Robinson nervously laughs, LaMotta looks over his shoulder. Is Bert Lytell in the house?
PART 4: SHADOWS AND SUGAR RAY
Promoter “Rip” Valenti, a product of Boston’s North End, finagled an agreement with uncrowned welterweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson to fight Bert Lytell in 1945. In May, that agreement had become “very definite plans” and Valenti assured reporters that Robinson and Lytell would meet during the outdoor season at Fenway Park.
Robinson had bigger things on his mind. The National Boxing Association would soon announce that the world titles were being unfrozen as World War II winded down and the champions came out of the armed services. Welterweight king Freddie Cochrane promised his navy pals that he would be an active champion and was making overtures to Robinson. Robinson pondered his options. With Cochrane making moves in his direction and that golden crown getting a little closer, why risk blowing it by taking on a high-risk challenge like Lytell? He wasn’t crazy like Jake LaMotta, so that summer saw him face a white fighter with a record of 7-11 instead of Bert.
At the end of 1948, Boston tried again. Promoter Sam Silverman offered Robinson a $15,000 guarantee to face Bert in early 1949 for the “Negro Middleweight Championship.” They told him that he could name the date. By this time Robinson was campaigning hard to face middleweight king Marcel Cerdan. Defeating the number-one contender who was touted as “the most-feared fighter in the country” would have made that campaign as politically persuasive as a gun to the head. But he passed again.
Meanwhile, Bert went right on facing hazardous fighters for fun.
For journalists who expected their boxers to be fearless, Robinson’s business acumen looked bad. One of his critics counted over 30 times that Robinson reneged or “ran out” on agreements to fight. Host cities left hanging dotted the national landscape between Boston, where Valenti shook his fist, and Houston, where an agreement to fight Cocoa Kid was left bleaching in the sun.
Robinson shrugged it off until he overheard Manhattan restaurateur Toots Shor grumbling within earshot. “There goes Robinson,” said Shor, “–-they ought to ban him from boxing.” That did it. Robinson penned a retort in the November 1950 issue of Ebony: “My critics would have the public believe that I’m a bad boy who hates all promoters and breaks contract with impunity. They seek to prove that I have caused bitterness, bad feeling, and confusion in boxing… this time I’ll have my say.” The media was biased, he charged; why else did typewriters rattle every time a promoter wailed about an alleged run-out but went strangely quiet when it came to his side of the story? Those “run-outs” weren’t run-outs at all, he said, they were misunderstandings motivated by wishful thinking. Fly-by-night promoters had a habit of mistaking his willingness to consider a fight with a signed contract, and if they chose to kick off expensive publicity campaigns based on that, it wasn’t his problem.
In his righteous indignation, Robinson’s pen did to him what most of our mouths do to us –-it spun off without him: “I fight all comers,” he wrote, “provided they can put up a good scrap and draw a decent gate.”
This, of course, wasn’t true. Bert Lytell was already drawing decent gates and after fighting on even terms with the best middleweight in the world in LaMotta, everyone knew he could put up a good scrap with anybody. Robinson knew it better than most -–Artie Towne was one of his stablemates as was Van McNutt, whom Bert cut to pieces in January 1945. “I want it known,” Robinson wrote, “that Ray Robinson never runs out on a bona-fide match contract.” He should have made an exception. What Rip Valenti called “very definite plans” in May 1945 to stage a Robinson-Lytell fight became “a signed contract” and still never came off. On August 1st Sammy Aaronson was complaining to the Baltimore Sun that “Lytell had a contract to fight Ray Robinson July 23rd at the Boston ball park but Robinson ran out.”
LaMotta himself may have had a hand in Robinson’s reluctance to fight the beast of Stillman’s Gym. His split decision win at the Boston Garden may be just a bland statistic now, but for a number of years afterward it was remembered as a scandal.
