As Joe Mesi looks to make his comeback in sunny Puerto Rico, far from Buffalo’s bitter chill, he has found not only warm weather but a warm welcome which he probably would not get from his home state’s commission. There might be differing points of view on whether Mesi, who suffered three late knockdowns and bleeding on the brain in his 2004 battle with Vassiliy Jirov, should be allowed to fight again. But the fact that he can choose to avoid Nevada and New York – states that likely will not license Mesi because of the danger to his health and life – and instead find a soft commission that will allow him to enter a boxing ring highlights the need for reform in boxing.
Boxing needs a single set of safety standards to protect fighters, a single set of rules to protect the integrity of the sport, a single ratings body to determine champions and contenders and a single national commission to govern the sport.
Inside the ropes, boxing remains “the sport to which all other sports aspire,” to borrow George Foreman’s words. Pure. Elemental. Like the men inside the ring, stripped down to the bare essentials. Man against man, matching strength against strength, speed against speed, skill against skill, will against will.
But the purity of what takes place inside the ropes is too often tainted by what takes place just outside those ropes. Too often we see incompetent judges, negligent commissions and corrupt sanctioning bodies all making questionable decisions. When Dave Tiberi outworks James Toney over twelve rounds but is robbed by incompetent judges of the title he has earned in the ring, boxing suffers. When Brad Rone, overweight and with 26 straight losses under his belt, is denied a license to fight in Nevada and then dies in a boxing ring when he is permitted to fight in neighboring Utah, boxing suffers. When Zab Judah loses his championship in the ring but is allowed to retain his IBF belt, boxing suffers. When the rules are made up as you go along – like the card game in Bang the Drum Slowly – the legitimacy of the sport suffers. Because no matter how great the fight, when the best man doesn’t win, or when the winner doesn’t get the title he fought for, the sport is compromised. And when the sport loses its legitimacy, the fans turn away.
Long experience tells us that change will not come from within. The power brokers of the sport are not looking for change. Don King and Bob Arum are thriving on the status quo. The IBF and the WBC and the countless other sanctioning bodies, each with its own champions, continue to collect sanctioning fees. The state commissioners, many of them political appointees who enjoy their ringside seats and their government salaries but who have limited experience in boxing, do not want to lose their petty fiefdoms. And HBO and Showtime are more interested in their bottom lines than in using their powerful positions in the sport to correct boxing’s ills.
The boxers themselves, most coming from tough neighborhoods, most with limited opportunities, most fighting for close to nothing as they pursue their hard dreams, do not have the power to effect change.
Change must be imposed on boxing from the outside. It must be imposed by the law. Only the law has a chance of cleaning up “the red-light district of sports,” Jimmy Cannon’s label of half a century ago which remains an apt description today.
Senator John McCain and his colleagues in Congress are trying. But their efforts and the passage of two congressional bills in the past decade have done little to alter the way that boxing is run.
The Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 imposes on state commissions general rules regarding the health and safety of boxers, suspensions and conflicts of interest. But the rules are so vague that they are virtually meaningless. The Act requires that a physician certify whether a boxer is fit to safely compete, but fails to specify what medical tests, if any, a boxer must pass. It requires that health insurance be provided to each boxer to cover any injuries sustained in a bout, but fails to specify the amount of that coverage; as it stands, most state commissions require so little medical coverage that a boxer who requires surgery for a broken hand or jaw, not uncommon injuries in boxing, will find himself in debt, owing far more in medical bills than he has earned for the fight.
The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, passed by Congress in 2000, correctly identifies some of boxing’s problems but fails to provide meaningful or effective solutions. The Ali Act acknowledges that boxing, unlike other major professional sports, operates without any centralized authority “to establish uniform and appropriate business practices and ethical standards”; it acknowledges that unscrupulous promoters can take advantage of the lack of uniformity in the way boxing is run by bringing boxing events to states with weak commissions; it acknowledges that boxing’s sanctioning organizations have failed to establish “credible and objective criteria to rate professional boxers,” and that the ratings, because they are subject to manipulation, “have deprived boxers of fair opportunities for advancement, and have undermined public confidence in the integrity of the sport.” The Act attempts to address some of these ills with provisions intended to protect boxers from coercive promotional contracts, with its suggestion (yes, suggestion) that the sanctioning organizations adopt criteria to be developed by the Association of Boxing Commissions for rating boxers, and with rules requiring financial disclosure by sanctioning bodies, promoters, judges and referees. But while some managers and promoters have added clauses to their contracts saying that they must abide by the Ali Act, the 1996 and 2000 laws have had little practical effect on the way boxing is run and have done little to improve the lot of boxers.
