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Original Issue

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

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 dèjà 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.

King's associations with mobsters at the time of the Crown Royal investigation were consistent with his early history in Cleveland, his hometown. I contacted the FBI office there, and it sent me a report that said King had been involved in the numbers operations, kicking back part of his profits to organized-crime figure Tony Panzarella as well as to a street tough named Alex (Shondor) Birns. It was a violent world King lived in. In 1967 he was convicted of manslaughter and served four years in the Marion (Ohio) Correctional Institution. Birns, with whom King had clashed during his days in Cleveland, died in a car bombing in 1975, the year after King promoted the heavyweight championship fight in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

As the Crown Royal investigation grew, some of King's underworld contacts were sensing the squeeze and leaping for cover. One day, as Quintana pressed Franzese to set up the meeting with King that he hoped would lead to a fight promotion, Franzese warned him: "We have to be very careful with King. A lot of people in Cleveland are telling me that the heat he's under from the feds is enormous. Don't get too close to him, Victor. You should keep that in mind in dealing with King. You don't want to get jammed up with the feds." I had to laugh when Quintana told me that. Here was a mobster, sotto voce, unwittingly warning a fed about the feds.

As King's history with the mob was becoming more apparent, my questions were, Whom was he involved with now? How deep did that involvement go? The FBI background reports on him, like the needle on an erratic compass, had been pointing everywhere. Moreover, if we could infiltrate King's operation, through a joint promotion with Quintana, we might learn the extent of King's association with the mob. And was King on the up-and-up in his dealings with fighters and managers? There was plenty of evidence suggesting that the answer was no. We wanted to find out for sure.

On Jan. 21, 1981, the FBI received six tape recordings subpoenaed from Richie Giachetti, a longtime associate of King's who also emerged from the Cleveland streets into the fight game. At the time, Giachetti was working as the trainer of Holmes, the most prominent fighter in King's stable, while fronting for King as Holmes's manager as well. Giachetti had a gripe against King, who in slicing the pie was serving Giachetti a smaller piece than he felt he had coming, and Giachetti also was wary of Holmes, because he thought Holmes might be talking about him to King behind his back. So, looking for something to use against King and Holmes, if he ever needed it, Giachetti had surreptitiously tape-recorded several telephone conversations he had had with both men. In one King-Giachetti conversation, King described a sit-down meeting he recently had had with a member of the mob sent by someone—we believed it was a rival matchmaker—to put the arm on him.

King said to Giachetti: "They put the mob on me! What he [the rival promoter] had hoped was that I would start mouthing off and yelling at this guy, but I was too smart. I knew if I did that, I would end up in the——ing lake! So I told this guy who I was with, and he said, 'Oh, O.K., I understand.' "

On June 3, 1981, when boxing promoter Harold Smith was facing some sticky legal problems involving check forgery, he testified before the Crown Royal grand jury. Smith was looking for all the help he could get from law enforcement officials, and he volunteered to help me with Crown Royal. Smith—who eventually served five years in jail for embezzling more than $21 million from the Wells Fargo bank in California—was in the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan before his grand jury appearance when I came to visit him.

"Who you want me to call?" Smith asked.

"Richie Giachetti," I said.

"Give me the phone," said Smith. I hooked it up to a tape recorder.

"What's happening, Richie?" Smith asked Giachetti.

"That——ing King!" said Giachetti. "He sent a hit man to Las Vegas to tell me to lay off him.... You know I got tapes of King that I made."

So that's how I learned how King had decided to deal with Giachetti, who now, believe it or not, is back with King and serving as Tyson's trainer. I guess I shouldn't really be surprised.

To say the least, King seemed to keep some dubious company. A few weeks earlier, on May 19, 1981, an informant called to tell me that he had found out from King that the promoter was planning to travel to Philadelphia two days later to meet with Frank (Frankie Flowers) D'Alfonso, an associate in the Philadelphia organized-crime family, who in 1985 would be gunned down on a Philadelphia street. We knew that D'Alfonso had been involved in at least one King promotion—he had a stake in the closed-circuit TV rights for Philadelphia for the Ali-Holmes fight in '80.

Another informant reported that on the day before their meeting, D'Alfonso warned King away from Philadelphia; D'Alfonso feared that he himself was under surveillance—as indeed he was. D'Alfonso said he was worried because of the numerous "fed cars" around his house.

According to a Sept. 20, 1982, informant's report, King had met six days earlier with the notorious John Gotti, then a capo in the Gambino crime family—he later became the head of the family—at Patrissy's, a restaurant in Manhattan's Little Italy. "Gotti and King dined together," the informant said.

Then on Oct. 2, 1982, the same informant reported he had heard that King had met with a powerful capo in the Genovese crime family, Matthew (Matty the Horse) Ianniello, at Abe's Steak House in Manhattan.

This informant also stated that King and Gotti had another meeting in December at Abe's Steak House. Although the subject of their discussion was unknown, King and Gotti became engaged in what appeared to be a "heated conversation."

