The 25th Round

This coming Wednesday in Washington, DC, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is going to be holding another one of those hearings designed to promote Senator John McCain's “Professional Boxing Amendments Act”, which he hopes to get passed by Congress in short order.

In case you're interested in the quality of  individuals McCain will have testifying that day, in particular one whose advice he's relied on – heavily – in terms of the formulation of this bill (and if you're a Senator, or work for one, you should be VERY interested indeed), allow me to take you on a journey back in time…………….

It was December of 1992. Heavyweight Maurice Harris was in Fernwood, Pa., readying himself for what he was hoping would be a successful pro debut against a fighter named Joe Kenna. The Newark, NJ native was relatively under-prepared, having had the benefit of just nine amateur bouts.

He was ill-suited to turn pro for another, much more important reason.

Harris had no idea at the time, but since he was only sixteen years old, he really had no business entering a Pennsylvania ring.

He was able to fight nonetheless. That's because no one asked him for any identification to substantiate that he was eighteen years old – the legal age as it was in the Keystone State then, and as it is now. It's not that Harris even lied about it, at least at first. In fact, in the process of filling out the necessary paperwork for licensing, he wrote his correct birthdate – February 21, 1976 – on the Pennsylvania commission's form.

At two different points during the procedure, the man who was in charge of conducting the weigh-in for the commission – chief inspector Greg Sirb – approached Harris and asked him how old he was. Both times, according to Harris, he told Sirb he was sixteen.

“We went back and forth,” said Harris. “He (Sirb) told me, 'No, you're 18'. I said, 'No, I'm sixteen.'”

This is where the plot “thickens”, so to speak, taking what might be considered an alarming turn.

Harris says that Sirb came back a third time while he was sitting in the room where the weigh-in was being held. “Again he asked me how old I was,” Harris says. “I told him once again I was sixteen – I was filling out the paper. He looked real hard at me and said again, 'NO, YOU'RE EIGHTEEN'. By that time I was like, 'Okay, whatever'. Because I guess that was the only way they were going to let me fight.”

According to Harris, after he gave his license application over to Sirb, the information on it was altered in order to make it appear as if the fighter was indeed eighteen years of age.

If what Harris is claiming is true; if Sirb did indeed CHANGE the information on Harris' official commission paperwork to facilitate him being of legal age, that would be a piece of disturbing news that simply could not go ignored – not by us, not by John McCain and his colleagues, not by the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission, and not by that state's office of the Attorney General.

Eleven days ago, TOTAL ACTION made a written request of Sirb – as administrative director of a state agency – for a copy of the application Harris was supposed to have filled out that evening. That request was not fulfilled.

Harris lost that debut fight on a four-round decision. Of course, by Pennsylvania law, he shouldn't have been in the bout to begin with. But even if we were to give Sirb the benefit of the doubt on that one, the “mistake” was repeated twice more – Harris appeared in Pennsylvania again on February 12th and 27th of 1993, meaning that he was permitted to fight THREE TIMES in the state before his eighteenth birthday.

On no occasion, claims Harris, did Sirb request that he produce identification documenting his age. According to what currently appears in Chapter 21, Paragraph 8 of the Pennsylvania Code:

Ҥ 21.8. Boxers

(e) The Commission will not license as a professional boxer an applicant under 18 years of age and the Commission will require conclusive proof of age of a boxer applying for the first time to be so licensed with the Commonwealth……”

Sirb's explanation is that it was allowable – and indeed, acceptable – for Harris to appear in those fights. “In 1992 the commission policy was to allow boxers over the age of 16 to compete,” he told us. “A year later that policy was revised to reflect an 18-year-old minimum.”

Whatever the “commission policy” was in that regard – whether it was something in practice, or simply made up on the spot, is debatable. But even if such a policy did exist, it quite obviously did not supersede what had been legislated into Pennsylvania law.

The assertion that the “policy”, or ANY policy that could possibly have some gravity here, was not changed or amended until 1993 simply doesn't ring true. And it's meaningless anyway, by virtue of what was already contained in the Pennsylvania statutes.

At least as far back as July 1, 1989, when Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey signed the “Athletic Code Act”, pursuant to House Bill 1197 (session of 1989), the relevant statute (4Ps, Sec. 31.502), relating to “Age of Participants”, read as follows:

“(a) General rule.–No person UNDER THE AGE OF 18 shall be a participant in any boxing contest or exhibition.

(b) Exception.–
(1) Any person between 12 and 17 years of age may participate in amateur contests or exhibitions under such rules and regulations as the commission shall prescribe.

(2) Persons between 12 and 17 years of age may participate after obtaining written permission from a parent or legal guardian, AS WELL AS consent by the executive director.

(3) Persons 12 to 16 years of age may only participate in such contests with persons not more than one year older.”

There have been amendments to the boxing statutes, namely on May 13, 1992, when House Bill 1174 was signed into law. But the provisions regarding “Age of Participants” went untouched.

Harris did not fall under any of the stipulated exceptions, not by a long shot. Certainly he was not competing as an amateur; he did not have parental permission, simply because he wasn't aware he needed it. His manager at the time, Andre Kut, did not sign anything authorizing Harris to fight; indeed, he couldn't, since he did not have the status of legal guardian. And there was no special approval from the executive director which would allow him into the ring.

In addition, if you look closely at Sirb's statement, it's ambiguous in a sense – Harris was in fact not OVER the age of 16 at the time of his pro debut. He WAS sixteen.

After a rocky start to his pro career, in which he was 7-8-2 after 17 fights, Harris has gone on to become a prominent heavyweight, most recently winning Cedric Kushner's one-night “Thunderbox” tournament in Atlantic City.

He certainly can handle himself now, though no one knew very much about him then. But if, in fact, Harris had suffered serious injury – or worse – in any of those fights he engaged in before he turned eighteen, the state of Pennsylvania would have left itself open to considerable liability as a result of Sirb's indiscretion.

How much liability?

“Well, let's put it this way,” said one former attorney who now serves on a boxing commission, “there's no private individual out there who actually owns an entire state, but I guess there's always a first time.”

Eventually, Sirb went on to become chief administrator for the Pennsylvania commission, and served as president of the Association of Boxing Commissions for four years (he is currently listed as “past president”).

This revelation takes on added importance in light of the fact that Sirb has, for quite some time, been an active candidate for the office of “national boxing administrator”, or boxing “czar”, if you will, should Sen. McCain's “Professional Boxing Amendments Act” pass in both houses of Congress later this year.

In Chapter 69 of OPERATION CLEANUP, it was reported that Sirb had in the past arbitrarily taken certain fighters off the national suspension list, regardless of what medical suspension they were under, contrary to procedures set forth in federal law.

Naturally, this begs the question as to whether we really need a regulator overseeing boxing on a national level who seems intent on making up the rules – or circumventing them – as he goes along.

“When it comes to making sure a fighter is eighteen years old, you just can't compromise on something like that,” said one state commissioner. “Unfortunately, Sirb gets too cozy with the people he regulates. He wants to get in the ring and do exhibition bouts on their shows. He wants to be one of the guys. Then it's hard to say no to them. It's a big conflict of interest. There's a fine line out there, and you really can't cross that line.”

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Copyright 2003 Total Action Inc.