If you can afford it there,
You can afford it anywhere,
It’s up to you, New York, New York
TOUGH TIMES FOR BOXING IN NY: OK, so I have somewhat altered the lyrics of the song made famous by Frank Sinatra for a 1977 movie appropriately titled New York, New York. The Big Apple, and especially midtown Manhattan, has always been an expensive proposition for anyone, including its own reasonably prosperous citizens, but especially so for visitors from the hinterlands who show up expecting a fun time in the big city and head home with a severe case of wallet-emptying sticker shock.
The almost incomprehensible cost of doing business in New York won’t exactly be reaffirmed Saturday night, when UFC 205 — the first mixed martial arts event to be held in the state in almost 20 years, following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signing of legislation legalizing MMA on April 14 — plays to the glitz and bright lights of Madison Square Garden. The company was sold to its new owners for $4 billion on July 11, a cash infusion so massive (it was the most expensive transaction for an organization in sports history) that everyone involved in the Garden show should be able to comfortably pay for food, lodging and taxes without having to declare bankruptcy.
But yet …
Even as the UFC folks tap-dance into the spotlight, that other, more traditional combat sport is being forced out by the inordinately high cost of operating in what was once rightly known as the “Mecca of boxing.” Just as the sweet science was in the midst of a welcomed revival in New York, with the Garden and Barclays Center in Brooklyn waging a healthy competition for the big cards that once routinely were staged at various points in the five boroughs, another new regulation has less-well-heeled promoters being shuttled to the sideline and asking, “What about us?”
The last professional boxing card staged in New York was on Aug. 21 at the Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island in Brooklyn. More were scheduled throughout the balance of 2016, but were either canceled or moved out of state by a new requirement authorized by the New York State Athletic Commission on Aug. 31 that significantly raised the insurance premiums that promoters must pay to put on a show. Minimum coverage skyrocketed from $10,000 to $50,000 for general medical coverage per fighter on each card, but the new law also mandated a controversial $1 million brain-injury insurance policy for any fighter who might be stricken.
Two New York-based promoters, Lou DiBella and Joe DeGuardia, essentially have been driven out of their hometown for business purposes, perhaps never to return unless the insurance premiums can be made more affordable.
DiBella, for one, wonders why Gov. Cuomo — who, with much fanfare, was at the Garden on April 14 to sign into law the bill authorizing MMA – can roll out the red carpet for the new kid in town while effectively pulling the rug out from longtime boxing guys who are, or at least were, keeping alive the New York legacy created and embellished by the frequent appearances of such legendary fighters as Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis.
“I didn’t understand it,” DiBella said of Cuomo’s unabashed enthusiasm for the revenue UFC 205 and subsequent events figure to generate for the city and state while at the same time perhaps putting boxing on the endangered-species list. “I didn’t understand what one thing had to do with the other. If they’re trying to scapegoat boxing for what happened to Magomed (Abdusalamov, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in his Nov. 2, 2013, 10-round points loss to Mike Perez at Madison Square Garden Theater), what with the lawsuits (the NYSAC) were facing, I think it should be noted that the commission didn’t follow its own regulations that night.
“Is it a coincidence that they’re putting on that big (UFC) show at the Garden when there’s no competition from boxing for the rest of the year? Boxing is dead in New York right now because you can’t get an insurance policy, even if you could afford one. There is still no insurance policy available that’s been approved by the state for boxing to cover this ($1 million) liability.
“Look, I don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t think it’s any accident things are the way they are.”
The situation provides much grist for the conspiracy-theory mill hinted at by DiBella, but at least two aspects of the developing story can be backed with irrefutable evidence. One is that, well, New York is the place where almost everyone can make a small fortune. They just have to start out with very large ones. The other is that, well, the NYSAC, despite the state’s reputation as an enduring magnet for the biggest and best fights, has often covered itself with soot and shame as well as glory.
On April 26, 2005, I authored a column for the Philadelphia Daily News that detailed just how pricey doing a fight card in the New York could be. Part of that column reads thusly:
For years I have jokingly referred to midtown Manhattan as the “land of the $300 hotel room,” but it seems inflation has rendered that description obsolete. When I called my preferred inn to reserve a room for Saturday night’s John Ruiz-James Toney WBA heavyweight title bout at Madison Square Garden, I was advised that the going rate was now up to $479 per night … or, if I so desired, $499 for a room with a view of Times Square.
When you consider that taxes tack on another $50 or so, and overnight parking goes for $45, a guy driving up from Philadelphia with an interest in seeing something other than an alley upon looking out the window could take a $600 hit for a night’s sleep. And that’s not counting the $17 breakfast buffet or $45 room-service steak.
I was able to procure suitable lodging for a “mere” $302, at a nearby chain hotel whose overnight charge in, say, a York, Pa., or Manhattan, Kan., equivalent likely would go for $240 less.
In following the money, as we investigative reporters are wont to say, I placed a call to the same midtown Manhattan hotel to see what the same room with a view of Times Square would cost if I were in town to cover UFC 205. Answer: $684, excluding taxes, overnight parking if I happened to drive up, and meals costly enough to feed entire neighborhoods in Bangladesh or Calcutta. That same night’s sleep that might have cost me six bills in 2005 would now run nearly a grand.
Here is where I might once have offered a moment of silence in appreciation of expense accounts, except that most newspapers in these cruel economic times are harder-pressed to pay the freight than boxing promoters in Brooklyn.
