The Fix Is In

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Charles Farrell knew everything there was to know about the sport of boxing, but he still had a lot to learn about the business.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP, the "Slippery Slope" episode. This next story - I'm not going to lie - this next story horrifies me. It does because it attacks the fundamental sacred pillars of my childhood. Snappers - the truth is hard. The truth. Charles Farrell, he recently decided to start spilling the beans.

CHARLES FARRELL: I started watching boxing when I was extraordinarily young. I was probably no more than four. And, although this is going to sound kind of silly, I was intrigued by the products that were sold between rounds. And one of the primary products was cigars. And I actually smoked cigars from the time I was four until I quit when I was about maybe nine or ten. So I sort of became infatuated with the whole atmosphere that surrounded boxing. I wound up, by the time I was in my late teens, doing a lot of boxing betting. You know, that's illegal, betting. And I found that, almost inevitably, I could tell you who would win a fight and how they were going to win the fight and what was going to happen. I understood boxing at an incredibly visceral level. And so when I started managing, I assumed that that was all that I would need. But very early on, I realized that it would be very, very difficult to move fighters without fixing their fights.

It is surprisingly easy to fix a fight in boxing. You will go into a gym and you'll find a trainer or a manager, someone whose reputation is that of providing what they call in boxing business opponents. Opponents are guys whose livelihood is dependent on their loosing on cue. And what you do is you don't say things that are indictable. That's really what it comes down to. You don't want to criminalize yourself if you can avoid it. And you'll say, I have a fighter who needs to get some work. And work is the operative word here. It means that you don't want him to do anything that's going to be too strenuous and that's going to risk his losing. And you're probably talking about a knockout. And you'll say, OK, I've got a guy who's a good fighter but he's not in shape. He hasn't been in the gym much, you know, he's got a job. He's probably good for four rounds. OK, so at this point what you've done is you've fixed the fight and you fixed the duration.

What you can do further is fine tune. And with almost no exceptions, the fight will take place exactly as it's been outlined and sometimes you can get nearly to the second the result that you need. One of the reasons that you fix fights is that the minute you undertake to manage people, they have lives that cost money. They have needs. And so, you want to move your fighter as quickly as possible through the ranks into title fights - money fights - that will actually make everybody involved real money. And so, you know, I would say initially my interest was almost entirely economic.

I don't think I had any real scruples about that. But what's interesting is the more I learned, my reasons for fixing fights broadened because fighters spend their lives getting hit in the head by people who hit incomparably much harder than anybody that you'll ever see on the street. And it doesn't necessarily show up right away but, inevitably, they suffer from neurological damage. And so fixing the fight allows fights to go very, very short distances and nobody gets hit nearly as much. So as I got more immersed in the culture of boxing, I had fewer and fewer scruples and by the end, I had very few. An example of why is Leon Spinks. Leon Spinks was a gold-medal winner who very, very and probably, in his eighth pro-fight, won the heavyweight championship from Muhammad Ali.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...15, 1978 Hilton Pavilion, Las Vegas, Nevada. And Leon Spinks, a bare amateur, really with only seven fights behind him, rested the crown from Ali.

FARRELL: Suddenly, he's got a ton of money. And he's a guy who has no concept at all of how to hang on to money. So seven or eight months later, he loses the title back to Ali and then gets knocked out in the first round of his very, very next fight and slips into a kind of, you know, he's the punch line of a lot of late-night TV jokes which is a shame, he shouldn't be. But over the years I've managed, I built a very, very solid reputation. I was able to bring back fighters in a way that would make them marketable again. And so, through a series of unusual events, I wind up with Leon Spinks. You know, I don't necessarily want to manage him, but there he is.

And I find out that I can get him a fight in China for what's not big money for him during his heyday but it's $175,000. But in order to do that, I have to raise Leon's profile a little bit again. And the way I do that is putting him in a fight at the D.C. convention center, where I know we can get a quick knockout and then I can set up the thing in China. And everybody involved could make some money for a little while, myself included. But this Leon Spinks reclamation project was a very, very tough sale job because people understood that his best days were long since behind him. And my associates would say Charles, are you sure that we can do this?

