The Rough & Tumble Life Of A Boxing Superstar
By Chris Oakley
He shook up the sports world as few men had before him or would after him. He was loved by millions of people, detested by millions of others, feared by many of the opponents he faced in the ring, and remembered by everyone who saw him. Al "Scarface" Capone was one of the most successful-- and controversial --fighters in boxing history, and his legacy would loom large in the ring long after he had hung up his gloves for the last time.
Alphonse Gabriel Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York on January 17th, 1899. He was introduced to the sweet science at the age of 13 by a neighborhood candy store owner who had once fought professionally as a middleweight; the boxing lessons helped channel Capone’s aggressive impulses into socially acceptable outlets and keep him from getting sucked into the dangerous criminal underworld of early 20th century New York. By age 15 he was skilled enough to enter local youth amateur tournaments; at 20 he won the prestigious Golden Gloves championship in the heavyweight division. Some sports historians even believe that Capone might have made the 1916 US Olympic boxing team had World War I not forced the cancellation of the Summer Games that year.
Capone, who moved to Chicago just after World War I ended, finally did make the Olympic boxing squad in time for the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp; he won the gold medal in his weight class by virtue of his fierce, pedal-to-the-metal fighting style and an uppercut that could literally almost take a man’s head off. One challenger that Capone was scheduled to face in the Olympic tournament chose to forfeit the match rather than endure the punishing body blows and headshots he almost certainly would have undergone at Capone’s hands.
Capone got the nickname "Scarface" from a cut he sustained on his temple during his first professional bout in 1921. The cut happened during the third round of that bout and nearly provoked the referee to stop the fight; it took half a dozen stitches to close the wound. Some of Capone’s family and friends resented the moniker; Capone himself, however, was rather fond of it-- it implied toughness, a simultaneous ability to take punishment from his opponents and dish it right back out to them.
That ability would propel him steadily up the ranks over the next year and a half. By the spring of 1923 Capone was number two among the top ten contenders for the world heavyweight title, and there wasn’t much doubt in anyone’s mind he would soon be number one on that list.
Only one man stood in the way of his attainment of that pinnacle....
Eliot Ness, known to his fans as "Untouchable" because his foes could never seem to land a punch on him, was Al "Scarface" Capone’s main rival in the fight game at the time the two men were booked to face one another in June of 1923 in the main event of a heavyweight card in Detroit. Whereas Capone relied on power to gain victory, Ness’ fighting technique emphasized quick timing and concentration of blows on a particularly vulnerable part of his opponent’s body. But while he may have been different from Capone in many respects, he had one notable similarity to the Chicago brawler: like Capone, he had been steadily working his way up the ladder after winning the gold medal in his weight class at the 1920 Summer Olympics.
The two fighters had something else in common too-- undefeated records. When Ness and Capone stepped into the ring on the afternoon of June 17th, 1923 Ness boasted a record of 24 wins and 1 draw over 25 fights; Capone had 23 consecutive victories to his credit, 20 of them by knockout in the first or second round. Just about everyone who was in attendance that day expected the match to be a long one; up in the press boxes, the sportswriters had a running bet that the fight would not end any earlier than the eighth round.
As it turned out, Ness and Capone would slug it out at least ten rounds before Ness could gain a noticeable if slight advantage; not until the eleventh round, when Ness was ahead on points, did Capone get the first knockdown of the bout. When the Cleveland native fell to the canvas, you could have heard a pin drop in the arena-- no previous opponent had been able to even come close to doing that to Ness. In the Capone corner Capone’s trainer and occasional sparring partner, Frank Nitti, let out a whoop loud enough to echo all the way back to the arena’s locker rooms.
1:42 into the eleventh round, Capone knocked Ness down a second time; the arena crowd, which was predominantly pro-Ness, reacted with mingled alarm and outrage. At least one spectator threw an empty paper cup in the direction of the ring and was ejected by police for his troubles. By now Capone was overtaking Ness on points and had softened him up to the point where another knockdown would end both the fight and Ness’ undefeated streak.
In desperation, Ness aimed an uppercut at Capone’s nose. That would prove to be the Clevelander’s crucial mistake; Capone landed a body blow which sent Ness sprawling to the mat and left him literally flat on his face. The referee called for the bell and officially named Capone the winner by technical knockout; only a massive Detroit Police presence inside the arena prevented a full-fledged riot from erupting.
