Remember back when we were all getting used to the notion of living in the 21st Century? Remember when professional boxing was obsessing over the need for fundamental reform in light of the IBF payoff scandal involving the federation President Bob Lee? How the promotional figures, managers and attendant legal minds lined up to pontificate about reforming boxing, getting to a new standard of business practice that would not only insure fairness of access to opportunity for fighters based on their talents but also the long-term safeguarding of the health and financial futures for those who take the ultimate risks in the ring: the fighters!
Six and a half years on, more than a half decade later, just what became of all the good will and rousing PR-speak on the nobility and necessity for progressive action and enduring safeguards? Just what effects did initiatives such as the Muhammad Ali Act have on boxing and on the boxers themselves? A new breed of promotional enterprise from figures as diverse as Lou DiBella to fighter turned promotional impresario Oscar De La Hoya came to symbolize a new age of transparency and fairness. How has their presences altered the fates of developing fighters?
These are some of the issues we hope explore over the coming weeks in a series of features examining what became of the millennial reform movement in boxing. We might begin by looking at just how passionate an issue reform was for internet boxing scribes in the year 2000; to do that we offer up this writer’s anxious calls for urgent accountability.
Boxing Coming Clean
Commentary by Patrick Kehoe – April 11, 2000
Prosecutor Jose P. Sierra opened the federal case against Robert W. Lee on Tuesday in New Jersey. In a sense the credibility of boxing's ability to act with independent integrity is on trail. Boxing has long been a pawn for influence peddling forces – the caricature of felons hiding out in sunglasses under diffident palms at poolside, the proverbial professional gamblers and racketeers of nocturnal omnipresence – are now partnered with the 'officially empowered' media savvy influence brokers of ‘governmental oversight’ who turn out to be no less the bad guys, no less corrupt, no less unethically cretinous. The video- and audiotaped evidence in the IBF case, in concert with witness testimony, will attempt to lift the lid off the practice of boxing's version of insider trading.
Money from promoters, or channeled through intermediaries from various parties of dire interest, finds its way into the various sanctioning organizations, as part of the normative practice of validating preferential careers, sliding fighters up the funicular ratings ladder, all at the expense of fighters not aligned with powerful representation. We need only look at the careers of Bernard Hopkins as an unrealized superstar/struggling free agent and Tim Witherspoon, frozen out by refusing the manipulating patronage of Don King, to get a glimpse of the “control fetish” which predominates the licensing and market controlling of fighters… that and the narrow gauntlet of top-flight placements that determines the championship belts in boxing. As one manger told me recently, “I need to get to ***’s annual convention because, let’s face it, that’s where you sell the viability of your fighter – sell meaning buy!”
Boxing tells its competitors to play by the rules of the business – comportment to the various commission’s governance – or you are finished before you begin. There is no self-determinism in the business of boxing except as proscribed by the ruling money manipulators; the business of boxing is controlled collusion, without accountability or transparency or ethical moorings. Perhaps… perhaps, the trial of the IBF rankings fixing will be the beginning of the end of “business as usual.” Perhaps, now in this age of instantaneously shared information we can all act as monitors of conscious against the practices of exclusion, collusion and obvious graft. How? We might begin with the empowerment of your wallet and acts of collective attention.
The case in New Jersey at least illustrates the surface abuse, enumerating some 32 bribes which found there way into the hands of IBF founder Robert W. Lee, totally some $338,000, invalidating the idea of objective merit, which has long been the predicate for a fighter's status in boxing. Or has the idea of merit been just a long held myth? Surly, we can argue that another time. Clearly, money for favorable status has existed within the fabric of boxing since the last century. To say this is not to condone the practice; it is however to say that money for special status has long been endemic to the “culture” of boxing, which as a semi-regulated sport has always taken the most free market, if not freebasing, debasing, detours.
We can itemize all of these insidious contentions and yet boxing has also been a showcase for the likes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson; still, the summit is never the measure of the totality. And in saying that, we have to clean up the system for the ultimate protection of all fighters who wish to aspire to the full reaches of their dedication. Boxing should work with the talent and desire of a fighter, not act to merely exploit it. Let's hope that now even the established order can begin to deconstruct the system of “pay for play,” a corruption amounting to a caste system of purchased opportunities, bought and paid for by promoters like Bob Arum, Don King and Cedric Kushner, in favor of basic fairness. We do not single them out to single them out; everyone pays, such is the environmental bottom line.
Ironically, the fate of the game resides in hands of its perpetrators, as we who also love the game now cast our critical gaze upon them. Efficacy should not be chasing a Holy Grail. Doing what equates to basic fairness should not require a millennial Renaissance akin to the miraculous.
This is what boxing must now demand of its internal processes, if it ever hopes to validate itself as a sport of decency within the global entertainment industry.