The Aaronson office never stopped trying to get a rematch with LaMotta and let the whole world know it. Boxing weeklies as far away as San Francisco ran front-page challenges: “BERT LYTELL challenges the World’s Leading Middleweights –-wants Marcel Cerdan or Jake La Motta” declared the May 3rd 1947 issue of Referee and Redhead; “Recently Lytell boxed a whale of a close one with Jake LaMotta, in Boston. And since that memorable encounter, promoters throughout the Nation have tried in vain to make the rematch. But it seems that LaMotta (that guy who claims no one wants to fight him) wants no part of Lytell.” Over in New York City, insiders like Willie Schulkin were also calling out LaMotta. “Jake LaMotta has been licking light heavies and claims that middleweights don’t want any part of him. Does he forget Bert Lytell?” Schulkin wrote, “Lytell stands ready to go with LaMotta at a moment’s notice. Are ya listenin’ Jake?”
Jake wasn’t listenin’. Neither was Sugar Ray. One week after the summer of Bert’s discontent, they fought each other for the fifth time instead of him.
By the end of 1945, Bert hadn’t fought for three months and fell out the rankings. He was back in January, fighting as a substitute in a preliminary bout in Holyoke, MA and then crossed the border into Connecticut to score his second clean knockout inside of two weeks.
Two weeks after that he was in Rhode Island for a rematch against Walter “Popeye” Woods.
Woods was a balding thirty-two-year-old who owned a close decision win over Bert. He was known as a clown, even if it was usually the other guy acting silly after his right hand landed. He was ranked eighth among light heavyweights by the time he faced Bert again.
The fight was “an out-and-out stinker” according to the Providence Journal. Bert seemed to miss on purpose and Woods’s punches were no more serious than a squirting flower. The fans jeered and the referee repeatedly warned both fighters of disqualification. The Journal stated in no uncertain terms that “the pair of them” should have been tossed out of the building “as early as the fourth round and possibly sooner.” Woods took the decision, probably because Bert lost two rounds on low blows, though the whole thing looked like a collusion where one fighter agreed to lose a decision and the other agreed not to hurt him along the way.
If it was, it meant an agreement was made between managers, which likely involved gambling interests –-which likely meant that somewhere down the line stood Mr. Gray, alias Paolo Giovanni Carbo, alias Frankie Carbo.
Frankie Carbo made his bones not with La Cosa Nostra as would be expected, but with Jewish gangsters. He was a product of the lower East Side, an area of New York City overrun with Russian Jewish immigrants and their rebellious, American-born children. It was a breeding ground for crime and violence and produced enough Jewish fighters and gangsters to challenge the Irish and the Italians. One of Carbo’s neighbors was Meyer Lansky, a major force in the underworld for much of the twentieth century. Although the Jews and the Italians ran separate organizations and collaborated often, it was the Italians who emerged as the controlling partner, and they used Lansky’s guys as fronts. “They know better than to try to f*ck us,” said one with all due respect.
Carbo was managing fighters by the mid-thirties and was arrested on suspicion of murder five times. After an acquittal for one of them in 1942, he let his gats cool and stepped up operations in boxing. He was given the go-ahead to make millions by treating the boxing ring as if it were a prostitution ring with him as pimp. If Carbo didn’t manage a fighter through a front man, he owned a piece of him. If he didn’t own a piece of him, he probably owned his manager outright. If he owned neither, there were plenty of strings he could pull –-not to mention his well-documented persuasive skills of the “or/else” variety. In return for fealty, fighters got opportunities at Madison Square Garden and a $2500 payday which their managers usually fleeced.
His power was an open secret from the 1940s until the early 1960s. Few in or around the ring were not secretly owned or tapped now and then by boxing’s corrupt king. And he was particularly interested in middleweights.
Did he tap Lytell and Woods? Hints are found when you look for subsequent rewards. Bert got what he’d been after, a third match against Holman Williams who had ascended to the number two spot in the rankings despite the fact that he himself was no longer rated. Woods went to Los Angeles for the first time in his career; and faced Watson Jones at Olympic Stadium for the last win of his career.
Jones was managed on-the-sneak by a matchmaker shaped like a witch’s brew called Babe McCoy. McCoy would have the dubious honor of getting himself banned for life from boxing in 1956 for fixing fights, managing fighters while functioning as matchmaker at the Olympic, and associating with known criminals. Among the witnesses against him was none other than Watson Jones. McCoy, said Jones, instructed him to take a dive on three occasions and routinely short-changed him. “He’d say let the crowd see me get hit on the chin so that it would look good,” Jones testified. “I never cheated Mr. McCoy. I brought him all the money. I brought him every nickel,” he went on, “I was McCoy’s little colored boy.” At the end of his testimony he broke down and cried.
