Someday they’re going to write a blues song just for fighters. It will be for a slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.
Boxing is my guilty pleasure. I love it and I hate it. I appreciate it, but I’m also the first one to shout “Stop the fight!” when it becomes an unequal beating rather than a competitive sport.
At its infrequent best, boxing can be the art of hitting and not getting hit–a ballet with blood, geometry with guile. At its frequent worst, it is fakery, burlesque, cruelty, injustice, exploitation and death.
It has always been a sport on the neon, outlaw margins. Fifty years ago sportswriter Jimmy Cannon called it “the red light district of sports.” It still is, though in a slicker way.
Despite its dark side–or more likely because of its dark side–boxing has always been the sport most stimulating and attractive to serious writers, filmmakers, painters and songwriters. It is deeply embedded in the American culture. It appeals to the bloodlust in human nature.
Boxing has been an inspiration to writers of the caliber of Norman Mailer, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, Gerald Early, A.J. Liebling, Jack London, Pete Hamill, James Elroy, Budd Schulberg, Nick Tosches, Leonard Gardner, W.C. Heinz, Gay Talese, Ted Hoagland and David Remnick.
More outstanding movies have been made about boxing than any other game or racket: Body and Soul, Champion, Raging Bull, The Set-Up, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Harder They Fall, the first Rocky film, Fat City and On the Waterfront (in which Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a boxer who took a dive for the mob). Two of Bob Dylan’s best songs are about fighters: “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and “The Hurricane.”
Even now, in an era without a Jack Dempsey/Joe Louis/Muhammad Ali-level star who is bigger than boxing, the sport is still a $500-million-a-year big business. It is still the ticket out of slum poverty, still what Joyce Carol Oates called “America’s tragic theater.”
HBO’s annual budget for boxing is $75 million. Showtime’s budget is $25 million. The second Holyfield-Tyson fight grossed $100 million in one night, because of pay-per-view technology. The mega-fight is still key to the Las Vegas casino economy of high rollers. HBO (AOL-Time Warner), Showtime (Viacom) and ESPN (Disney) make a lot of money off boxing programming. Boxing feeds the corporate system.
The problem is that the sport is unregulated. Except for Nevada and Pennsylvania, the state commissions are jokes, run by small-time politicians interested in free seats facing the TV cameras.
This was the affliction back in 1967, when every boxing commission in the country wrongfully stripped Muhammad Ali of his title, and his license to box and earn a living, without any due process. The New York commission–chaired by a former Republican Congressman–revoked Ali’s license on the same day he refused induction into the Army on religious grounds. Four years later the Supreme Court ruled, 8 to 0, that Ali did have a legitimate, sincere religious position against the Vietnam War. But every state commission–appointed by politicians–banned him without even holding a hearing where he could present his case.
These state boxing commissions are still as unprofessional as they were in Ali’s time. This same politicized passivity is what has allowed boxing to evolve its strange economic structure that is half monopoly and half piracy.
Boxing is like no other sport. It has no national commissioner to set standards for health and safety. In boxing there are no leagues or schedules. Every match is a separate deal. There is no rational structure. The chaos itself becomes an impediment to reform. The casual fan does not understand how the sport is run.
In baseball, the standings reflect a quantifiable reality. In boxing, the ratings (which supposedly rank fighters according to ability, from one to ten with a number-one ranking guaranteeing a lucrative fight for the title) are at best impressionistic, and at worst totally corrupt–sold for cash. Everyone in boxing knows that the three sanctioning bodies that issue the ratings–the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council and the International Boxing Federation–have no legitimacy. They force champions to pay huge sanction fees for the right to defend their titles. They strip champions of their titles if they don’t go along with the sport’s back-room politics. They manipulate the ratings and exclude merit from consideration. They assign incompetent judges to fights. They are more like bandits than regulators.
In basketball, the score is obvious. The ball has to go through the hoop. In boxing, nothing is clear; victory and defeat are matters of interpretation by judges. A number-one rating can be auctioned. Fighters sometimes don’t get paid what they are promised in a contract. Nobody audits the money. There are conflicts of interest that would never be tolerated in predominantly white sports like tennis, golf or stock-car racing.