The problem with the Professional Boxing Safety Act and the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act is that they attempt to tinker with a system that needs an overhaul. These laws are half-measures at best, defined by their inherent contradictions. Even while raising questions about the ethical shortcomings of the sanctioning organizations, the Ali Act implicitly recognizes these same organizations’ legitimacy; it says, for example, that a promoter cannot require future options from a boxer who is fighting in “a mandatory bout under the rules of a sanctioning organization.” And while recognizing that professional boxing, alone among the major sports, “operates without any private sector association, league, or centralized industry organization,” and that weak state commissions are exploited by less-than-honest promoters, it nevertheless posits that state commissions are “the proper regulators of professional boxing events.”
Proposed legislation in the form of the Professional Boxing Amendments Act of 2004 and then the Professional Boxing Amendments Act of 2005 sought to rectify this latter problem by creating the United States Boxing Commission, a federal commission under the auspices of the Department of Commerce. But for two years running the legislation did not receive the necessary votes in Congress to become law, in part because a number of congressmen who received monies from promoters like King and Arum voted against the bills.
The Professional Boxing Amendments Act would have created the United States Boxing Commission, a national commission responsible for protecting “the health, safety, and general interests of boxers” and for ensuring “uniformity, fairness, and integrity in professional boxing.” Specifically, it would have been the job of the USBC to “promulgate uniform standards for professional boxing,” “oversee all professional boxing matches in the United States,” and “establish and maintain uniform minimum health and safety standards for professional boxing.” This would include the establishment of a medical registry which would maintain “comprehensive medical records and medical denials or suspensions for every professional boxer.” The creation of a central commission and of uniform standards would have been a positive step forward for boxing. If implemented successfully, it would have meant that boxing in the United States would have been run in large part by a single set of rules, it would have ended the practice of shopping for weak state commissions to hold certain fights, and it would have prevented a boxer denied a license in one state because he was not medically fit to compete from securing a license in a different state. In bringing some uniformity and consistency to the sport, the law would have brought a legitimacy to the business of boxing which is presently missing.
But the proposed law did not go far enough, and for that reason it may be a good thing that the bill did not garner the necessary votes. Even while it sought to create a new governing body for boxing, the United States Boxing Commission, it would have left in place existing organizations which we already know do not work.
Boxing guru Cus D’Amato famously said, “People who are born round don’t die square.” That goes for sanctioning organizations and state commissions as well. The sanctioning organizations have a long history of manipulating ratings, favoring promoters with whom they have a relationship (Don King comes quickly to mind), and putting greed far ahead of integrity – all of which add up to the boxer, the “exploited worker,” to borrow Jack Newfield’s description of the fighter in his penetrating piece “The Shame of Boxing,” getting less than fair treatment. So the law’s mandate that the Commission develop guidelines for rating fighters and that the sanctioning organizations follow these guidelines would leave in place exactly what is wrong with boxing. It would leave in place organizations like the IBF, which was exposed in a 2000 federal trial for its long-standing practice of accepting bribes to rig its ratings. Despite the exposure of this rampant corruption and despite the appointment of a federal monitor who oversaw the IBF for several years, little has changed.
According to the IBF’s ratings criteria, which state that a boxer who beats a higher-ranked boxer “will take the position of the higher rated fighter,” Carlos Baldomir’s recent victory over IBF champion Zab Judah should have made him the new IBF champion. But the IBF, true to its corrupt form, chose to ignore its own published criteria and left Judah with its worthless title. Appropriately for an organization with no true standards, it has written into its rules that “all ratings criteria are subject to exception,” a catch-all that makes the rest of its rules meaningless.
