“I coulda had class”. Fighters, films and the fix

For cinema goers, the image of a boxer being coerced into losing a fight or consoled in the aftermath, is all too familiar. A convenient vehicle deployed by film makers since the advent of ‘talkies’ in the 1920’s. From John Wayne to Charlie Chaplin, actors have been knitting their brows as earnest pugs buckling beneath the guilt that ensues. Electing to forgo the integrity they cherished, in exchange for easy money or the promise of richer fruit down the line, is a choice much easier to reject in theory and detached from the starkness of life as a prizefighter from the 1930s to the late 1950s.

As Brando immortalised in The Godfather, fighters, like others in position of influence and value, were made offers they couldn’t refuse.

Humphrey Bogart broadened the notion of malfeasance in boxing as Eddie Willis, a PR man on the pay roll of an unscrupulous promoter in the 1956 film, Harder They Fall. Adapted from the Budd Schulberg novel written, serendipitously, the same year Jake LaMotta famously threw his fight with Billy Fox to curry favour with the Mob. Specifically, an Italian immigrant, by the name of Paolo Giovanni Carbo. A figure from the shadows few were willing to explore, ‘Frankie’ Carbo was questioned for the first time about the influence of organised crime in boxing the same year.

Presented by the publisher as a novel based on the ‘Fight racket’, Harder They Fall followed On the Waterfront, an earlier, and perhaps better known Schulberg masterpiece, from which the same Marlon Brando, as the retired pug Terry Molloy, was given the famous line; “I coulda been a contender Charlie”. A scene Schulberg battled with Brando to keep while filming in the tenements of New Jersey in 1954. As the two debated on a rooftop about the merits of the soliloquy to Molloy’s brother Charlie, 2000 miles away a 23-year-old Cleveland numbers runner, by the name of Donald King, was shooting a would be thief in the back. King would be acquitted.

Schulberg’s affinity with boxing and his insight on how deals were done in the post war era underpinned the script’s authenticity. A childhood spent on his father’s coattails; a Hollywood mogul and the founder of Paramount Pictures, B.P. Schulberg was a man in the thrall of prize fighters, particularly the hard-living Lightweight Benny Leonard. His fame and influence was such, that son Budd would later write a memoire on his own early years entitled, ‘Memories of a Hollywood Prince’.

Among the Schulberg’s many friends was Tony Canzoneri, the three weight champion out of New York, and Young Stribling, a heavyweight who died, aged just 28, as a result of a motorcycling accident while riding to see his wife and new born child in 1933. Four years earlier, during a family trip to Europe, Schulberg junior had been invited to spar with Stribling in Paris. Stribling was preparing for a return fight with Primo Carnera at the beginning of the Italian’s run toward the title. Both matches ended in disqualification, the first had been fought two weeks earlier in London, prompting suggestions the outcomes were fixed in order to build interest in a third. The Carnera rematch represented Young Stribling’s 254th as a professional, he was 24. It is a startling statistic even for the period. Stribling had been boxing in one form or another since he could hold up gloves. A role in the family vaudeville act that toured the world providing the introduction.

The net result of these associations and experiences was Budd Schulberg’s intimate understanding of boxing; her truths and her deceptions.

Harder they Fall also proved to be Bogart’s final role. ‘Bogie’ succumbed to oesophageal cancer in 1957. That same year, Schulberg’s father passed away, broken and ruined by the mistresses of alcohol and gambling. Bogart’s performance, as the down at heel writer compromising his ideals for the paycheque, became all the more poignant as a result. Oscar nominated for its cinematography, the film told of the fictional Toro Moreno, a giant who drew a crowd fascinated merely by his size. An echo of the curiosity stirred by PT Barnum’s travelling show a century earlier and the type of circus big Primo appeared in as ‘Jan the Unconquerable Spaniard’ before being pointed toward punching for pay.

