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A Lightweight Who Played a Heavy Role

August 08, 1991|JIM MURRAY

If you have ever seen a Warner Bros. fight movie, circa 1940s, you know all you need to know about the life and times of Ike Williams.

He could have been a model for "Golden Boy." "Body And Soul." A great part for John Garfield.

It had everything--the Mob, the would-be fixed fights, the title, betrayal, heartbreak. The fight game in all its glory. It wrote itself.

Ike was something to behold when he first climbed into the prize ring in his native New Jersey. He was to pugilism what Sam Snead was to golf. A sweet swinger. A natural. He had the instincts of a treed leopard. He could hit with either hand, move, jab, counter, slug, box--it was your call.

It was postwar America. Sugar Ray--the real Sugar Ray--was the uncrowned champion. Jake LaMotta was throwing fights. And Ike Williams had just won the lightweight championship of the world (National Boxing Assn. version) by, of all things, knocking out a Mexican champion in Mexico City, an audacious feat. And he couldn't get a fight.

You see, Ike had to discharge his manager--for round-the-clock alcoholism. Connie McCarthy's idea of breakfast was gin in his orange juice. Ike announced he was handling his own book.

You didn't do that in 1946. Boxing had a federal czar in those days. Oh, not one appointed by the President. One appointed by the Godfather. No commission officially recognized him, but the fight game did. If you wanted to get a fight, you cleared it with Frankie Carbo, otherwise known to the Mob as "Mr. Gray."

Ike Williams wanted to fight. So, Mr. Gray assigned his contract to one of his trusted lieutenants, Blinky Palermo.

Again, if you ever saw a Hollywood fight movie, you know Blinky Palermo. He's the one (Sheldon Leonard?) who says, "We're taking a dive in the fifth, kid, if you ever want to see your kids graduate from school." Blinky got his nickname because he could never look any man in the eye, including the half-dozen or so who accused him of murder. Blinky was a very rough customer--if you didn't think so, go dig through the the dumps or drag the rivers around his native Philadelphia.

Blinky (and Carbo) got Ike fights. Basically, they let him win. So, Ike had no trouble winning the undisputed title, even knocking out the great Bobcat Bob Montgomery for it. For good measure, he kayoed Tippy Larkin and Beau Jack and Johnny Bratton.

Then, the other shoe dropped. Carbo and company got him a fight with the celebrated Kid Gavilan, who was being groomed for a big-money shot at Sugar Ray Robinson.

Gavilan was bigger, stronger (one division higher) than Ike, but Ike had soundly whipped him in 10 rounds the year before.

Carbo and company didn't want that to happen this time. This one, he was supposed to lose. "Blinky told me I'd get $100,000 to take a dive," Ike says. "He said it would be a good idea if I'd take it."

Ike refused. He wishes now he hadn't. Ike lost the decision, anyway. Not necessarily the fight. "I won it," he insists. "Sugar Ray himself said at ringside I had won the fight. So, I lost the fight and the (bribe) money. If I'd took it, I'd be a millionaire today--$100,000 was a lot of money in 1949."

It was academic anyway. Palermo didn't believe in sharing the purses with the fighters; so, it was not likely he would share the bribes. "Blinky stole everything from me but my eyes," Ike Williams recalls today. "I got $32,000 for fighting Beau Jack and I never saw a nickel of it."

The West Coast mobster, Mickey Cohen, also offered Ike a bribe. To throw a fight to Enrique Bolanos. Ike does not regret turning that down. "It was the greatest fight of my life. It was a great night. Jack Dempsey was the referee. Everybody in Hollywood was there."

Ike Williams has no trouble remembering that night of July 21, 1949, the greatest night of his life when he knocked out Bolanos in four with all Hollywood looking on. He remembers every move, every punch, every roar of the crowd.

It's this morning Ike has trouble with. Forty years ago is yesterday. Yesterday is 40 years ago.

It has all been downhill for Ike Williams since that night. The money went. The title went. There were the knockouts by James Carter, by Gil Turner (a Palermo-Carbo fighter). There was the testimony before the Kefauver Committee, which got him blackballed all over again.

There was the awful night he came home from a night of gambling to find his daughter ill and running a high fever. He bought her a box of cough drops, then went off to pursue his own aimless recreations. The hospital called the next day. His daughter was in intensive care. By the time he got to the hospital, she was dead. Ike lives with the pain. "They said it was pneumonia," he says sadly. "She died of neglect. I have to live with that."

There was the time Ike got a job with Muhammad Ali. Until the night he thoughtlessly brought back ham hocks and black-eyed peas. "They were my favorite food," Ike recalls. "How was I to know it was pork and forbidden to Muslims?" Some camp follower called Ali in Africa. Ali fired Ike in absentia.

Ike lives on Social Security (and an occasional handout from Mike Tyson when he is in town) now. He has returned to the scene of his greatest memory, Los Angeles. He has his scrapbooks, his scars, his memories--and not much else.

In "On the Waterfront," the ex-pug (Marlin Brando) says pathetically, "I coulda been a contender." Well, Ike had his great line, too. At a banquet in New York, he stood up uncertainly, gazed out at all the tuxedos and blurted: "It was my testimony put Blinky Palermo away!" Not "I knocked out Beau Jack" or "I beat Gavilan," but "I put Blinky Palermo away."

It might have been his finest hour, at that, a fitting Requiem for a Lightweight.

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