As he sat in his dressing room on the night of May 10, Kassim Ouma, a junior middleweight from West Palm Beach by way of Uganda, was preparing to become, in a sense, boxing's version of Curt Flood. In the 12-round main event that evening, he was to step into the ring with Jason Papillon, a fighter from Louisiana, with the vacant USBA 154-pound title at stake.
In a tussle that will last even longer, he was also readying himself to take on some of boxing's powers-that-be.
One comforting thought for the fighter was that he was not going into the ring alone. Accompanying him were the principals of an organization called the B.O.C. (Boxers' Organizing Committee), who came to pledge their support in Ouma's quest for rights.
Rights? What rights were those, you might ask?
Well, Ouma came into the fight wearing a tattoo. Not your run-of-the-mill tattoo, mind you, but yes - one of those tattoos that read the name of GoldenPalace.com, an online gambling casino, on his back. And according to those on-high, that was a no-no.
Some weeks before, ESPN had issued an edict that no fighters were to wear these "back ads" in any fight they televised. Since the network couldn't prohibit the fighters from doing this directly because an actual contractual relationship didn't exist, they did the next best thing, threatening the promoter - with whom they DID have a contract - with a $10,000 fine, should any fighter wear a back ad at their event.
Bob Yalen made the point that if Miller was going to provide the paid sponsorship for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights", he felt it was a bad precedent to set to open the door for a fighter to wear, for example, a tattoo bearing the logo of a competitor, such as Budweiser. A perfectly understandable concern. Of course, what was not so understandable to people like the members of the B.O.C. was why Yalen proceeded to lobby other networks like HBO and Showtime, who rely more on subscribers than advertisers, to ban the tattoos as well.
Ouma, a legitimate contender and former member of the Ugandan national team, had signed an exclusive promotional contract last October with Russell Peltz, who also doubles as "boxing coordinator" for ESPN. The rationale of Ouma and his people was based on the salesmanship of Peltz, who told them there would be plenty of ESPN appearances on tap for the fighter if he put his name on the dotted line. Peltz obviously could make this kind of pitch to a potential recruit, because he controlled a large number of dates on the network, either via his own shows or those of other promoters he made deals with.
One of the fights pursuant to that contract was the faceoff with Papillon, which was televised live on ESPN2 and sponsored by Dover Downs in Delaware - one of those pari-mutuel establishments which had met with success after installing slot machines.
Now, before we go any further, let's take time out to explain something - the way it used to be, a promoter wouldn't necessarily have a stake in the career of a fighter he was using on his show - he would just contact managers, negotiate purses in good faith, and make the best matchups he possibly could. But when a promoter signs an exclusive deal with a fighter, and puts himself in a position where - a) he is primarily interested in moving a fighter's career along, and b) he will be negotiating, to an extent, on behalf of that fighter when he is offered a spot on another promoter's card - it's with the understanding that he will be working in the fighter's best interests (at least that's what the fighter thinks).
Well, Ouma was about to put that principle to the test. It was no coincidence that when the B.O.C. got together and decided to take a stand, Ouma was the fighter and the card was going to be one promoted by Peltz.
Before the fight, each member of the B.O.C. signed something called the "Boxers' Emancipation Declaration". It read like this:
"We, the undersigned professional boxers do declare on this 10th day of May, 2002, our emancipation from the chains of bondage that have robbed our efforts and scarred our sport.
In solidarity with our fellow fighters, and with the backing of our union organizing effort, the BOXER’S ORGANIZING COMMITTEE (BOC), we demand that our voice be heard. For too long, in a business built with our blood and struggle, we have been treated as second-class citizens. The BOC has the support of the AFL-CIO, United Auto Workers , National Football League Players Association, Major League Baseball Players Association, National Basketball Players Association, National Hockey League Players Association, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Screen Actors Guild and the Teamsters, amongst others.
Just recently, several television executives and promoters, have forbid "temporary tattoos" and threatened to fine and indeed "ban" boxers who have worn them, claiming that it was 'free advertising' and was demeaning to the sport. This was done without consulting boxers.
