“The basic premise of boxing is to try and render your opponent unconscious; we have to remember that… it’s called the fight game because it’s a rough, tough business. Boxing is really the purest form of sport and absolutely… over time… the most brutal.” Hall of Fame Broadcaster Bob Sheridan always takes the time to put the proper frame on matters under examination in topical conversation or when setting up one of his international boxing broadcasts. His views are discursively applied, even his well known boosterism – critics charge apologetics – for boxing always includes elemental critiques and to-the-bone assertions.
“The problems in pro boxing have to do with the relationship between the promoters and the networks… in promoting the fighters you must promote the event… and you get some conflicts of interest. The promoter and the networks have to focus on the upcoming event/fight because that’s where the money is.” Sheridan acknowledges that reality of priming for making a fight card live up to event status “forces a shot view of things… and there is no central body to protect the sport from how the business is done as there is in other sports like baseball and football, etc.”
“The generic work of sport, doing business, means that no one has to answer to anyone ultimately simply because no overall controlling interest exists in boxing,” notes Sheridan. A common understanding that may well be, but, the ring of truth echoes out to those outside the metaphorical beltway of boxing’s internal machinery. We might interject at this point a contradicting note for the sake of edification by stating that those in boxing might have to soon answer to what metastasized fan base remains for boxing in this young century. The fans are increasingly vocal over the issues of being alienated from anything like comprehensive ratings for fighters, aboveboard judging and more innovative ideas to make sure fighters at least have a chance to act in what can be defined as their own best interests for future financial security. As things stand, reform as a duty to save the sport from its own exigencies has no point of assessing controls and few empowered(ing) individuals able to stand up for the premise of collective interest, translated individual by vested individual, against the diaspora of promotional and broadcasting interests that sustain the current status quo.
Nevertheless, Sheridan counterpoints our apprehensions. “But boxing gets such a bad rap on what ails it,” Sheridan intoning his words with a passion he’s become famous for, at ringside, the world over. “The negativism is extraordinary and when compared to most other sports unprecedented. Compare boxing to other sports. That’s what the media should look at… and the media is the intermediary here… because since the 1960s boxing has become as respectable as most other sports. Boxing never hides its issues… but look at baseball and football with steroids and human growth hormone abuse, doping in international track and field, the rigged judging in figure skating… boxing is no worse than any of these. Baseball, which I love and played professionally, still hasn’t faced up to all of its issues yet. But it is so easy to write negatively about boxing.”
Even when we factor in the rationalizations, Sheridan makes a good point when he asserts, “The writers don’t cover the conventions for the world governing bodies at all… and there are a massive amount of countries taking part, doctors, officials and representatives from all over the world there… the WBC for one has done a pretty good job in particular in terms of improving on safety and providing for competent officiating, as well as doing countless clinics. But no one reports on that side of boxing. You never see a story on that in any of the major newspapers, at least not in the US.”
“And we have to remember that everyone has their agendas; this is after all professional sports so it’s going to be about the money, in the end it’s about making money.”
Points taken, Mr. Sheridan! But if we could all follow the money of promotional and broadcasting interests what would it tell us about even the faintest notion of fairness, thoughts of self-sustainability and the avoidance of engaged abhorrent practices
We asked the question earlier: Has boxing’s newest galaxy of stars, the postmodern day MGM of the boxing business or the Wal-Mart as Kathy Duva calls them, Golden Boy Promotions, realized a new pyridine for the business of boxing? Boxing’s man of letters Thomas Hauser thinks not yet anyway. “Golden Boy might change the landscape. It hasn’t yet.” Well, the skeptical mind might inquire, if not them than who is there to play the hero in the righteous cause of protecting the fighter, novice, veteran, contender, champion, those breaking in, moving forward, those languishing, those terminally trapped?
And like all things to do with speculations upon notions for the progression of just causes, we can only wait. For true-blue boxing fans our vigilance for boxing reforms a vigil, the persistence of hope, if nothing else exactly.
We have overindulged ourselves with generalizations, opting for the overview, to take the longer view, hoping that the optics of revision might materialize simply because we have turned our attentions to a problem, to boxing’s larger questions of self-development and sustainability. Finally, we need also to understand the legal footing of boxing’s existence, if we are to understand the predicating predicaments any formulation of reform would have to navigate, overcome and absorb.
New York lawyer Kurt Emhoff has been part of boxing as a writer, commentator, manager and attorney for many years. And there are times you need a lawyer, especially ones who have for so long followed the legal and business realities in and around boxing. If you ask this New York City attorney if the Muhammad Ali Act has had significant impact on professional boxing the answer is yes; though, as in all legal matters certain conditions do apply.
“I think that in the area of coercive contracts, most promoters have stood by the law when it comes to not taking options on a fighter for more than a twelve month period. This was an exploitive practice that was rampant in the industry, not so much since the Ali Act. Also, number one contenders are no longer bothered with having to give up options in order to get their mandated title shot. These are significant improvements on the way business was done in the past.”
Never shying from a chance to lecture upon matters where the law impinges upon moralizing, Emhoff continues. “Other than those two provisions, however, I think the impact of the rest of Ali Act has been mild at best. The four provisions of the Ali Act that have gotten the most attention are Sec. 10 – Protection from Coercive contracts; Sec. 11 – Sanctioning Organizations (this has mostly to do with ratings); 13 (b) (1) Disclosures to the boxer (promoters disclosing revenue); and Sec. 6 – enforcement.
