In a true case of “Deja Vu,” the World Boxing Association, which got caught playing games with its heavyweight ratings three years ago, has done it again – but this time they're playing with fire. Expect politicians to use this as fresh ammunition with which to push a federal bill to regulate boxing that could eventually drive sanctioning bodies out of existence.

I was sitting around the house with my six-year-old niece the other day, trying to relax while going through my mail and faxes. As anyone who has a six-year-old can tell you, THEY like to go through your mail and faxes also, sometimes decorating them with a crayon or two. Upon discovering one piece of correspondence, she posed a question. “Uncle Chuck, what is the World Boxing Association, and why does it have two different sets of heavyweight ratings for the same month?”

That's a smart kid.

So smart that I didn't have a ready answer for her. But I made a solemn vow.

“I promise I'll find out why, sweetie,” I said. “I promise, I promise, I promise.”

That's how this particular journey begins.

Sure enough, upon closer inspection, there ARE two different sets of ratings. Both of them are supposed to be for April 2005, each claiming to have been “created on May 24, 2005.” I was assuming those ratings that were “official” were the ones that ultimately appeared on the WBA's website. Inasmuch as we later found that to be the case, here is the original:

1) Nicolay Valuev
2) Hasim Rahman
3) Monte Barrett
4) Corrie Sanders
5) Calvin Brock
6) DaVarryl Williamson
7) Owen Beck
8) Samuel Peter
9) Larry Donald
10) Gerald Nobles
11) Wladimir Klitschko
12) Faruq Saleem
13) Sinan Samil Sam
14) Ray Austin
15) Ruslan Chagaev

The “revised” edition:

1) Not rated (meaning this spot is vacant)
2) Nicolay Valuev
3) Hasim Rahman
4) Monte Barrett
5) DaVarryl Williamson
6) Corrie Sanders
7) Larry Donald
8) Calvin Brock
9) Owen Beck
10) Gerald Nobles
11) Wladimir Klitschko
12) Faruq Saleem
13) Sinan Samil Sam
14) Ray Austin
15) Ruslan Chagaev

My niece watches a lot of “Dora the Explorer,” which has trained her well in the art of picking the hidden item out of a picture, so she spotted the differences right away.

They may look subtle, but they carry with them some very definite ramifications.

For example, seven-foot Russian Nicolai Valuev seems to have moved from a position where he was the #1 contender, presumably in line for a mandatory shot at John Ruiz's title, to a spot where he'd apparently have to engage in an elimination bout to get that championship opportunity.

Here's where it gets really murky.

Using the original list, if the top two available contenders were pitted against each other for the right to gain a title fight, Valuev would certainly be one of them. The next two names on the list – Rahman and Barrett – are slated to fight on August 13 for the WBC “interim” title, so they would naturally be unavailable. That would leave either the #4, Corrie Sanders, or, if Sanders – who is one of those guys who “retires' until his next bout – decides he doesn't want to fight again, the #5 contender, Calvin Brock, who is just coming off a big win over Jameel McCline.

On the revised list, however, Brock and Sanders are nudged out of the picture, as DaVarryl Williamson jumps into it from the #5 slot. Brock fell below Larry Donald, who swapped places with Owen Beck. Samuel Peter, who was listed at #8, fell out of the ratings entirely, as quickly as he was installed in them.

This takes on an added dimension in light of the fact that talks are underway for a unification fight between Ruiz and WBO heavyweight champion Lamon Brewster, who is also under contract to King. The winner of such a fight would become a “Super Champion,” as recognized by the WBA. Since the Super Champion is listed in a category above that of the world champion, any unification fight would open up a space for a new WBA champion to be crowned. Call that guy a “plain old world champion,” if you will (yes it's silly, but please try to follow along).

So instead of fighting an elimination bout, Valuev might be fighting someone for the WBA title. To complicate matters, Williamson, who in the “revised” version of the WBA ratings jumped ahead of both Sanders and Brock, is the highest available contender for the IBF heavyweight title, which might offer an explanation as to why Donald, another King fighter, rose from #9 to #7, seemingly providing “insurance” in case Williamson was inserted as a mandatory challenger for Chris Byrd.

