Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mickey Cohen

Tough Kid

Mickey Cohen, the young boxer
Mickey Cohen, the young
Even though the trail had been blazed before him, Mickey Cohens rise to the top wasnt easy. He had to pay his dues, and he got his start in the rackets like a number of other wise guys: in the ring. The things that make a good pug and a good gangster are similar. An imposing presence, tough fists and a chin that can take a punch are important characteristics for a racketeer, although the imposing presence is mostly for character.

Meyer Lansky, 1952 (CORBIS)
Meyer Lansky, 1952
Many of the mobs toughest characters were small men who made up for their diminutive stature with guts and heart that belonged in guys twice their size. Meyer Lansky and Lepke Buchalter are two that come to mind, although this trait is not limited to Jewish gangsters. The Westies Mickey Featherstone wasnt all that big and he was known for his rock-solid fists and the tenacity of a Jack Russell terrier.

Current Genovese family leaders Punchy Illiano and Quiet Dom Cirillo both got their starts as boxers, as did another Genovese member, Lil Augie Pisano. Illiano earned his nickname because of his boxing background and those who know him insist he is anything but punchy. For his part, Cirillo faced Jake Raging Bull La Motta in the ring several times, although he was less than successful.

Mickey Cohen was born hustling. A Brownsville, New York, native the same neighborhood that gave the world Abe Reles and many of the Murder, Inc. troop Cohen was whisked away from the poverty of that Brooklyn slum before he was six years old and moved with his mother and older siblings to the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, where his family operated a drug store.

Of course, this being Prohibition, the Cohen pharmacy, in the middle of a Russian Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, operated one of the countless small-time gin mills in the area. As a boy, Mickey served as a deliveryman for his brothers moonshine operation, which resulted in his first pinch at 9 years old. The charge was smoothed over by his brothers connections and nothing came of it, but the seed had already been planted in Mickeys mind.

I got a kick out of having a big bankroll in my pocket, he said in his biography. Even if I only made a couple hundred dollars, Id always keep it in fives and tens so itd look big. I had to hide it from my mother, because shed get excited when shed see a roll of money like that.

Successful hustling, whether its bootlegging, selling newspapers or swag, requires moxie and the fists to back it up, and thats how the preteen Mickey discovered he liked to box. Although the sport was illegal in California and even more so because he was so young, Mickey found many different ways to get in the ring. Along with the money it gave him, he found he also liked the respect he earned.

As he grew, Mickey continued boxing and with the blissful ignorance of youth, his thoughts turned toward becoming a professional. The skill was there, as were the promoters who saw something special in the young teen. The only problem was that 15-year-old Mickey Cohens mother didnt know he was boxing at all.

One day, the butcher stopped my mother who didnt talk real good English and said to her, Mrs. Cohen, you must be proud your boys boxing for the championship. So she says, Whats this boxing?

See, she didnt know nothing about boxing or that sort of thing.

Mickey won the championship and that sealed it in his mind. With the blessing of his older brother, he told his mother he was going to the beach and headed east to become a prize fighter. Fate had other ideas.

Mick bounced around the Midwest for a while and landed in New York, where he met some of organized crimes toughest characters. Tommy Dioguardi, brother of the labor racketeer Johnny Dio, was a fight fanatic, as was Owney Madden, the New York killer who would end up running the mobs resort in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Owney was a really a guy to respect and admire quite a guy, a man of his word, Mickey recalled later. His faithfulness to his own kind is the strongest thing a man can have, and if Owney felt that you were an all right person, there wasnt nothing that he wouldnt do for you.

Tommy Paul, boxer (University Libraries of Notre Dame)
Tommy Paul, boxer
(University Libraries
of Notre Dame)
A bad bout with featherweight world champ Tommy Paul ended Mick's boxing career when the champ knocked him so senseless he wandered out of the ring and was on his way to the dressing room before anyone could catch him.

"I began to see that I really didn't have it to be great in the ring," he said. "So then I decided I'd had enough of the fight business and everything else."



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