Boxing and the Law: Judah-Mayweather and Its Aftermath

BY David Berlin ON May 21, 2006
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The better man won. And he won by outperforming his opponent in the ring. That is as it should be. But the melee that erupted in the tenth round of Judah-Mayweather, and how that melee was handled after the fight, revealed what is wrong and what is right with boxing.

On Saturday night, April 8, at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather met Zab Judah in a welterweight showdown. Judah started fast, using speed and straight left hands to take three of the first four rounds. Mayweather took over in the fifth. Behind a solid defense, Mayweather wore down Judah with a steady attack to the body. His effective and consistent body work set the foundation for a possible late round knockout. But Judah, looking to avoid that fate, did what Floyd’s trainer and uncle Roger warned him might happen if Zab got in trouble – Zab got dirty. Twice. Near the end of the tenth round, Zab hit Floyd below the belt and followed the low blow with a rabbit punch. Referee Richard Steele called time to give Floyd a chance to recover from the illegal one-two combination. And then the trouble began. 

Roger Mayweather, incensed that his forecast had come true, jumped into the ring and went after Zab. Yoel Judah from Zab’s corner and Leonard Ellerbe from Floyd’s were not far behind. Quickly the ring filled with cornermen and security men, leaving in doubt whether the fight would continue. It took several minutes to clear the ring, and to eject the offending Roger from his nephew’s corner. Steele, known for stopping fights too early, rightly allowed this one to go forward. The timeout called to give Floyd a chance to recover from the illegal blows, and the several minutes of chaos that followed, gave Zab the time he needed to recover from Mayweather’s debilitating body attack. The fight went the distance, and a refreshed Judah even won the final round. But it was not enough as Mayweather earned a clear-cut unanimous decision.

When the fight finished, the politics started. Don King didn’t like the result of the fight – so he tried to change it. That’s what Don King does. In 1990, when Buster Douglas dominated a seemingly invincible Mike Tyson en route to a sensational tenth round knockout, King attempted to erase his fighter’s loss by claiming that Douglas was given a long count when he was dropped by a Tyson uppercut in the eighth round. This time he argued that Floyd should have been disqualified when Roger Mayweather entered the ring. King’s henchman Bobby Goodman wrote a public letter invoking “the integrity of the sport” in calling on the Nevada State Athletic Commission to change the result of the fight. Then Don King himself spent fifteen minutes preaching to the Commission that his fighter Zab should be declared the winner.

The Nevada Commission, to its credit, rejected the self-serving efforts of Don King and his minions to steal a victory where his fighter could not earn one honestly in the ring. It upheld the decision of Richard Steele, who used his discretion well when he allowed the bout to continue after the ring was finally cleared in the tenth round. Nevada Administrative Code Rule 467.662 states that “[t]he referee may, in his discretion, stop a contest. . .if an unauthorized person enters the ring. . .during a round.” The Commission had no reason to interfere with the referee’s use of his discretion in choosing NOT to stop the contest. If Steele’s judgment can be questioned at all, it can be argued that he should have deducted points from Zab Judah for the low blow and rabbit punch that precipitated the tenth round melee. In fact, the referee had the authority not only to deduct points but also to disqualify Judah for his fouls. (Bobby Goodman forgot to mention that in his letter.) But it is a point not worth arguing. Mayweather was far ahead on the scorecards at the end of the tenth and the outcome of the fight was not in serious question.

Nevada’s most important decision in the fight’s aftermath was to uphold Floyd’s victory. Some say that the Commission had no choice since the local sports books had already paid the winners who put their money on Floyd. Cynicism certainly has its place in boxing, but not here. Floyd won the fight in the ring, and when a fighter shows his superiority inside the ropes, he should not have that taken from him by anything that goes on outside the ropes.

The Nevada Commission also acted appropriately in targeting for punishment those who misbehaved during the melee. Where a contestant or participant s guilty of an act or conduct that is detrimental to a contest or exhibition of unarmed combat, including, but not limited to, any foul or unsportsmanlike conduct in connection with a contest or exhibition of unarmed combat,” the Commission has the power to discipline that person. It meted out harsh but fitting punishment in the aftermath of the April 8 incident. At an April 13 hearing, it hit Roger Mayweather with a $200,000 fine, Roger’s entire share of his nephew’s purse, and revoked his license. At a hearing held on May 8, the Commission disciplined the other offenders in the melee. It fined Yoel Judah $100,000 and revoked his license. It fined Mayweather cornerman Leonard Ellerbe $50,000 and suspended his license for four months. And it imposed the harshest sanction on Zab Judah, who joined the fray once the cornermen entered the ring, fining him $250,000 and revoking his license. The hefty fine reflects the fact that for Zab, this is the second time around. On November 3, 2001, at the MGM Grand, Zab suffered a technical knockout at the hands of Kostya Tszyu; when referee Jay Nady waved off the fight in the second round, Zab reacted by shoving his gloved fist into Nady’s neck and throwing a stool. That conduct cost Zab $75,000 and a six-month suspension. Joe Brown, one of Nevada’s five commissioners, called the Brooklyn native “a recidivist in this state” in explaining the Commission’s decision to impose the most severe penalty on Zab.

