"The NOI, The Mob, and Sonny Liston": from the forthcoming book The Complete Muhammad Ali.
During August 2014, Teddy Atlas, the commentator on ESPN'S Friday Night Fights accused Golden Boy Promotions and Bob Arum's Top Rank of contriving to tilt decisions in favor of their fighters. He was speaking about a fight between Erislandy Lara and Saul "El Canelo" Alvarez, which took place at the Las Vegas MGM Grand on July 7, 2014. A fight that Teddy Atlas said Lara clearly won. I agree. Canelo, however, is a big box office draw. Another outrage occurred in September when Jose Benavidez was awarded a decision over Mauricio Herrera. Benavidez was Bob Arum's boxer. It's obvious that boxers need a union to protect them from the likes of Top Rank and Golden Boy.
The television sports commentators cooperate with the promoters to endorse stars and attract pay-per-view customers. Suckers like me. Becoming a boxing analyst doesn't seem to require much talent. During the commentary of the Canelo-Lara fight someone who earned his credentials in the RING, Paul Malignaggi, had to explain to his fellow commentators what "ring generalship" meant. George Foreman quit as an announcer because he complained that his fellow commentators lacked knowledge of the sport. Perhaps he had Larry Merchant in mind.
Just as baseball promotes home runs, basketball slam dunks and three-pointers, in tennis, it's an ace, boxing is supposed to have a moment of artistry. Merchant, for one, seems to prefer boxing in which the contestants stand toe to toe and slug it out; boxing that utterly lacks artistry. It was inevitable that something called Big Knockout Boxing would debut on August 16, 2014. It promises "a smaller fighting space, shorter rounds, and more knockouts." While the contemporary promoters put their stars in soft, there seem to be a growing number of fights in which their opponents only have a short time to train or are in at the last minute.
At least in the old days, when gangsters ran boxing, a fighter had to fight tough opponents from time to time. Mob control of boxers dates back as early as 1892 when John L. Sullivan was sponsored by a Chicago crime boss. Gangsters like Owney Madden, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Blinky Palermo and "Fat Tony" Salerno have at one time or other owned pieces of the sport. Henry Armstrong was controlled by George Raff. Some boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson, however, could not be intimidated. His son, Ray Robinson Jr. told me that Frank Sinatra approached Sugar Ray Robinson and requested that he meet some friends of his. Why couldn't the mob control your Dad?
"When we lived in Venice, a postal worker asked whether I was Sugar Ray's son; I said yes. He went to the back and brought out a photo of his uncle, Mr. Gambino, and my dad together. Mr. Gambino said that Dad was not to be bought and that he was crazy. Dad kept putting famous people out of the training camp, like Frank Sinatra. This was at Camp Greenwood Lake. Sinatra asked whether my dad could do a little something for some friends of his. My dad said no. He was also approached by Frankie Carbo. In those days, they wanted you to extend the fight a little bit, not to take a dive."
Muhammad Ali has been associated with criminals in and outsideof the ring. But before he was managed by Don King, he was under thecontrol of Herbert Muhammad and the NOI (The Nation of Islam), whichpresented the mob with a competitor. King took the fifth when askedwhether he knew John Gotti. At one point, King, slow in returningpayments for a loan to mob figures, had to beg that a contract on hislife be removed. The New York Times revealed on April 7, 2014 that Mr. Sharpton played down his involvementwith Mafia figures, although "it has long been known that [Rev.Al Sharpton] worked with the F.B.I. in the 1980s in an investigation ofthe boxing promoter Don King." The NOI threatened the Gambinocrime family after Muhammad Ali's name came up during an FBIwiretap of a meeting that included members of organized crime. Learningof this, members of NOI threatened that if any harm came to Ali theywould go to the Waldorf Astoria and throw Frank Sinatra out of thewindow. This contradicts the image of black characters who appeared onthe popular series The Sopranos, where they featured as inept and stupid, or the attitude of some Alibiographers who imply that the Muslims were cowards. Emboldened by theirmaking organized crime back down, some rogue members of the NOI took thePhiladelphia heroin trade from it.
