Boxing’s Dark History With The Mafia

Boxing has a dark history of gangsters, crooked fights and mysterious murders. There was a time when the mob ruled the sport from within, using their financial power and widely-feared reputation to control fights before a punch was thrown.
Frankie Carbo was an infamous gangster with control of boxing (Image: Bettmann Archive).

From fighters who boldly refused the mafia’s advances, to those who simply couldn’t, here are five unique stories of boxing’s dark connection to the criminal underworld.

Boxing And The Mafia

1. Sugar Ray Robinson Turns Down The Mob
2. Jake LaMotta’s Fixed Title Dealings
3. Mysterious Mafia Ending of Sonny Liston
4. The Crooked Career of Primo Carnera
5. Ike Williams Takes On The Gangsters


1. Sugar Ray Robinson Turns Down The Mob

Being known as the greatest fighter in boxing history ensures a great level of respect. Sugar Ray Robinson’s standing in the sport during his era afforded him this from from peers and fans but, more importantly, from mobsters who ran boxing.

Despite typically not taking no for an answer and being used to getting their own way, sharp-suited mob members saw several offers to throw fights turned down by Robinson.

The former welterweight and middleweight world champion received several offers he wasn’t expected to refuse throughout his Hall of Fame career, with the most notable coming on the eve of his ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ victory over six-fight rival Jake LaMotta.

Sugar Ray Robinson poses with gangster Blinky Palermo.

Robinson rejected a phonecall proposition of fixing the fight from a ‘Mr. Gray’, the alias of Murder Inc. hitman Frankie Carbo.

Fortunately for him, the only blowback from his decisions to persistently turn the mob down was a delayed initial world title shot, as he opted to pursue success alone without their influence.

Such a daring move often spelled the end of a fighter’s career, or even worse, during this time, but Robinson’s aura and overall greatness was a decisive factor as he boldly turned down the mob without any serious consequences.

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2. Jake LaMotta’s Fixed Title Dealings

While Sugar Ray Robinson’s reputation afforded him safe refusal of the mafia, his greatest rival Jake LaMotta simply couldn’t turn them down.

‘The Bronx Bull’ was one of the most mob-connected fighters in history, with his criminal ties working both in his favour and against him at different points of his famous career.

The most prominent deal came ahead of his 1947 meeting with Billy Fox, agreeing to purposefully throw the fight despite recent wins over Robinson and Fritzie Zivic. This made him a huge betting favourite in the lead-up but the odds drastically shifted to see Fox dubiously become the front-runner just hours before the opening bell.

Adding further to the suspicions, bookies were only taking wagers on LaMotta just three hours beforehand. When the bout began, ‘The Raging Bull’ didn’t look like himself at all, being pushed back and tamed by Fox before the referee called a halt to proceedings in the fourth round.

The mafia saw its demise thanks to Jake LaMotta's testimony.

It was evident something wasn’t right and New York’s State Athletic Commission noticed too, suspending LaMotta indefinitely in light of the loss. The truth eventually came out in 1960, when the fighter in question took the stand as a key witness in a case against the mob and their stranglehold on professional boxing.

LaMotta admitted his involvement in fixing the Fox fight but, unusually, it wasn’t for money. He actually coughed up $20,000 of his own funds to the mafia in return for a confirmed shot at the middleweight world title that had eluded him for five years, despite being a deserving contender.

His deal was met in 1949 when he was finally granted the opportunity to fight champion Mercel Cerdan, which he won fairly. But it was LaMotta’s brave testimony years later that signalled the end of the mob’s ruling of boxing, risking his life to reveal the truth and help bring them down.

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3. Mysterious Mafia Ending of Sonny Liston

Sonny Liston was one of the most feared and intimidating heavyweight champions in history but even he couldn’t resist the advances of the mobster underworld.

The 24th of 25 children in his household growing up in poverty, he was sent off to work at eight years old and eventually steered away from education to find a life of crime.