In theory, a manager is supposed to negotiate the most favorable economic terms for his fighter, while the promoter is supposed to make the largest possible profit on the event. But there have been dozens of fights in which Carl King managed both fighters while the match was promoted by his father, Don King, boxing’s dominant promoter since 1974, accumulating a net worth of $200 million along the way. Bob Arum has also had similar conflicts of interest.
If the promoter’s son represents both fighters, what chance does the boxer have of getting paid fairly? In addition, most of King’s fighters tell me they are not permitted to have their own lawyers or accountants. Mike Tyson is now suing King, claiming his co-managers were actually employees of King, whose loyalty was to him, not Tyson.
I tolerated this institutionalized avarice and cynicism for years because of the occasional artistry of a Sugar Ray Robinson or a Muhammad Ali. Or the occasional classic match like Ray Leonard versus Tommy Hearns or Ali versus Frazier. Robinson was my perfect fighter. He had speed, grace, heart, punch, style, intelligence, fluidity, character and will. He was the Einstein of the geometry of angles and distances. He was to boxing what Shakespeare was to playwriting.
In 1998 I co-produced a documentary film about Robinson’s life for HBO and learned that Ray hated boxing. He killed an opponent, Jimmy Doyle, in 1948, and after that he disliked the thing he was a genius at doing. “It’s just a job, I do not enjoy it,” he once told Edward R. Murrow. I spent a lifetime looking for another Robinson, but never found his likeness. Knowing now how badly his health had deteriorated and how he felt about his gift, I wonder why I was looking so hard.
This past June I saw boxer Beethoven Scottland get killed during a fight in New York City because of medical and regulatory negligence. I’ve seen other fighters crumble into a fatal coma, most famously Benny “Kid” Paret in 1962. But this one got to me because I felt it was especially preventable. The political hacks who rule the New York boxing commission failed to perform their job. The doctors present failed to intervene when it was obvious that a one-sided beating was going on. Brooding about this needless death, I reached the internal tipping point, where my guilt started to outweigh my pleasure. I now feel that boxing must be cleaned up, or I don’t want to watch it anymore.
I have known a lot of fighters and liked almost all of them. They have no pension, no union, no health insurance, no voice. For every George Foreman who gets rich, there are 1,000 you never hear of who end up with slurred speech, failing memory and an empty bank account.
I once asked a gallant old champion from the 1950s, Boston’s Tony DeMarco, why so many ex-fighters I knew were such modest, quiet, sweet men, appreciative of any attention.
“Because we’ve had all the anger punched out of us,” Tony replied.
‘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.
A Death in the Ring
In June 2001, Beethoven Scottland was offered a fight with undefeated George Jones in Manhattan as a last-minute substitute. Jones was four pounds bigger and three inches taller. The fight was being promoted by Jones’s manager, Dino Duva, a conflict of interest that would be unacceptable in any other sport.
Beethoven Scottland, whose father was a classical pianist and who was known as “Bee” to his friends in the Baltimore gym where he trained, accepted the fight on short notice because he was broke and needed the money. He had not had a fight for 329 days. Besides, the fight would be televised nationally on the ESPN2 cable network. Bee was promised $8,000 for the ten-round match, a modest purse. But Bee was an independent, who had no contract with any promoter or TV network.
Since 1970, about fifty professional fighters have died in the ring. Most of them followed a warrior code that made them too brave for their own good. This was true of Benny Paret, Willie Classen, Stephan Johnson, Jimmy Garcia, Bobby Tomasello–and of Beethoven Scottland.
Bee took a bad beating all night, refusing to quit, until he collapsed into a coma with a bleeding brain in the tenth round. Scottland’s record was 20-7, and he was not a big puncher; he just had a big heart and a big dream that boxing would lift him, his wife, his three children and his mother out of poverty.
After watching the tape three times, I am convinced that the doctors or the referee should have stopped the fight. Three doctors from the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) were present at ringside–Gerald Varlotta, Barry Jordan and Rufus Sadler. None of them had the instinct to jump into the ring after the seventh round and shine a penlight into Scottland’s eyes. The failure of the pupils to constrict in response to the light would have been a sign of injury to the brain.