I thought that D'Alfonso's warning King away because of the feds being all over the place was really funny at the time. It seemed to me that it was the hoods who were all over the place. They all saw Quintana as a mark—this rich drug dealer racing around the Big Apple in his Rolls-Royce, with $3 million in hot cash burning a hole in his designer jeans. That's how much Quintana was telling the mobsters that he had, and they figured that the way to get at it was to promise him the promoter. For high rollers like Quintana, that's what the mob does: It arranges meetings, opens doors and shows the way.

And Quintana, of course, was receptive. Just as the Giachetti tapes had revealed King's having invoked one hoodlum to ward off another, so Quintana used King's name to work his way into the underworld. At various times, members of three New York and New Jersey crime families offered to set up the meeting: Franzese for the Colombos, a capo and a soldier for the DeCavalcantes and a soldier for the Genoveses. I remember one day thinking: King is not named Don for nothing.

If what we had found so far was any clue at all, boxing was an unholy mess. Not surprisingly, the fighters themselves were at the low end of the sport's food chain. Even Holmes was being cut up like a turnip. King was supposed to be making his money off Holmes by promoting his fights and earning whatever was left after the boxers and expenses had been paid, not by managing Holmes and taking a cut of his purses. It is to prevent this sort of double-dipping, which creates a clear-cut conflict of interest, that most state commissions bar a promoter from also being a manager. But Giachetti had told us that King was taking a 25% cut of all Holmes's purses. Giachetti and Holmes's lawyer in Easton, Pa., Charles Spaziani, were each getting 12.5%. In sum, they were in for half of Holmes's purses.

The most poignant moment of the four years I worked on the investigation came early in 1981 when another FBI agent and I went to Holmes's house in Easton. We were there to serve Holmes with a grand jury subpoena, and when he came to the door, dressed in a robe, and I introduced myself, he smiled and said, "Oh, you're the guy who wants to put Don King in jail."

"That's not exactly true, Larry," I protested, and he waved me inside. We ended up sitting next to his indoor pool, which is shaped like a boxing glove, and talking about the fight game and his career. He reminisced about the sensational 15th round of the fight in 1978 in which he won the heavyweight title from Ken Norton. He was in a jovial mood. At one point, he grabbed the telephone and called Spaziani, saying, "Spaz, I got the FBI here, and they have subpoenaed my ass. And they may have a subpoena for you, too, so you better go hide."

Then, as if a shadow had fallen between us, he grew somber. I had just asked him to help me with the investigation. His wife, Diane, looked nervously toward him, and he glanced over at her. He got tears in his eyes and shook his head. "King's got a lot of bad friends," Holmes said. "I've got to make a living. I have a family. I'm scared for my family. I've got to be careful. He can hurt me."

I was speechless sitting there watching him, listening to his voice trail off. Here was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, the toughest guy on the planet, suddenly looking as sad and frightened as any man I'd ever known.

That was in the investigation's earliest stages. Now, fast forward to Jan. 12, 1983, when Crown Royal finally made it to King's doorstep. The telephone rang.

"Joe, Victor here," said Quintana. "It happened. We had the meeting. A brief one. King's office. We have an agreement to do a copromotion."

I felt a rush. "Did King say anything about who would be involved?" I asked.

"We never got into that," said Quintana. "All he did was agree to it. Michael went in to see him first. Then he came out and took us in. Sharpton was there. Michael introduced us."

"What did King say?"

"We shook hands and he said, 'You must be serious about doing a promotion or you wouldn't be coming here with Michael. I'll do a promotion with you.' Then he said something about a National Youth Movement [Sharpton's organization, which sought to help young people]: 'It's a promotion where the kiddies will benefit. I want to help the kiddies. Anything to help the kiddies.' "

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.

"You know what that is?" D'Amato told me. "It's legalized extortion."

D'Amato was right. Just because option contracts are legal doesn't make them right. They are how fighters get tied up with one promoter and are forced to toe his line.

Over the next several months, I interviewed numerous people in the fight business. Giachetti, for one, was a sight and a sound. He had done considerable street-fighting in his day, and his face showed it. He had an unforgettable nasal twang and darting, suspicious eyes. Dominic Amorosa, an assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case, and I had lunch with him on Aug. 17, 1980. He was voluble and resentful; he said he felt cheated by King and also that he was tired of being shortchanged. Giachetti told us that Holmes wound up with only 50% of his purses and that King pocketed 25% that he wasn't entitled to. Promoters, Giachetti said, aren't entitled to manager's shares. As Holmes's manager, Giachetti should have been getting a third of the fighter's purses rather than the 12½% he was receiving.

Giachetti said that King was still involved with the wiseguys. "He still has organized-crime ties and still in Cleveland," Giachetti said. He explained how King used double contracts, and then he dropped the bombshell, telling us about the tapes he had made in which King said things that were, according to Giachetti, "criminal in nature." It was an assertion that never panned out.

Giachetti said he would give us the tapes, but not until after Holmes had fought Ali that fall; he did not want to anger King now because he was expecting a $500,000 payday. At the end, he added, "I want you to subpoena me, but I want immunity," he said. "And I want it to look like I was made to do it."