The Shame of Boxing
'Respectable Society Doesn't Really Care'
Boxing in 2001 is not like it was portrayed in the movies of the 1950s. A gangster doesn't strut into the dressing room, a cigar in his teeth, and whisper to the fighter, "Tonight isn't your night, kid. You're going down in the sixth." The corruption now is more subtle, sophisticated and systemic. It depends more on fixing the rankings than fixing the fights, although some rigging of results does go on, to manufacture "white hopes."
Lou DiBella ran boxing at HBO for eleven years and is now an "adviser" to the new middleweight champion, Bernard Hopkins. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and an advocate for reform.
"The current system is designed for abuse," DiBella told me. "It is set up to keep the fighter in the dark. No one is looking out for the fighter's economic interest."
"Respectable society doesn't really care," DiBella continued. "They say it's just boxing, and boxing has always been dirty. Respectable society doesn't care because almost all the fighters are black or Latino. Boxing is the sport of the underclass. Even the Russians are poor. If a golfer or baseball player were getting cheated and injured like this, there would be televised Congressional hearings."
"The law sets up an employer-employee relationship between the promoter and the fighter," DiBella added. "Most boxers enter into legal contracts without any legal representation. The promoters are so powerful they are making the function of the manager obsolete. The two or three dominant promoters make vast profits within this system. But they are not really taking the kind of financial risk Tex Rickard and Mike Jacobs took sixty or seventy years ago. The money is guaranteed to the promoters by the television networks and the casinos. The promoter is negotiating with the money people and the fighter doesn't know what is going on."
For the past ten weeks I have been investigating the velvet sewer of professional boxing, applying my populist economics to this sports slum of sad endings. I see the fighter as the exploited worker, the gym as the factory assembly line, the promoters as the robber barons. I see the television networks and the gambling casinos as the bankers. I see the arena as the mine shaft, where the occupational hazard is a bleeding brain instead of black lung. I see boxing as a dangerous, unregulated craft, more about Marx's concept of surplus value than notions of literary symbolism. There is nothing existential about a punch to the liver.
Boxing has become like a gruesome car wreck. I can keep watching only if I am pulling a victim out to safety. I feel that I must do everything possible to make this velvet sewer better before I abandon it. That's why this muckraking meditation will end with a proposed Bill of Rights for Boxers. The best way I can display my respect for the workers is to try to clean up their polluted and toxic environment.