Dr. Sadler told a reporter that night that Scottland’s injuries were “probably not life-threatening.”
In stark contrast, I have seen Dr. Margaret Goodman of the Nevada commission personally intervene to stop fights at precisely the right time. I have seen her correctly diagnose a detached retina and a brain injury in the seconds between rounds, using her penlight. She is a professional without being panicky.
The fight was broadcast live on ESPN2. Max Kellerman, the announcer, pleaded for the fight to be stopped while it was going on. My views are merely hindsight, but the whole country could hear the rising fear and revulsion in Kellerman’s voice.
In an interview six days after the fight, Kellerman told me, “I saw it coming. The kid was absorbing too much punishment to the head. I saw Bobby Tomasello die after an ESPN2 fight that I was broadcasting. The kid got a draw and then went into a coma. I have always preferred referees and doctors to err on the side of humanity and caution.”
The tape reveals Kellerman saying as early as the fourth round that Scottland was taking “a brutal beating.” During the fifth round Scottland absorbed twenty-five consecutive punches to his head when he was trapped in a corner.
“That’s it!” Kellerman shouted. “This is how guys get seriously hurt.”
During the seventh round, as the one-sided brutality continued, Kellerman told the television audience, “I don’t like the way he is getting hit…. Those are the cumulative punches that lead to things that you don’t want to hear about after the fight.”
After that round, Kellerman said, “If you’re in Scottland’s corner you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it, for the damage he is sustaining? Is it worth it for the kid’s life to stay in these final rounds?’ I would say no.”
None of the three commission physicians at ringside examined Scottland in his corner after the savage seventh round. The TV broadcaster could see that the fight should be stopped, but not the trained physicians. Their penlights remained in their bags.
When Scottland finally collapsed from his bleeding brain, with forty-five seconds remaining in the fight, Kellerman told the television audience, “I feel nauseated. I feel sick. Why does this ever have to happen?”
In Dylan’s song following the ring death of Davey Moore in 1963, he has the manager, the referee and the crowd all defensively rejecting responsibility for the calamity. Part of the song’s intelligence comes from the multiplicity of logical suspects. In any tragedy like this, it is simplistic to blame any single suspect.
In the case of Scottland, the referee and his cornerman all might have saved him. But the main culprit, in the opinion of most observers, including this one, was the boxing commission. They hired and assigned the doctors. Their top officials were present. They could have intervened.
Commissions of Cronies
Last year Wally Matthews and I wrote a series of fifteen columns in the New York Post taking the NYSAC apart for patronage, incompetence, conflicts of interest and, most prominent, its repeated failure to protect the health and safety of fighters.
The counsel to the commission, Larry Mandelker, was also the counsel to the state Republican Party. He is an elections lawyer who knows little about boxing. He ran the commission during the years that poor Floyd Patterson was used as a front–made chairman in a cynical act that revealed contempt for a former heavyweight champion.
Tom Hoover was the capable deputy commissioner under Governor Mario Cuomo. He was called in by Mandelker in 1995 and told he could be the new chairman, if he agreed to switch his party registration to the GOP and promised to campaign for George Pataki’s re-election. Hoover rejected the demeaning deal.
After the Scottland death, Hoover told me, “The kid should never have died. The commission didn’t know what it was doing. They don’t have one person who can take charge in a crisis like this one.”
One of the three New York commissioners is Marc Cornstein. He got the job because his father, David, contributed more than $200,000 to Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Al D’Amato and Pataki, since 1997. James Polsinello is the $76,000-a-year special assistant to the NYSAC. He has contributed $27,000 to Pataki. Tony Russo, another GOP loyalist, was the $77,000-a-year seldom-show executive director of the NYSAC. He was quietly eased out after we exposed how he botched the weigh-in for the Arturo Gatti-Joey Gamache fight at Madison Square Garden in February 2000. Russo supervised that weigh-in and allowed Gatti to jump off the scale after the balance beam indicated that Gatti was clearly over the contracted weight.
Gamache’s trainer, Jimmy Glenn, immediately protested that Gatti was “over the weight,” and asked that he get back on the scale. But Russo, who was there to insure competitive fairness, told Glenn, “Shut up! Stop making a fuss!”
