Can Boxing’s Biggest Problems Be Solved?
20.10.06 - By W. Gregory Guedel: Professional Boxing is presently a world out of balance. Inside the ring, fighters demonstrate on a daily basis that the physical talent, disciplined skills, and raw human determination that made the sport great continue to flourish in the contemporary era. Yet outside the ring, darkness prevails. Questionable match ups, the incomprehensible logic behind fighter rankings, and the depressing tales of fighters left infirm and penniless from their ring battles have contributed to a decline in Boxing’s overall stature among the major sports.
Article posted on 20.10.2006
The biggest threats to the future of the fight game cannot be blocked or countered by any fighter’s fists, as they exist in the space between the end of one bout and the beginning of the next. These threats originate in the greed of unscrupulous promoters, in the machinations of scurrilous sanctioning bodies, and in the negligence of those who should be protecting the welfare of the pugilists. They are so deeply rooted at this juncture that they compel analysis by everyone who enjoys the sport either in or out of the squared circle.
Out of all professional sports, Boxing perhaps offers the greatest opportunities for entrepreneurship for those operating outside the ring. In 1974, Don King was an unknown man with no major-fight experience when – through sheer guile, willpower, and a bit of luck – he arranged the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” Heavyweight title match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. In the context of the time, his feat in orchestrating the bout was akin to his getting the rights to host the Super Bowl at a local high school – it was an accomplishment that would be inconceivable in any other major sport, then or today. Unlike the pairing and scheduling procedures of the NFL, NBA, or other professional team sports, regulation of the activity of Boxing promoters in setting up fights is scanty and mostly unsupervised. In Boxing, basically anyone who can garner a sufficient letter of credit and convince fighters to show up at a specific place and time can promote a match, even at the world title level. The lack of consistent standards and/or enforcement has resulted in many promoters placing onerous conditions on fighters.
With King again as the prime example, it has become common for promoters to include “option” clauses in the promotional contracts fighters must sign in order to secure a bout. Such clauses typically require the fighter to agree that his next fighter (or two or more) will also be staged by the same promoter. These clauses enable the promoter to “lock up” both of the fighters competing in the match, and allow the promoter to ride up the rankings ladder on the backs of victorious fighters until he controls the promotional rights of a champion. At that level, the promoter can potentially continue to promote championship fights (and reap the accompanying financial rewards) indefinitely, and also limit the competition. It’s no coincidence that names like King and Arum are so consistently associated with championship matches – it’s the product of a carefully engineered business plan that is designed to ensure their dominance and longevity in organizing big-money fights. Although someone generally loses in a boxing match, it’s never the promoter with an “option” clause, because he will have the right to promote the next bout of the winner – whoever that might be.
It is not only the fighters who suffer in the vice grip of the option contract; Boxing fans are also victimized. Ever wonder why a fighter like John Ruiz continually receives title shots despite repeated losing performances, while more deserving fighters continually play the waiting game? The option contract strikes again. When a promoter secures an option for future fights from a boxer who becomes a champion, the promoter wields tremendous influence over who will face the champion, especially for non-mandatory defenses. The promoter will then match the champion against another fighter in the promoter’s stable, usually one willing to accept terms grossly in favor of the promoter. When Roy Jones fought Ruiz for the WBA title in 2003, Ruiz received no guaranteed purse for the match, just a percentage of the PPV and gate revenue (In contrast, Jones received a $10 million guarantee). King thus secured the services of a reigning heavyweight champion without having to pay him a dollar out of his own pocket. Small wonder that Ruiz recently announced his intention to switch promoters to Germany’s Wilfred Sauerland – assuming his contract with King will allow it.
Solutions? Given that promoters demonstrate little capacity for restraint if left to their own devices, it is clear that a higher authority needs to rein in their ability to run roughshod over boxers unfamiliar with their legal options. The entity that is perhaps best suited for this task is the Association of Boxing Commissions, the umbrella organization that is the sounding board for the various state and tribal commissions throughout North America. The ABC could, if it had the political will, adopt uniform standards for promotional contracts to provide at least a minimum level of legal protection for fighters and prohibit onerous terms. If such standards were then made mandatory by the constituent commissions and adequately enforced, terms such as the option clause might become a thing of the past.
