Boxing reform typically becomes topical on the heels of scandal, tragedy or political housecleaning. A fighter dies in the ring and suddenly there are siren calls for improving safety measures and commission safeguarding of fighters, be it monitoring health records, watchdogging for promotional mismatches, activating refereeing discretion on the side of prevention, etc. When an official or promoter or any other boxing insider is caught on tape taking a bribe or tangled within documented conflicts of interest, editorial trumpets sound and business rivals point fingers upon the cancerous matters of which they themselves are, of course, never a party to, never in any way complicit. Thus, we all understand that boxing reform, typically, takes on the character of reactionary necessity within a particularly conspicuous moment.
For many in boxing, reform is an irritant. Why? Because boxing reform tends to blunt profit motives and established routes for maximizing the bottom line of financial solvency and profitability by limiting license and unchecked opportunism. One might say reform exists as an intermittent rhetorical promise or future tense expectation inferring that in the end – that never elapsing someday – the goodwill of all the faithful, the committed and the specialized interests who make up the business community of professional boxing will – indeed – do the right thing.
We all know about doing the right thing, how it involves selflessness, sacrifice and a dedication to extending ethics from idea to practice. Doing the right thing means looking at the broader view for the vital interest not always recognizable at first; somehow, in boxing, that extending, that outreach never reaches the heart, the vital organs. Boxing as an intensive care patient certainly goes through a battery of tests. The diagnostics certainly seem high-tech, state of the art and yet, so often, too often, the patient expires or is left uninsured and functionally brain dead. The liberal use of metaphorical allusion here is as distracting as useful: agreed. Hopefully, the point is made, taken.
Not that boxing should be singled out for malpractice, excessive relativism and shoving its mitts through the remaining panes of rose colored glass left to house one of the last romantically saturated specimen in professional sport, the sweet science. Think about the drug scandals chocking the life out of baseball’s mythic story arch as America’s Pastime, the grizzly tales from the Gridiron and, not to be outdone, the Tour De France and International Track and Field, a.k.a., eugenics in the grass. In the age of designer pharmaceuticals and the billion dollar earnings threshold, boxing’s red light district zoning problems aren’t as singularly conspicuous as they used to be.
Still, we need to look within our own house, vigilant and ready to do the right thing. In the meantime, fighters continue to get promoted and preened, insulated for purposes of manipulated, enriched and impoverished, their individual expiration dates almost always coming before they are ready to live the rest of their lives beyond the ring, as citizens, parents and ex-athletes. A fighter battling under the intensive ring lights remains the only image of a professional boxer that many, ultimately, value. We cannot forget to look at the end result the life individual fighters will or could lead, just as we cannot forget his security and prospects while he or she tries to ply his rough trade during a career. So as we take the time now to concern ourselves with matters elemental to boxing reform, getting lost in the architecture of the boxing business as it has evolved is not an option.
And we shall try to remember the individual, the mediocre talent, the journeyman (and woman) for they are the grist for the mills of boxing’s glittering pantheon.
We turn to recent measures addressing our concerns, such as the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act (Senate approval April 7, 2000) which was essentially meant to limit the scope of contractual indentures and manipulations commonly practiced in boxing as ‘options.’
The great boxing writer and attorney Thomas Hauser feels that the Ali Act has come up short on providing the necessary safeguarding promised by the Act, “Because it doesn’t go far enough and isn’t being enforced!”
Longtime boxing insider, writer, editor and broadcaster Steve Farhood agrees. “The Muhammad Ali Bill was a good idea, but what good is legislation if it's not enforced? To legislators and law enforcement officials, boxing is not a priority… and probably never will be. The only time it becomes a priority is when politicians can garner headlines by abusing the sport.”
“To tell you the truth I cannot really see if it did or not,” boxer turned trainer John “Ice” Scully intones from the heart. “I mean, I still see fighters getting robbed in the ring and out. If it helped in any way it has helped; but, it hasn't solved all the problems yet. That's for sure. I think one thing is because many people, especially fighters, have no idea whatsoever what the Ali act even is. The terms of it aren't well known enough for a fighter with questions to even seek help from it.”