At fight time the next night, after rehydrating his body, Gatti weighed fifteen pounds more than Gamache; HBO weighed both boxers in their dressing rooms. Such a size disparity, over two weight classifications, is not permitted under the rules. Gatti knocked Gamache out cold in two rounds. Gamache spent two nights in the hospital and hasn’t boxed since, on the advice of his doctors.
“They send us out to slaughter, and there is no one to protect us,” Gamache told me. He is now suing the NYSAC for $5 million in negligence.
The Gamache episode dramatizes the direct connection between patronage and incompetence, between appointing hacks and increasing the risks to the fighters. The Gamache episode is the context for the Scottland tragedy.
Another incident underlines the link between ineptitude and jeopardy. Last year a fighter named José Maldonado, who had hepatitis C–which is contagious through blood and is potentially fatal–was allowed to box on a card in Westchester County, New York, that was promoted by Joe DeGuardia, a former prosecutor who is a favorite of the NYSAC.
Maldonado was a last-minute substitute, so his blood test was done the day before his four-round preliminary fight. The lab says it faxed his positive results for hepatitis C to both DeGuardia and the commission. But neither stopped the boxer from entering the ring. Fortunately, the sick boxer was knocked out in the first round, before he could bleed on his opponent or the referee. A month later an assistant to DeGuardia was fired for the carelessness of people in higher authority.
When Bee Scottland was killed, the athletic commission had fifty-five “inspectors and guests” populating the ringside seats. It looked like a Republican Party convention. But even fifty-five freebies and hangers-on didn’t have the collective judgment to stop the fight in time.
And now death has again become a catalyst for reform, just as it was with the civil rights movement and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911. Two months after Scottland’s funeral, Governor Pataki nominated Ray Kelly to replace Mel Southard as chairman of the NYSAC. It was a smart move. Kelly, the former New York City police commissioner, knows boxing, has integrity, has the capacity to listen and has been given a mandate to “clean house.”
Favors for Sale–On Tape
On May 19, 1997, FBI agent Theresa Reilly approached Doug Beavers, International Boxing Federation ratings committee chairman, in front of his home in Virginia. Beavers had responsibility for issuing the ratings that determine the economic future of fighters.
Reilly identified herself and dropped a phrase from an incriminating phone conversation Beavers had six months earlier with a boxing promoter, who taped the conversation.
“I’m investigating corruption in boxing,” Reilly told Beavers.
“What took you so long?” Beavers responded, meaning, What took the FBI so long to realize he was corrupt?
Beavers, who was the bagman for former IBF president Robert Lee, quickly agreed to become an informant for Assistant US Attorney José Sierra, who was based in Newark. Once a month, starting in 1985, Lee–an ex-cop–came to Virginia to meet Beavers in hotel rooms, collect his share of the bribes and make up the ratings based on who paid. Fighters who were qualified on merit were kept out of the rankings if their promoter or agent didn’t pay. Fighters who left Don King were dropped from the ratings, while fighters who signed with King went up.
When heavyweight Michael Moorer filed a civil RICO suit against the IBF, he was excluded from the ratings as punishment, even though he was one of the best in the world and a former IBF champion. It was Moorer’s lawsuit that had triggered the US Attorney’s probe, and it was the IBF rating of King’s fighter Frans Botha above Moorer that had triggered the lawsuit.
After Beavers became a cooperating witness, he helped the prosecutors make about 200 hours of undercover video and audio tapes. In November 1999, Lee; his son, Bob Lee Jr.; and 85-year-old IBF official Bill Brennan were indicted on thirty-two counts of racketeering, fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and tax evasion, in the US district court in northern New Jersey. In grand jury testimony leading up to the indictment, promoter Bob Arum (a former federal prosecutor himself in the 1960s) admitted paying $100,000 to get the IBF’s sanction for a George Foreman match. New Jersey promoter Dino Duva admitted paying a $25,000 bribe. Promoter Cedric Kushner admitted paying $100,000 in bribes. The indictment accused Lee of taking a total of $338,000 in payoffs to manipulate the rankings. Don King was named as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” The prosecutors hoped to turn Lee into a witness against King, but that never happened.
