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The Shame of Boxing | The Nation

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The Shame of Boxing

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Jack Newfield has written about boxing as a reporter since 1964 for the Village Voice, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. His documentary film Don King: Unauthorized won an Emmy in 1991.

Fixed Fights and White Hopes

About the Author

Jack Newfield
Jack Newfield is a veteran New York political reporter and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of...

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There are still some fixed fights. In August a federal grand jury in Las Vegas indicted "matchmaker" Bobby Mitchell and boxer Thomas Williams for sports bribery and conspiracy. The basic allegation is that Williams took a dive against Richie Melito Jr. in the preliminary match to the Holyfield-Ruiz title fight in August 2000.

A statement released by the grand jury said, "Beginning around March 1995, Mitchell and others [associated with the boxing business] conspired to fix boxing matches for the purpose of promoting the professional career of Richard Melito Jr."

In the 1950s, fights were fixed to set up betting coups for the mob. These days fights are fixed to build up the records and reputations of white heavyweights who can't win on their own. Melito is a slow white heavyweight from Queens with a china chin. His father, who manages his son's career, is a former NYPD detective.

All the dominant fighters since the 1960s have been black or Latino--Ali, Duran, Roy Jones Jr., Leonard, Hagler, Pryor, Bernard Hopkins, Alexis Arguello, Thomas Herns, Chavez, Trinidad, Mosley, De La Hoya, Whitaker, Holmes, Holyfield. This has created a pathetic yearning for a white boxing star among white fans. This tribal inferiority complex is what helped make the Rocky movies a box-office bonanza. There is a huge market for this sort of therapeutic racial-revenge fantasy. It was behind the scam that Mitchell and Williams are accused of running. Mitchell, and others around Melito not yet named, believed that if they could inflate Melito's record with arranged wins, he could be maneuvered into a big-money fight as the latest white hope.

Bobby Mitchell's job is to locate and deliver breathing bodies certain to fall down early. Boxing's bottom-feeders crave predictability. Nobody who saw the way Melito's chin reacted to a real punch wanted their investment jeopardized by an opponent trying to win. Mitchell was the "manager" (really the booking agent) for twelve of Melito's opponents who were knocked out. Last year Mitchell gave Wally Matthews and me an astonishingly honest interview about his job as the casting agent for Melito's opponents.

"Promoters hire me to fill out one side of their cards," Mitchell explained. "They hire me to protect their investments. They're not calling me because I'm going to get their guys beat.... When I'm making matches for Melito, the first thing I'm looking for is a weak chin. Then I'm looking for someone who is not training."

Melito's record is 27-1, with twenty-five knockouts, but his only legitimate fight may have been the one he lost to Bert Cooper in New York in 1997. And Cooper won the fight--a first-round KO--probably because a member of the New York commission went into his dressing room beforehand and warned him that there were rumors he was taking a dive, and if he didn't give an honest effort he would not get paid. Bert needed the money.

A year ago a boxer named John Carlo told me and Matthews he "wasn't trying" when he lost to Melito. A second boxer, Shelby Gross, told us that Mitchell offered him $10,000 to lose to Melito, but that he rejected the proposition. The indictment charges Mitchell with paying Williams to lose, but make no reference to the original source of the money.

In 1995, Peter McNeeley, another manufactured white hope, was demolished in ninety seconds by Mike Tyson. But this mismatch, promoted by Don King, grossed $96 million on pay per view, as Tyson's first fight after serving a prison term for rape. McNeeley went into the fight with a record on paper of 36-1. But it was a fake résumé. His fights had been fixed in the matchmaking to make him look good.

McNeeley's handpicked opponents had a combined record of 301 defeats in 422 fights. They had already been knocked out a total of 132 times before they were judged unqualified enough to face McNeeley. They were a bunch of drug-rehab refugees, fighters who had been retired, out-of-shape bouncers and tomato cans who worked day jobs.

McNeeley's manager was Vinnie Vecchione, who selected all these opponents. Vecchione has also produced a dozen of Melito's opponents, or most of those not recruited by Mitchell. Sylvester Stallone could sue Mitchell and Vecchione for copyright infringement.

Don King has been a lousy promoter for good black fighters, but he has been an outstanding one for lousy white fighters. King gave the Bayonne Bleeder, Chuck Wepner, a chance to lose to Ali in 1975. His undue influence kept white South African heavyweight Frans Botha much higher in the ratings than he deserved. He gave Gerry Cooney a chance to get knocked out by Larry Holmes in 1982--and he paid Cooney more than he paid the undefeated black champion. He dressed up McNeeley like a Thanksgiving turkey until he fed him to Tyson.

King was a brilliant, bombastic Barnum in using racial conflict to huckster these black-and-white fights. That was the same agenda behind the Melito buildup. It was just too brazen and transparent to fool the Feds.

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