The Duke of the West Side: Owney “The Killer”

Jul 5, 2018
Owney "the Killer" Madden, once a member of The Gophers, went on to become a millionaire bootlegger in the 1920s and a powerful underworld force in boxing. This excerpt is from Hannibal Boxing.


Because boxing was essentially an extension of the underworld, Madden had been steeped in its traditions since childhood. Even before he arrived in America, Madden had an interest in prizefighting. His uncle took part in boxing booth scraps and participated in informal fights throughout Liverpool. In New York, Madden haunted the gyms of the city, where sharpers and footpads congregated as often as fighters or trainers, and attended local clubs overrun by riffraff.

After his release from prison, and his rise to high-society gangster, Madden strengthened his ties in boxing. Madden had a cut of, or controlled, dozens of fighters, including Johnny Wilson, Maxie Rosenbloom, Kid Francis, Gene Tunney, Bob Olin, Jim Braddock, Charley “Phil” Rosenberg, Ace Hudkins, Max Baer, Leo Lomski, Marty Goldman, and Max Baer. Two of his managerial fronts were Joe Jacobs (most famous for handling Max Schmeling in the US) and Joe Gould (pilot of “The Cinderella Man,” Jim Braddock).

Just as Madden prefigured the new gangster—the ruthless technocrat who made the dimwitted bruiser with his knuckledusters obsolete—he also set the blueprint for mob control of the fight game. No longer would boxing be a pastime for sporting mobsters looking for the occasional score to go along with celebrity cachet; now boxing would be a remunerative staple going forward. Madden laid the groundwork for Frankie Carbo, whose complete takeover of fighters was modeled on the pitiful case of Primo Carnera, a tragedy who wound up heavyweight champion of the world.

Born in Sequals, Italy, in 1906, Carnera was an impoverished circus performer in France when he was discovered by ex-heavyweight pratfall artist Paul Journee. Billed variously as “Juan the Unbeatable Spaniard” and “Giovanni the Terrible,” Carnera earned a subsistence living as a strongman and a booth wrestler after years of navigating the cratered wastelands of World War I Europe as an itinerant stonemason. At roughly six feet five and 250 pounds, Carnera intrigued Journee, who signed the shock future heavyweight champion to a contract. When Journee introduced Carnera to French sports impresario Leon See, it set off one of the most famous hoaxes in boxing history. With a keen eye for flimflam, See immediately recognized the sideshow appeal of Carnera, whose towering height and menacing look were sure to keep the turnstiles spinning—as long as he could win.
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