The fifteen hours of undercover videos that I viewed reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil.” The conversations between Lee and Beavers are tedious–except for Lee’s requirement that Beavers provide him with prostitutes from Norfolk whenever he came down for a visit, especially a “long-legged one” that Lee was partial to, after divvying up the payoffs.
In an interview this summer, Beavers told me, “I don’t regret becoming a government witness. A big reason I did it was that Lee didn’t know anything about boxing or care about the fighters. It was just a business to him.”
On the tapes Lee used a simple code. Don King was always referred to as “Fuzzy” or “Fuzzy Wuzzy.” Cedric Kushner was always “The Fat Man.” The bribe money was called “turkey” or “stuffing” or “ginseng.”
One King boxer, who hadn’t won a match in three years, was placed in the ratings by Lee, even though Beavers had never seen him fight. When Beavers asked Lee about this idle tiger’s credentials, Lee explained: “One of Fuzzy’s guys.”
All through 1998 Lee insisted to Beavers that Henry Akinwande–under contract to King–be kept high up in the heavyweight rankings, even though he hadn’t boxed in more than a year because he had a case of hepatitis C. In our interview Beavers told me, “King was also the reason we kept rating Frans Botha a top heavyweight. He did not deserve it.”
Watching these payoff tapes makes your heart go out to all the honest fighters without any corrupt connections. They keep getting excluded from the fraudulent listings. They train hard, fight fair and then get cheated out of economic opportunities because they have no bribe-payer in their corner. Boxing corruption is not a victimless crime. A number-one ranking has an economic value because it eventually guarantees a title fight as the “mandatory challenger.”
In the most graphic of the undercover videos, recorded on December 18, 1998, in a Portsmouth, Virginia, hotel room, Beavers arrived with the payoff money taped to his leg in a plastic bag.
“Christmas cheer,” Beavers said as he handed the cash to Lee.
“How much is this?” asked Lee.
“This is $5,000,” Beavers answered.
On the tape you can see Lee sliding the money into the pocket of his suit.
Despite this overwhelming evidence of bribery, the jury convicted Lee only of money laundering and tax fraud. But that was enough for the judge to sentence Lee to twenty-two months–without parole–this past February 14.
Doug Beavers is now operating a gym in Portsmouth. He told me, “It only takes one person to corrupt the whole sport, because then everyone else starts paying bribes, just to keep the playing field level.”
Cedric Kushner now says, “I understood. I paid. I was extorted. That’s how it works.”
Fixed Fights and White Hopes
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.
Where Have You Gone, Sugar Ray Robinson?
I have been around gyms and pugilists since the early 1960s. I have seen the greatest fighters end up living in rooming houses, picking up cans to get the deposits. I have seen champions who are now indigent, depressed, deranged, emotionally troubled, in need of professional help.
It almost seems like a curse of the gods, or maybe a message. The three greatest champions who ever lived all ended up with the most tragic medical problems. They all boxed too long. All three made ill-advised comebacks; they got hit too much at the end.
Joe Louis suffered from paranoia and dementia, and was confined to a mental hospital for a time. His declining years were spent hearing voices and covering up the air vents in hotels.
Sugar Ray Robinson suffered from Alzheimer’s disease the last fifteen years of his life. Fans cherished the memory of his knockouts of LaMotta, Graziano, Turpin and Fullmer, but he had no memory of them. He could not recognize his sister or his grandchildren and stared at the wall with a faint smile on his lips.
The causal relationship between thousands of blows to the brain and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is accepted by most doctors involved in sports medicine. In 1993, a detailed report was published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that analyzed all the existing information on brain damage to boxers. The study concluded that “dementia pugilistica” (the scientific term for the layman’s “punch drunk”) afflicts 9-25 percent of all professional boxers. The symptoms include tremor, memory loss, inattention, impaired hearing, paranoid ideas and “a decrease in general cognitive functions.” Doctors believe that repeated blows to the head are one of the triggers of Alzheimer’s.
“Dementia pugilistica” is more likely to affect boxers with longer careers because they absorb more punches, and heavyweights because the blows arrive with greater force. It is less likely to affect amateur boxers, who wear headguards and box fewer rounds.