The wild card in this scenario would appear to be Sanders, who last fought in December with a second-round KO over Alexei Varakin. Sanders, who won a WBO title in March of 2003 over Wladimir Klitschko and lost in a challenge to WBC champ Vitali Klitschko thirteen months later, has fought just five times in the last five years. He is clearly more comfortable on the links, and his aspiration to become a member of the South African golf tour is no secret. King made overtures toward Sanders about a year ago, as part of an overall plan to kick-start a series of fights in South Africa in conjunction with promoter Rodney Berman. According to a May 2004 story in Johannesburg's Sunday Times, King had “organized” a #2 WBC rating for Sanders with the expectation of getting Corrie to sign a promotional contract. But in fact Sanders and his management rebuffed King in favor of Klaus-Peter Kohl's Universum organization, leaving King quite perturbed.

In essence, what seems to have happened – virtually in the blink of an eye – was that two heavyweights who have promotional arrangements with Don King Productions were elevated into meaningful spots in the ratings at the expense of heavyweights who were not affiliated with King.

And as you can probably guess, I'm starting to have flashbacks. I'm hearing that voice from the not-so-distant past that told me, “Charles, we only want to do business on the up-and-up. This will never happen again.” Of course, that was the sound of several WBA officials when they asked how I could assist them in getting out of a jam in the fall of 2002.

The WBA had been caught affecting a very unnatural restructuring of its heavyweight rankings from July to August. Donald had moved from #6 to #3. Rahman went from #10 to #5. Fres Oquendo leapt from 11th to 7th. Meanwhile, Valuev was shifted from 4th to 6th, and Kirk Johnson from #5 all the way down to #10. Danny Williams, who was on an eleven-bout winning streak, suddenly dropped from #9 to #14. Vitali Klitschko, who was #3 in the world and about to become the top available contender to fight Ruiz for the WBA title, was moved down a spot, below Donald, which meant he was going to have to engage in a box-off to earn a world title shot.

The problem is, none of the aforementioned fighters had done anything in the ring – win or lose – to justify any significant movement during that particular ratings period (which actually began on August 6 and ended on September 13). In point of fact, Rahman moved up five spots despite having lost his two previous fights. Oquendo, in his last bout just four months before, had been stopped by David Tua, yet leapfrogged Tua in the ratings.

These unusual shifts had a clearly defined pattern – fighters who were signed to deals with Don King moved up, while the fighters who moved down were committed to other promoters.

If the WBA thought no one was paying close attention, they were sadly mistaken. Fighters like Klitschko and Johnson, who were disadvantaged by these ratings changes, lodged protests and made their grievances public. Elected officials contemplating legislation to give the federal government more control over boxing took notice, and smelled blood. Fearing severe – possibly fatal – reprisals, the WBA scheduled an “emergency meeting” in New York for October 16.

I'd had some contact with several members of the WBA in the process of stating a case for Kirk Johnson, who had been disqualified in a heavyweight title defense against Ruiz and was making an appeal to the Championship Committee, in part, because neutral officials were not used in the fight, as per WBA rules.

My own case for Johnson, detailed in several chapters of “Operation Cleanup: A Blueprint for Boxing Reform” was based on the WBA acquiescing to the Nevada State Athletic Commission and the Association of Boxing Commissions, despite the fact that those entities did not, in my opinion, have the absolute right to insert their own officials unilaterally. An excerpt from Chapter 64:

Here is Section 16 of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, as is contained under the title “JUDGES AND REFEREES”:

“No person may arrange, promote, organize, produce, or fight in a professional boxing match unless all referees and judges participating in the match have been certified and approved by the boxing commission responsible for regulating the match in the State where the match is held.”

What that means is just what it says – CERTIFIED and APPROVED by the boxing commission. That doesn't say SELECTED or APPOINTED. The way this law is written, it seems to automatically contemplate that there is one entity who would be offering the officials for approval, and another entity (the commission) that would actually APPROVE them.

Otherwise, the law would have specifically stated that the boxing commission is solely responsible for SELECTING the officials. Certainly, if the state commissions were to be selecting the officials unilaterally, the term “certified and approved” would not even be included in the language, since it would no doubt be redundant. After all, one must pre-suppose that if an entity were SELECTING the officials, it would be implicit that the entity would have already APPROVED them, wouldn't it?