The NOI'S attempt to enter the boxing business wasblasted by sports writers, some of whom tolerated the exploitation ofboxers by organized crime. According to Michael Ezra, in his bookMuhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon, when the leaders of Main Bout, Inc., which had NOI backing, complainedthat their efforts were being undermined by the mob, the sports writersdismissed the complaints. "Clearly," he writes,"these sports writers weren't reporting the whole story,because the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched an inquiryinto the failed promotion of a bout between Ali and Ernie Terrell thatwas supposed to occur in Toronto and be sponsored by Main Bout,Inc." It suspected that Terrell withdrew not only because offinancial concerns and because they couldn't guarantee the twohundred fifty thousand dollar purse that they'd promised, butalso because of death threats to him and Bernie Glickman by ChicagoMafia figures, which would no longer profit if the bout were moved toCanada. Investigators were unable to link the boycott to the mob, and nofurther federal examination of the fight took place. ThePittsburgh Courier sighed, "... as usual, the casting of light on supportedunderworld control of boxing still remains unfulfilled." WroteRobert Lipsyte, "To the underworld, the new organization meantonly that a 'rival gang' had moved in and was in aposition to 'ace them out' by not dealing with'trusted' closed-circuit television operators orexhibitors as well as the other businessmen who normally get pay daysfrom a title fight." A United Press International (UPI) writeradded, "New York Mafia interests were enraged at the attempt ofthe Muslims to take over closed boxing through Main Bout,Inc."
Canadian boxer, George Chuvalo, told a different story aboutthe competition between the NOI and organized crime. He said thatGlickman, a representative of Tony Accardo, the mob boss of Chicago, whohad links to Frankie Carbo, told Ali's manager that if Ali beatTerrell, hed end up in a cement box. The Fruit of Islam paid a visit toGlickman and rendered a beating from which he never recovered. He diedin a mental institution. Terrell "complained about trainingexpenses or some baloney like that," said Chuvalo. "Whathappened was Bernie Glickman was in the hospital at that time inChicago, beaten within an inch of his life. Why was he beaten within aninch of his life? He went from there to a mental institution where helost his life. He never saw the light of day again. He was questioned bythe police but never said who beat him up. Let me try to figure this outfor myself; he must have gone to see Herbert Muhammad (Ali'smanager) and threatened Herbert Muhammad much the same way that hethreatened Irving Ungerman. If Ali wins he ends up in Lake Michigan. AllHerbert Muhammad had to do was snap his fingers, and all his Islamicguys are right there and bing-bam-boom that's it. Andthat's why I got the fight with Ali."
Former ABC reporter, Martin Wyatt, told me "ElijahMuhammad really wasn't all that hot on Ali's fighting, buthe wanted to make certain that he wouldn't be ripped off andthat's why he chose Herbert Muhammad to manage Ali--to protectthe boxers from people like the interests that Bernie Glickmanrepresented, gangsters and crooks, who surrounded the boxinggame." His being tied to the mob, specifically, Frankie Carbo,was used to thwarting Liston's boxing career, yet some of hisaccusers were also tied to the mob. Cus D'Amato usedListon's mob connections to deny Liston and championship withFloyd Patterson. Though Floyd Patterson's manager CusD'Amato was squeaky clean (his brother was cited by the KefauverCommittee as having ties to organized crime), the first fight betweenPatterson and Ingemar Johansson was promoted by an organization of whichmob figure "Fat Tony" Salerno was a partner.
"In 1959, when he was already well known to theManhattan District Attorney as a 'gambler, bookmaker and policyoperator,' an investigation into the Mafia's involvementin promoting boxing found that Mr. Salerno had secretly helped finance aheavyweight title fight at Yankee Stadium between Ingemar Johansson andFloyd Patterson. Mr. Salerno was not charged in the case,"(NYTIMES, July 29,1992). Anthony Fat Tony Salerno died in prison at the age ofeighty.
Was Liston the only boxer, who had connections to FrankieCarbo, described as "the underworld czar of boxing?"
Frankie Carbo owned other boxers as well. Not only boxers, heowned sports writers and the managers of boxers. He owned RockyMarciano's manager Al Weill. Teddy Brenner, who worked for AlWeill in the late 1940s and subsequently became president of MadisonSquare Garden Boxing, later acknowledged, "Carbo had his fingerson the throat of boxing. If he did not own a certain fighter, he ownedthe manager. Weill was a boxing politician who held hands with the mob.When Weill was Marciano's manager, he was controlled byCarbo." Gangsters like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo ranboxing until i960. In an earlier time, the notorious mobster, LegsDiamond, was involved in fixing fights. Some give credit to Herbert(named for Herbert Hoover) Muhammad for ending mob control of boxing,but others contend that organized crime maintained partial control byusing a black promoter as a front. Bob Arum identified him as Don Kingto me in 1978.