We have all seen Muhammad Ali and winced. We saw his trembling hand light the Olympic torch in Atlanta. The Greatest has become our mute, iconic, bloated Buddha. The man with the fastest hands and legs in sports now moves as slowly as though he were under water. The wittiest athlete now whispers inaudibly. His body is ravaged by Parkinson’s, a disease that is degenerative and will never get better.
Watching Ali on a dais being lovingly fed by his wife, Lonnie, hurts my heart and makes me question my own fandom, my own complicity in his debilitation. Seeing a tape of his epic fight with Joe Frazier in Manila has become a bittersweet experience for me. While it was happening in 1975, I was drenched with sweat, hoarse from screaming and emotionally spent from the ebb-and-flow drama. But today, seeing the aftereffects on both men has made the greatest fight I ever saw no longer such a powerful argument for the sport it once exalted.
If this is the fate of the greatest boxers, what happens to all the local club fighters around the country? What happens to the tough kid from Mexico or Philly who has thirty hard fights over six years, and never becomes famous or a champion?
How does he take a vacation? What chance do his children have of going to college? Who pays his medical bills? Who pays for his funeral?
A Bill of Rights for Boxers
The preconditions for any meaningful reform of boxing are:
(1) Create a national commission with enforcement power to regulate the sport. Every other major sport has a national commissioner, and boxing reform depends on some central authority that can administer and enforce improvements. The current system of state commissions, dominated by political appointees, cannot do the job.
Senator John McCain and New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer have both urged the creation of a national commission as the key to any purification of the cruelest sport. They understand that only a national regulatory authority can enforce such things as standardized tests and licensing for ringside doctors, judges and referees; national suspensions after three straight knockouts; a central repository for CT scans, MRIs and blood tests for drugs, steroids and HIV.
(2) End all recognition of the international sanctioning organizations–the WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF. “They serve no useful purpose,” Attorney General Spitzer told me. “Their only function is to sell title belts and issue false rankings.”
“All it would take to make them irrelevant is for the TV networks to announce they no longer will recognize the ratings of these groups,” Spitzer said. (Spitzer knows his boxing; he was the lawyer for champion William Guthrie in a lawsuit against King before he was elected in 1998.)
(3) Create a poll of boxing writers and broadcasters to generate impartial ratings. This is the way it works in college football and basketball. The writers covering the games vote on the best teams. There is no reason boxing ratings can’t be compiled the same way–as long as it is a truly international poll. If a few popular champions recognized these rankings, that would be the final interment of the sanctioning bodies.
(4) Establish a pension system for boxers that includes a health plan and death benefits. This could be accomplished if the fighters, promoters, cable TV networks and casinos agree to allocate just 2 percent of the revenue from all the mega-matches on pay per view to underwrite this endowment. Three such fights in one year would start a fund of $5 million or $6 million. A top accounting firm should audit and administer the fund. Any boxer who has been active for four years, or has had twenty bouts, should qualify for the system. But nobody who has taken a lot of beatings should be allowed to keep boxing just to qualify.
(5) Health and safety standards must be improved. Ringside doctors should be competent and well trained, and should not be assigned or hired through politics. They should be qualified neurological experts.
Any boxer who has lost more than ten fights over two years, or has been knocked out three times in a row, should have his license revoked. This would retire punching bags like Samson Cohen, who has been knocked out fourteen times–even by Richie Melito in 1998.
Every boxer should have a CT scan and MRI every year. A prefight drug test can detect steroid abuse, which Dr. Margaret Goodman says can make a boxer “more susceptible to blood clots and a brain hemorrhage.”
(6) Organize a labor union, or guild, of all boxers. Paul Johnson and ex-champ José Torres have been agitating for a union for years. The best model is probably the Screenwriters Guild, since fighters are independent contractors. Traditional union solidarity and collective bargaining may not be practical among men who have to fight each other. But a union could provide a collective voice for individual rights. A union could audit pay-per-view revenues and the expenses promoters bill to fighters that often seem illegitimate or padded. A union could also demand a higher minimum payment for preliminary fighters.