A promoter, played by Rod Steiger in the film, who had by coincidence of casting also starred as Brando’s brother Charlie in On The Waterfront two years prior, then channelled the superficial interest in Moreno’s size, to build him as a heavyweight contender. Whether Moreno had the requisite ability to be one or not was entirely incidental. Opponents were paid to fall to preserve the ruse until, eventually, the protected asset boxed a world-class contender or champion who couldn’t be bought. Or, in real life and subject to the available odds, and the influence exerted by the Mob, could.

Schulberg’s tale was precise and sufficiently reflective of the time that the by now retired heavyweight Primo Carnera sued the filmmakers. A jobbing actor post boxing, whether on set or in the pantomime of the wrestling ring, Carnera, who boxed with the ring moniker of The Ambling Alp, had clambered all the way to the title in ’33, despite a lack of technique or power to match his heft. His ‘connected’ investors helping curate and protect his progress to the top, just as Steiger and Bogart had with Moreno, who, incidentally, had Jersey Joe Walcott performing as his trainer in the film.

Carnera sued the filmmakers for $1.5m in damages. He didn’t win, and one wonders if big Carnera appreciated the confirmation any legal victory would have applied to the widely held suspicions about his ring accomplishments. Carnera had, like Moreno, lost when he met his first opponent not on the take. For the Italian it was Max Baer in 1934. The handsome challenger relieving Carnera of the title he had won from Jack Sharkey.

By way of happen-chance, Baer and Carnera shared a ring, and the screen, a year earlier than their official encounter. In the film Max, as the story’s hero, tackled the champion, Primo, who played himself, in the Prizefighter and the Lady in 1933, with Jack Dempsey appearing as a promoter. Primo hit the deck repeatedly, for the film goers and no fewer than 10 times when the punches were for real. Max wasn’t the cold-hearted killer depicted in the Russell Crowe led biopic of James J. Braddock, Cinderella Man, in 2005, but he was a damn fine heavyweight in the mid 1930s. A fact that made his defeat to win some lose some Braddock in 1935, all the more surprising, or suspicious if the reach of the unscrupulous is to be believed.

The skinny of how crooked boxing really is, or has been over the span of a century or so of the regulated era, is more nuanced than these film noir adaptations insist. Incidents of fight fixing being proven remain entirely rare, but from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, criminal elements were conspicuous in championship level boxing. It was this period, from the depression, and the end of prohibition, to the space race, that the men in dark overcoats, commonplace on the cinema screen, were most reflective of boxing’s seedy underbelly.

Madison Square Garden proved the Eden for the emergence of Mob influence in boxing. Mike Jacobs had the rights to the famous venue but failing health saw him relinquish control, for a fee, to the International Boxing Commission (IBC) run by James Norris and Arthur Wirtz in 1949. The IBC held similar rights deals to five other major venues across North America. They owned the championship end of the sport.

The Garden meant two televised shows a week, and with advertising exploding, suddenly money was flooding into boxing. The IBC had also paid Joe Louis to convert his thoughts of retirement to reality and also secured his share of the four contenders Louis believed may succeed him. From there, a sprawling monopoly was born that would be preeminent and resist dissolution for a decade.

Despite the lack of scrutiny for those involved, aside from Jake LaMotta’s loss to Billy Fox in 1947, and a regional suspension here and there, Rocky Graziano one such fighter collared with a six month suspension for failing to report an attempted bribe, the anecdotal evidence that many results were bought is irresistible. Of the 37 championship fights that took place between 1953 and 1957, it is believed the International Boxing Commission and their associate ‘Frankie’ Carbo, the Paulo Giovanni Carbo from back in 1947, held an interest in 36 of them. Their presence the inspiration for the films of Bogart and Quinn, Schulberg and Scorsese. The Bronx Bull versus the modest, but Mafia ‘built’, Fox, was investigated by the Kefauver Hearings, the highest profile of a series of bouts within its wide ranging remit. The fight would later became a key act in Raging Bull (1980), Martin Scorsese’s unrepentant study of LaMotta.