It is very clear to me that the spirit of the law was not intended so that one party alone would have the authority to appoint officials, at least for championship fights, without input from the other entity.

Even though the WBA eventually caved on this issue, its executive committee admired my objectivity, and thought that to include me on their ratings committee would lend some credibility to its process. I was asked to become a “media advisor” on ratings, an independent position that would at least create the impression that there was some oversight. I was willing to listen to what they had to say, but countered with a proposal of my own – to conduct a poll of media people and other “experts” and make that the predominant factor in the ratings formula. I traveled to New York to discuss it with them, but stressed that I wasn't going to be available to help them “spin” out of their mishandling of the heavyweight ratings that precipitated the emergency meeting in the first place. That was their PR problem to solve.

I sat in on a meeting of the ratings committee, and we had endless discussions afterward. The WBA's emergency meeting itself was a constructive event, I felt; an educational experience for anyone interested in learning more about how the inside of the boxing industry functions.

In the end, we were not able to come together on how an independent poll would be incorporated into their system. I wanted it to count for 75% of the total ratings formula; the organization countered with 50%, and neither one of us was going to move too far off those respective figures. Eventually the WBA appointed Sebastian Contursi, a writer for the Buenos Aires Herald and ESPN Deportes, as its “media advisor.”

I parted on good terms with the WBA, but at the same time I issued an advisory of sorts – that if these kind of ratings shenanigans happened again, I was going to let loose with both barrels.

“Charles, we only want to do business on the up-and-up. This will never happen again.”

Now it's happened again.

And I'm not the least bit amused by it.

Neither is Patrick English, the attorney for the Main Events promotional firm, who on June 1 fired off this missive to Gilberto Mendoza, president of the WBA, and the WBA attorney, Bob Mack:

Dear Messrs. Mendoza and Mack:

In late May of 2005 we were informed that Calvin Brock had been ranked number 5. We were also informed that Mr. Valuev had been ranked number 1. A copy of those ratings are enclosed.

However, subsequently a new set of ratings (copy enclosed) was created demoting Mr. Valuev from the number 1 position and demoting Mr. Brock to number 8.

As you know, we represent Main Events, Mr. Brock's promoter. As Mr. Brock recently defeated prior number 7 ranked Jameel McCline and Golota and Toney were removed from the rankings, his number 5 ranking was properly deserved. We therefore request that the rankings be corrected and that he be restored. Failing that we request any explanation of this change.

We have also, separately, been requested to protest the demotion of Nicolai Valuev from the number 1 spot and, on his behalf, request that he be restored to that position. We also request an explanation for this change.

Thank you in advance for correcting this.

Very truly yours,

Dines and English L.L.C.
Patrick C. English

I was pretty anxious to hear the WBA’s rationale myself. From the May 24 date on which the ratings were supposedly created, until June 7, there were no explanations of “movements” in the ratings, going way beyond the seven-day deadline that is prescribed in federal law. My inquiry started with Guy Jutras, a member of the championship committee and my initial contact with the WBA. Jutras directed me to George Martinez, the Vice-Chairman of the ratings committee. Martinez didn't have an explanation, which was a bad sign. So he in turn put me in touch with Jose Oliver Gomez, the ratings committee chairman.

In the midst of all this, I got a call from Contursi, the ratings committee's “media advisor.”

Contursi, who told me, “I was surprised as much as you were” at the conflicting ratings, said he had looked into it. According to him, the ratings committee, in the course of its own deliberations, came up with the original ratings list. This process was taking place for several days before the organization convened in Argentina on May 22 for a “KO Drugs” convention.

Contursi went on to say that on that date, the ratings were sent off to Mendoza, the president, who, in his words, “must approve them.” Then, inadvertently, Jose Vargas, webmaster for the WBA website, “made a mistake” by posting that original list. “The president (Mendoza) saw it posted online. That's why he was so upset,” said Contursi. “He made his own suggestions within a matter of hours.” Those “suggestions” apparently included the elevation of King's heavyweights.

Gomez later echoed Contursi's story.

“During my staying in Buenos Aires, Argentina, prior to the WBA's Executive Committee meeting that took place there May 27-28, I've sent a draft of the WBA April Ratings to the WBA's office in Venezuela for the President's revision and approval,” said Gomez in an email. “Unfortunately, WBA's official web site's webmaster thought that the ratings were ready to be published and put them online. A few hours later, we noticed the mistake and removed the ratings from the web site. After a few changes were made to the draft – something common every month – the ratings were officially approved and then published.