It was not "free advertising" since fighters were paid directly for renting THEIR backs. In an industry and world where advertising signage has appeared nearly everywhere, it was finally a revenue stream that went directly to boxers, bypassing the established pay structure of the sport. When boxers have little control or awareness of other sponsorship arrangements, we resent this attempt to arbitrarily make decisions that effect our livelihood without consulting us. We recognize the importance of protecting the interests of the television networks, casinos and sponsors., but proper policy should be set by understanding all perspectives.
The tattoo issue is not the only matter of concern to us, and is merely a starting point for a larger union effort to build a better sport, especially with regards to pension, health insurance and fair business practices for boxers.
We acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of others who speak on our behalf, whether they be broadcaster, journalist, politician, commissions, sanctioning organization, promoter, manager or other interested party. We ask all to work with us, making policy TOGETHER with mutual respect and understanding.
THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS"
This piece of paper was signed by the fighters who had joined the B.O.C. group - Ouma, former heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon, former 140-pound champ Zab Judah, former 122-pound champ Bones Adams, ex-middleweight titleholder Vito Antuofermo, and Canadian cruiserweight Dale Brown.
For purposes of this story, the issue I am bringing up here is not whether the B.O.C.'s stand here was right or wrong. The issue I'm exploring here is how the situation was handled by the promoter.
Which, as it turned out, was badly.
There was a lot of shock around ringside when Ouma took off his robe and displayed his tattoo. At that point, there was very little ESPN could do; even though they customarily have some alternative programming "in the can", so to speak, for those occasions, they were already about 2/3 of the way into their show and it simply would have strained credulity to cut away. So the show went on, as did Ouma, who stopped Papillon at the conclusion of eight rounds.
After the fight was over, Peltz was beside himself. He had been screaming, "You'll never get paid" to Ouma's connections during the fight, within earshot of numerous ringside observers, and echoed those feelings after the bout. He then endeavored to have Ouma's purse withheld by Greg Sirb, the Pennsylvania administrator (and national boxing "czar" candidate), who had arranged to have himself installed as the local "regulator", in the absence of any boxing commission in Delaware.
Sirb was perfectly content to carry out that errand, at least for a period of 48 hours, until the whole mess got straightened out.
But when it was established that Ouma had not signed anything in his bout contract, or his promotional contract for that matter, that expressly prohibited him to wear a "back ad" during a fight, there was nothing that could be legally done on Peltz' part to prevent him from getting paid.
Incidentally, Ouma received $15,000 for his main event appearance, despite the fact that Peltz raked in a reported $105,000 in combined revenue and tickets from network TV rights and the Dover Downs site fee (and not including his personal services fee from the network, I presume).
Peltz, nonetheless, wasn't going to take anything lying down; he certainly was not about to eat the "mandatory" $10,000 fine without a protest. "Russell said out loud, and VERY loud, 'He'll (Kassim) never fight on ESPN again'," said Tom Moran, manager of Witherspoon and friend of Ouma, who was present at ringside during the fight. "There were a whole bunch of people who heard him say that."
If you'll indulge me for a moment, let's review his two statements again, directed, more or less, toward HIS fighter, after a WINNING effort in a TITLE fight:
"YOU'LL NEVER GET PAID"
"HE'LL NEVER FIGHT ON ESPN AGAIN"
There are only a couple of thoughts I want to leave you with today -
If, by chance, Peltz were ever asked, in a court of law, to revisit those statements, and explain whether he made them as Kassim Ouma's promoter - and protector of his best interests, or as "boxing coordinator" of ESPN - and protector of ITS best interests - what do you think he would say? What COULD he say?
If Greg Sirb, the man that aspires to be a "boxing czar", with authority to enforce uniform rules across the country, were asked that same question about his favorite promoter, do you think he'd be tongue-tied?
Then ask yourself whether you think Russell Peltz' dual activities amount to anything other than what might be as dangerous a conflict of interest as can possibly be imagined; whether Greg Sirb, who was ready to hold up a purse for absolutely no reason at all, would be disposed in the least to do anything about it, and whether this shouldn't be a matter that is absolutely mandatory for any author of future boxing legislation to consider.
Go ahead - ask yourself.
(NOTE: Russell Peltz has refused to make comment to TotalAction.com with regard to his activities with ESPN)
Copyright 2002 Total Action Inc.
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