These are, you know, TV people, their promoters, their promoter's agents. And I would reassure them. I would say yeah, if you'd let me handle all of it - if you let me handle the matchmaking, if you let me call the shots, I'm confident that we'll all make money here. The problem is, I had a guy who couldn't pass the CAT scan. The District of Columbia wouldn't pass him as an opponent. So I invented an opponent. I made up a guy. And it was a friend of mine. It was a trainer of my other fighters, a guy named John Carlo. The problem is, he's never fought before in his life. And of course, no commission would sanction a fight between a guy who's never had one fight and a former heavyweight champion. So I wound up making up a record, which was very difficult to do for John Carlo, comprised entirely of names of real fighters, but fighters who are sort of veteran loser types. So it would be almost impossible to tell whether these fights really took place or not and even the fighters themselves, who were busy losing fights, wouldn't remember. Anyway, John Carlo, a couple of days before the fight, calls me up and says, you know, what happens if I beat him? And I could've fixed the fight so if I said, you know, you got to lose the first round, he would've done it. But I didn't say that. I said, you've never fought before.

You can't possibly beat Leon Spinks. I said, you know, Leon's not what he once was, but he was the heavyweight champion of the world once. So, you know, if you can beat him, beat him. But I was completely confident. The Washington Post did a feature article on Leon the day before the fight. We did some live radio sport shows so there was a big crowd. We had a really charged up arena. And I have seldom seen anybody in the dressing room as loose as Leon Spinks. You know, this was a kind of triumphal return to mainstream boxing. And I was very pleased to see that he still looked like a fighter. And I remember John Carlo calling me and saying, you know, I didn't realize he was such a muscled up guy. And what he really thought is, I'm going to get knocked off by the guy who beat Muhammad Ali. And that, in and of itself, is an honor.

So by the time Leon and John hit the ring, the crowd was in this kind of party mood and I thought, OK, everything is under control tonight. The bell rang and Leon, as was his custom, kind of tapped gloves with John in this very friendly, fraternal way, which John accepted. And then he went do it again. What I didn't understand is that John Carlo was one of these rare guys who when he panics, rather than folding, he's galvanized. And John stepped in with an absolutely picture-perfect left hook, hit Leon right on the jaw and Leon went straight back in this very dramatic, high-impact way and hit his head. And of course, I' m right there and I said, oh, Jesus Christ, I felt just incredible shock. Of all of the things I thought might happen, that never once had entered my mind as a possibility. I mean, he was done.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Six, seven, eight

FARRELL: Somehow Leon beat the count, I don't know how. And I was trying to signal to the referee from ring side, that's it. Stop the fight. But the referee, who couldn't believe what was happening, didn't step in. And John Carlo did this total demolition job on Leon Spinks. So ultimately, the fight only lasted maybe a minute and a half but it felt like an eternity while it was happening. And really what I felt was a sort of horror because I understood that these are just really hard punches and that I had guessed very, very wrong about Leon, that he really shouldn't have been hit at all by anybody. And of course, the crowd was furious. They had assumed that I had fixed the fight for John Carlo's benefit. And that John Carlo was my fighter. I felt like an idiot. I felt like an idiot.

I could have fixed the fight and I still don't know why I didn't. It was an incredibly unnecessary mistake. At the very least, cost us a $175,000 payday in China. But it actually did more than that because it caused Leon Spinks more neurological damage, which is something he did not need to have. And, you know, I really tried very hard to make sure that Leon didn't fight again. But the next day, I was sitting in a restaurant in the hotel where Leon was staying. And I had a business associate with whom I was talking.

And a lot of business had gone wrong for us that night and we were trying to figure out what was what, whether we could salvage anything. We sort of knew we couldn't. And it was not a pleasant experience. And while we were talking, Leon came up to me. And Leon is a very shy guy and he essentially didn't get into my orbit until he kind of had permission. And he came in and he asked me, can I get a re-match, Mr. Farrell? I can do better. And I said no, Leon, there's not going to be a rematch. And it was difficult. It was embarrassing situation because it's something I would rather have not talked about with anyone else around. And I could see he didn't want to be there and he said can I get some money for something to eat.

You know, I pointed out to him that the hotel was covering all the tab. He could eat at the hotel but it wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to be by himself and take care of things. And, you know, money is money. And when fighters ask for money and fighters always ask for money, you're talking about, you know, $100, $50, $200, or something like that. So I said what do you need? And he said can I get five bucks. And I gave him some money. And he left. And that was it.

WASHINGTON: Charles Farrell left boxing a few years back. He's since returned to his other love, music and a new love, writing. We'll have a link to his deadspin article about why he did what he did on our website, snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Joe Rosenberg with sound design by Renzo Gorrio. Now, when SNAP JUDGEMENT returns, just because you're homeless doesn't mean you can't pull the honeys. You heard me. SNAP JUDGEMENT, the "Slippery Slope" episode continues. Stay tuned.

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