Disgruntled Trainer Sues the NSAC Alleging Unfairness in Approving Matches

On paper, Cromwell Gordon seems to be doing just fine for himself as a trainer. He owns The Beast Training Facility, a gym in Las Vegas just thirty minutes north of the Strip, and oversees a stable of over 12 professional boxers, many of whom are prospects with only a handful of fights to their names.

Despite these otherwise favorable conditions, Gordon has a problem. His fighters have found it difficult to contract fights in their own backyard of Las Vegas, and that, in turn, has cast a pall over his own ambitions as a boxing trainer whose primary source of income is the 10% or so fee he receives from a fighter’s purse.

In other words, when the fighter does not fight, the trainer likewise does not get paid, and this may be after weeks, perhaps months of the trainer subsidizing the fighter’s training regimen (gauze, tape, and Gatorade, alas, do not grow on trees). In Gordon’s case, the dearth of matches for his fighters in Las Vegas has forced him to shepherd his flock to states such as Kentucky, Oregon, and Ohio in search of fights and paydays that are inevitably offset by the hotel and flight expenses. And the person Gordon blames is none other than Bob Bennett (pictured), the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

Concerned by what he feels are the overly circumspect, and perhaps arbitrary, decisions being made by Bennett, Gordon requested multiple meetings in December to discuss the legality of the director’s role. After getting no response for a month, Gordon received a letter from the NSAC in January rejecting his demand for a meeting. Frustrated by what he perceives to be the opaque and arbitrary actions of one of the toughest commissions in the country, Gordon has turned to the court to solicit some answers.

In a lawsuit filed on January 18 with the district court of Clark County, Gordon alleges that Bennett has harmed his financial well-being by denying his fighters bouts proposed by promoters and matchmakers. Such actions by Bennett, according to the suit, “are in excess of the statutory authority of the Commission” and constitute an “abuse of discretion.” As a result of Bennett denying his fighters bouts, the suit contends, Gordon is now “suffering financial loss.”

“Boxing gyms don’t make money,” Stephen Reid, the attorney handling the case for Gordon, told this reporter in a phone call. “My guy [Gordon] makes his money by taking people, training them, and he gets his 10%. That’s not the case anymore. Gordon is trying to hustle to keep his gym open so that he can survive.”

Originally, a hearing to determine if Bennett has the authority to approve and deny bouts had been scheduled for March 8. Bennett and the NSAC responded this week with a motion to dismiss with a new court date. The court granted the motion to move the hearing to April 10.

The foundation of the suit is based on two central premises. First, that professional boxers, especially at the prospect level, “need to gain experience, knowledge and endurance before they should be able to compete at national and international levels.” Bennett’s belief that “all boxing matches should be equal” contradicts this notion. Second, that Bennett is overstepping his jurisdiction as an executive director by refusing to sanction fights on an ad hoc basis without the consultation of the Commissioners. Bennett’s higher standard of matchmaking, the suit alleges, puts Gordon’s fighters “at risk for their health and safety.” According to the suit, “the Commission allows Bennett to arbitrarily and capriciously decide whether bouts are to proceed.”

Gordon declined an interview for this article out of fear of retribution from the NSAC. Bennett, through a representative of the NSAC, also declined an interview for this article, citing the pending litigation.

Reid explained the importance of nurturing prospects. “When you’re just starting off and you’re a novice with under 10 bouts, you need to learn what’s going on. You need to learn how to pace yourself over several rounds. Jumping to amateur from professional is a big, big, big, difference.

“The current commission would only like for fighters of equal standing fighting each other. That is not what in history has happened for boxers. If you look at guys like Floyd Mayweather Jr. for example. At the beginning of their careers, they were not fighting guys that were better than them. They were fighting guys that at the very minimum were less than better than them.”

The question of what differentiates a competitive fight from a mismatch strikes at the heart of the business of boxing. The commission’s role is to ensure the health and safety of the fighter and a method of achieving that is to implement a high standard of matchmaking that dissuades promoters, matchmakers, and managers from booking suspicious matchups. In this way, trying to convince the court that the NSAC should be issuing less competitive bouts in a sport infamous for ring deaths, would seem to strain credibility.

“In essence, [the lawsuit] is asking a judge to force the Commission to sanction any bout that is proposed by a promoter,” said Kurt Emhoff, a New York-based sports and entertainment lawyer at Kasowitz Benson Torres. “That’s a big ask when the Commission’s job is to promote the health and safety of boxers in Nevada.”

Longtime matchmaker John Beninati concurred. “The Commissioner’s job is the life and safety of the fighter,” he said in a phone call.

One of the contentious allegations that the suit makes is that Gordon’s prospects are “at risk for their health and safety” when they fight against equal or better competition. This seems like a request for a tune-up bout or, to put it simply, a mismatch, in favor of the house fighter. Reid countered by pointing that the boxing economy depends on journeymen.

“In the boxing community, you are going to have the majority of fighters who are not going to be world champions,” said Reid. “That’s just the way it is. But they like fighting and competing. They enjoy being a part of it. Journeymen are a part of boxing. To make sure that someone only fights an equal opponent is actually more damaging for the health and safety of the fighter.”

