'When I reached up to pull down the garage door something hit me from behind. The blow drove me to my knees. I rose. Another blow dropped me again. I was kicked several times. I heard two voices but I was so dazed I could not identify the men.'
The voice that gasped out this dramatic story was that of Jackie Leonard. Having regained consciousness, he was speaking now in the emergency ward of a Los Angeles hospital where doctors were treating him for concussion of the brain and examining him for even more serious damage.
The after-dark attack on Jackie Leonard June 3 was big news in Los Angeles and across the country because Jackie Leonard, a boxing promoter, had been under police protection since giving testimony, only two weeks before the blows were struck, to the California State Athletic Commission about how boxing's dirty businessmen—its undercover underworld governors—had threatened just this sort of reprisal if they were not handed a 50% interest in the welterweight champion. The attack was a demonstration—naked and contemptuous—of the way the underworld still strives to run boxing in the U.S.
The testimony of Jackie Leonard and others, as given two weeks earlier before the California Athletic Commission, reveals the same unremitting underworld attempt. Here is the story that emerged from the sworn testimony before the commission:
June 14, 1959
At 42 Jack Leonard is one of the leading fight promoters on the West Coast. He has a wife, children and a Los Angeles home with a swimming pool. He also has as friend and associate a 33-year-old boxing manager named Don Nesseth. And Don Nesseth is the manager of a husky young fighter, Don Jordan, who last December won the welterweight championship of the world. Don Nesseth has a wife and two children. As promoter, manager and welterweight, Leonard, Nesseth and Don Jordan seemed to have a highly promising future in their joint association.
But one night not long before Don Jordan won the welterweight championship, Jackie Leonard's telephone rang with a long distance call from Chicago. The voice on the other end of the line identified itself as that of a man all too well known in U.S. boxing: Blinky Palermo, numbers racketeer and longtime friend of boxing's Hoodlum No. 1, Frankie Carbo. "We're in for half," Leonard heard Blinky say. And when Leonard sputtered, "I don't know what you're talking about," Blinky repeated, "We're in for half of the fighter."
Jackie Leonard did know what Blinky Palermo was talking about, just as he could well have known that Blinky's "we" meant "me and Carbo." If you are a boxing manager or a fighter who gets around, you know, if only by boxing's grapevine, that Frankie Carbo, often in association with Blinky Palermo, has undertaken for 25 years to "organize" professional prizefighting in much the same way that other underground hoodlums seek to "organize" vice and narcotics. If you remember what has happened to the relatively few men in boxing who have tried to buck Carbo's system, you may decide to go along. In which case it is only a question of time until the mob owns your fighter.
Jackie Leonard and Manager Don Nesseth talked it over. They decided to appeal to a higher power. They got in touch with Truman Gibson, successor to James D. Norris as president of the International Boxing Club and now (since the court ordered extinction of the IBC) president of National Boxing Enterprises, of Illinois. Leonard and Nesseth found Gibson reassuring and received the impression Gibson would smooth things out: "Go ahead, tell them [that Carbo and Blinky are in for half]. They won't bother you."
"We'll end up in the river or something," Leonard objected.
Gibson reassured again: "Aw, that went out with high-button shoes. Call Blinky and tell him everything is going to be all right." So Leonard told Blinky, with mental reservations of his own, that the deal was on.
On December 5 Don Jordan won the welterweight championship from Virgil Akins. Leonard's phone began to buzz like wasps; Blinky was on the line again. Evidently Truman Gibson had not proved quite the successful smoother-outer that Leonard and Nesseth had hoped he would be. Blinky's phone calls kept urging Leonard to get down to Florida to "see Mr. Norris." Like anybody else in boxing, Leonard knew who "Mr. Norris" was. "I kept stalling," said Leonard. "He kept calling." Until one day Palermo phoned and said he had made a reservation for Leonard, and that Leonard had better be on that plane for Miami.
Leonard flew to Miami, where he was met at the airport by Blinky. They drove to a motel in West Miami where Leonard found no Jim Norris but instead Frankie Carbo and a hoodlum named Gabe Genovese. Leonard began to sweat. When Blinky renewed his demand for 50% of the fighter, Leonard said, "Well I think everything is all right with Don Nesseth," i.e., that Don Jordan's manager would "go along." "Whattya mean, you think!" exploded Blinky. Carbo interposed that he "liked Blinky and wanted to see him make a dollar." Leonard got back to Los Angeles a shaken man.