And even with the cops around, some people couldn’t resist taking a shot at him, verbal or otherwise-- an Auburn Hills man was arrested for attempted assault after he tried to crack Capone’s skull with a two-by-four.
Charges that Capone had used illegal tactics to gain the victory over Ness created a firestorm in the press in the days immediately after the bout; however, Capone himself denied the accusations and no definitive proof was ever found to back them up. In early September of 1923, the investigation into these charges was closed and the scandal largely forgotten.1
As great as his triumph over Ness had been, however, a still greater accomplishment lay ahead for Capone. Jack Dempsey, world heavyweight champion since 1919, was booked to defend his belt against Capone in early December of 1923 in Kansas City; for Capone, it was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse-- the chance to both become world champion and smash the legend of Dempsey’s invincibility in one fell swoop.
To prepare for his clash with the champion, Capone embarked on the toughest training regimen of his career. Part of that regimen was watching films of Dempsey at work in the ring; in fact, Capone is widely credited as being one of the first boxers in any weight class to make viewing films of his opponents a regular part of pre-fight preparations. He also took part in a number of long sparring sessions with Frank Nitti, working at all hours to perfect his jabs and body blows. Though an outgoing man by nature, Capone cut back sharply on his socializing in the weeks leading up to his showdown with Dempsey. He even, albeit somewhat reluctantly, gave up his Friday night visits to his favorite speakeasy.2
Finally, on December 4th, 1923, Capone and Dempsey met face-to-face in a smoke-filled Kansas City arena; everybody who was there knew the stakes in this bout were sky-high, and nobody understood it better than Capone and Dempsey themselves. For Dempsey a win meant continuing his historic undefeated streak; for Capone victory would put him down in the history books as a giant-killer and give him the world heavyweight title.
For twelve rounds Capone and Dempsey went at each other like angry rhinos. The closest either man came to knocking the other man out was when Capone knocked Dempsey down twice in the tenth round; some of the sportswriters covering the bout began quietly making bets after the eighth round that the bout would end in a draw. But when the bell rang for the end of the twelfth round and the judges’ scores were tallied up, Capone would turn out to have earned a split decision win to become the new world heavyweight champion. Jack Dempsey, sure he’d beaten Capone, fell to the canvas in shock when the judges’ decision was announced; some sports historians suggest that Dempsey’s defeat in Kansas City may have marked the beginning of the end for his boxing career. It certainly shattered the myth of his invincibility.
Making good on a promise he’d given prior to the bout, Capone hosted a steak dinner for his family and closest friends back home in Chicago to celebrate his newly won title. He posed for photos with one of the other great American sports idols of the 1920s, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, and spoke at length to sportswriters from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times about his match against Dempsey. He was on top of the world that night...
....and would stay there for a long time. Capone proved to be the most dominant boxing champion of his generation, winning 38 bouts in a row, with 36 of those bouts lasting just five rounds or less; of those 36 matches thirty would be won in the first two rounds, and out of that group of thirty at least fifteen fights would be won by first- round KO. "I just forgot how to lose." Capone joked to sportwriters after his September 1925 four-round win over fellow Chicagoan ‘Bugs’ Moran, and there was certainly no shortage of opponents willing to refresh his memory. In fact, other than Eliot Ness, ‘Bugs’ Moran was Capone’s most persistent rival for the world heavyweight championship. Capone and Moran had known and disliked each other for years; Moran accused Capone of costing him a spot on the 1920 US Olympic boxing team, and in turn Capone charged that Moran had disparaged Capone’s wife behind her back. And the Capone-Moran fights weren’t confined to the ring, either; three months before Capone’s four-round victory, he and Moran had gotten into a vicious brawl at a party hosted by actress Clara Bow after Moran made a remark mocking Capone’s Italian heritage.
Nor would the September 1925 fight be the last time Moran stepped through the ropes to face Capone; in May of 1927 the two squared off in a highly publicized and ferociously fought rematch at Braves Field in Boston. That bout lasted just two rounds, halted by the referee at the 1:42 mark of the second round after Capone broke Moran’s jaw with a strong right cross which also opened a cut on Moran’s right temple. Moran nearly retired from boxing after that defeat, and in fact a year would pass before he stepped into the ring again.
