Corruption is inherent in humanity. Since the creation of a monopoly on power, enabled by the invention of currency, the ability for money to have undue sway is nothing new in human history.
Boxing has changed massively. What the sport was long ago and what boxing is now are completely different, but the rotten influence of lazy money is still present. So with that let’s take a look at the lurid lore that gave the sport of boxing itself a black eye.
The oldest instance of money having undue influence in boxing took place long before film. Long before cars or steel or even concrete.
In 388BC a wealthy Macedonian noble by the name of Eupolus of Thessaly bribed his way to the Olympic crown. Worst of all one of the men he bribed was the champion from the prior Olympics, Phormio of Helicarnassus.
This story still survives due to the massive fallout of the incident.
All the men were heavily fined with the money being used to create statues detailing the disgrace and warning others of the cost in shame and money of cheating at the Olympic games.
We know this because the bases of those statues still sit there today, inscriptions of the first documented case of corruption in boxing history.
Let’s just skip ahead a few scant centuries to 1750’s London. The bareknuckle boxing scene had gone somewhat stagnant. Champion Jack Slack retired to a life of running his butcher shop as well and a boxing school in Bristol. Jack Slack would dip his toes into fight promotion after he felt he found a protege. He sparred with a young man from Bristol named George Meggs who held his own with the recently retired former champ. Slack was so impressed he offered to take Meggs to London and put up an outlandish sum to have him fight William Stevens, the man who finally beat Slack after nearly a decade as champion. Meggs jumps at the chance.
When they get to London the sparring session seems to have proved a fluke. Whatever had impressed Slack in their Bristol sparring session, was left back in Bristol.
With a massive purse on the line, and shaken confidence in his protege, Jack Slack approaches his former opponent.
The day of the fight comes, William Stevens, a former blacksmith with a hypertrophied right arm, once described as impervious to pain, goes down in just 17 minutes.
He barely threw or took a punch, quickly gave up on the fight and pointed the finger at Jack Slack.
This essentially killed the 30 years of borderline mainstream acceptance boxing had.
When Jack Slack bought the title for George Meggs, newspapers largely stopped covering boxing for several years.
The next rogues in our gallery come from a bit more modern times. Frankie Carbo was a triggerman for the Lucchese crime family and member of the notorious Murder Inc faction of the Italian mob.
Frank “Blinky” Palermo ran the Philly rackets and had an unhealthy interest in prizefighting himself. Carbo was arrested on 17 separate occasions for murder. None of them stuck because the witnesses were.
Most famously an informant set to testify against him was thrown out of a 8th story window forcing the prosecutor to drop the charges. That was while under police protection.
Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo ran boxing for decades.
Many a fighter got told “it isn’t your night” in those days.
Most infamous in 1947 when “Raging Bull” Jake Lamotta lost to Billy Fox. Jake Lamotta might be the toughest son of a bitch to ever lace up a pair of gloves. Fought Sugar Ray Robinson 6 times and didn’t hit the canvas once. But Billy Fox Tko’s him on the ropes in four rounds as Jake didn’t look at all his usual self. He stood get to battered barely throwing back.
The fighters purses were withheld. An investigation was triggered that came to nothing.
Decades later Lamotta confessed to throwing the fight to get a title shot. A title he won. Before his memory of the fix got predictably “hazy” afterward.
If you’ve never seen Raging Bull, the biopic starring Robert De Niro, the fuck are you doing with your life? Go now.
Also worth noting that Carbo and Palermo got control of the heavyweight championship in the 50’s when a freakish ex-con by the name of Charles “Sonny” Liston got into the game. Coming out of jail, he stood 6’1 and weighed a solid 215lbs. The freakish thing about Liston was his 84” inch reach and lethal power.
Liston was a wayward youth. Once said “the only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating.”
Nobody knew how old he was. Sonny lived hard and took no shit with a brooding penchant for violence.
He was no longer allowed in St Louis. After an incident in which he disarmed a cop and put him in a trash can. So he moved to Philly. Where he met Blinky Palermo.
Liston was a terror in the ring, and a brooding awkward menace outside it. Both Mike Tyson and George Foreman called him the most intimidating fighter in history.
He never lost a war he went to and was short with questions or reporters he didn’t like.
One famous exchange started with a reporter asking Liston who would be “his next real fight?” Liston having come off another 1 round destruction of fan favorite former champion Floyd Patterson. Liston’s normally stoic face immediately curls up. “Haven’t I been having real ones?” was his response raising his voice in derision.
Nobody liked Liston except those who knew him personally. Even when he won the championship nobody was there to greet him but his family.
Liston would lose to a young man named to Cassius Clay despite lineament winding up in Clay’s eyes blinding the boisterous young man. Only for his eyes to clear and see him turn up the heat to stop Liston on his stool.
They had a rematch, with Clay now converted to Islam, now known as Muhammad Ali. Ali picked a hell of a time to convert. Due to his public friendship with Malcom X, even the FBI was worried Elijah Muhammad might take a literal shot at the heavyweight champion.
The fight stunk to high heaven. With the mob in control of Liston and Muhammad Ali now with the backing of a divided Nation of Islam, it turned into the mess everyone suspected it would be.
Liston went down on a short right hand now know as the “Phantom punch” in the 1st round.
Between referee Jersey Joe Walcott messing up the count and Ali screaming at demanding Liston rise.
The threats made to both fighters meant Boston declined to hold the fight all on the grounds of safety concerns. It ends up the fight drew a crowd of just 2500, to a gym in the middle of nowhere, Maine.
It was a rough way to begin a title reign and a worse way to end one. It remains one of the strangest and most controversial moments in all of boxing history.
In 1960 Frankie Carbo was dragged in front of congress, subpoenaed to testify. Carbo plead the 5th more than two dozen times.
In 1970 Sonny Liston dies of a heroin overdose. Despite a life long and documented fear of needles. They knew better than to go straight at Sonny.
Frankie Carbo spent most of the rest of his life in Alcatraz for well, everything.
All that and I haven’t even mentioned Don King. He once stomped a man to death on the street in Cleveland. A man so monumentally crooked even the leaning tower would tip it’s cap.
He robbed millions from better men using the legal system to do it. Promising millions, only to deliver thousands and coerced acceptance with legal threats and career derailment.
May Don King get what he deserves. Another article for another day.