"A person whose license has been revoked cannot reapply for a license for a period of one year," says Keith Kizer, chief counsel for the Nevada Commission at the time of the Judah-Mayweather fight and now its new executive director. Unfortunately, the revocation of the Nevada licenses of Zab and Yoel and Roger, and the suspension of Leonard Ellerbe’s license, may not prevent other states from licensing them. The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act states that “no boxer is permitted to box while under suspension from any boxing commission due to. . .unsportsmanlike conduct or other inappropriate behavior inconsistent with generally accepted methods of competition in a professional boxing match.” The participants in the tenth round melee were disciplined by Nevada for precisely this reason, their unsportsmanlike conduct. However, the Ali Act, on its face, only applies to boxers, thereby leaving an opening for Yoel Judah and Roger Mayweather and Leonard Ellerbe to find work in other states. As for Zab, although the Ali Act seems to require that other commissions abide by the revocation imposed by Nevada, there is already talk in the boxing community that New York and New Jersey may allow Zab to fight. And in light of the decision in the case of Joe Mesi, where a Nevada judge held that the Nevada Commission had no authority to continue the suspension of Mesi’s license once the license itself expired, it seems doubtful that other commissions will be required to respect the ruling of Nevada when Zab’s license expires on the last day of 2006. Whether the revocations imposed by Nevada will be respected by other commissions remains an open question, and potentially diminishes the severity of the sanctions. It highlights once again the need for uniformity in boxing, the need for a national commission which can enforce its rules and its standards throughout the United States.

Still, the heavy fines send a clear message that Nevada, at least, will not stand for conduct that disrupts the orderly progression of a bout and that damages the image of an already damaged sport. Indeed, the very fact that Nevada has the ability to impose such heavy fines indicates its seriousness in working to curb misconduct inside the ring. When Mike Tyson took two bites out of Evander Holyfield’s ears at the MGM Grand on June 28, 1997, the Commission imposed the maximum possible fine of $3,000,000. This may seem like a lot, but it represented a mere ten percent of Tyson’s purse. At the time, the law allowed for a fine of $250,000 or ten percent of a fighter’s purse, whichever was greater. Nevada reacted to the relatively light penalty imposed on Tyson for his barbaric conduct by amending the law. Now the Commission can impose a fine of $250,000 or 100 percent of the fighter’s purse, whichever is greater. Armed with this power, the Commission has used it to good effect. It has made a clear statement that boxing has rules, and that those rules must be followed.

The Nevada Commission borrowed a page, or at least a line, from referee Joe Cortez, who is also based in Las Vegas. At every fight that Cortez referees, when the fighters meet in the middle of the ring prior to the first bell, Cortez speaks his final words, “I’m fair but I’m firm.” That’s the message that the Commission is sending to boxers and their seconds who work in Nevada. It is fair but firm. When Roger Mayweather asked the Commission to reconsider what he considered an excessive fine, the Commission firmly rejected his request. It is a good bet that the other participants in the melee will receive the same response if they request reconsideration of their fines.

Part of being fair but firm is imposing appropriate penalties on those guilty of misconduct. The other part is making certain that only the guilty are punished. In upholding the victory of Floyd Mayweather, the non-offending fighter, Nevada demonstrated its fairness.

Floyd Mayweather not only fought a disciplined and intelligent fight, but exercised discipline and intelligence in staying out of the fray. In earlier days, “Pretty Boy” Floyd presented himself as a gangster wannabe. But like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, whose youthful misbehavior provides a backdrop against which his later displays of responsibility and leadership shine particularly bright, boxing’s pound-for-pound best exhibited his growth as a man and as a fighter. Floyd, who recently signed with the William Morris Agency, kept his new image intact and conducted himself like the professional he has become. Floyd did everything right on April 8, and it is appropriate that he was not made to suffer for the misconduct of others.

The melee that interrupted the tenth round of Judah-Mayweather was bad for the fight and bad for boxing. But the Nevada Commission dealt with the incident appropriately. The hope is that Nevada’s response will curb such conduct in the future, that it will dissuade other fighters and other cornermen from breaking the rules. If so, the Commission will have accomplished its purpose, and done some good for boxing. The hope is also – since boxing does not have a national commission – that other state and tribal commissions will respect and abide by the revocations handed down by Nevada, and will follow the example set by Nevada. Only by enforcing the rules, only by insisting on appropriate behavior in the ring, will boxing be able to improve its image and attract fans who now view boxing as a sport out of control.

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