How could McCoy, who operated on the west coast, have any connection to New York’s Frankie Carbo? First of all, McCoy wasn’t the real McCoy. He wasn’t even Irish. He was a New York Jew born Harry Rudolph who admitted under oath that he knew Carbo. He also admitted that the gangster had been to his hotel suite for private meetings and then came down with a sudden case of amnesia when asked about the purpose of those meetings. As far back as 1941, he was the manager of record for a fighter controlled by Carbo. The two were in bed together and everyone knew who was on top.
That isn’t all.
Carbo, it was whispered, owned a piece of Popeye Woods. And by the time Woods met McCoy’s fighter in 1946, Carbo was already making trips to Los Angeles and pulling strings behind the considerable girth of his old pal.
It was during one of those trips that he took time away from boxing to see another old friend, or so the story goes. Turncoat Jimmy “The Weasel” Frattiano” said that Carbo was given the contract to kill fellow East-sider and Vegas mogul Bugsy Siegel, and did so with an army carbine outside the window of the house Siegel was staying at in Beverly Hills.
“The fight racket, since its rotten beginnings,” spat Jimmy Cannon, “has been the red light district of sports.”
Those roses you smell are coming from Sugar Ray Robinson. Considering what he was up against in the 1940s and 50s, his obsessive self-interest and hardnosed negotiations take on a different light. They almost look noble. “I’m not really as bad as some make me out to be,” he tells us really, his modern critics, “I don’t intend to be exploited by any individual or syndicate in this business, where shrewdness counts and sentiment is just about worthless. I am an individualist, both in terms of my style in the ring and my business methods. I shall continue to be independent of boxing combines…”
Bert Lytell couldn’t afford to be an individualist.
While Robinson honored contracts with less dangerous fighters, most of whom sported a more marketable skin tone, Bert would never again face a nationally-known white fighter after LaMotta.
He would descend into the madhouse that was Murderers’ Row, swapping blows with other condemned fighters who were just as rough as he was. Years would be spent crisscrossing the United States by bus and train, flopping in fleabag motels, taking meals at YMCAs, and enduring separate entrances and segregated dressing rooms in the South. His dignity would be trampled when hick promoters handed him smaller purses than white fighters though the pain was the same. Inexplicable losses against hometown darlings would see him whip his robe across the ring and punch walls on the way to the dressing room, but soon that bell would ring again and he’d be back at it, fighting in a frenzy; fighting as if something was spurring him on, something like joy or desperate hope.
It wouldn’t matter to him who or when or for how much he fought; it wouldn’t matter whether big lights put a sheen on his shoulders or plaster fell from the ceiling –-because for that precious half-hour, his fate was in his hands.
And that felt good.
The madhouse that was Murderers’ Row was nothing nice. Bert Lytell is gonna bleed in PART 5 OF “THE BEAST OF STILLMAN’S GYM.”
Boston tries to sign Robinson-Lytell in Boston Evening American 1/13, 2/5, and 3/2/45. Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram 5/31/45, Baltimore Sun 8/2/45. McNutt fight in Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram 5/25/45. “Why I’m The Bad Boy Of Boxing,” by Ray Robinson in Ebony, November 1950; Williams-Lytell in The Times-Picayune 8/15, 16, 17, 18/45. LaMotta on how to beat a southpaw in “The Great Middleweights Talk About The Fight” by Peter Heller, Boxing Scene Collector’s Edition “Duran Vs. Hagler: The Fight of the Century.” Williams II in The Times-Picayune 8/31/45. Wade in The Sun 10/2, 3 /45; see also Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram 1/8/46, Hartford Courant 1/22/46. Woods-Lytell II in Providence Journal 2/3, 5/46; Watson Jones’ testimony in International 3/30/1956, Honolulu Record 11/15/56, and Sports Illustrated, 11/19/56. Babe McCoy’s problems in Los Angeles Times, and New York Times 3/30/1956 and Chicago Daily Tribune, 3/31/1956. Carbo’s career recounted in Life 5/26/1952, The Last Mafioso: Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno by Ovid DeMaris, pp. 54-56, Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab, pp. 104-5.
Springs Toledo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.