The longstanding reality of boxing has been the fighter-manager relationship and has been tied to the overall dictates of the promoter, save for an exceptional few of mega-stars such as Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, or in an earlier time Ali, Monzon in Europe, Leonard and Duran. Though all the above names typically found their best business practices facilitated by extended, though not universal, working arrangements with promoters such as Don King and Bob Arum, to name the most influential. What fighters like Holmes found out, however, was that contractual exclusivity meant both profitability but also formulistic indenturing in the form of endless contractual options on future services, massive hidden financial deductions and coercive promotional manipulation. At least that was what fighters like Larry Holmes and Tim Witherspoon publicly asserted was status quo business practices in boxing from contender level status through championship status. Success in boxing can be a very limiting experience.
Basically, the relationship of promoter to sanctioning bodies and tangentially the TV broadcaster orientates the monetary and symbolic possibilities of topflight professional fighters. At the developmental stage, fighters are almost completely regulated by promotional self-interest. The Ali Act was supposed to act as a default mechanism or legal recourse for fighters and their management to opt out of promotional indenturing that represented interests counter to their own. Thus, fighters who established themselves could foster the status of independent contractors negotiating agreements of shared self-interests with whatever promotional and broadcasting entity interested in their short-term services.
Hauser reminds us of the effects of championship level fighters working as independent contracting entities. “The elite fighters are making more money for less work today.”
“I don't see much change in the financial status of boxers,” is Farhood’s observation. “This should be a priority, but until all U.S. boxing commissions have the same medical and rules standards, any other reform is premature.”
Is it too easy to take broad swipes at the promoters, in this age of network controls of the financial purses for major boxing events? Then again, that represents only the very elite within the global game of professional boxing. John Scully expands on the topic under discussion offering us the following:
“You know, every once in a while there comes these guys, the saviors with the big plans. Sometimes it is a government investigation into the sport that never, ever turns up anything. They supposedly reach deep down for the dirt and they always come up with lint for some reason. You also always get these guys that say they want to revolutionize the business end of the game and make it better for the fighters. Maybe these guys will have some success, too, but I am sure that fighters will continue to get robbed and misled by others in the sport for a long while. People need to understand that when these guys talk about making it better for the fighters they aren't talking about four-round kids from Los Angeles and Newark, New Jersey. They are talking about the kids that they deem worthy of putting money into. The big prospects and the Olympians, etc.”
So, what then of the promise of ‘transparency’ that was floated and highlighted so often in 2000 and 2001? Transparency, that clear window for business practices and financial accountability which was to drive out all of the backroom dealing and conflicts of interest rampant in the practice of making and broadcasting fights? And what of the sport’s governing bodies, the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO, to name four? Is there any good news there?
“As for the alphabets, there has been a change, but it hasn't been for the better,” Farhood characterizing the influence of boxing’s world governing organizations. “The alphabets no longer pretend to rank fighters according to their relative abilities. Instead, they openly rank them according to the organization's needs. The fact that The Ring magazine belt has gained stature is a good thing, but until the fighters themselves turn their backs on the alphabets (fighters love belts, ANYBODY'S belts), there won't be any changes.
What a lot of people don't want to acknowledge is that to do away with the alphabets would be a positive step, but somebody has to fill the void.”
John Scully’s urgency rings through when he says, “Well, I can tell you one thing. I am in a situation right now where a boxer that I train, WBA 154 pound champion Jose Rivera, won his title this pastMay and he is still waiting to see who he will fight next because the WBA hasn't decided if it will be their mandatory challenger or another guy who they are trying to settle a court case with. We really wanted to fight a Cory Spinks or a Margarito but they say we have to satisfy our mandatory first. At the same time, though, nobody from the WBC ever says Oscar has to satisfy his mandatory at the same weight or else he will be stripped… Why the double standard?”
Listing problems certainly represents the simple part of beginning to deal with what ills contemporary boxing. Herein we offer re-notification, reminders to the collective conscience. And next time we will look more closely into the Ali Act and take upon us the mystery of why boxing so often defiles the obvious, the commonsensical issues troubling it. And in offering up concerns, we will try to act responsibly, looking out for the welfare of the fight game.