For most of the last century, there was a singular answer to the question: “Who’s the Heavyweight Champion of the World?” The names changed, but there was always one individual who could be readily identified as holding the biggest prize in sport. Today, there are no fewer than four fighters who can claim to be the world’s Heavyweight champion – at least by virtue of wearing a belt that says they are. This absurd situation is the direct result of the unchecked proliferation of sanctioning bodies.
Until the late 1970’s, there were two primary sanctioning bodies in boxing, the WBA and the WBC. With regard to Heavyweight champions, the two bodies were generally consistent in their recognition up through Leon Spinks’ defeat of Muhammad Ali in 1978. When Spinks agreed to a rematch with Ali, the WBC stripped him of its title and gave the belt to Ken Norton, who lost it to Larry Holmes in their classic bout later that year. In the early 1980s, the long-reigning Holmes tired of the WBC’s mandatory challengers and dropped the belt in favor of the newly-formed IBF, resulting in three simultaneous champions until Mike Tyson unified the belts. The inability of the sanctioning bodies to stipulate to unification fights, along with the emergence of the Euro-centric WBO, has created the four-headed jumble that now exists atop the Heavyweight scene.
Aside from the belts they hand out, often under dubious circumstances, it’s difficult to discern precisely what these sanctioning bodies contribute to the sport. They appear to exist primarily for the purpose of collecting their own sanctioning fees, in exchange for conferring “legitimacy” on title matches by lending their name to the proceedings. Their respective ranking systems are often ludicrously skewed and open to manipulation. Numerous cases exist of promoters paying cash bribes to a sanctioning body to advance their fighters’ stature and secure a title shot. Occasionally even corruption cannot explain the bizarre ratings these organizations bestow upon fighters, such as the infamous instance when the WBO promoted Super-Middleweight Darrin Morris from #7 to #5 in its 2001 rankings – despite the fact that Morris was dead.
Solutions? Placing restrictions or an outright ban on the ability of sanctioning bodies to operate is probably unworkable, and forcing them to make consistent (or even logical) decisions on fighter rankings and champion status would likely be construed as an illegal restraint on trade. The power to effect change in this realm appears to lie with the television networks that air top-echelon boxing. If HBO and Showtime refused to broadcast fights of so called “champions” who were clearly undeserving of the title, the ability of sanctioning bodies to maintain the fiction of multiple champions would wither from the lack of television dollars. Of course, the cable networks would have to reconcile their own competing interests first…
Every boxing aficionado can instantly recall a heart-rending tragedy that has occurred in the ring. Names like Gerald McClellan, Greg Page, and Beethaeven Scotland are on the roll call of courageous boxers whose lives were lost or forever damaged by the punishment they endured in the ring. They are also the names of just the better-known warriors who have fallen. For each recognizable star, how many unknown fighters have lost their livelihood, health, or even life from competing in the sport? And what of their families, left to carry on without either the person or the means of supporting. The pain that Boxing can inflict does not always end after the final bell has sounded.
Major league sports like the NBA, MLB, and NFL all have pension and disability insurance systems that are available to players. Not everyone receives the same level of financial benefit, but a minimum level of protection exists. Unfortunately, in Boxing such systems are either underdeveloped (such as Gerry Cooney’s FIST program) or simply nonexistent. When the average boxer steps into the ring, it is literally a matter of taking one’s life and livelihood into his or her own hands – with no safety net to protect either the fighter or the family.
Solutions? Perhaps again we turn either to the ABC or to Congress to require promoters to secure life insurance and long-term disability policies with the fighters as the insured parties. Promoters would cry out at the expense, but could easily reduce the financial impact by pooling their purchasing power. They could also deduct the premium cost from the fight purse, as is done with any number of other routine expenses. By enacting the “Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996” and the “Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act”, Congress took a step in this direction by requiring that promoters secure insurance to cover medical costs for direct injuries suffered by fighters in the ring, but such policies do not provide either long-term disability coverage or a death benefit.
Everyone who has an interest in Boxing also has an interest in protecting the viability and integrity of the sport. At present there are certainly more daunting problems than imminent solutions on the horizon, but The Sweet Science has always been the arena where the long shot can overcome the odds. Hopefully, those who care about Boxing will use their dedication, creativity, and dollars to help formulate constructive resolutions to these issues.
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