It is obvious that Liston became bogey manned by boxingpromoters and sports writers because he was not pretty and telegeniclike Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and the current box office attraction,Alvarez. He was also big and black.
As Nick Tosches, author of Night Train: The SonnyListon Story, reminds us, "In those days, bad niggers were not the darlingmiddle-class iconic commodities and consumers of white ruledconglomerate culture. In those days bad niggers were bad news."So why was Sonny Liston's gang ties singled out and those ofothers ignored?
If animals and insects had an advocacy group in charge ofchallenging their defamation, they'd have a lot to complainabout. When we want to describe a contemptible person, we might call himor her a weasel, a snake, a spider or a rat. Since apes are cousins ofhumans, a relationship to which, in view of human history, the apesmight object, those who are considered sub human are often associatedwith apes, chimpanzees, baboons, though none of these animals are aidingin their extinction. Humans are doing that for them. And for themselves.Conducting interviews for The Complete MuhammadAli, I found that while a number of my contacts are still angry with thechampion for referring to Joe Frazier as an ape or a gorilla, only oneman, the late Emanuel Steward, the great boxing trainer, who presidedover the Kronk gym, would defend Sonny Liston. Liston had to fight hisway up, taking on all comers, knocking out a bunch, only to be avoidedby Floyd Patterson, the then champion. Patterson's manager, CusD'Amato, had put Patterson in against soft opposition, and wasbiased against black fighters, who could have given Floyd, a true lightheavyweight, problems. When they finally met, Liston knocked Pattersonout and in their rematch, knocked him out again. This is not to diminishFloyd Patterson's achievement as a heavyweight. As a middleweighthe was as fast as Muhammad Ali. When he fought Oscar Bonavena in 1972,he still had some speed and pop. His problem was a weak chin.
Sports writers, who have a history of issuing venomous copyagainst black athletes overdid their hatred when it came to Liston. Theycalled him "a hoodlum ... dumb ... lazy.... A person possessedwith animal cunning." The president of the United States, John F.Kennedy, felt that Liston was not suitable for wearing the belt of theheavyweight champion and he appointed Patterson as the "whitehope" who would end Liston's drive toward thechampionship. Kennedy, who had his own mob connections, was upset overListon's, even though Frankie Carbo, the mobster who controlledboxing at the time, was out of the picture when Liston fought Patterson.Senator Kefauver, who headed a committee investigating organizedcrime's connection to boxing gave Liston a crime free bill ofhealth and said that he saw no reason for Patterson to deny him afight.
The sports writers who considered Liston to be an apedidn't buy Liston's excuse that a shoulder injury led tohis quitting on his stool during the first fight with Ali. Turns outthat he did suffer from a shoulder injury, bursitis, which was verifiedby medical inquiries. The Miami Boxing Commission knew about the injurybefore the fight, but refused to postpone the fight, which, nowadays, isroutine.
Furthermore, Liston didn't stop the first fight. Hismanager did. Not only did the sports writers' politicians andcelebrities disdain Liston, but the public also saw Liston, as in thewords of Geraldine Liston, the champion that no one wanted. Suchrejection sometimes brought Liston to tears. When Liston appeared on thecover of Esquire as Santa Claus some members of the public lost it, totally.Esquire lost $700,000 in advertising money. After the second fight, when Listonwent down from what was considered a soft blow from Ali, Liston'sremaining reputation was shredded. The photo of a Liston lying prostrategraced the wall of Senator Obama's office, but Ali is standingabove Liston because former heavyweight champion of the world, JoeWalcott, didn't direct Ali to a neutral corner. Walcott laterapologized for his role in botching the fight, and permitted a sportswriter, Nat Fleischer, to call the fight instead of a ring official.There have been many accounts of why Liston remained down. He said thathe didn't get up because he thought that Ali was crazy. Otherssay that he was threatened by the mob and by members of the Nation ofIslam, Malcolm X's followers, who were upset with Ali because hehad betrayed his former mentor. If they were bent upon shooting Ali,Liston felt that he might have been shot as an innocent bystander. Ifyou watch the film carefully, you'll see Liston's headsnap as he comes into contact with Ali's anchor punch.
And given his actions when knocked down, it appears that thepunch upset Liston's equilibrium. Liston didn't remain onthe canvass, which the famous photo might lead one to believe. He roseand continued to fight, until the hapless referee Jersey Joe Walcottstopped the fight on the instructions of the sports writer. NatFleischer had a problem with Sonny Liston and didn't include himamong the top heavyweight fighters of all time. Though the Alibiographers tend to breeze by Liston's 1960 fight with EddieMachen, Machen's strategy provided the blueprint for Ali. Machenran, ducked and fought in flurries. He showed that Liston was vulnerableto an overhand right as evidenced by the egg-like swelling overListon's left eye.