It was a two-year prison stint for armed robbery that became a blessing in disguise, as Liston discovered his physical attributes and 15-inch fists could be used to earn a living in the ring instead of on the streets.

Although, upon becoming a fighter, Liston immediately found himself involved with the mob who took control of his career, the outcome of his fights and financial earnings.

Sonny Liston pictured with notorious London gangsters the Kray twins in 1965.

These mobsters, mainly Frankie Carbo, exploited the eventual heavyweight champion for his income and reputation. Liston even worked as an enforcer for his handlers and was pictured with London's infamous gangsters, the Kray twins through his connections.

The most infamous moment in the ring came in the second defeat to Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay), with claims that Liston threw the rematch due to the influence of the mafia.

Liston’s indisputable links ultimately caught up to him in 1970, when he was found dead by his wife under suspicious circumstances. His corpse was discovered alongside a small bag of marijuana, a bottle of vodka and fresh needle marks (despite being well known to be terrified of needles).

The autopsy ruled that Liston died of lung congestion and heart failure (natural causes) but his tragic demise remains shrouded in doubt over the links that continuously plagued his troubled life and career.

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4. The Crooked Career of Primo Carnera

Said to have been born at 22 pounds in 1906, Primo Carnera grew into an imposing 6 feet 6 inches tall and 260 pounds frame.

From an absurdly large Northern Italy baby born into poverty, Carnera was groomed to become an enormous heavyweight attraction who humbly captured the limelight.

After working as a labourer and circus strong man to help his struggling family, boxing hustlers and mobsters soon swooped to take advantage of this popular man mountain and his finances.

Carnera enjoyed a rampant rise to prominence in the ring, stringing together eye-catching knockouts and drawing huge crowds to witness his freakish size. But his climb through the ranks was based on corruption, as opponents were bribed or threatened by his rogue handlers.

Primo Carnera was in deep with the boxing mafia in his career (Image: Luminosity Italia).

His management team included gangsters with not-so-subtle nicknames such as Vincent 'Mad Dog' Coll and Owney 'The Killer' Madden, as they promoted the clumsy fighter widely known as ‘The Ambling Amp’ to the world heavyweight title.

The difference between Carnera and other fighters regularly tangled in the mob’s web of corruption was that, naively or foolishly, he never actually knew his bouts were fixed. He thought his rise was genuine, thanks to a convincing team surrounding him.

It was in 1931 that a much-improved Carnera peaked and gained the title, knocking out Jack Sharkey, an opponent he’d previously lost to. Much suspicion still surrounds the legitimacy of this win, despite Sharkey insisting for the remainder of his life that he’d lost fairly and Carnera backing up these claims before his own passing in 1967.

Carnera would lose his title to Max Baer a year after gaining it and eventually endured many unsuccessful lawsuits trying to recover swindled career earnings. Ultimately, boxing’s most mob-influenced fighter finished his unknowingly crooked career with little to no profit to show for his colossal fame.

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5. Ike Williams Takes On The Gangsters

One of the greatest lightweight champions in boxing history, Ike Williams sealed his legacy without any help from the mobsters who oversaw boxing with an iron fist.

Unfortunately for Williams, his prime years coincided with the era that gangsters had a grasp on the sport and demanded a huge cut of a fighter’s purse to advance their careers.

But, from his debut as a 17 year old to becoming world champion in 1945, Williams held his head high and rejected the constant advances of these mobsters.

Ike Williams pictured with mafia member Blinky Palermo.

However, in 1946, Williams faced the prospect of being blacklisted from the sport completely after losing his manager through a fall out. Notorious mafia member Frankie Carbo was quick to act, signing the lightweight champion to one of his questionable contracts and assigned his understudy Blinky Palermo to oversee dealings.

Offers to throw fights were still turned down by Williams but the infamous mobsters were now able to bleed him dry of any earnings.

In any other era, Williams would undoubtedly have been a massive pay-per-view star and profited more prosperously but he was still able to cement his position as an all-time great during the peak of the shady side of boxing. 

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Header image: PA/Getty