Boxing: A cold day, Cassius Clay and the fall of Carbo
Thursday 05 November 1998
Partly, I imagine, because Putnam almost lost his life when held prisoner during the Korean war, he is unswerving in the belief that sportswriters ought not to take themselves seriously. "From one week to the next, hardly anyone remembers what you have written," he said.
It was when touching again on this theme that we got around to an event in Albany which was widely reported at the time but has probably slipped the memory of even boxing historians.
On 4 February 1963, by all accounts a bitterly cold day with ice thick on the pavements, Cassius Clay, as he then was, sat in the witness box before a joint legislative committee that was discussing a bill to abolish boxing in New York State.
A J Liebling would write: "Clay had abandoned the rhymed form, like `Some say the greatest was Sugar Ray, but they have not seen Cassius Clay', in favour of a freer medium, in which metaphor took precedence over jingle."
Then only 22 years old and barely literate, Clay said, "Boxing is at the winter of its year. In the time when there were great fighters like Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, nobody talked against it. When there are no great fighters, people lose interest. It's a question of time."
Leaning forward and pointing through a window, he added, "In winter, leaves are not on trees, the grass and flowers are dead, the mind is thinking of chili and hot foods. Time is why. But the earth rotates around the sun... and in that time there are winter, spring, summer and fall." ("I thought I'd break that problem down for them," he said the next day.)
"Time, it takes time. Time will tell. In boxing's winter, people lose interest, but I am here to liven things up."
Clay was asked if all the 17 victories on his record had been on the level. "They say it takes a crook to know a crook," he replied, pertly.
Because of facts that had earlier come to light during a federal investigation of the sport, nobody was shocked by the implication.
Pleading guilty to three counts of "undercover managing and matchmaking", the mobster Frank Carbo was jailed for two years. Charges of attempting to extort, with force, a share of the purses of the welterweight champion, Don Jordan, led to a further 25-year term.
In King of the World, by David Remnick, a new and certainly the best- written book about Muhammad Ali, it is suggested that some American sports writers of that time did not take the job seriously enough to avoid being compromised.
Remnick writes: "...One of the most compromised corners of the boxing world was the boxing press. Throughout the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, many boxing beat writers (reporters) would line up at Madison Square Garden on Saturday mornings for a weekly envelope filled with cash - not a fortune, but just enough so that the promoter could be reasonably confident that the reporters would talk up and cover his bouts, just enough to keep them from asking the wrong questions."
The prosecutor Jack Bonomi decided against going for boxing writers in the hearings. "I figured if I was going to get anywhere [with the hearings] I needed the press on my side, and the press has a long memory," he said. "What they were doing was pocket change compared to the big guys."
In stating that not all voices in the press were convinced of the need for full-scale congressional hearings, Remnick quotes Red Smith, whose elegant sports columns for The New York Times were compulsive reading. "Outside the routine business of running the country," Smith wrote in December 1959, "the United States senate has nothing to worry about except the space race, atomic warfare, spiralling living costs, the world march of communism, Fidel Castro, the national debt and the 1960 elections. In the circumstances anybody can understand why Estes Kefauver [the senator who launched the hearings], a restless spirit, deems it necessary to relieve his boredom by investigating fist fighting."
Smith described Carbo, who is said to have carried out the murder of the gangster Bugsy Siegel, as "the more or less benevolent despot of boxing's Invisible Empire."
Putnam's view on this is that not even Red Smith could get it right all the time. Mine is that some of us older guys are wrong in thinking that all things in boxing are not what they used to be.
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