It is two years since Julius Helfand was tapped by New York's Governor Averell Harriman to preside over boxing's skull and bones as they whiten in the television desert. Until then Helfand had been a man of local reputation, known as a vigorous prosecutor of such simple delinquents as bribe-taking cops and cop-bribing racketeers. Since then, turning his investigative talents to a more subtle and devious world than even Brooklyn bookies know, he has become a national figure of justice and anger who has smitten boxing's unworthies hip and thigh. Only his name is unchanged among the innocents of Stillman's Gym. They still pronounce it "Hefflun."
The governor gave him, as they say, a challenging assignment. As chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission he was charged with maintaining—really creating—standards of probity in boxing and wrestling.
Now, so far as professional wrestling is concerned, no athletic commission since 1930 has bothered its pretty head about probity, and Helfand's has been no different. There is common consent that the job is impossible. At the time of Helfand's appointment a similar defeatism was settling over boxing. History was against him. Since the sport began the more spectacular hangers-on of boxing have been rascals, true adepts at circumventing commissions.
Willie (The Beard) Gilzenberg, shuffling along West 47th Street, chuckled through a snuffle. "What can Helfand do?" he asked. Willie, then a successful director of boxing at St. Nicholas Arena, is now doing business in New Jersey, having abandoned hope that he can do business in New York.
January 14, 1957
Willie pretty well summed up the situation at the time, though. Except in rare states like Minnesota, where boxing no longer is a major sport, the boxing commissions were little known and little respected. At best, the state commissions seemed merely ineffectual. At worst they seemed culpably unaware of obvious crookedness. The average commission seemed interested chiefly in attracting fights to pay taxes to pay commission salaries.
But when Helfand began his crusade some few governors were awakened to the situation and some few commissioners took heart. The face of boxing began to change, very much for the better. Willie Gilzenberg was one of the first to leave New York for states where the rules are less strict, but others have left town, too.
Not, however, without having had their noses rubbed in the hard-to-accept fact that Helfand meant business. He was one of the few commission chairmen since Jim Farley to take the job with serious intent. He is surely the first, since Farley instituted the no-foul rule, to throw confusion into the ranks of boxing's crooks.
The difficulties of Helfand's task were much more apparent than the possibilities. The commission he took over had been bamboozled by as audacious a group as was ever given to casual perjury, tyranny and subornation of victory. This has been a way of life in boxing for many years.
Helfand was confronted by a three-headed monopoly—the International Boxing Club (James D. Norris, president), Frankie Carbo (mobster), and the local chapter of the International Boxing Guild, a managers' cartel ruled by a small clique that intended in time to take over all boxing everywhere.
As the new chairman drew a chair up to his new desk, he was advised that fixed fights were fairly common and uncommonly difficult to prove. More frequent and more obvious were mismatches, especially where a fake buildup was needed to develop fighters of promising television personality. Some TV fighters were successful for the same reason that some TV announcers were. They looked neat and clean. All that was needed was to provide them with winning ways. This was done.
It was easy to do because the fight manager could not make money unless he got fights for his stable. The simplest way to get fights was to be complaisant about principle and, if necessary, make deals with powerful figures both behind and in front of the scenes. To get fights in New York an out-of-town manager had to make "voluntary contributions" to the Guild. An independent (small, that is) promoter, in order to get fighters for his shows, would do better if he "cooperated" with the Guild. Ray Arcel, an independent who had been lead-piped in Boston, cooperated to the extent of $17,000 in the form of absurd advertising in an absurd Guild publication.
The Guild had a rather special understanding with St. Nicholas Arena, the closest there is to a Madison Square Garden rival in New York. At that time St. Nick fights were promoted, ostensibly, by Tex Sullivan and Willie Gilzenberg, but it was quite well known that they were operating in the best interests of leading Guildsmen. The Guild was curiously generous to St. Nick's, quite harsh with the rival Eastern Parkway Arena. Eastern Parkway soon went out of business.
All this was regarded in Guild circles as no more sinful than monopolistic practice and the exaction of head taxes from simple tourists, but, on a lower level than the Guild, boxing was suffering from an unblinkable blight. It was well known that Frankie Carbo, a Murder, Inc. mobster with four homicide raps on his record, had a seemingly magical ability to advance even mediocre fighters from nowhere to somewhere, sometimes even into a championship. But before Carbo would make a fighter his protégé he exacted a price: an undercover piece of the fighter's contract and a willingness on the fighter's part to "do business," to agree to lose from time to time on Carbo's demand.
