Mr. Bombo’s bombastic year

By Pete Ehrmann on April 11, 2016
Mr. Bombo’s bombastic year
The only thing Mr. Bombo and Jack Johnson had in common was the color of their skin.

Gertrude instructed Bombo to blow his nose for the assembled press. Globs of Vaseline laced with black pepper came out…

Was getting arrested as a white slaver the price Bombo Chevalier paid for spoiling Primo Carnera’s stomp through palookaville 86 years ago this month?

Let me quickly state that I have no proof of any linkage between the Chevalier-Carnera fight on April 14, 1930 — called at the time “the worse farce in the history of the game” — and the arrest of Chevalier and his wife nine months later. But if you cotton to good old-fashioned boxing conspiracy theories, this one seems to have the circumstantial earmarks.

Until thrust into the spotlight by what happened at the Oakland ballpark, Leon “Bombo” Chevalier had boxed in California for five years under his own and at least one other (“Young Wllls”) name. An article making hay of his post-Primo notoriety hymned Chevalier as “a replica of Jack Johnson at his best in defensive skill and fighting ability,” but the only thing Bombo and the first black heavyweight champion had in common was the color of their skin. Chevalier wasn’t even among the top black heavyweights of his time, losing by KO to Mack House, George Godfrey, Bearcat Wright and Dynamite Jackson.

Bombo’s spotty record and the lack of fire in the pronounced belly bulging over the waistband of his boxing trunks made him, on paper, ideal for the role of human tenpin in the famously rigged campaign to make Primo Carnera look like the most fearsome heavyweight ever to set foot in the ring. Fourteen others had tipped over since the Italian giant came here in January 1930, most of them so mysteriously that by the time the Carnera palookathon reached California in April the National Boxing Association had started an investigation into the bouts and the Montana boxing commission declared Big Sky Country off-limits to the “Ambling Alp” and his mobbed-up brain trust.

“Pete Push-Over, Larry Lay-Down [and] Dick the Diver” was the generic label Oakland Tribune boxing writer Bob Shand gave Primo’s prior victims when it was announced that Bombo Chevalier was next up.

Thirty-year-old Chevalier wasn’t even the first choice of Carnera’s sharpies for the Oakland fight. They wanted someone named Jim Johnson, but nobody heard of him and the state commission approved Bombo on the say-so of his manager, Tim McGrath, that Chevalier would actually fight and had “never taken a diving lesson in his life.”

It didn’t matter, really. Nobody in the record crowd expected at the Emeryville home of the minor league Oakland Oaks, wrote Shand, figured Bombo “to stick more than two rounds… The fans are going to the ballpark tomorrow night to see Carnera, and not with any hopes of witnessing an even fight between two well-trained athletes.”

What a shock they — and Primo — got.

“Chevalier showed no fear of his giant opponent and outboxed him in the first round,” wrote Shand at ringside. “… Chevalier bounced a few right hands off the Carnera chin in the second (and) gained confidence as the fight progressed and landed five right crosses in succession in the first minute of the third round. One of the punches found Carnera’s eye, and the optic started to swell.

“The fourth was an even round with Chevalier doing his share of the leading and landing frequently with rights. He was inside Carnera’s long right-hand punches. Chevalier continued to land with his right in the fifth and had Carnera missing.”

In round six Carnera shoved Chevalier down, and when Bombo got up, Shand reported, he “crossed his opponent with a right cross that shook the giant from head to feet. Carnera missed with two lefts and Chevalier was boxing nicely.”

Just then a towel fluttered into the ring from Bombo’s corner. It was tossed by Chevalier second Bob Perry. As shocked as anyone by the token of surrender in a fight Chevalier was clearly winning, Referee Toby Irwin looked at Bombo and Tim McGrath, but neither demurred and Irwin had no choice but to proclaim Carnera winner by technical knockout.

“A riot took place when the ringside spectators realized what had happened,” wrote Bob Shand, “and the man who acknowledged defeat in the face of victory” — Bob Perry — went to a hospital with two black eyes and minus some teeth.”

Carnera was hustled out of the ballpark, and when reporters got to Chevalier’s dressing room and demanded answers, Bombo and McGrath just shrugged.

Enter Gertrude Chevalier, Bombo’s wife and 12 years his senior, and clearly the wearer of the pants in the family.

“Come clean,” she ordered her husband. “Tell these men who it was that offered you $900 to have the fight in the bag. You came home one night and told me that you would be selected to fight Carnera only if you put the fight in the bag, and I told you you had better shoot square.

“Then only this afternoon when I heard a lot of rumors I told you not to let any strangers in your corner rub the sponge across your nose or give you any water. I knew as early as the second round that you were being double-crossed.”

Gertrude instructed Bombo to blow his nose for the assembled press. Globs of Vaseline laced with black pepper came out.

Chevalier then confirmed what his wife said about the bribe offer, and was more explicit in his testimony a day later at a hearing conducted by state boxing chairman Charles Truang. Bombo said that on his way into the ring another of his cornermen, Bob Laga, ordered him to splash “in the first 15 seconds” of the fight. When Chevalier came back to his corner at the end of the first round, he testified, Bob Perry told him if he didn’t fall in the second “he would kill me.”