At the Hearings in the summer of 1960, by way of introduction, a nervous LaMotta had replied “Actor” when asked for his current occupation by Tennesee Senator, Estes Kefauver. The irony was not lost on those present. LaMotta had been retired for six years at the time and was fresh off a six month stint on the chain gang when he was called. His career as a thespian would peak in an appearance, billed only as Bartender, in The Hustler starring Paul Newman in 1961. Newman himself had played Rocky Graziano in 1956 in the film Somebody Up There Loves Me. Overlaps and intersections like this occur throughout the period. Art imitating life and visa versa. Graziano, who was Middleweight champion in 1946, grew up in the same neighbourhoods as LaMotta. The fact Graziano was awarded a title shot, against Tony Zale, with LaMotta’s chance still in abeyance, was the final insult an indignant LaMotta needed to agree to the Fox defeat, or so he would claim in later life.

Estes Kefauver, the principle force in the Kefauver hearings, couldn’t quite turn his ensuing celebrity into the Presidential run he craved, but he had beaten a young John F. Kennedy to the Vice-President Democratic ticket in ’56 and in the same year, was one of only 3 leading Democrats who refused to sign the ‘Southern Manifesto’, a paper that opposed racial integration. Kefauver died in August, 1963, by way of unhappy coincidence, the same day as Patrick Kennedy, the three day old son of of his one time political rival John F. Kennedy.

LaMotta was not alone in facing Kefauver’s questions. He was preceded and followed into the Caucus Room, the place John F. Kennedy had launched his presidential campaign earlier that year, and on other stages across the country, by 600 of the infamous and notorious of American life, including figures associated with boxing. The faces of Frank Costello, Frankie Carbo and Mickey Cohen among them.

Frankie Carbo, Sicilian born in 1904 and by 1960, the Czar of Boxing in America, had been in and out of correctional facilities since the age of 11 and had suspected involvement in more than a dozen murders. His various incarcerations did little to curtail his grip on the sport of boxing. The IBC owned all the significant fight venues, Carbo controlled many of the fighters. Kefauver would comment in introduction that Carbo’s imprisonment hadn’t impeded his control of the fight game; “his influence with promoters, managers and matchmakers continues today.”

Carbo, his associate Blinky Palermo, and men from the dark world they inhabited were uncomfortable in the spotlight. Usually only photographed besides a height chart away from the masses, they didn’t appreciate being forced to squint into the camera flashes of the gathered paparazzi. A term derived from the name of the eponymous photographer, Paparazzo from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, being shot in Rome that same summer. Such was Carbo’s preference for the shadows, for dissolving into the background, that he became known as Mr Gray, among other more menacing sobriquets.

It is estimated 30 million Americans tuned in to watch this parade of dangerous men squirm as they faced questions about their influence in business and commerce. Eventually, Carbo would be snared, Bobby Kennedy, JFK’s younger brother, successfully prosecuting him for a host of crimes, extortion at their centre, and he was sentenced to 25 years the following year. Of which a number were served at Alcatraz.

The pair of fights between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay), for the Heavyweight championship in ’64 and 65, are arguably the two most debated outcomes in boxing history and, because of the prize at stake, the most conspicuous put to record. They also represent, as far as evidence can ever prove, the end of the mafia control of the post war era.

Despite his transcendent fame, Ali didn’t clean up boxing and the sport never did definitively excluded the hoodlums and fixers with the passing of the era, Ali just happened to emerge as the Mob influence faded. The numbers runner from Cleveland, imprisoned for stomping a man to death in 67, would be paroled and have Ali’s ear by ’73 and become the most influential promoter for the next three decades. Shysters and charlatans shifted their shape and their methods to find a path to influence in professional boxing, but organised crime’s years of control of the type depicted in film, was at an end. Speaking to the Observer in 2002, Budd Schulberg felt the modern day fight ‘fix’ was now an entirely different beast; “‘I don’t think fights are fixed any more the way they used to be, where it was choreographed for somebody to fall down. Now it’s more in the fixing of the judges.”.

But as Budd’s father may have commented had he been asked, that doesn’t make for such a good picture.


Boxing opinion and insight by David Payne

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