In Los Angeles there were other visits from Palermo. He came to Leonard's office the first time with Louis Dragna, a handsome, sharp-featured man credited by the Los Angeles police with being one of the leading figures of the local underworld. Dragna made no threats but his mere presence was intimidating. The next day Palermo showed up with Joe Sica, a muscular fellow with a slanted smile who is also no stranger to the Los Angeles police. In these visits Palermo asked pointedly where Nesseth lived and whether he had a family. Joe Sica said blandly that his only concern was "getting the thing straightened out."
Blinky broke in to say that the thing had better be straightened out. Did Leonard remember what happened to Ray Arcel? Leonard remembered, all right. Arcel, a promoter of televised boxing shows who wanted to go it alone, i.e., without the mob, was beaten with a length of pipe on a Boston sidewalk one night in 1953. "We're not going to let this go by," Palermo continued. "It might take a long time but we'll get even." A telephone call to Leonard, whose phone was by now being monitored by police, repeated the theme. The voice said: "It'll be with a pipe wrapped in a paper sack. You'll be standing in a crowd and you'll never know what hit you. Remember what happened to Ray Arcel."
And there came a call from Carbo. "You know who this is," and Leonard recognized the voice. "Nobody ever did this to us. We're going to meet at the crossroads."
Again Leonard and Nesseth turned to Truman Gibson in Chicago by phone. Gibson heard their story and told them, "My advice to you is to run, don't walk, to the chief of police." Nesseth asked Gibson to "go to your boss," and get him to "call off the dogs." "Who," Gibson inquired, "do you mean by my boss?" Nesseth replied, "Jim Norris." Said Gibson: "I'll tell Mr. Norris, but what has he got to do with Blinky?"
Nevertheless, Truman Gibson conceded in his own voluntary testimony before the California Athletic Commission, he did call Jim Norris. And shortly thereafter, Gibson testified, he got a phone call from Blinky in Los Angeles, and "I told him that he was being very silly and very foolish. What the hell was he doing in Los Angeles? And to cut out things that went out with high-button shoes."
And Palermo did indeed get out of town—so fast that he was not around to tell his part of the sordid story when the state athletic commission began asking questions shortly after that, on May 20.
Neither was Frankie Carbo. On the day the commission started asking questions, Carbo's whereabouts were officially unknown, although the New York County district attorney and a New York grand jury had been looking for him for 10 months to answer a 10-count indictment for illegal matchmaking and managing. Ironically, on the morning of May 30, detectives who had been looking for Carbo all this time caught up with him in New Jersey. He was out on bail, awaiting an extradition process to New York, on the night of June 3 when, almost exactly as Jackie Leonard had been warned, Jackie reached up to pull down the garage door and something hit him from behind.
At week's end Jackie Leonard was still suffering from partial paralysis on one side of his face. Don Nesseth and his family were under a police guard for their own protection.
Los Angeles police were still looking for the men who slugged Leonard.
Frank Carbo, bail revoked, was in jail in Camden, N.J., fighting extradition to New York.
But the underground businessmen who are trying to rule boxing were still rippling their muscles. On June 4, an Oakland, Calif, promoter named Don Chargin, a partner of Jackie Leonard's, got a phone call. "Stay out of Los Angeles," the voice said. "You saw what happened to your buddy Leonard."
"I've got a family," Chargin said later, "and I don't want to talk too much about these things. None of us are heroes."
But it could be that California, and the rest of the country, have by now heard enough to bring a determined public drive to clean up the dirty underground businessmen of boxing, beginning with the men responsible for the naked and contemptuous violence visited upon Leonard.
This violence, and what it reveals in the shadows, may even be enough to strip the smile off those who, up to now, have shown a boys-will-be-boys attitude in the face of previous exposures of boxing's dirty business.
This April one of the ablest of syndicated sportswriters, ridiculing the fears and the labyrinthine ways of Cus D'Amato, manager of Floyd Patterson, told his readers with cheery sarcasm that "the fist fight industry needs a great big shot of Sinister Influence, triple-strength, quick, before it wastes away and dies of Moral Uplift." He called for the return of Carbo "to restore the healthy glow of corruption." "Frankie, come back!" he cooed in conclusion.
The era when such a line could be written, even in sarcasm, and read with enjoyment, has now come to an end.
The prevailing new tone may very well have been struck by Sports Editor Curley Grieve of the San Francisco Examiner, who wrote: "The brutal beating of Jackie Leonard is one of those things you wouldn't believe could happen. It is a throwback to the days of Capone. It strikes at the very core of justice. It is a slap in the face of all decent people."