“Any new law is really only put to the test when it is put to the test in litigation and interpreted by the courts. There may be litigation that has touched on Sec. 10, but as yet I haven’t found any cases on point.
“In Section 11 of the Ali Act, the sanctioning organizations are charged with following objective criteria for their ratings as set out by the ABC. That criteria was set out in August of 2000 as follows:
As mandated by US federal law, the Muhammad Ali Act – Section 11, the ABC has approved the following ratings criteria that all sanctioning organizations shall follow:
1) Ratings must be solely based on win/loss records, level of competition and activity. Records of any top (10) rated boxer must be verified.
2) No boxer can be rated in more than one division.
3) For a boxer to be rated in the top (10)and to compete for a world title he/she must have competed in at least (2) ten-round bouts. To stay in the top (10)he/she:
a) must compete at least once during a 12-month period from the time the boxer gets rated and also must compete within (6) pounds of his/her rated weight and;
b) must have competed against another top 15 rated boxer within an 18 month period from the time the boxer gets rated.
A boxer who does not meet this level of competition shall not retain his/her rating. Exceptions can only be made for injuries.
4) If a top (10) rated boxer losses to an un-rated boxer then the rated boxer should be lowered at least one position in the ratings. The un-rated boxer should be considered for a rating somewhere in the top
5) If two boxers, are rated in the top (10) and compete against each other then the following shall apply:
a) If the lower ranked boxer wins then this boxer shall be elevated in the ratings and;
b) The higher rated boxer shall be lowered in the ratings.
** The above criteria shall take effect immediately**
“All of the sanctioning bodies have these criteria, with a few tweaks here and there, in their rules. Also, in this section of the Ali Act, it allows for an appeals process if there is a ratings change if a fighter disagrees with the rating and also a requirement that the sanctioning body provide an explanation for all changes in their ratings,” Emhoff adds.
Of course, fighters and their manager and lawyers do file grievances and organizations do issue notifications on matters from title cancellations, mandatory challenges, injury rulings etc., however, the traditional stumbling blocks of timing and political intention remain embedded. Fighters are often effectively frozen out due to administrative indolence and inaction all in the name of adjudication and processing. Other fighters have their claims and complaints expedited, renegotiated or in some way fast tracked, while “less affiliated” fighters, i.e. not allied with certain promotional entities, find adjudication taking the better part of a year in some cases. That too remains part of the architecture of administrative deliberation, even if fighters have an expanded recourse for legal redress under the Ali Act. We do remember that for all athletes, certainly for fighters, time as much as timing is often the key lifeline connecting possibility to probability, in their ability to realize their professional goals.
Section 11, itemized above by Emhoff, was to be the controlling language with regards to the often unbridled relativism and manipulation known as the rankings system. Emhoff expands on this further, “This part of the Act was intended to stop the practice of ratings by bribe and favoritism towards certain promoters that was going on with the sanctioning bodies. This section was put to the test in May of 2005 when the IBF leap-frogged DaVarryl Williamson ahead of Wladimir Klitschko in their ratings – despite the fact that Klitschko had beaten Williamson head-to-head six months earlier and had recently beaten an undefeated heavyweight.
“Pretty much everyone in the industry, beside Don King Productions and Williamson’s camp, believed that Klitschko should be rated above Williamson. This was a pretty egregious rating. In fact, Klitschko appealed to the IBF and then to the ABC, which had set up an appeals process for such ratings. Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the ABC, provided a nonbinding opinion that the rating was in error.
“The case went to trial in federal court in New Jersey. Max Kellerman appeared as an expert witness for Klitschko, but the court decided that the IBF did not break their rules and more importantly decided that “(courts) ordinarily defer to the internal decisions of private organizations such as the IBF . . . this court is not, as Plaintiffs would have it, a forum for second guessing the rankings decisions of the IBF . . . there is no doubt that the application of these objective criteria is a subjective enterprise . . .” Thus, Klitschko was out of luck for the time being (he would later win the title) and more importantly the judge laid the precedent for sanctioning organizations to continue to publish bogus ratings as long as they provided some sort of explanation that paid lip service to the ABC objective criteria.”
And here we do note that politics of relativism is a complex master of things done and things left undone. But what remains at stake is the independence of organizations to make public notification of their ‘rankings’ even within a climate of general disregard, skepticism and even outrage. In this sense, even the much bandied about concept of ‘transparency’ looks like a red herring insofar that general agreement remains a mythic standard. Even the commendable work of Ring Magazine to codify world rankings and the now defunct “World Cup of Boxing” website have not been able to make the definitive case for public consumption that boxing is indeed able to adjudicate and rank the best fighters division by division, politics being damned. Multiplicity of title belts and weight divisions makes a folly of the traditional notion of championship standing, the idea of absolute singularity, supremacy within limit, once the preserve of boxing’s fighting men called champions of the world.
Emhoff puts a point on rankings mayhem by saying, “Just a cursory glance at the ratings of each major organization and you can clearly see that the Ali Act is a failure in reforming the ratings.”
(Check back for the final installment of this series on boxing reform, revisited.)
Patrick Kehoe may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org