Third, but by no means least, in the monopoly triangle was the IBC. The IBC is, essentially, in the business of selling package deals to television, the packages consisting of main event fights and sometimes championship fights. It pretty much controls big-time boxing from this standpoint and, all by itself, it is in a position to do more to clean up boxing than 10 state commissions. Enlightened corporations would regard such an opportunity as a splendid chance to brighten public relations, but the IBC, with a $2 million annual TV-income stake in boxing's good name, never made so much as a tentative gesture in that direction. Not, at least, until Helfand forced the issue. On the contrary, it dealt quite openly with both the Guild and with Carbo fronts.
This was the situation in January 1955 when Helfand moved into the athletic commission's offices abaft the Hotel Edison in Manhattan. At that time Helfand knew virtually nothing about boxing, having devoted himself chiefly to golf, the Dodgers and an occasional foray at the track. Before he came to power the accepted standards of the post required only that a commission chairman have two sides to his mouth. Out of one side he was required to denounce boxing's more apparent evils. Out of the other side he was expected to gloze them.
Helfand turned out to be a very poor glozer, though he began his chairmanship with disturbing statements of humility and ignorance and a true-born commissioner's avowal that he would study the situation. After a while, though, his voice took on its normal timbre, which is that of a coon hound crying havoc in the night.
THE GROUNDED WELTERWEIGHT
It took him about five months to find his voice. In May he suddenly began public hearings on assorted but, as it turned out, related matters—the Guild, the extent of mob influence in boxing and the grounding of Vince Martinez, welterweight.
Martinez, having broken off relations with his manager, Honest Bill Daly, Guild treasurer, could not get a fight. Legally he was free, but other managers, Guild members or not, sided with Daly. The Martinez-Daly contract had expired, but by managerial mores no fighter is free until his manager has released him. Managers would not let their boys fight Martinez and thus give a dangerous renegade a pay night. Martinez appealed to the IBC, which reported from time to time that it was trying, really trying, but could get nowhere with the managerial clan. Independent promoters outside the state at first agreed to put on Martinez fights, then backed down. Couldn't find an opponent, they said. Martinez appealed to Helfand.
Helfand put the facts on the record and next month the IBC did get Martinez a fight in Syracuse. But then starvation set in, and in October he signed a five-year contract with Daly.
This was a victory for Daly, certainly, who by then was Helfand's bitterest enemy, but decidedly on the Pyrrhic side. For the Helfand hearings proceeded from Martinez to the Guild, and in the end the Guild was outlawed, Daly was banned from operating in New York, which is boxing's big apple, and found himself at odds with the IBC, which is boxing's big source of income outside New York.
Outlawing the Guild was Helfand's greatest single stroke. From it stemmed other major accomplishments, such as a grand rapprochement with the IBC and the sudden realization among boxing's frowzy that this was a commission with power and the intent to use it. Out of it came the banishment of Tex Sullivan and Willie Gilzenberg from their St. Nick's operation, for one charge against them was conspiracy to sabotage Helfand's ban on the Guild.
In December 1955 Helfand declared the Guild "a continuing menace to the integrity of boxing." Any manager who remained in it after Jan. 15, he ruled, would lose his license.
The Guild met in tumultuous defiance. Guild Counsel Murray (The Genius) Frank declared Helfand unconstitutional. Moreover, the leading Guildsmen believed they could freeze Helfand out by ending boxing in New York State. They could bring pressure to bear on the IBC through their International, whose members could boycott it throughout the country. They already had St. Nick's under control via Sullivan and Gilzenberg.
These two pawns made the first overt move to challenge Helfand. They announced that they were transferring their television shows to Baltimore, a Carbo stronghold, where they were welcomed by none other than J. Marshall Boone, chairman of the Maryland commission. Helfand appealed over Boone's head to Governor Theodore McKeldin Jr. At McKeldin's instigation Sullivan and Gilzenberg suddenly became homeless waifs.
Still, there was every indication that the Guild could count on the IBC. When Helfand outlawed the Guild the IBC secretary, Truman Gibson Jr., said Helfand had "used a cannon to shoot a fly." Norris put in a good word for the Guild, too. It always lived up to its agreements, he said.
The IBC had come into the Helfand hearings pretty much as collateral matter. Jim Norris had testified, for the most part, as to his acquaintance with Carbo. He said he had known Carbo casually for some 20 years, meeting him from time to time at baseball games and the race track but never—well, hardly ever—at the fights. They had chatted occasionally over a cup of coffee but never, absolutely never, had talked about boxing. Nor had he ever heard that Carbo was even interested in boxing.
Helfand—and it seemed odd at the time—did not press Norris on these points, any one of which could have been blunted by good, hard cross-examination.
But when Helfand needed a powerful ally in his battle with the Guild the commission chairman struck. By hindsight it is possible to judge that he had been saving his IBC punch for a time when he would need it. Norris came flying up from Florida and into conference with Helfand. He emerged to announce that the Guild, staunch though it had been in its agreements with the IBC, no longer could do business with his organization. That ended the Guild in New York. Its members resigned.