(7) When I talk to fighters, their most emotional complaint is about biased and unfair decisions by judges. This angers them even more than the inadequate safety precautions. It demoralizes them to know they won a fight but did not get the decision.
Over the past thirty years I have witnessed some indefensible decisions in championship fights. David Tiberi fought his heart out, but was robbed against James Toney in 1992. Tyrone Everett was robbed against Alfredo Escalera in 1976. Pernell Whitaker beat Julio Cesar Chavez in 1993, but the draw decision allowed Chavez to keep his title. Lennox Lewis beat Evander Holyfield in 1999, but the decision was a draw, allowing Holyfield to retain a portion of the divided title.
In all these matches–and many others–the judges were picked by the promoters and the sanctioning bodies, not by the state commissions. Two of the three judges in the Tiberi-Toney fight were not licensed in New Jersey, where the fight took place. They were from Illinois and Michigan. The three Lewis-Holyfield judges were not licensed in New York but were allowed to officiate the fight anyway by the NYSAC.
In many cases the judges are paid by the promoter, including travel expenses. They know which fighter is under an exclusive contract to that promoter. They don’t have to be told that if they favor that promoter’s employee, they will get future assignments from that promoter. Can you imagine a baseball owner picking and paying the home-plate umpire in a World Series game?
A special panel should monitor the performance of judges. Those who are biased or engage in favoritism should lose their licenses. Judges should be required to make full financial disclosure to this licensing panel.
(8) Boxers should be encouraged to have their own lawyers and accountants in all dealings with promoters over contracts and compensation. Any promoter who does not comply should lose his license.
(9) Until a national commission over boxing is set up, the state commissions should hire inspectors who know what they are doing, not the usual political drones. These inspectors should be posted in the gyms, which are now unregulated. Fighters who get knocked out in a gym should be suspended for medical reasons, just like a fighter in an arena; the brain damage is the same. A lot of boxing’s injuries occur in unsupervised gyms and are never reported to any medical authority.
(10) Make the promoters or the casinos–not the fighters–pay the exorbitant “sanction fees” to the bogus sanctioning bodies. Under the current system, champions have to pay 3 percent of their earnings to the WBC, WBA and IBF for the privilege of risking their title against a challenger approved by these worthless outfits.
When Evander Holyfield testified before the Senate in August 1992, he said that he had to pay $590,000 in sanction fees after his previous title defense. The sanctioning groups will strip a champion of his title and declare it vacant if he doesn’t pay. This is close to extortion. Over the course of his career, Holyfield has paid about $20 million of his earnings in sanction fees. Maybe that’s one reason he’s still fighting as he nears 40, well past his prime.
If a doctor could shine a penlight into the swollen eyes of boxing now, he would detect evidence of internal bleeding. This Darwinian racket has descended into a crisis of credibility.
My conscience won’t let me remain a passive spectator to scandal any longer. I think too much about Bee Scottland being strapped onto a stretcher. I dream about Ali’s tremor. I am haunted by the Alzheimer’s stare in Ray Robinson’s eyes. I think about underdog David Tiberi, and how he fought the fight of his life but was cheated out of the decision against James Toney, and how he retired in disgust after that spirit-breaking injustice.
Boxing has to be changed, even though there is no lobby for fighters and no constituency for reform. It is the moral thing to do. I know Congress has more serious and universal priorities–the war on terrorism, the economy, the minimum wage, campaign finance reform, preventing the confirmation of right-wing judges and preserving the environment. I know it’s difficult to legislate more regulation in an era of deregulation. But attention must be paid, the effort must be made. The fighters are powerless workers of color, waiting for the arrival of their Cesar Chavez, their A. Philip Randolph. They need representation, rights and a collective voice.
Lou DiBella is right. The fact that almost all boxers are black and Latino makes it easier for respectable people to shrug and look away. It would not cost the taxpayers anything to regulate boxing at the same level every other professional sport is policed. Only the will is lacking. Nobody important cares enough.
But the rest of us should, whether we are boxing fans or not. It’s easy to avert your eyes and say, “Abolish the sport.” But that won’t happen. Instead, we should help these voiceless workers obtain the justice they deserve.