“As you see, it was all a mistake and no other intentions lie behind. We apologize and promise that we will do everything in our power in order to prevent situations like this to take place again.”

Bingo – it's those magic words again.

Their story doesn't necessarily work for me. For one thing, it strains credulity that the webmaster would have anything in his hands if it was not official (Vargas did not respond to our inquiries about this). Secondly, the source who supplied me with the WBA's original ratings list did not get it from the WBA website; it was sent to him from a member of the executive committee. In other words, numerous copies were already circulating around the convention subsequent to the May 24 date on which they were purportedly formulated.

Ultimately, it appears the ratings were settled upon by the ratings committee, then, in effect, were vetoed and changed by Mendoza himself.

However, there is no specific provision in the WBA's Constitution, By-Laws, Championship Rules, or Norms & Procedures for Ratings (otherwise known as Mendoza's Manual for Ratings) that empowers Mendoza to do this.

That this action is, or should be, an accepted part of procedure is a canard.

In reflecting on his position with the WBA, Contursi likes the fact that he is able to take an active participation in the formulation of the monthly ratings. He has a vote that is presumably equal to anyone else on the committee, and he encourages other members of the media to join him. “I have respect for the democratic process,” he says.

But this process isn't democratic at all. It is dictatorial. It is arbitrary. It allows for an absolute veto that can not be overridden.

When these WBA officials shift blame to the webmaster, they may or may not be engaging in a less-than-artful deception, but regardless of that, they are missing the point. The problem isn't a webmaster, it's a process. When one person – whether it's the president or not – can, by executive order, change the configuration of the ratings, deciding who is or who is not going to be in line for a championship fight, it obviates the need for a ratings committee, does it not?

If the changes had a direct effect on the world championship landscape (as they do here), one would hope that in a responsible organization, there would be safeguards in place to ensure that such changes would not be unilateral, but subject to full review – and reversal, if necessary.

What's telling here is that while the chairman and “media advisor” to the ratings committee seemed to be keenly aware of the details behind a supposed webmaster's error, they have no idea as to WHY MENDOZA MADE THE CHANGES. They didn't inquire. They didn't protest. They don't know. And my guess is they don't care to know.

Though it would seem patently obvious, let me explain what effect that has. It means that if there was enough inducement for one individual to shift the ratings to favor one particular interested party, an entire group of people, ostensibly working within a “democratic process,” is powerless to do anything about it, no matter how well-intentioned it may be.

That's probably not the kind of sanctioning body anyone should be taking seriously.

That statement might not be headline news to you, but let me explain my perspective. Anyone who knows me understands that the last thing you could call me is naive. Unlike any other boxing writer, I am familiar with sanctioning body malfeasance by way of personal experience. But what I intentionally did here was leave myself completely open-minded. I wanted to bend over backwards in an effort in giving the WBA every opportunity to demonstrate that it was interested in doing the right thing, so that if I had to march them out behind the woodshed at a later time, no one could say I was being unfair.

Toward that end, I even went right to the horse's mouth. Gilberto Mendoza received a full questionnaire in which I asked him about each and every change he made. Of course, this is based on the assumption that since he made the adjustments, he should know his own reasons for doing so. Mendoza did not come forward with the explanations; instead, he asked the WBA attorney, Bob Mack, to get in contact with me. No, it wasn't to threaten a lawsuit; actually, I get along very well with Bob. And while he was as helpful as he could be, he really had no answers. Those could only come from Mendoza himself.

Maybe Gilberto Mendoza figures he doesn't need to explain anything to me. That's fine. But at some point, he'll have to get his story straight about some things.

For instance, Donald, who was #10 in the March ratings, moved up three spots to #7 after boxing to a draw with a lower-rated fighter (Ray Austin). But Austin's reward for his draw against a higher-ranked foe (Donald) was to stay put at #14.