For most of the year Moran was out of boxing, Capone kept right on winning, so convincingly and in such swift fashion that at one point some promoters suggested retiring the world heavyweight title altogether. There didn’t seem to be anyone left who wanted to take him on; Capone himself bluntly told a Los Angeles Herald-Tribune boxing beat correspondent, "I’ve whipped so many guys by now everybody’s gone yellow...there ain’t nobody left in the whole wide world who has the guts to fight me."3
There were certainly fewer and fewer fighters on American soil willing to risk their necks to try and wrest Capone’s heavyweight belt from him; even Eliot Ness, the champion’s most unrelenting adversary, was starting to seem a bit hesitant to face him again. And it couldn’t have helped Ness’ courage any when Capone wrecked Gene Tunney in three rounds in February of 1928 in a bout rightly dubbed by sportswriters as "the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre".4 Boxing promoters looking for a challenger who had the moxie to stand toe-to-toe with Scarface found themselves increasingly having to look to Europe to find fighters to take on the champion.
But there was an American fighter who wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated by the Al Capone mystique: one Benjamin "Bugsy"5 Siegel, a brawler with an uppercut that had left more than one foe flat on his back. Siegel, who’d turned pro shortly after the first Capone-Moran bout, had a record of sixteen wins and one draw at the time of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and was eager to prove he could take the world heavyweight champion down.
On a Monday afternoon in March of 1928, Siegel confronted Capone at the South Side gym where Capone trained in between fights; to the shock of everyone present and the outrage of Capone himself, the 22- year-old New Yorker labeled the heavyweight champion a "relic" and a "worthless coward" and dared Capone to face him in the ring. Capone, hellbent on putting this New York upstart in his place, took Siegel up on the dare and the match was booked for July 1st at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
That day would see the Coliseum host the largest crowd in boxing history-- and the end of Scarface’s title reign.
107,634 people packed Los Angeles Coliseum for the Siegel-Capone fight-- among them Bugs Moran and Eliot Ness, who while sitting in separate sections were both rooting for Siegel to wipe the canvas with Capone. Ness brought his manager Frank Wilson to the fight, and Moran showed up at the Coliseum with his sparring partners Dion O’Banion and Hymie Weiss in tow.
Ness and Moran weren’t the only famous faces to show up for the Siegel-Capone bout; writer Ernest Hemingway, singer/actor Al Jolson, and Capone’s old pal Babe Ruth were just some of the VIPs on hand for the bout. There was even a brief chat prior to the bout between Siegel and disgraced evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson. Herbert Hoover, then campaigning to succeed the outgoing Calvin Coolidge as President of the United States, arrived at the Coliseum just before the start of the second round and stayed until the fight was over.
It was clear Capone was in trouble when Siegel knocked him down twice during the eighth round; none of Capone’s previous opponents had ever managed to accomplish that, and only one-- Jack Dempsey --had even been able to come close, sending Capone to the canvas once in the sixth round of their legendary December 1923 bout. But Siegel had a ton of self-confidence, his famous uppercut, and the backing of most of the Coliseum crowd in his favor. By the ninth round Siegel held the edge on points and could sense the champion was on his last legs; in the tenth round he delivered the coup de grace, his patented uppercut nailing Capone square on the nose and sending the champion tumbling to the canvas. One ten-count later, Bugsy Siegel was the new heavyweight champion of the world...
....and Al Capone’s boxing career had started falling into an irreversible decline. Following his loss to Siegel, Capone went into seclusion for the next seven months, and when he finally stepped back into the ring in February of 1929, he lost in six rounds to up-and- coming Italian heavyweight Primo Carnera. He tried to get his career back on track with a final showdown against longtime rival Eliot Ness in June of 1929, only to have Ness embarrass him by knocking him out in four rounds.
Things weren’t much better for him outside the ring either. In August of 1929 Mae Coughlin Capone, his wife since 1918, left him and filed for divorce after the former champion lashed out at her one night in a violent alcoholic rage; two months later, he lost most of his personal fortune in the Wall Street stock market crash that began the Great Depression.
His misfortunes grew even worse in April of 1930 when he was indicted on charges of tax evasion after an IRS audit of his financial records between 1925 and 1927 turned up evidence that Capone might have falsified some of his income tax statements; his trial, which lasted more than six months, was avidly followed by America’s major newspapers and radio networks and ended with Capone being sentenced to three years in prison for tax fraud. He served a year and a half of that sentence and was released in September of 1932, a shell of the larger-than-life figure boxing fans had known at the height of his success as world heavyweight champion.