This, everyone agreed by then, was indeed a strange boxing commission. It was actually in command of boxing. It had destroyed the Guild and brought the IBC to heel. As for Carbo, he is seen but seldom in New York these days and then usually when he is passing through on his way to Boston, Miami, New Orleans or Montreal. Carbo henchmen are still around, still operating, and it is to be presumed that business arrangements continue, perhaps by courier, but certainly not on so blatant a basis as before.
Helfand has created at least one annoying obstacle to "the beards," as Carbo's front men are called. Boxing's financial business must now be conducted by check, not cash, and financial statements must be sworn to. The laws of perjury, he points out, are now available to him and the financial records of fight managers are now clearer to Internal Revenue agents. He does not pretend that either of these blocks cannot be circumvented, but they are at least hindrances to chicanery.
Helfand can further claim, though he does not, that the California cleanup and its counterpart in Pennsylvania derived at least inspiration from his sturdy example, along with counsel and cooperation. Helfand's little candle, shining like a good deed in a naughty world, threw its beams clear across the country. Babe McCoy, as sinister a figure as ever fixed a fight, has been eliminated by the California commission, whose chairman, Dr. Dan O. Kilroy, says similar treatment will be meted out to "about a dozen" other licensees in 1957.
The Pennsylvania commission, appointed with Helfand's example as a model of what might be done, uncovered a fight in which a boxer had been doped, suspended some top figures and has been especially influential in promotion of a uniform code for boxing regulation through the National Boxing Association.
In his two years on the commission Helfand has made but one serious slip, though it turned out well enough in one respect. He had denounced states that permit fighters to sign contracts when their managers are suspended. He had particularly hooted at the State of Illinois which, in order to get a welterweight championship match, allowed Johnny Saxton to sign for himself in his Chicago bout with Carmen Basilio. Saxton is managed by Blinky Palermo, who can't even get a license in his home state of Pennsylvania these days. Everyone, Helfand said, knew that in such cases the fighter and manager met later in a hotel room to "whack up" the purse.
While his latest pronouncement on this favorite topic was on the magazine stands in an article under his byline, Helfand reversed himself. Basilio had been robbed of his title in Chicago and Helfand wanted him to have a fair chance at regaining it. So he abandoned his own principle in the interests of "simple justice." He allowed Saxton to fight Basilio in Syracuse, where Basilio won back his title. Saxton and Palermo whacked up the purse in a hotel room, all right, but Helfand still feels justified in his action. Other states just wouldn't go along with his principle, he points out, and there was no sense in New York standing alone.
He had, however, made New York stand alone on other principles, and in time other states did follow his stubborn lead. Those two sweethearts, Blinky and Johnny, are whacking up another purse in Cleveland this month, in the third running of the Basilio-Saxton Derby.
Still and all, Helfand's record has been excellent. He has established that boxing commissions can, by putting the good name of the sport above the convenience of its beneficiaries, restore a fair degree of public confidence in boxing. Helfand believes that that has been his No. 1 accomplishment.
FEW COMPLAINTS NOW
"When I first came into this job," he says, "I found that for a long time—by way of considerable volume of mail and personal contact—that the average boxing fan and the public generally who watch boxing, either in the arena or on television, that there was a feeling amongst these people that boxing was in the control of a few people who dictated who fought, when they fought, and that many people thought they dictated who the winner was to be. Included in this category—as to who the winner was to be—was the feeling, not necessarily that the fights were fixed, although there was some feeling about that, too, but that, rather, among the controlling group and the managers, matches were being made to build up a particular fighter against the detriment of his opponent, and this, basically, is as bad and as wrong as fixed fights."
Well, to be sure, like many another boxing commission chairman, Helfand speaks in lolling periods but he makes his meaning clear. He notes, as an effective measure of his success, that few fans now complain to him about conditions.
In recent months, he says, "along with improvement in the caliber of fights, there has come practically an elimination of previous letters concerning decisions. There have been few, if any, in the past year. They have been practically eliminated."
Compared with two years ago, restoration of confidence in boxing is no mean achievement. No boxing commission can hope to score a knockout over all the cheats. But Helfand is far ahead on points. He can't lose, if he keeps his guard up.
BABE MCCOY with cigar and flanked by Lawyer Jake Ehrlich, had matchmaker's license suspended for life in California.
FRANK CARBO, undercover manipulator of fighters, caught in soulful pose in 1942 during trial for murder with Bugsy Siegel.
BLINKY PALERMO, unfrocked manager, still manages Welterweight Challenger Johnny Saxton, still "whacks up" purses.
WILLIE GILZENBERG (The Beard), defiant pawn of the Guild, has left New York for the more relaxed air of New Jersey.
HONEST BILL DALY, Guild treasurer, and Murray (The Genius) Frank, counsel, enjoy premature wit at Helfand's expense.