Bobby Goodman, then director of boxing for Don King Promotions and a former director of Madison Square Garden’s boxing department, gave me some insight 11 years ago as to why the fight game’s love affair with the Big Apple has a big, costly worm in it.
“It’s incredibly expensive in New York,” Goodman said. “You have to bring the boxers in early because there are so many medical tests and licensing procedures.
“And you can’t always get the blocks of rooms you need for the promotion. People are scattered around different hotels, and nobody is comping you for rooms or even giving discounts. Everything is high. That’s just the reality of it.”
Still, Goodman allowed, New York has a vibe that is difficult for anywhere else to match when the really heavy hitters roll into the media capital of the world, drawing global attention like moths to a flame.
“I don’t think it can ever be like it was,” he said, noting that in the 1940s and ’50s a feeder system of club fights around the city ran as often as six nights a week, with its graduates moving on to the Garden. “But for a big event, there’s no feeling quite like it in the world. That’s the big top, baby. And every person in there has paid for their tickets. It’s not like anyone is being comped by a casino.”
In a sense, New York City was, as Sinatra sang, “king of the hill, top of the heap,” almost in spite of itself. Think about it: the NYSAC, which was founded in 1920, when the Walker Law legalized prizefighting, has too often been a thinly disguised patronage mill, with key positions not going to knowledgeable and incorruptible professionals, but to political appointees who coincidentally happened to be major contributors to the governor du jour.
It’s a Cliff’s Notes list, to be sure, but here are just some of the lowlights which the New York commission should be trying to scrub clean instead of adding to:
*In the 1940s, the infamous Frankie Carbo virtually controlled boxing in New York, operating under the unobservant or perhaps complicit eyes of NYSAC officials. In a 2002 interview with The Observer, Budd Schulberg observed that “Frankie Carbo, the Mob’s unofficial boss of boxing, controlled a lot of the welters and middles. Not every fight was fixed, of course, but from time to time Carbo and his lieutenants, like Blinky Palermo in Philly, would put the fix in … It was an open secret.”
*A lifetime ban was issued by the NYSAC against trainer Carlos “Panama” Lewis in 1986, who had served hard time for his role in a 1983 fight in the Garden in which Lewis’ fighter, Luis Resto, effectively ended “Irish” Billy Collins’ career by bludgeoning him with gloves made dangerously thin by the intentional removal of much of the horsehair padding with tweezers. Commission inspectors assigned to Resto’s dressing room somehow missed the egregious and obvious infraction of the rules.
*Former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, an honorable man, served for a time with distinction as chairman of the NYSAC, but by 1998 the effects of the Alzheimer’s disease that contributed to his death in 2006 could no longer be overlooked. Somehow, Patterson, his condition worsening, remained as head of the NYSAC for months even though he could no longer remember the names of his wife or his secretary.
*On July 2, 2001, super middleweight Beethaeven “Bee” Scottland died from brain injuries he sustained in a 10th-round TKO loss to George “Khalid” Jones six days earlier on the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid, a World War II era aircraft carrier docked in the Hudson River, off midtown Manhattan. It was obvious from the fourth round on that Scottland was taking a fearful beating, leading ESPN analyst Max Kellerman to lambast NYSAC officials, who might have intervened, as “political hacks.”
*More recently, a widely respected and committed boxing man, David Berlin, left his post as executive director of the NYSAC in May of this year, after having been on the job only two years, ostensibly because of friction between himself and commission chairman Tom Hoover, a Cuomo appointee, whose management style might be described as brusque and dismissive. Hoover’s main qualification to head up the NYSAC apparently was that he had once played for the New York Knicks.
“He has a passion for boxing,” longtime ESPN commentator and noted trainer Teddy Atlas said of Berlin, who also serves as legal counsel and member of the board of directors for the non-profit Dr. Theodore Atlas Foundation. “He’s been involved in the business of boxing and he’s been involved in the sports side of boxing. And there’s the human part, too. He cares about people and he cares about these fighters.”
A source familiar with the situation said that Berlin “didn’t resign (as was announced), he was pushed out.” Another opportunity to right a listing ship, gone.
So now comes the great insurance-premium conundrum, which threatens to drive a stake into the very heart of a sport with which New York has been so closely identified for nearly a hundred years.
The good news is that there is wiggle room built into the law that might allow the NYS Boxing Commision to modify the requirements so as to give boxing in New York a chance to survive in the foreseeable future and in the long term. The bad news is that the five-member commission has two vacancies, and history suggests that those slots aren’t always filled by qualified individuals who have the best interests of the sport at heart.
“I’m speaking to the Governor’s office and people who are working on oversight of these agencies,” Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle said in an exclusive interview with Bloody Elbow. “This is a priority for them and they are trying to make sure that they’ve identified the best candidates to run the athletic commission. They are trying to make sure they get it right. They clearly know this is an issue that has to be addressed and they are working as swiftly as they can.”
Swift action is good. Swift, sure and effective is better, but there are precedents that might cause some to wonder if doing the right thing is an accomplishable goal for a commission that too often hasn’t been able to identify the target, much less hit the bull’s-eye.
In August, DiBella and DeGuardia co-authored a letter to the New York Department of State claiming that boxing is “under an immediate danger of extinction.”
As for me, I no longer get to, you know, sleep in the city that never sleeps. When I do cover a fight in New York, budgetary constraints oblige me to take the late-night Megabus back to Philly. I usually crawl into bed around 4 a.m., dog-tired. But it’s better to be exhausted and there at ringside than rested and absent.
It’s up to you, New York, New York.
NYS Boxing / Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel.