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The Evil Empire - Frankie Carbo and Jim Norris


PhilBoxing.com



Frankie Garbo (L) and Jim Norris (R).

I suppose I am not the only one of a certain age (don’t ask) who longs for “the good old days”. The days when there were only eight weight divisions and only one world champion in each division and Ring Magazine effectively decided who was the champion. There were no “sanctioning bodies”-well there was the North American Boxing Association-but no one paid any attention to them. Title fights were held over fifteen rounds and national titles were prized by fighters as second only to world titles. Tobacco was the addictive substance of choice and if people had heard the word testosterone they probably thought it was the name of an Italian-American baseball player. Oh happy days!
That’s the rose tinted spectacles view because back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s there was evil lurking at the very heart of boxing in America.

In the 1950’s America was boxing. Current major boxing nations such as Japan and Mexico played little part at world title level and there was still a tendency in America to attach the label “horizontal” when describing British heavyweights.

Madison Square Garden (MSG) was the boxing equivalent of Mecca. Television was becoming a force through twice-weekly shows at the Garden and an organisation known as the International Boxing Club (IBC) headed by Jim Norris as President and his partner Arthur Wirtz was the most powerful outfit in boxing.

Businessmen Norris and Wirtz formed the IBC in 1949 along with lawyer Truman Gibson and Joe Louis but Norris was President and held 80% of the stock in IBC. Norris came from a family that controlled the grain market in Chicago and was personally rich. He was involved in ice hockey and horse racing.

In 1949 an ailing Mike Jacobs, through his Twentieth Century Boxing Club, owned the rights to promote at the Garden but the Garden organisation bought those rights from Jacobs for $100,000 and turned those rights over to their silent partner Norris who had exclusive leases on the Garden, Yankee Stadium, New York Polo grounds and other stadiums in Chicago and St. Louis. Norris had the stadiums but he needed fighters to fill them.

The fledgling IBC saw the heavyweight title as an obvious target but they were still finding their feet and did not “own” then champion Joe Louis. With the end of his career looming, and with the help of Gibson, Louis had moved to ensure himself of some post-retirement income by convincing the top four heavyweights Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Lee Savold and Gus Lesnevich to give Louis exclusive rights to their services. One of the IBC’s first moves was to pay Louis $150,000 to retire and for him to also to assign to IBC the exclusive rights to Charles, Walcott, Savold and Lesnevich allowing the IBC to promote a tournament to fill the vacant heavyweight title and control the future of the heavyweight division.

IBC had the stadiums and the TV outlets and for the boxers they would need they turned to Frankie Carbo.

Since the early 1940’s Frankie Carbo had been building his position of power acting along with his No 2 Frank “Blinkey” Palermo as a promoter, matchmaker and undercover manager for many top level fighters with Palermo bringing to the table Ike Williams, Johnny Saxton, Clarence Henry and heavyweight Coley Wallace who would later portray Joe Louis in a film.

Carbo himself had his claws into most of the top lightweights, welterweights and middleweights and was behind the notorious Billy Fox vs. Jake LaMotta fixed fight where LaMotta was stopped in four rounds by the vastly inferior Fox. Although La Motta denied the fight was fixed he eventually admitted he threw the fight in return for a promised shot at the middleweight title. This was just one example of the power Carbo wielded.

Norris and Carbo began to work together with the urbane Norris the velvet glove and Carbo the iron fist and the real power man in the duo.

To obtain fighters IBC used the commercial approach along the lines of your fighter will not get a title shot or appear on a big TV show unless we get exclusive promotion rights and a share of your fighter. Carbo’s approach, usually channeled through Palermo, was more physical. Sign with IBC and give us a piece of your fighter or get hurt and very few had the courage to withstand those threats when the man behind them Carbo was a former member of Murder Inc.

Naturally some of those left out in the cold complained over the monopoly that the IBC had established and hinted at some dark forces behind Norris and the IBC claiming that Norris was just a front for Carbo. The influence of Carbo in owning fighters and fixing fights was known to much of the press but only hinted at. Some State Commission also knew or strongly suspected the power and presence of Carbo but shutting out the IBC would mean the loss of the huge dollars that big fights could generate in hotels, clubs and businesses in their cities and stadiums.

As early as 1952 the Department of Justice set up a jury to investigate the claims that the IBC and MSG were exercising an illegal monopoly but action was stymied by the lawyers for the IBC and MSG claiming that professional boxing was not subject to the anti-trust laws as enshrined in the Sherman Antitrust Act. The IBC pursued their case all the way to the US Supreme Court but finally lost their case in 1955 with Norris estimated to have incurred $500,000 in legal fees.

In 1955 the New York State Athletic Commission decided to hold hearings into the allegations of mobster’s involvement in boxing and called Norris to give testimony. When questioned over his links to Carbo Norris stated that his meetings with Carbo were few, accidental and entirely unrelated to boxing. That was a lie as even at that time Carbo was using threats and actual violence to coerce boxers and managers to do business with the IBC.

