to headline the biggest boxing shows in the world.
Carbo, furious at how such sloppiness could potentially cost him thousands of dollars, set about his usual tactics of intimidation. Jordan’s manager, Don Nesseth, refused to buckle, telling Carbo and his henchmen in no uncertain terms they would not be getting a ‘cut’ of his new welterweight world champion.
An associate of Nesseth and the man who first introduced Jordan to Truman Gibson, Jackie Leonard, reported Carbo’s bullying antics to the authorities. Unsurprisingly, Leonard was found beaten senseless days later.
Brought to Trial
Charges of extortion, menacing and conspiracy toward Leonard and Nesseth were brought against the trio of Gibson, Carbo and Palermo, with Norris’ legal connections in the world of horse racing and hockey saving him from prosecution.
The three-month trial was a blockbuster, with top managers, trainers, promoters and boxers all called to the stand in an effort to officially unravel in court the severity to which boxing had become a play thing for New York’s illustrious underworld.
Every day the evidence stacked up against Palermo and Carbo particularly, with a list of their associates touching almost every major player in 1950’s boxing. The eventual verdict was damning; 25 years in Alcatraz for Carbo, 15 years in prison for Palermo and five years probation for the comparatively innocent Gibson.
This punishment was just reward for these lifetime criminals, especially given the lasting effect their corruption had upon boxing’s top practitioners of the time. Ike Williams, one of the sport’s greatest ever lightweights, once famously said: “See these eyes? These aren’t even my real eyes. Blinky robbed me blind!”
Throughout their dominance over boxing the mob made millions of dollars from it, stealing money from the brave men who stepped through the ropes of boxing rings around America every single week.
They orchestrated a monopoly to suit those "in the know", rewarding the greedy majority on their payroll and hounding the brave few that dared to take a stand against them. And, most criminally, they diminished the in-ring accomplishments of some of the sport’s greatest ever fighters, whose heroic battles will forever be tarnished with an element of doubt, with observers now unsure whether any defeated man was in fact a brave loser or mob-instructed quitter.
Given the sheer intensity of boxing as a sport and the risks that every single fighter takes with each match, this is a scepticism this forever-proud sport can do without.
Kevin Mitchell is Boxing Correspondent for The Guardian. All quotes were obtained in a first-hand interview.
Mike Silver is an esteemed figure in the world of boxing, having written for The Ring magazine, The New York Times and Boxing Monthly as well as writing the acclaimed "The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science". All quotes were obtained in a first-hand interview.
Ray McCormack is a renowned boxing historian who is a member of the International Boxing Research Organisation. All quotes were obtained in a first-hand interview.