Liston wasn't able to knock Machen out as he had donewith other contenders and became so frustrated that he delivered threelow blows. It gave the final round to Machen.
After the fights with Ali, Liston was never again given theopportunity to fight for the championship, but continued to bust up somecontenders. His reputation was destroyed by sports writers andcommentators, who then, as now, believe that they know more about boxingthan the fighters. Like those who broadcast Floyd Mayweather'ssecond fight with Marcos Maidana. They said that Mayweather had beenhelped in his defeat of Maidana with the aide of the referee. They alsodisputed Mayweather's claim that he'd been bitten byMaidana. "How," they asked, "could he have beenbitten when he was wearing gloves?" Paulie Malignaggi had toexplain to them that he'd been bitten by a boxer while wearinggloves and it hurt.
Similarly, while sportswriters who have never entered the ring,like Jazz critics who fake it, accused Liston of being in on a fix,three champions, Rocky Marciano, Jose Torres and James Braddock,"The Cinderella Man," said that it was a legitimate punchthat knocked Liston down.
They say that for an aging champion, and Liston might have beenforty when he fought Ali, power is the last asset to go. And so it waswith Liston. His last fight was with Chuck Wepner, whose knock down ofAli was the basis for the Rocky films. Liston beat him so badly that Wepner was to say that"every time he hit me in the face, he broke something."Liston received thirteen thousand dollars for that fight. He wassupposed to have received fifteen thousand. So was Liston an animal?Liston had a dry wit and a shrewd intelligence. He loved children andthere is an account that the mob frightened Liston by kidnapping one ofhis children if he didn't take a dive.
Liston gave money to charity and was known to do good works.Most of those who knew him vouch for his good character and hisintelligence. Few mention his witty repartees to Ali's cleververbal jabs, in the hundred or so worshipful books about Muhammad Ali.They feature his clever goading of Liston, which got Liston so angrythat he fought a clumsy first fight with Ali.
His spouse Geraldine said that he was a good husband. But likemany, he could be a mean drunk and there are a couple of accusations ofrape. Liston continued to have bad luck. He was often harassed by thepolice. Two of these jokers thought that it was funny to give him atraffic ticket every day for a hundred days. He was once given a trafficticket when he wasn't even driving the car. He busted up adrunken cop who called him a "black ass nigger." During asecond incident involving the police, he deposited a cop into atrashcan. He was persecuted by the police in Philadelphia, St.Louis andDenver. He was arrested, capriciously, by both the Philadelphia andDenver police.
Certainly he got into trouble with the law during his youth,but so did Patterson and other fighters like George Foreman and trainerEmanuel Steward, who trained for their careers by participating instreet fights. A judge sent Floyd Patterson to the Wiltwyck School forBoys.
When Liston's body was found, it was surrounded by drugparaphernalia. But his friends said that he didn't touch drugs.Geraldine Liston said that he was afraid of needles. Moreover,wouldn't his drug use have been detected when he was examined forthe Wepner fight, three months before his death? Emanuel Steward andKhalilah (Belinda) Muhammad told me that he was probably murdered.
At any rate, thousands left their gambling tables andscoreboards to witness the Liston funeral procession pass through theLas Vegas strip. Among the celebrities were Ed Sullivan, Doris Day, EllaFitzgerald, Jack E. Leonard, Jerry Vale, and Rosey Grier. Many were intears because deep down they probably knew that Sonny Liston, born intopoverty, and without schooling, called by Joe Louis, The GreatestHeavyweight Champion, had been dealt a bad hand. He said that he wastreated like a "sewer rat," but while Ali was hailed as ahero for the middle class and for his stand against an unpopularwar,
Liston represented the underclass and his father beat him. Hetraveled to St. Louis to be with his mother who, instead of giving himan affectionate greeting, wanted to know why he showed up. Having noeducation, he committed petty high-risk crimes like other members of hisclass. An armed robbery landed him in prison. He got into trouble withthe law and sports writers like Larry Merchant after he defended himselfagainst a drunk, armed cop who lied about the incident as some cops do.Regularly. His wife Geraldine was correct when she called him the champthat nobody wanted.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Nation of Islam|
|Publication:||Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
|Previous Article:||Flesh and Spirit: The Warrior Path: Confessions of a Young Lord.|
|Next Article:||The Border.|