The whispers of a criminally supported monopoly enjoyed by the IBC/MSG consortium grew to a point where action was taken in a US District court in 1957 to challenge the IBC’s monopoly. Norris had tried to forestall the case by resigning from IBC which was then bought by MSG but the court was unconvinced and ruled that through their control of the promotion of championship fights and control of major stadia IBC constituted a monopoly as shown by the fact that in the period from May 1953 and the case being heard in 1957 the IBC had an “interest” in 36 of the 37 championships fights held in the United States. The judgement limited the MSG for a period of five years from promoting more than two championships bouts in each calendar year and also placed the same limitations on Norris and Wirtz who were ordered to dispose of whatever stock they held in MSG. The court also ordered that the IBC be disbanded and that the Garden and other stadiums that had worked exclusively with the IBC must be leased for a reasonable rent to independent promoters effectively erasing one part of the empire of evil that had reigned for so long.

That ruling dealt with the IBC and MSG but what of Carbo? His undercover part in the IBC was being uncovered and he was the next one in the court’s sights. For him the beginning of the end came in 1958 when to avoid a trial where the extent of his role would become public he pled guilty to the derisory charges of managing boxers and acting as a matchmaker without a licence. He served two years in Riker’s Island prison and was released in 1960.

Unfortunately for Carbo in the same year as he was released a Senate Subcommittee led by Senator Estes Kefauver had been set up to investigate ties between organised crime and professional boxing and that turned the spotlight on Carbo, but who was this guy Carbo, often referred to as Mr Grey, who was being described as the Czar of Boxing?

Paolo Giovanni Carbo was born in Sicily on 10 August 1904. His family emigrated to America and Carbo quickly settled into a life of crime being sent to a reform school before he was even in his teens. He graduated from there to a variety of street crimes and protection rackets. He committed his first murder when he was twenty when he killed a taxi driver who refused to pay off the organisation Carbo was working for. Carbo pled not guilty and in the end through plea bargaining he was sentenced to two to four years but was released after twenty months.
The advent of prohibition boosted Carbo’s career and eventually he was recruited by Murder Inc who acted as enforcers for the Italian-American and Jewish Mafia and were suspected of over 500 contract killings. By the end of the 1930’s Carbo had been charged with more than eight murders but none of the charges stuck due to the reluctance of witnesses to come forward. Not surprising since after Carbo was charged with the murder of Murder Inc. informant Harry Greenburg one of the former members of Murder Inc who had also agreed to testify against Carbo suspiciously fell to his death from a window of a hotel whilst under police protection. Carbo was also a main suspect in the murder of Ben “Bugsy” Siegel who had overseen the building of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas for the Mob.

With the end of prohibition Carbo moved into boxing and the threats and coercion tactics he had applied in every business he had been a part off worked well for him in boxing and the extent of his influence only became apparent during Kefauver’s investigations.

The testimony came from others as Carbo pled the Fifth Amendment i.e. the refusal to incriminate himself, 25 times and Palermo did the same. The lid was lifted by boxers and managers who felt with Norris striped off any influence and the US Senate looking to nail Carbo it was time to talk-and they did.

Former lightweight champion Ike Williams explained how Palermo had fleeced him of much of his ring earning. Another witness stated that Rocky Marciano’s manager Al Weill refused to allow Harry Matthews, the top rated heavyweight who had a long unbeaten streak, a fight with Marciano until finally Carbo approved it. By which time Matthews had been unbeaten for nine years building a run of 51-0-1 but being frozen out. Outstanding future middle weight champion Joey Giardello was another fighter frozen out. Giardello always claimed that he would have received a title shot much earlier if he had been managed by the mob but it was not until he had had been a pro for eleven years and had 106 fights that he was allowed to challenge for the middleweight title.

Carbo once claimed he had controlled the welterweight division for 25 years. An illustration was presented with regard to Johnny Saxton. A Carbo/Palmero fighter Saxton lost the welterweight title to Tony De Marco another Carbo owned fighter. Palermo managed Saxton so of course there was a return bout clause. However there was pressure within boxing for Carmen Basilio to get a title shot as despite a run of good wins he had been avoided. Even though Basilio was not owned by Carbo he was given a title shot. Saxton was told to waive his right to the return bout with De Marco and assured that he would get his title back. Basilio complicated matters by beating De Marco to win the title and beat then him again in a defence. Saxton got his promised chance and regained the title with a unanimous decision over Basilio a result that was universally condemned with two judges having Saxton winning by seven points. A promise kept but the decision caused such a stink that this time it was Basilio who had to be given a return and he beat Saxton inside the distance.

Top managers such as Jack (Doc) Kearns, Lou Viscousi and Willie Ketchum all worked with the IBC and Carbo. Typical of the deals was when Viscousi managed lightweight champion Joe Brown before Orlando Zuleta was approved to challenge Brown the promoter, a non-Carbo man, had to pay Carbo $5,000 and if Zuleta won Viscousi would get a piece of Zuleta.

