By Arne K. Lang
How often have we heard that boxing is on the ropes? This pronouncement, or some variation of it, was heard even in the best of times. But while we should never be too quick to write the death knell of boxing, a remarkably resilient sport, the reality is that boxing in the United States is in poor health right now and on life support in the former flagship domain of New York. There hasn’t been a boxing show in New York since August 21 and there are none scheduled during the remainder of the year.
New York was once the center of the boxing universe. Madison Square Garden (the third Madison Square Garden at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street) was the Mecca, but during the peak years there were clubs running weekly shows in every borough with the exception of Staten Island. Every lineal heavyweight champion from Gene Tunney through Larry Holmes — with the exception of Sonny Liston who was barred from fighting in New York because of his ties to “questionable characters” – made one or more title defenses in New York rings. Joe Louis made eighteen.
Many years have elapsed since the Big Apple lost its distinction as the boxing capitol of the world. There were many factors in play, including the fact that it became so expensive to lodge out-of-town fighters and their entourages at midtown hotels. At casino resorts, this cost is born by the host property. But there’s still a certain cachet to fighting in Madison Square Garden. “I have always dreamed of fighting here,” said Oscar De La Hoya prior to his 1995 match with Jesse James Leija. “What fighter wouldn’t?”
Bob Arum once made an interesting observation in a talk with New York Times reporter Gerald Eskanazi. Arum said that every major sports league would suffer without a team in the New York market and that boxing also needed this base. He wasn’t taking about money. A New York base, said Arum, legitimates a sport. And so, if we buy Arum’s argument, the curtailment of pro boxing in New York is an ominous development even if other jurisdictions pick up the slack.
The root of the current malaise dates to March 22 of this year when the New York Assembly approved a bill that lifted the ban on MMA. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law on April 14.
New insurance provisions were inserted into the law, which took effect on Sept.1. Basic health insurance minimums were raised from $10,000 to $50,000 per fighter and promoters were required to purchase an insurance bond that paid $1 million in the event of a traumatic brain injury.
Promoters Lou DiBella and Joe DeGuardia, the most active promoters in the Empire State, barked that the traumatic brain injury provision was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The cost of the premium, they said, potentially exceeds the gross receipts at a small show where the promoter lacks the cushion of television money. That’s presuming that it was even possible to find a provider willing to underwrite such a policy.
DeGuardia cancelled a show he had scheduled for Oct. 14 at the Paramount Theater in Huntington, Long Island. Di Bella followed suit last week, releasing the two dates that he had reserved in December. He previously moved his Broadway Boxing series to the Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut. DiBella said he had no choice as he was “evicted (from New York) by a legislature willfully ignorant of the boxing and insurance industries.”
This reporter has always had a soft spot for promoters operating on a shoestring. This feeling was reinforced in 1994 when the promoter of a dinky little show in Las Vegas provided me with a copy of the document that itemized the fees imposed upon him by the athletic commission. Fifteen officials, not counting inspectors, were assigned to his show, a 6-bout card. There were three referees, eight judges, two timekeepers, and two physicians. In the aggregate, their fees totaled $3455.
He was also obligated to pay for four random drug tests ($294) and pay various functionaries, including the announcer, the ring girls, ticket sellers, and the two emergency medical workers who came with the ambulance stationed outside the building. He was in deep before paying a single dollar to the cornerstones of his show, the guys taking the punches. His total nut would have been chump change to a man with deep pockets like Bob Arum, but he was no Arum, merely a small-time promoter trying to gain a foothold in an enterprise swarming with sharks. And keep in mind that this was 22 years ago. No doubt it cost a lot more to pull off a low-budget show today.
The promoter had no illusions about turning a healthy profit. He looked upon his little show as an investment that would pay dividends down the road. He had his hooks into several of the boxers that appeared on his show. If they kept winning — and he would improve their chances through cagey matchmaking — they would go on to secure good paydays and he would be down for a piece of the action. The result was a series of mismatches as these prospects were climbing the ladder, which was no way to grow a larger fan base for a sport in need of a larger constituency.
As for New York, the situation isn’t hopeless. A clause in the new law gives the NYSAC the power to adjust the premium. A hidden function of the commission is to act as an economic engine for the State of New York. Arum has a big show planned for Madison Square Garden for St. Patrick’s Day (March 17). If he threatens to take that show out of New York, that could be the lever that forces the commission to loosen the noose.