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Shadow Boxing
Joseph Spinelli
November 04, 1991
While probing the fight game for the FBI in the early 1980s, the author uncovered disquieting links between the mob and powerful promoter Don King. The vain quest to learn more took an undercover agent into a meeting in King's office
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November 04, 1991

Shadow Boxing

While probing the fight game for the FBI in the early 1980s, the author uncovered disquieting links between the mob and powerful promoter Don King. The vain quest to learn more took an undercover agent into a meeting in King's office

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I arranged to meet Quintana that afternoon to pick up the tape recording of the meeting—Victor had been "wired" during the meeting—and I literally bolted from my desk to the office of my supervisor, John Walzer. "This is great, Joe," he said. "This is just what we wanted."

I was elated. We were in. At last the FBI had infiltrated boxing at its highest levels. We had all seen how King worked the outside, sticking and moving with the press, quoting everyone from Socrates to Shakespeare to Martin Luther King, entertaining audiences with mixed metaphors and outrageous malaprops and his wild hairdo. Soon, for the first time, we hoped to see how King worked the body, the inside: where the money came from and where it went, and who came in the door and who went out.

Giachetti had already told us how King used "double contracts," that he signed fighters to two distinct deals—one for show and one for dough. Did he, as we had been told, routinely cut fighters' purses, contracting before a fight to pay them one amount only to pay them less after it? Did he, though supposedly only a promoter, take a bite of his fighters' paychecks, as he allegedly did with Holmes?

At no point had the investigation appeared more promising. We were ready to commit millions of dollars of taxpayers' money to a boxing promotion. I wasn't really afraid of losing money on the deal. We had the mob looking out for us. Franzese kept assuring Quintana that his investment would be safe. In one conversation at the Atrium, a private club in Manhattan where Franzese often held court, he told Victor, "Don't worry about King. You'll get every nickel you're supposed to get as long as I am with you."

It was as if I had been training months for a 15-round championship fight and had finally made it into the ring. I certainly felt I had paid my dues, and they had been considerable, beginning with those anonymous calls to my office threatening me if I did not drop the case: "It might be in your best interest to forget about this——-!" an ominous voice intoned one day. Then, click. Taking the threats seriously, my office even put me under surveillance. When I suffered an attack of Bell's palsy in February 1981—the doctors told me that it was the result of the stress of the 15-hour workdays I was putting in—I feared my role in Crown Royal was over. As it turned out, my 15 days of convalescence gave me the chance to retool my case strategy and launch the sting that would bring us to King's office.

My interest in boxing began not in the summer of 1980 but on the brisk, windy evening of Sept. 21, 1955, when my late grandfather, Joseph Ciaccio, took me on a Queens-to-Bronx subway to Yankee Stadium to see Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight champion, fight Archie Moore. My grandfather spoke reverentially of Marciano, whose family had emigrated to the U.S. from the same Italian town, Chieti, as my grandfather's family had. I was only six when Marciano Knocked Moore out, but the fight remains among the most vivid of my childhood memories, and my experiences of that night and my grandfather's passion for boxing launched me on a lifelong love affair with the sport.

I never wanted to be a fighter. Ever since I was a kid, all I ever wanted to be was an FBI agent. So after I graduated from John Marshall Law School in Atlanta in 1975,1 took an appointment with the Bureau. During the next several years, I spent seven months undercover at Kennedy Airport in New York, on a case that eventually led to convictions of several organized-crime associates; I was one of many agents who worked on the Anthony Scotto case, at the end of which Scotto, the president of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1814 in New York, was convicted of racketeering; and, most significant, I was for 2½ years the co-case agent with John Pritchard in the Bureau's investigation of U.S. Congressman John Murphy (D., N.Y.), which culminated in his conviction for bribery and criminal conspiracy as a result of the Abscam sting operation. In 1984 I was transferred to New Haven, Conn., and became the FBI's organized-crime coordinator for the state. I left the Bureau the next year to join the Cuomo administration, but I have nothing except fond memories of my years in the FBI and consider it a privilege to have served.

I had read all about the USBC, and when my involvement with Abscam ended in 1980 and I was casting about for something to sink my teeth into, various associates in the Bureau encouraged me to look into boxing. I became intrigued with the idea, and when I proposed it to my supervisors, telling them that the sport was ripe for a federal inquiry, they agreed.

In July 1980, Pritchard and I went to Catskill, N.Y., to talk to one of the most respected figures in boxing, Cus D'Amato, who had been former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson's manager and trainer and who at the time was nurturing and training a 14-year-old street tough from Brooklyn named Mike Tyson. We sat out in D'Amato's yard, at a picnic table, and for four hours he presided like a professor of boxing history, offering a lecture on the sport's many ills. By then I had read ABC-TV's in-house report detailing the corruption of the USBC, and D'Amato reinforced all that I had learned.

He hammered at both King and rival promoter Bob Arum for using option contracts to tie up fighters and control the sport. An option contract works this way: Say I'm a promoter who controls the heavyweight champion, and you, as a heavyweight, come to me and say, "I want to fight for the title." I say, "Fine, but before I let you fight my champion, you have to sign a contract giving me the option to promote your next three fights if, in fact, you happen to win." Not only that, but I dictate whom you fight and how much you fight for. And if you don't like it, you can take a hike.

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