Sussman Reveals the Colorful and Criminal Past of Boxing

Jeffrey Sussman will read from new book on June 8.

Part-time East Hampton resident Jeffrey Sussman loves to write about boxing, and he’s good at it  — “Max Baer and Barney Ross: Jewish Heroes of Boxing” and “Rocky Graziano: Fists, Fame and Fortune,” his most recent books. Sussman’s also published boxing-related articles and short stories and contributes regularly to the premier boxing website The president of a Manhattan-based public relations and marketing firm, and a mild-mannered presence on YouTube videos, since college days Sussman has gravitated to the violent sport as a historian and writer. His new book is called “Boxing and the Mob: The Notorious History of the Sweet Science.”

In an email, he notes that at the age of 12 his father, an amateur boxer, arranged for him to get boxing lessons (ten for $100), but, more significant, it was books about boxing that influenced him. His father, friendly with the owner of Stillman’s Gym (“the University of Eighth Avenue”), also gave him a collection of profiles of boxing champions and record-setting baseball players by the famous sportscaster Bill Stern, and later on, Sussman writes, he read Graziano’s autobiography: “I, in some ways, identified with him.”

A critical moment in accelerating his interest in boxing and crime occurred at his Bar Mitzvah party, Sussman writes in the introduction to “Boxing and The Mob.” It was when his father, in the (mob-controlled) garment business, introduced him to one of the guests — great uncle Irving, a former bootlegger, whose mantra was “only bet on a sure thing.” And if you couldn’t be sure? Then fix it to make sure. Sussman’s curiosity was aroused. Reading about boxers and boxing enhanced it. He learned that in New York “boxing” and “the mob” were interchangeable. In a YouTube video he also acknowledges how he overheard his father once being threatened by labor racketeer Johnny Dio (the Sussman kitchen was subsequently vandalized, sending a “message”).

During his college days, Sussman was an English major and “boxing seemed declassé,” he says. He read the famous poets of the early 20th century and for a while worked part time as a secretary for the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-91), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978 and who wasn’t at all interested in boxing or Norman Mailer’s book on the 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Keen student of literature that he was, however, Sussman kept up his own interests in the subject, including reading   William Hazlitt’s 1822 essay, “The Fight,” which he found “gripping.”

In the 1980s, he got to write a number of press releases on a welterweight Olympic gold medalist boxer, Howard Davis. More reading on boxing followed, including Wilfred Sheed’s 1975 book on Ali and, of course, the boxing essays by The New Yorker’sA.J. Liebling.

“That was it,” Sussman says. “I decided to give up my literary prejudices about boxing not being worthy of my efforts.” He was moving into territory that sealed his sociological passion to explore boxing and boxers, starting with a book about Jewish boxers.

Though “sweet science” appears in the subtitle of “Boxing and The Mob” – a phrase that has been around for decades — Sussman does not comment on its origin in his new book, though he’s eager to explain in an email.  He writes that Liebling’s 1949 book “The Sweet Science,” considered one of the finest sports books ever written, popularized the phrase. What’s more, in the early part of the 20th century, a brilliant young Jewish boxing pro, Benny Leonard (lightweight champion 1917-25), was known for his “scientific approach to boxing” and prompted several sports writers of the time to say that he made boxing “a sweet science.”

A trainer once told him, says Sussman, that “boxing is the sport of knowing how not to be hurt while trying to hurt one’s opponent” — meaning that there was “a science to that, and if one achieved that balance, then one would have landed in the sweet spot of boxing.” Like a sweet spot on a tennis racket, perhaps? Still, for the general reader, an odd way to describe a sport that seems anything but recreation or pleasurable diversion. In any case, for sure, there was- there is – nothing sweet or scientific about the way boxing has been managed and manipulated by organized crime.

In a recent interview on the Ringside Boxing Show, Sussman allows that “blood-dripping portrayals” are at the core of boxing, but the admission in no way dampens his interest in how the sport attracted  hardscrabble minority kids in slums, many of whom came from impoverished immigrant families and were desperate to make money for their families and themselves. Unwittingly, most slid into the Machievellian arms of criminals, smart con men such as the legendary mastermind racketeer Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein (1882-1928), son of an Orthodox Jew and the model for Meyer Wolfsheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” as well as the prototype  for Nathan Detroit in Damon Runyon’s “Guys and Dolls.”  Did Rothstein with ex-boxer-bagman-turned-gambler Abe Attell, really fix the 1919 World Series?

“Boxing and The Mob” is hardly the first exploration of “fixed fights, paid-off referees, greedy managers, and misused and acquiescent boxers,” but what it does effectively is present convincing evidence of the insidious connection between fighters and criminals that took off  in the 1930s, and that is still with us today in subtle, sophisticated “more circumspect” ways related to gambling. The book also fairly reassesses those said to have taken falls — eye opening and sometimes sympathetic accounts that show that it was not the boxers themselves who took bribes so much as their promoters, managers, referees, trainers and high-powered judicial and political allies. In rare instances the fighters never made nearly as much as their various handlers.

The legendary boxers are here in full ambiguity, among them Sugar Ray Robinson, Sonny Liston, and Jake (Raging Bull) LaMotta. Did they cave at any point? Throw a fight or play the odds?  The mobsters are also here, some the general public may not have heard of, such as Owney Madden, a sadistic killer, who controlled the heavyweight division in the `30s, Frankie Carbo, a member of Murder, Inc. who worked the `50s, and a score of those who kept at their criminal craft despite various Senate investigatory hearings.  Money ruled, money rules. And today? No need to fix fights: TV and movie rights are worth so much more. A different kind of fixing indeed.

Jeffrey Sussman will read at the East Hampton Library on Saturday, June 8, at 1 p.m. and at Westhampton Library on Saturday, June 15, at noon.