OKEMOS, Mich. — Brad Wright is a paint contractor who once said his sense of authority as Michigan Athletic Board of Control chairman sometimes feels like arriving at work without his brushes and rollers. No matter how plainly he finger-painted the portrait Tuesday of what went wrong in the Courtney Burton-Emanuel Augustus fight two months ago, Wright was powerless to do anything but push for the standard snapshot result, then paint his own picture of a better future.
The Burton-Augustus outcome, if not outcry, finally was put to bed when the Athletic Board of Control — constrained both by its figurehead status and boxing etiquette — voted to take no action on the widely assailed split decision awarded to Burton two months ago. Ultimately, the 5-0 vote was rendered here for the same reason it would be anywhere, because if you start reversing decisions, where do you stop?
Only five members of the nine-person board attended. In fairness, one of the seats is vacant, pending approval of a gubernatorial appointee. And one board member has been out of contact for two years, because it seems no one knows where Beth Lavallee is. No one has a phone number or address, no one has been able to contact her, and she hasn't contacted them. Her board term has expired, but some legal absurdity won't allow the seat to be filled until someone actually finds her.
The absences of Dr. Roy T. Bergman and William A. Phillips hopefully were less Hoffaesque than Lavallee's, though just as unexplained. Before anyone says Michigan did nothing about the Burton-Augustus travesty, bear in mind you were warned in advance that there was no empowerment to do anything. What was the board going to do, call in Emanuel Augustus and have the referee raise his hand and a ring announcer blare into a microphone that last July 6 in Muskegon, Mich., was all just a mix-up because Teddy Atlas said so? Tell Courtney Burton that judges' decisions are binding, except when one a lot of people disliked happened to go his way?
In lieu of upheaval and dangerous precedent, and after consultation with commission chairmen in several other states, Wright led the push not to formally address the fight's outcome. The board still went through the exercise of reviewing the videotape with the sound muted before casting the only vote it could, and taking no action on the decision. That is not to say they took no action. They tried, and the result offered visual confirmation of the bureaucratic cycle that has consumed Michigan boxing.
Wright, whose strength as board chairman has been coalition building and pursuit of legislative reform, announced he has secured independent funding to conduct regular training seminars for state boxing officials. Incredibly, Michigan requires no such pre-licensure training. Wright hopes to use the Burton-Augustus sham as a springboard for better-trained Michigan officials, which wouldn't seem a difficult task.
Pending rules promulgation to make the training mandatory — which could take months or even years for the state to enact, because it requires statutory adjustment — Wright said he would like to send a “strong recommendation” to the board's umbrella regulatory agency, the Department of Labor and Economic Growth, to assign only clinic-certified officials to future Michigan shows.
Andrew Metcalf Jr., director of the Bureau of Commercial Services — the branch of DLEG responsible for hands-on boxing regulation — quickly rebuffed Wright's request.
“Assignment of officials is nothing new,” Metcalf said. “You want us to be selective and to discriminate against licensees. I'm going to tell this board the same thing I've been telling it for 20 years — put your requirements, your criteria, on the books. If there's not some legal guidelines on the books, then it's just a judgment call. It's discriminatory as far as who's allowed to participate, and if we don't have a legal basis, it's not going to happen.”
Metcalf then left the meeting, but not before proclaiming on his way out the door that nothing pertaining to Burton-Augustus would negatively affect Michigan's pursuit of world championship fights, because the sanctioning bodies provide their own officials for those bouts anyway. Michigan officials wouldn't be used, hence the state's collective officiating acumen would not be a factor. Of course, for the Athletic Board of Control to establish legal guidelines for boxing judges requires rule promulgation, which it is not empowered to pursue. Metcalf's agency must do so on the board's behalf. Yet Metcalf himself demanded the board do something he knows it can't — but his state agency can — before his staff will enforce standards on assignments of officials.
Any neutral observer would have left with the same impression: Regardless what happened in the Burton-Augustus fight, the biggest concern is that bureaucratic limits will not allow Michigan to take appropriate formal action to prevent future replays of the same scenario.
The legislative proposal to overhaul Michigan boxing, stuck in state Senate committee after 106-1 passage in the House of Representatives early this year, increasingly appears to be the last-ditch hope for a once-great boxing state. It would create a Michigan Boxing Commission to replace the Athletic Board of Control, with real regulatory powers the current board doesn't possess, and increased burden on the state to explain whenever it does not adopt a stance taken by the proposed commission.
Meantime, Michigan boxing is stuck in bureaucratic hell that has made it a laughing stock in the sport. The industry does not regard Michigan as a good place to do business, and it seems every time the state tries to take corrective action, it backfires. Classic example: In October 2000, as she entered the ring for a fight on the Mike Tyson-Andrew Golota undercard, Laila Ali was informed she would have to fight three-minute rounds, as per state rules. Ali protested, citing the industry standard of two-minute rounds for women. After a lengthy debate between ringside officials and inspectors, embarrassingly caught by television cameras, the state acceded to Ali's wishes, and the bout was contested using two-minute rounds.
In the aftermath, the Athletic Board of Control requested from its state umbrella organization a rules promulgation to adopt two-minute rounds for women's boxing. The proposal met little resistance until it got run up the pole at the Department of Consumer and Industry Services (the precursor to today's DLEG), where someone freshly instructed in political correctness proclaimed that adopting two-minute rounds for women would be sex discrimination. The proposal was dropped.
Today, in 49 of 50 states, women's professional boxing is contested using two-minute rounds. But women better come to Michigan prepared to fight three-minute rounds, or don't bother coming here at all.
It all chips at the foundation. Some women won't fight in Michigan because of the longer rounds. Some managers won't allow their fighters to come to Michigan because of officiating concerns. Even some television networks apparently aren't anxious to originate programming from Michigan either, according to Gerald Evans of 1 World Productions Inc., who has been the state's most active promoter this decade. “I had a conversation with an official at a television network shortly after that fight,” Evans said, referring to Burton-Augustus, “and I was told, 'If you want dates, find a different place to promote.'”
Metcalf was correct that Burton-Augustus officiating, in and of itself, probably would not deter a promoter from bringing a championship card to Michigan. But that, combined with the other factors, may. Except for cards featuring Michigan native Floyd Mayweather, there hasn't been a championship bout in Michigan since Acelino Freitas-Lemuel Nelson, before a handful of fans at Detroit's Fox Theatre in 2000. If a promotable Michigan commodity surfaces, there will be a promoter anxious to test the market. But failing that, Michigan has dried up as a championship venue.
What happened July 6 was not a championship card. It was just a clowning fighter, Emanuel Augustus, who deserved better than the 99-90 and 97-92 shaftings he got on two scorecards, and had a general public willing to stand up on his behalf and say so. It was a small city where fights rarely are conducted, playing host to a controversy which held up a mirror to an entire statewide industry.
The Michigan Athletic Board of Control conducted a meeting on the matter in which it couldn't vote to overturn the decision because of the precedent it would set, couldn't vote to sanction the judges for voting their opinions, and couldn't promulgate a rule to mandate training of officials to minimize the possibility of it happening again.
Wright vowed to push forward with sponsoring training seminars, regardless whether they ever are made mandatory, or ever are considered by the state in assignments of officials. He hopes the advancement of an officials training program is the lasting legacy created by Burton-Augustus. But he also doesn't need anyone to draw him a picture to understand that Michigan boxing bureaucracy might make something as basic as training seminars unworkable, and that the only legacy left by Burton-Augustus could be a truly terrible decision.