Instead of perpetuating these alphabet soup organizations by recognizing them in the law, Congress should work to abolish the need for these organizations. Instead of legislating that “the Commission may not. . .rank professional boxers,” Congress should mandate the opposite, that a national commission not only develop guidelines for rating boxers but implement those guidelines as well. The hope is that the Commission’s rankings, “based on the athletic merits and professional records of the boxers”, to use language from the proposed law, and not based on the political and financial maneuverings of powerful promoters, would come to be accepted by the boxing community. And if that could happen – boxers ranked based on merit, a champion becoming a champion because he vanquished the previous champion in the ring – boxing would achieve a level of respect it has been missing for a long time.
Of course it will take more than Congress passing a law. It will take the cooperation of certain elements of the boxing community, and particularly the cooperation of the television commentators and boxing writers. If the commentators and writers recognize the legitimacy of a United States Boxing Commission champion, if they refuse to pay homage to corrupt sanctioning bodies, then the WBC and WBO and WBA belts will become worthless, and the organizations that hand out those belts will melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Even if the sanctioning bodies could change their nature (and I believe, like Cus D’Amato, that they have neither the ability nor the willingness to change), even if they could apply purely objective criteria to their ratings, under the proposed law boxing would still be left with multiple champions in each weight division. And when the grand title of “world champion” doesn’t mean what it says, the title is diminished and the sport is diminished. The very idea of having multiple world champions seems to clash with the mission of the proposed United States Boxing Commission, which is to ensure “uniformity” and “fairness” and “integrity” in professional boxing.
The proposed law also fails because it leaves in place state and tribal boxing commissions. While the Professional Boxing Amendments Act would set minimum standards for local commissions to follow and in that way would bring a measure of uniformity to the sport, it would allow different state and tribal commissions to operate under different rules and would leave day-to-day operations, including the enforcement of these rules, to the presently existing local commissions. This too goes against the goal of uniformity in the way that boxing is run.
A sweeping indictment of all local commissions would not be proper. There exist commissions with appropriate medical standards in place, competent operations in place, and directors who care about boxing and care about its practitioners. Unfortunately there are too many commissions without the proper safeguards, too many commissions where rules are not followed and where boxers are not protected. Examples abound. I witnessed a weigh-in in Indianapolis where the two members of the Indiana commission who were “supervising” the weigh-in sat in folding chairs ten feet away from a bathroom scale and asked each fighter’s handler for the reading on the scale. In Utah, Brad Rone was allowed to fight with 26 straight losses coming into a July 2003 bout, even though a state rule mandated that, where a boxer has lost six consecutive fights (yes, twenty less than Rone’s streak), the commission must review those losses before allowing the boxer to enter the ring; typically, no review ever took place. Clearly, if rules are not enforced, they become worthless. And state commissions that have a proven record of misusing their discretion in deciding when and whether to enforce rules should not be entrusted with the enforcement of new rules. Congress has recognized the existence of weak commissions – indeed, this was one impetus for the proposed federal legislation – and would be wrong to now rely on these same commissions.
Perhaps what is needed are local branches of the United States Boxing Commission, branches which are overseen by the national commission. (Directors of state commissions who have demonstrated their competence could be placed at the head of these branches.) These local branches could employ a single set of rules throughout the country. And an enforcement division of the USBC could be responsible for making certain that local branches followed these rules. What is key is that a structure be established to bring real uniformity to boxing. Uniformity in the rules, uniformity in the rankings, uniformity in safety standards, uniformity in medical tests required for a boxer to be licensed, uniformity in standards for judges and referees, uniformity in the way fights are scored. And what is equally key is that competent, principled people be employed to create and to enforce these rules and standards, people who know boxing, who care about boxing and who care about the boxers who participate in the hardest game.
The government may not be well suited to the role of knight in shining armor, but the job of taking on the greed of the most powerful promoters, the corruption of sanctioning bodies and the incompetence of state commissions has not attracted any other candidates. Congress, having failed to pass the Professional Boxing Amendments Act, has another chance to get it right – to create the United States Boxing Commission, as already proposed, and to go further than the proposals of the last two years. It must establish uniform standards in boxing throughout the country and rid the sport of the sanctioning bodies.
Only the law can give boxing a fighting chance to be a respected sport. That way boxing fans can focus their attention on what matters – two men, inside the ropes, doing battle.