In the late 1940s and early 50’s, Kansas City, Kan., native Tommy Campbell became the world’s number-two-ranked lightweight fighter. He won almost as many fights as Muhammad Ali, but his boxing career was cut short when he stood up against mob-controlled promoters and boxing matchmakers.
Author Phil Dixon, tells Campbell's story in his upcoming book Tommy Campbell: A Boxing Bout with the Mob.
At 19, Campbell took a job in Iowa training young boxers. He moved to Rock Island, Ill. and launched his professional boxing career there in early 1940. Until his retirement in 1951, Campbell took on some of the best fighters in the world.
Dixon says, for a boxer, Campbell’s demeanor was distinct.
“They used to say that he would come into the ring like a preacher, really calm and cool, didn’t say much,” says Dixon. “But you put a pair of gloves on him and he would just dominate.”
Dixon says that’s how Campbell got his nickname, the “Chocolate Ice Cube” that followed him throughout his career, that Dixon says was both difficult and successful.
“It was one of the greatest periods for African-American boxers,” says Dixon. “But most of the champions at that time were controlled by the mob.”
During Campbell’s lifetime, the world of boxing was incredibly corrupt. Mobsters posed as managers and would claim ownership of a boxer’s career, often organizing their matches, Dixon says.
“If you wanted to have a title fight,” Dixon says. “If a particular mobster didn’t have a piece of you, you wouldn’t get that fight.”
In order to make a profit, mobsters would often fix a fight by asking one of the competitors to “take a fall,” insuring they’d collect on the winning bets. Unfortunately for talented boxers like Campbell, a boxer’s career was not determined by their physical abilities but by the will of the mob.
In 1950, under the management of the notorious manager Babe McCoy, Campbell was forced to take a fall in his match against boxing champion Art Aragon. Frustrated that he’d jeopardize his reputation, Campbell refused to ever again throw a fight and faced serious retaliation by the mob. Fearing for his life, Campbell retired from the ring in 1951.
But Campbell would pick up the fight once more, when in 1956, California police launched an investigation into the corrupt world of boxing. At the time, Campbell was working at a manufacturing plant in Phoenix, Ariz., and with no reason to fear retaliation, he agreed to testify about his fixed match back in 1950.
“Not only did he agree to testify against the mob about the Art Aragon fight, but he talked about other fights as well,” says Dixon. “He started to name names like Babe McCoy. Other boxers saw him talking and they had the same story.”
Thanks to Campbell’s courage, Dixon says other boxers also felt safe to step forward and testify against the mobsters who ruled the fighting ring. As a result Babe McCoy lost his license and never again came near the boxing ring.
In 1969, Tommy Campbell died at 48 from a sudden heart attack while living in Seattle, Wash. Looking back, Dixon says Campbell’s career illustrates a dark era for boxing ,when many talented athletes like Campbell never got the recognition they deserved. Although both his life and career were cut short, Dixon says Campbell was not a bitter man.
“To know that he never got the opportunity to achieve at the level that he could have achieved,” says Dixon. “I’m probably a little more angry than anyone else.”
Dixon's book is due out in the spring.