Boxing And The Mafia
Coming to America
As of 2013 the total population of Italian Americans stood at 17,222,412 which was 5.4% of the U.S population. Immigration to the Americans was something that happened in waves. Some of these waves were larger than others. One of the largest happened between 1890 and 1917 when an estimated 13 million Italians migrated out of Italy, making Italy the scene of the largest voluntary emigration in recorded world history.
Approximately 84% of the Italian immigrants came from the south of Italy in what is known today as Sicily. There has always been a divide in Italy between the wealthier region of the north and the more agriculturally driven rural area of the south. The Italian government actually encouraged emigration from the south to lower the burden on the state.
New york city was a very popular destination for these new waves of immigrants. Between 1880 and 1910 the number of Italians soared from 20,000 to 500,000 making up a large chunk of the city’s demographic population. Entire neighbourhoods were transformed into little pieces of Italy with the newcomers wanting to hold onto the culture they had left behind. Some of the other cities that saw large amounts of Italian immigrants settle down included Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
Early Days of the Mob
‘The mob’ as it was known came into power in America during the prohibition era when the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors was banned. The bootleg liquor business would prove to be very lucrative. The creation of an underground network of selling and distributing alcohol lay the groundwork for the nationwide phenomenon know as the Mafia or “Cosa Nostra”, Italian for “Our Thing”. The infamous Al Capone, a man who defined an era, along with many others made their name during this period and became celebrity like figures.
As the power and influence of the organised crime families spread across America they began to branch out into other industries and seek out new opportunities. They infiltrated unions, construction companies, extorted small businesses and even had influence within the political sphere. Sport match fixing and illegal gambling was something they set their eyes on and saw huge potential for profit. This is when they turned their eye on one of the most popular sports at the time - boxing.
Boxing and the Mafia
During the 1950s and certainly well into the 60s the mafia were heavily influential in the sport of boxing. There has always been a lot of politics behind the scenes with boxing, more so than any other sport. At the time you couldn’t make a match without the blessings of the mob. Frank "Blinky" Palermo was an organized crime figure who surreptitiously owned prize-fighters and fixed fights. His right hand man was Paul John Carbo, better known as "Frankie Carbo", a New York City Mafia soldier in the Lucchese crime family, who operated as a gunman with Murder, Inc.
The most famous incident of match fixing in boxing was when Jake Lamotta faced Billy fox who was one of Palermo’s fighters. Jake Lamotta was one boxer who often rubbed shoulders with the mafia. Being of Italian stock himself the man nickname ‘the raging bull’ was a ferocious fighter in the ring. LaMotta often got as much as he was giving in an era of great middleweights; with a thick skull and jaw muscles, LaMotta was able to absorb incredible amounts of punishment over the course of his career, and is thought to have one of the greatest chins in boxing history. In November 1947, LaMotta admittedly took a dive for the mob in his fight against Billy Fox at Madison Square Garden in New York. Fox scored a technical knockout in the 4th round against the undefeated LaMotta who just didn’t look the same as he had in his previous bouts.
In addition to Billy Fox, the professional fighters that Palermo owned outright or under the table included World Welterweight champion Virgil Akins, number three-ranked heavyweight contender Clarence Henry, World Welterweight Champion Johnny Saxton, heavyweight contender Coley Wallace, and Lightweight Champion Ike Williams. Palermo would cheat members of his stable out of their share of the purses of their fights.
Another boxer who reportedly had ties with the mob was Sonny Liston. Being one of the most feared man on the planet Liston was a wrecking machine, the Mike Tyson of his era. He already had a background steeped in criminal activity and actually learned to box whilst serving time in Prison. Liston was knocked out in the first round of the rematch with Ali, many called the punch that put him down a “phantom punch” as Liston had a good chin and Ali was moving back as he threw it. It is still a controversial subject but many believe the fight was fixed including a lot of the spectators who bore witness to the event. Liston died in 1971. The authorities found a quarter ounce of heroin, a .38 revolver and a stuffed rattlesnake next to his body. The official statement said that he had died of natural causes but many rumors have circulated that the mob had killed him for their own reasons.
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