In what would turn out to be his final professional match ever, Capone, hoping to recapture some of his past glory, faced Bugs Moran one more time in January of 1933 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. But Capone’s hopes were emphatically dashed; Moran, letting loose years of pent-up frustration over his previous defeats at the hands of Capone, tore the ex-champion apart like paper. The man who’d once ruled the heavyweight ranks with an iron fist met the same fate he had inflicted on so many of his foes-- a first-round defeat by knockout.
Shortly after his loss to Moran in San Francisco, Capone got some devastating news from his personal physician: he had been diagnosed with dementia pugilistica, a brain disorder common to boxers which is incurable. This diagnosis crushed Capone’s spirit as even his worst defeats in the ring had never done, and Frank Nitti would later recall that Capone returned from his doctor’s visit "wearing the look of a men who’s just been sentenced to the electric chair".6 Capone knew that those afflicted with dementia pugilistica became vegetables sooner or later, and that was a fate he couldn’t bear to endure.
On August 17th, 1933 Nitti got a phone call from the landlady of the bachelor apartment where Capone had been living since his divorce from Mae became final; in great agitation, she told Nitti that there had been no sound or movement from Capone’s flat since 10:30 PM the night before. Nitti, immediately sensing the worst, phoned the Chicago Police, who sent a detail to bust down the door of Capone’s apartment. When they got in, they found Capone sprawled out on the floor of his bedroom with what looked like a bottle of strychnine in one hand.
The former world heavyweight champion had committed suicide.
Al Capone was laid to rest on August 21st, 1933 in one of the largest funerals Chicago had ever seen. The procession to Capone’s gravesite spanned five city blocks; the mausoleum where his body was interred was bigger than some Chicagoans’ houses. Today, next to Wrigley Field and the Sears Tower, the mausoleum ranks as the Windy City’s most famous tourist attraction. Indeed, Capone left his mark on Chicago and the sport of boxing in endless ways large and small; for example a particularly hard body blow is now known in boxing lingo as "a Capone punch", and a boxing school named in his honor has been operating on Chicago’s South Side since the late 1940s.
Mae Capone remarried two years after her divorce from Al Capone was finalized and moved to Manhattan, where she died in 1986. Frank Nitti was killed in March of 1941 in a car crash near the Illinois town of Cicero; Eliot Ness retired from professional boxing in 1939 to become a CBS Radio sportscaster, a job he held until his death from a heart attack in 1957. Bugs Moran defeated Massachusetts native Jack Sharkey for the world heavyweight title in October of 1933 only to end up losing the title to German sports legend Max Schmeling five months later; he retired in 1942 to become a promoter, booking boxing matches throughout the Midwest until his death in 1951.
Hymie Weiss and Dion O’Banion were both gunned down in the spring of 1935 in Newark, New Jersey during a bank holdup attempt gone awry. Their killer was caught three weeks later, convicted of conspiracy to commit bank robbery and second-degree murder, and executed in the New Jersey State Prison electric chair in September of 1936.
After losing the heavyweight championship to Jack Sharkey in 1930, Bugsy Siegel endured a long and hard struggle to return to the top of the heavyweight ranks. In February of 1935 he took on Max Schmeling in London and beat the German colossus in six rounds to regain the world heavyweight title; after his second championship reign ended in June of 1937, he embarked on a second career as a movie serials actor and became romantically involved with a Hollywood chorus girl. Siegel was killed in a plane crash in the Nevada desert in 1950.
1Except, possibly, by Ness himself and his most die-hard fans.
2Capone was legendary for his irreverent attitude towards Prohibition; in one of his most famous comments to the press, he told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who asked him whether he was afraid being seen at speakeasies might hurt his public image: "When you serve drinks on the South Side it’s called breaking the law. When you serve drinks on Lake Shore Drive it’s called hospitality."
2Quoted from the sports pages of the January 17th, 1928 edition of the Los Angeles Herald-Tribune.
4So named because it took place on February 14th-- Valentine’s Day --and because Capone beat Tunney so mercilessly during the bout that the challenger lost four teeth, two pints of blood, and close to 30% of the vision in his right eye. Tunney retired from boxing shortly after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and spent most of the rest of his life running a saloon.
5He got the nickname from his childhood hobby of collecting insects.
6Quoted from Nitti’s 1940 autobiography I Knew Scarface.