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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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The moment the telephone rang on that January afternoon in 1983, I was sitting at my desk in the New York office of the FBI, poring over a pile of intelligence reports linking Don King, the boxing promoter, to some of the most powerful organized-crime figures on the East Coast.

I had been awaiting the call for hours—in fact for several months, or ever since Michael Franzese, a capo in the Colombo crime family, had begun promising one of our undercover FBI agents that he would arrange a meeting between the agent and King for the purpose of setting up a copromotion of a fight. The agent, who was using the name Victor Quintana, was posing as a high-rolling Latin American drug dealer seeking to launder money. To establish his cover, the FBI had rented him a posh apartment on Manhattan's West Side and given him a company Rolls-Royce to tool around town in. Quintana had infiltrated Franzese's corner of the underworld and earned the mobster's trust. Now, finally, on Jan. 12, 1983, it appeared that all of the time and money the FBI had invested in this sting were paying off: Franzese and the controversial New York City civil rights activist the Reverend Al Sharpton were escorting Quintana and an FBI cooperating witness to the Manhattan offices of Don King Productions to introduce him to King. Sharpton, a pal of King's and an associate of Franzese's, had been enlisted by Franzese as a go-between for the meeting, though there is no evidence that Sharpton knew that Quintana hoped to launder illicitly obtained money.

Franzese, after weeks of delaying the meeting because he said he had to clear it first with "some of my cousins," was leading the FBI into boxing's interior (box, page 80). That it took some high-level mob maneuvering to arrange the meeting between King and Quintana certainly came as no surprise to me. For the 30 months before that, since the summer of 1980, I had been the case agent in charge of the FBI's investigation into corruption in boxing—an operation I had code-named Crown Royal. From the outset of Crown Royal, I had assumed that organized crime still had an active hand in the fight game, as it had had for decades. As for the name Crown Royal, I thought of it one night when I was driving home. I saw a billboard advertising Crown Royal whiskey, and I thought that would be a good name for the operation. It was as simple as that.

Two things I knew for sure: One, the underworld was filled with people like the drug dealer whose role Quintana was playing. These people were looking to launder illicit cash—to run their gains from gambling, thievery and the like through the spin cycle of some legitimate enterprise so they could pull them out later, clean and fresh, and declare the money as earned income. And two, boxing, of all the sports, was perhaps the most accommodating laundromat, what with its international subculture of unsavory characters who play by their own rules and its multimillion-dollar promotions ever in need of some major financing.

As I sat at my desk through the final hours that day, going through those intelligence reports, I believed that King was involved with the wiseguys.

So now here I am in the autumn of 1991, almost a decade later, sitting at a different desk in a different office, at One Park Avenue in Manhattan, where I serve—having been appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo in January 1986—as the first New York State Inspector General. In that capacity I investigate corruption in state government. But I still have vivid recollections of the sordid side of boxing that I came to know through Crown Royal. I also have an overpowering sense of déjà vu every time I pick up a newspaper and read about King. Lately he has been much in the news, of course, as Mike Tyson's promoter and as a key figure behind Tyson's possibly doomed title fight—postponed from Nov. 8 because of a Tyson rib injury—with Evander Holyfield, the world heavyweight champion.

King is not the only survivor of Crown Royal. Former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott, at the time New Jersey's boxing commissioner, and Bob Lee, then Walcott's deputy and now the president of the International Boxing Federation, were both caught in conversations taped by the FBI accepting money to approve a New Jersey promoter's license. We also had tape recordings of Larry Holmes, then the heavyweight champion, and Saoul Mamby, then the World Boxing Council junior welterweight champion, both King fighters, indicating that they may have perjured themselves before a grand jury that was considering evidence arising out of the Crown Royal investigation.

We also were told that the discredited 1977 United States Boxing Championship (USBC), promoted by King and underwritten by ABC-TV Sports, had been even more corrupt than we had imagined. Tom Lawrence, the manager of Anthony House, a welterweight out of Winston-Salem, N.C., told us, in front of a hidden closed-circuit television camera, that House had taken a dive in his loss by knockout to Johnny Gant in Annapolis, Md., in February.

In recounting these and other matters, I am relying on entries about Crown Royal in my personal diary, as well as on my recollections of tape recordings, FBI reports, interviews with scores of boxing figures and debriefings of fellow law-enforcement officers and confidential informants whom I considered reliable. I can almost hear King, after reading this story, taking to the stump and delivering a harangue about how I have a vendetta against him because of Crown Royal and about how I'm rehashing old stuff and about how I'm out to get him now because I failed then. My answer is that my beef wasn't with King but with a derelict system that was being exploited by him and others. Although no criminal activity on King's part was proved, evidence linking him to organized-crime figures kept popping up. And I am coming forward now not to put his feet to the fire in any vendetta, but rather to reexamine a venal process that permitted him and others to operate without the rules and moral constraints against underworld associations that govern other professional sports.

I know it has been said many times before, but the time has come for meaningful change. Boxing, administered as it is by frequently neglectful state commissions and sanctioning bodies that are no more than a macabre joke, is in the same state of chaos as it was 10 years ago. I think it is time to create a National Boxing Commission, a governing body that would be appointed by the President to regulate the sport in a cohesive manner. And it is time for Congress to hold hearings—like those held by a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1960—to investigate organized crime's involvement in boxing.

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