by Bobby Franklin
Jerry Izenberg has been covering boxing for sixty-five years, forty-five of which have been spent with the Newark Star Ledger. He has also covered fifty Kentucky Derbies, and has attended and reported on all fifty Super Bowls. In his latest book, Once There Were Giants, he looks back at what he calls The Golden Era of Heavyweight Boxing, the period that began with Sonny Liston’s destruction of Floyd Patterson and ended when Mike Tyson decided to make a dinner out of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
Mr. Izenberg covers a lot of ground in his book in which he discusses the many characters that populate the world of boxing. I had the opportunity to talk with him by phone from his home in Henderson, Nevada.
The 86 year old veteran sports writer still sounds strong and sharp as we begin our conversation. In his book Mr. Izenberg gives a brief but detailed history of mob involvement in the sport. I assumed he kept his distance from these rough characters. He tells me “Not always. I wasn’t a partner. I used them as much as I could. Their information was much more reliable.”
I mention Cus D’Amato, the man who proclaimed himself to be the White Knight riding into town to clean out the crooks from the sport . That is proving to be a myth as Mr. Izenberg points out in his book and reiterates in our conversation. “Cus was mobbed up as well. That’s what was so ludicrous. He would say ‘I’m fighting the mob, I’m fighting the mob’.” “Well, what about Charlie Black whose real name was Charles Antonucci? He was the cousin of Fat Tony Salerno who would become the boss of the Genovese Crime family. Any foreign fighter had to have an agent when he came over to fight in this country Charlie Black would act as one.”
As Mr. Izenberg points out this was useful for Cus when he brought over Brian London and Ingemar Johansson to fight Patterson. Fat Tony Salerno also served as protection for D’Amato. In contrast to what Cus wanted people to believe he was just replacing one mob with another.
I bring up the point that boxing was more competitive when the old mob was running it. “Frankie Carbo who was a murderer and a thug nevertheless would have been a great commissioner. He never could lose and on that basis he picked the fights he wanted. He had the winner no matter what.” This often resulted in great fights.
D’Amato used his power to protect his fighters from tough opponents making for much less competitive matches. Cus was worse? “Well he was different. He was so crazy, he was absolutely nuts. This facade of fighting the mob ruined the best part of Jose Torre’s career. He would have been one of the great middleweights of all time if given the chance to fight better opponents.”
Mob control of boxing ended about the time Liston won the title. Scandals and investigations had pretty much broken the back of organized crime in the sport. “There were still mob guys who had fighters, but there was no cabal. That’s why the era was so good. You could fight whomever you wanted to fight.”
There was another reason the era was so good: Mr. Izenberg asks rhetorically, “Look, how many good trainers are left? Show me somebody who could go through school without a teacher. That’s what is at the heart of the problem.”
We move on to the subject of the second Ali/Liston bout that was originally scheduled to take place in Boston but was canceled three days before when Ali was diagnosed with a strangulated hernia. “ Liston was in shape for that fight. I would have picked him. I don’t think he’d ever been in better shape then he was for that fight and it was impossible at his age to get back into that shape, he couldn’t do it”
The match was rescheduled for Lewiston, Maine and now lives on in infamy. I ask Mr. Izenberg what happened up there. “He (Ali) could have shoved him. He could have hit him with a middle finger and he would have gone down because he was so off balance. He made a decision when he was down. He looked up and saw this maniac who wouldn’t go to a neutral corner standing over him and he thought ‘If I get up he’ll kill me’.”
Jumping ahead a number of years we turn to the rivalry between Ali and Joe Frazier. When it comes to the verbal abuse Frazier took from Ali, the name calling and insults such as “Uncle Tom” and calling him a Gorilla. Mr. Izenberg tells me “It never healed. They had a phony reconciliation but it never healed.” On the anniversary of the Manilla fight Mr. Izenberg contacted a number of people involved with the fight to do a “then and now” story. In Mr. Izenberg’s conversation with Ali, the former champ told him, “I was just trying to sell tickets. Tell him if I offended his family I’m sorry.”
When Mr. Izenberg called Frazier to discuss the fight he mentioned Ali’s apology. Joe’s response: “He said that to you? Tell him to take his apology and stick it up his ass.” It is also interesting that Frazier mentioned the famous story about the young Cassius Clay first going to a boxing gym because his new bicycle was stolen. Joe said to Mr. Izenberg “He got a bicycle. I was working in the fields when he got that bicycle. I never had a bicycle.”
Mr. Izenberg tells me Beaufort, SC was named the Hunger Capitol of America. “It really (Ali and Frazier) was a case of the Black Middle Class and the Black Poverty Class.”
Some thoughts on other Ali fights: “Ali/Frazier II was a terrible fight that could have gone either way.” The Ali/Shavers fight: “I think it was the worse beating he (Ali) ever took. He admitted to me he was unconscious on his feet. Ali was too tough for his own good.” The Thriller in Manilla: “They were fighting for the championship of each other, and it was never settled.” And on Ali staying in the game too long, “I always thought he should have quit after Zaire (the Foreman bout).”
As we wind down our conversation he tells me “You can’t find better stories in the universe than in boxing. You have to write it for the names. Names like Goodtime Charlie Friedman and Willie The Beard Gilzenberg.”
I agree that boxing is the most colorful sport to write about, and Jerry Izenberg has lived through it’s best times. He tells me “This is the first, last, and only boxing book I will write.” I hope he is like most fighters who tell us they are retiring and don’t. I am sure that in addition to the wonderful stories he has included in Once There Were Giants, he has many more tales to tell.