According to eyewitness testimony, Perry — whose second’s license had just been reinstated after a year’s suspension for being “unreliable and untruthful” — tried to throw in the towel during the second round but was forcibly stopped by a fan who saw no reason for it. Perry got away with it in the sixth by flinging the towel underhanded.

Other pertinent facts turned up in Traung’s investigation included that Laga and Perry partied with Carnera managers Bill Duffy and Frank Churchill at the latters’ hotel the day before the fight; that before the third round began Duffy dispatched Churchill to sit in Bombo’s corner; that Perry rubbed the pepper-and-Vaseline in Chevalier’s eyes throughout the fight as well as up his nose; that Leon See, another Carnera manager, had co-managed Bombo Chevalier three years earlier; and that ultimately Bombo stood up to their threats and machinations because he was not as fearful of them as he was of Mrs. Bombo.

In response to Chairman Truang’s formal conclusion that “everything was done to prevent Chevalier from winning the contest, or even staying the 10 rounds,” Bombo handlers McGrath, Perry and Laga were indefinitely suspended and the California boxing licenses of Carnera and his entire troupe were revoked.

Bombo himself was lauded in an Oakland Tribune editorial as “a fighter old-fashioned enough to cling to the belief it is his business to fight. Undismayed by all the talk of ‘man mountain’ and ‘giant,’ Mr. Bombo surprised one and all by his determination to give the crowd its money’s worth and every round he stayed with the great Primo detracted so much from the ballyhoo assets…

“If the [Carnera] traveling circus in the future finds the going hard and the easy money not so easy, it may thank Mr. Bombo who, having entered the affair, tried his best to see it through.”

But he was just plain Bombo again — and now managed by Mrs. Chevalier — three weeks later after losing a 10-round decision to Angus Snyder in San Francisco.

“Because the giant Negro had killed off Primo Carnera as an attraction the customers presumed he was a good fighter,” wrote Bob Shand. “They overlooked the fact that Chevalier went to the sixth round with the Italian only because Primo expected him to take the customary dive early in the proceedings and did not attempt to knock him out… (Chevalier) was unable to get important fights before the Carnera fiasco because he was not a good fighter; and it was poor logic to surmise that he was a better fighter simply because Carnera did not attempt to slap him down at Emeryville.”

The Oakland travesty killed plans for the million-dollar gate Carnera’s overseers envisioned with Jack Dempsey that summer, but thanks to what columnist Joe Williams called “the limitless gullibility of the great American sucker,” after a brief stall the Primo circus was back on track and all was forgiven except in California.
A proposed Bombo-Primo “Battle of Vindication” in Chicago in August didn’t happen, and the always-desultory Chevalier sank back into obscurity until San Francisco cops raided his and Gertrude’s $50 a month apartment at 1603 Geary St. on January 13, 1931. Louise Gomez, 16, pretty and white, told authorities she’d been held there by the Chevaliers against her will for a month and forced into “a life of shame.” They threatened to kill her if she squealed, Gomez said.

The Chevaliers were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and the state boxing commission put Bombo on its suspension list.

The day after their arrest, Primo Carnera and Leon See returned to America from Europe to resume the quest that two-and-a-half years hence would result in the heavyweight title. But now, instead of denying that they’d ever engaged in questionable fights, See defended the practice.

“I not only admit that we fought setups and very mediocre opponents all along the line,” he said, “but I go further — I say I wouldn’t have accepted any other type of opposition for Carnera. He is a green hand at this business of fighting.”

They never got reinstated in California, but not for lack of trying. “You would be surprised,” Charles Truang told a reporter, “if you knew the pressure that has been brought to bear on the commission to remove the suspension of Carnera and his handlers.”

So it’s probably a stretch after all to divine any connection between Carnera’s influential puppeteers and the sudden very serious legal problems of Bombo and Gertrude Chevalier.

But if there was one, the fixers got only half the satisfaction they were after. Gertrude was found guilty and sentenced to a year-and-a-half in jail. Tried separately a week after his wife, Bombo went free when the jury deadlocked on a vote of 11-1 for acquittal.

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  1. Pete 04:05am, 04/14/2016

    Many thanks, Peter and Bob.

  2. Bob Mladinich 08:07pm, 04/13/2016

    Great one, Pete. A pleasure to read.

  3. peter 06:41pm, 04/13/2016

    Thank you for this fascinating story!

  4. Pete 10:20am, 04/12/2016

    Great question, Sean. Guess there’s little doubt who was Pete Push-Over and Larry Lay-Down in the Chevalier house. Thanks.

  5. Sean Matheny 08:50pm, 04/11/2016

    Pete- Great story!  It’s amazing how you breathe life back in these long forgotten but very interesting tales of the fight game.  I wonder if poop Bombo visited Gertrude in the can, or just enjoyed his 18 month vacation from her?

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