(Gordon, who also goes by the name Bullet, was a middling professional boxer himself. He retired in 2014 with a 4-11 record with 4 knockouts. His last fight was a TKO loss in New York to Sergey Derevyanchenko who was then making his professional debut.)

Jolene Mizzone, the matchmaker for Main Events, disagreed with the notion that prospects needed to be offered only easy fights.. “It depends, but if a fighter goes in there and beats a tomato can, when it’s all said and done and they’re celebrating, they know that it’s a tomato can. That does not help their confidence. At the end of the day, as a matchmaker, you want to see what your fighter has.”

While declining to comment on the litigation, Mizzone added that her dealings with state commissions have been a “collaborative experience,” not an adversarial one. She brings up an example when a commission could not approve a fight because the opponent had been carried out on a stretcher in his last fight. “I didn’t know that,” said Mizzone. “I said, ‘No problem.’ Done. That’s all I need to hear. It’s done, it’s not that serious. I move on to the next one. It’s my job to find somebody. If I feel the need to argue with a commission, I will. If not, I’m not going to waste my breath.”

Still, despite the perceived long odds in Gordon’s suit, the points that are brought up are largely unprecedented, at least as it pertains to Nevada. According to Emhoff, while the regulations in New York are very clear that the Commission has the power to approve any bout, that is not the case in Nevada, where the language regarding the authority of approval remains more opaque. “For a state that does so much business in the sport of boxing, it’s surprising that the statutes do not cover Commission bout approval,” Emhoff said. “I can’t think of another case involving the sport that challenged a Commission’s right to approve bouts as a general matter.”

Bennett, a former marine from Queens who cut his teeth as an undercover FBI agent, was appointed the executive director of the NSAC in 2014. Since then, he has cultivated a reputation as a hard-nosed administrator with a propensity for turning down fights that he deems non-competitive.

For example, in 2015, Bennett rejected two of Andre Ward’s proposed opponents, Azea Augustama and Rohan Murdock, in what was supposed to be a tune-up bout on the Canelo-Cotto undercard. (Eventually, Bennett would approve Ward’s third choice, Alexander Brand, but the match was later scrapped after Ward incurred an injury during training camp).

In addition, Bennett’s career at the FBI offers a window into his boxing mindset. He was part of the team that raided the offices of Top Rank in 2004 (in an investigation that was ultimately dropped) and helmed an investigation into fight-fixing that led to the successful conviction of Thomas “Top Dog” Williams and promoter Robert Mittleman. If nothing else, Bennett is regarded as one of the more scrupulous overseers of fights.

“Bob is a tough guy,” said promoter and matchmaker Sampson Lewkowicz, who lives in Las Vegas and has routinely worked directly with Bennett on his shows. “But my thought is that he is also one of the best commissioners in this country. You know why? He doesn’t give up the life of the fighter to be good to the promoter or the manager.

“I have had several fights that were not approved by Bob. Eight or six fights. And you know what? Each one of those decisions was right or almost right.”

But not everyone is a fan of Bennett.

Top Rank, one of the largest promotional companies the world, is based in Las Vegas. Part of the success of the company is founded on its earnestness in signing talented amateurs — usually Olympians — and bringing them up through careful, and perhaps at times crafty, matchmaking. Top Rank, however, only staged only one fight in Nevada in 2017, an indication perhaps that certain fights are not being given the green light. So far in 2018, the company has produced one card in Nevada. (They have another scheduled in April, the title bout between Terence Crawford and Jeff Horn.)

“It certainly shows that there is an issue,” said Reid.

(Top Rank promoter Bob Arum and matchmaker Bruce Trampler declined to be interviewed for this article, citing ongoing relations with the NSAC).

Bennett has also made matchmaking decisions that have garnered quizzical reactions.

A former television executive recounted a first-hand experience he had with Bennett in the early days of his appointment for a televised fight.

“It was a perfectly legitimate fight that may not have been 50/50, but was clearly 60/40,” the executive recalled. “But Bennett denied it because one of the participants did not have enough experience, in his eyes.”

The executive added that the replacement bout was actually worse, and yet somehow it was approved.

According to the suit, the law, as it stands now, does not give the executive director the authority to deny or approve fights. Bennett, in other words, cannot assume the role of matchmaker.

“The idea is that one person should not be making a decision [for approving fights],” said Reid. “What’s happening here is that the executive director is making that sole decision and he’s abusing that discretion.”

To point to a recent example, the suit names Bennett’s decision to approve the 2017 extravaganza between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor Macgregor as a prime indicator of his maverick ways.

Mayweather was a multiple weight-class champion and undefeated over two decades in boxing. MacGregor, an MMA star, was making his professional debut in the sport. The New York Times called the fight the “Fleece of the Century.” Despite the appearance of a mismatch, the fight ended up becoming the second most lucrative PPV bout in history.

“Bennett will regularly block fights that include an experienced fighter going up against an inexperienced fighter,” said Reid. “That’s his policy, OK. But then when you decide to put a 49-0 world champion, arguably the best in the world, against someone who is making his debut in boxing? That’s a problem.”

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