A St. Louis police detective stated that Sonny Liston was owned by Carbo and others with Liston’s manager John Vitale and Palermo each having a 12% share, two unnamed others also having 12% each and Carbo 52%. Carbo made decisions that affected the careers of Jake LaMotta, Willie Pep Tony DeMarco and many many others. To get a title fight or fight on a TV card the fighters needed the approval of Carbo and Norris and that approval was conditionally on the fighter signing a long term exclusive contract with the IBC so even if they slipped up and a non-Carbo fighter such as Basilio won the title they still owned him through the IBC.

Incident after incident was revealed where Carbo and Norris decided the fate of boxers whilst sitting around a table at restaurant just across the road from the Garden and how Norris climbed on the gravy train taking cuts and shares from their dealings.

Due to illness Norris was allowed to give his evidence to the Senate committee in private. Norris was forced to admit that the testimony he had given to the New York State Athletic Commission in 1955 about his “rare” meetings with Carbo was a lie. He could afford to do so as the statute of limitations on perjury was five years and the Senate hearings were held more than five years after he gave his testimony in New York. With the dissolution of the IBC Norris was no longer involved in boxing but the revelations of his working relationship with Carbo seemed of little consequence. Norris had been part of a consortium that purchased the Chicago Blackhawks in 1946 and was chairman of the team when the club won the Stanley Cup in 1961 leading to Norris being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962. He had suffered from heart trouble for some time and died in February 1966 when his reported net worth was $250 million a contrast to fighters he helped screw such as Ike Williams who died penniless. True to his IBC business practices to the end just before his death, Norris arranged for a National Hockey League franchise to be awarded to St Louis even though no one from St. Louis had applied for the franchise-and Norris just happened to own the St. Louis Arena.

The Kefauver hearings did not finish Carbo. Carbo had still owned the welterweight title now in the hands of Virgil Atkins. A proposal was made for Atkins to defend against Don Jordan in December 1958. It looked a safe match for Atkins as Jordan had lost to Dave Charley and had looked unimpressive in beating Gaspar Ortega twice on split decisions with one of those fights labelled a world title eliminator. Jordan was managed by Californian Don Nesseth who had no ties to Carbo and was being advised by Californian promoter Jackie Leonard, again not a Carbo man. Just to cover themselves in case of an upset Palermo contacted Leonard and Nesseth and told them that Carbo wanted 50% of Jordan or the fight would not go ahead. Nesseth was reluctant to agree to this. Leonard was aware of Carbo’s reputation so he called Truman Gibson Jr. who was associated with Carbo and Gibson advised Leonard to pretend to agree to the proposal but not to go through with the deal. Leonard mentioned Carbo’s reputation but Gibson assured Leonard that the days of gangsters and Carbo-like enforcers were a thing of the past. On that basis Leonard flew down to Florida and told Carbo it was a done deal. Jordan won the title and Nesseth refused to sign Jordan over to Carbo. An angry Carbo ranted over the telephone to Leonard saying “Just because you are two thousand miles away, that’s no sign I can’t have you taken care of”. Leonard was given police protection after his home was fire bombed. He then made the mistake of going out without his police protection. When he returned as he was closing his garage door he was attacked with a piece of lead piping, beaten and hospitalised.
This was one piece of brutality too far. The Californian State Commission and the Los Angeles Police Intelligence unit decided to go after Carbo. It is not clear how much success they might have had but they had a powerful ally. In November 1957 outside the small town of Apalachin in New York local and State law forces had stumbled on a meeting of Mafia bosses from all over the USA. They raided the meeting and more than sixty of the Mafia bosses had been detained and indicted. Before this there had been some doubts as to whether there was a nationwide criminal organisation. Now the FBI knew otherwise. The FBI was looking to build on that success in Apalachin and Carbo was an obvious candidate. In 1961 Carbo, Palermo, Truman Gibson Jr and two of Carbo’s enforcers were arrested and charged with extortion and conspiracy against Don Jordan. Gibson was only charged with conspiracy his part in the affair being his assurances to Leonard that it was safe to dupe Carbo.

With a young US Attorney General Robert Kennedy handling the prosecution Carbo was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison and Palermo to fifteen years. Carbo was initially incarcerated in Alcatraz but later switched to prisons in Washington State and then Illinois. He was eventually granted early parole due to ill health and died in Miami Beach in 1976. Palermo served just seven and a half years. He returned to his previous base in Philadelphia and for a while it was rumoured that he had a share in the earnings of heavyweight title challenger Jimmy Young but he was never a force again and died in 1996 at the age of ninety-one. The final chapter in the story of the attempt by Carbo and Norris to monopolise boxing. The good old days-I don’t think so. Take off the rose coloured spectacles Eric.


Click here to view a list of other articles written by Eric Armit.


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