DaVarryl Williamson, who beat the unranked Derrick Jefferson, came from nowhere to be #5 and in line for a title shot, while the undefeated Brock, who beat someone in the world ratings (McCline) enters below him, at #8. Williamson was inserted so highly “at the discretion of the ratings committee considering his caliber,” according to the explanation for ratings movement that has, at long last, been posted on the WBA website. Considering Williamson is the caliber of fighter who was knocked out in one round by Joe Mesi, one would have a difficult time crafting an argument for his lofty position in relation to more deserving fighters, including Wladimir Klitschko (#11 in the WBA), who beat him on a technical decision last October.

And that's just the progression from the March ratings to the final version of the April list. The sudden shifts Mendoza made in mid-stream during the April process are hardly defensible.

However, there is a mechanism in place that, ideally, would make him come clean.

It is contained within the Muhammad Ali Act:

SEC. 11. SANCTIONING ORGANIZATIONS.

`(a) OBJECTIVE CRITERIA- Within 2 years after the date of the enactment of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, the Association of Boxing Commissions shall develop and shall approve by a vote of no less than a majority of its member State boxing commissioners, guidelines for objective and consistent written criteria for the ratings of professional boxers. It is the sense of the Congress that sanctioning bodies and State boxing commissions should follow these ABC guidelines.

`(b) APPEALS PROCESS- A sanctioning organization shall not be entitled to receive any compensation, directly or indirectly, in connection with a boxing match, until it provides the boxers with notice that the sanctioning organization shall, within 7 days after receiving a request from a boxer questioning that organization's rating of the boxer–

`(1) provide to the boxer a written explanation of the organization's criteria, its rating of the boxer, and the rationale or basis for its rating (including a response to any specific questions submitted by the boxer); and

`(2) submit a copy of its explanation to the Association of Boxing Commissions.

`(c) NOTIFICATION OF CHANGE IN RATING- A sanctioning organization shall not be entitled to receive any compensation, directly or indirectly, in connection with a boxing match, until, with respect to a change in the rating of a boxer previously rated by such organization in the top 10 boxers, the organization–

`(1) posts a copy, within 7 days of such change, on its Internet website or home page, if any, including an explanation of such change, for a period of not less than 30 days; and
`(2) provides a copy of the rating change and explanation to an association to which at least a majority of the State boxing commissions belong.

Under the newly proposed legislation (S.148), titled the “Professional Boxing Amendments Act of 2005,” things would get a little more serious for sanctioning bodies if it were to pass. Take notice of the word “perjury”:

`(b) NOTIFICATION OF CHANGE IN RATING- A sanctioning organization shall, with respect to a change in the rating of a boxer previously rated by such organization in the top 10 boxers–

`(1) post a copy, within 7 days after the change, on its Internet website or home page, if any, including an explanation of the change, for a period of not less than 30 days;

`(2) provide a copy of the rating change and a thorough explanation in writing under penalty of perjury to the boxer and the Commission;

`(3) provide the boxer an opportunity to appeal the ratings change to the sanctioning organization; and

`(4) apply the objective criteria for ratings required under subsection (a) in considering any such appeal.

`(c) CHALLENGE OF RATING- If, after disposing with an appeal under subsection (b)(3), a sanctioning organization receives a petition from a boxer challenging that organization's rating of the boxer, it shall (except to the extent otherwise required by the Commission), within 7 days after receiving the petition–

`(1) provide to the boxer a written explanation under penalty of perjury of the organization's rating criteria, its rating of the boxer, and the rationale or basis for its rating (including a response to any specific questions submitted by the boxer); and

`(2) submit a copy of its explanation to the Association of Boxing Commissions and the Commission for their review.'

While I was preparing this story, the WBA rushed out its May ratings, and indeed nothing was changed or corrected from two weeks before. That's obviously a big “F.U.” to Patrick English, and to me.

Such hubris on their part is ill-advised, as I suspect they'll find out over the course of time.

Don't discount challenges happening, both now and in the future. Boxing, in many ways, is a “zero-sum gain' proposition; when a fighter enters the ratings, another fighter is taken out. When one fighter moves up in the ratings that means another fighter has to move down. Somebody is invariably going to be dissatisfied. And if a sanctioning body can't explain itself thoroughly, it is going to risk being run out of business, because the new legislation would give a United States Boxing Commission the power to license and regulate all sanctioning organizations.

At that point, I won't be there to assist them, and neither will anybody else.

Hell, even a six-year-old could figure THAT out.