PLUMBING THE DEPTHS (by Bob Mee – Boxing News)
January 19, 2012 - BOXING'S governing bodies are rapidly driving the business into anarchy.
Evidence for that is in the fact that in 2011 they backed an incredible total of 1,162 title fights - that's more than three every day.
Last year Jose Sulaiman's World Boxing Council drew sanction fees from a staggering 458 contests spread over a baffling array of 'championship' tags. The difference between the WBC Fecarbox and the WBC Fecombox, anyone? And hands up all those who can explain what the CABOFE and the Continental Americas are about. Not to mention the WBC Baltic Silver.
In similar vein the World Boxing Organisation sanctioned 260 fights - anything from the WBO Latino at a rate of one a week to the WBO China Zone, which would make some geographical sense had not one of its two contests been between two Americans. Then we have the World Boxing Association on 207, readily confusing us with Super World Champions, World Champions and Interim World Champions all taking part in a total of 80 contests.
The International Boxing Federation are lagging behind on 122 but still manage to offer us anything from the East/West Europe belt to the Pan Pacific Youth title.
The rest were split between minor organisations, led by the International Boxing Organisation on 44.
It's plain madness.
And people are walking away. Live gates, with a few exceptions as with the Klitschko brothers' shows, are down. Television fees are down. In spite of the relief provided by the few genuinely big fights on offer, the business operates in a vacuum.
So who are they, these people who purport to administer the sport that has given the world Muhammad Ali, Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Harry Greb and so many more?
Well, confining oursevles for now to the 'big four'...we have the WBC, a supposed democracy headed from Mexico by Sulaiman and his son; the WBA, which will be 50 years old next month, run from Venezuela, by Gilberto Mendoza and his son; the IBF, American-based survivor of a corruption and racketeering scandal just over a decade ago; and the Puerto Rican-based WBO, which was invented by a former bag-man for the WBA and which most famously elevated a dead fighter, Darrin Morris, in its ratings. Oh, and pulled a man named Tim Tomashek out of a ringside seat, not too long after he had finished a pizza, to box for its heavyweight championship.
Let's go back to 1962, when the shambles began to take shape. The New York-based International Boxing Club had been exposed and forcibly disbanded as intrinsically, irredeemably corrupt. Gangsters who had run the game had been locked up but were rumoured to still hold undue influence from behind the bars of their cells. Nobody quite knew who was what.
In March 1962 the terrible death of Benny Paret in a world welterweight title fight against Emile Griffith, in which he took around 20 unanswered blows and was unconscious before he slumped to the floor, was broadcast coast-to-coast in the United States.
Something needed to be done - and fast.
At its annual meeting in Tacoma, Washington, on 23 August 1962, the National Boxing Association, which had lived out a fantasy that it, not the Mob, had run boxing in the United States for four decades, declared itself the World Boxing Association.
It did not attract the support of the European Boxing Union, or the most powerful of the American states - New York, California and Massachusetts. The British Board of Control declined an invitation to join. Within 24 hours, the Canadian Federation were threatening to withdraw.
Nat Fleischer used Ring magazine to warn: "Unless all members pull together, quit petty bickering and do things beneficial for international boxing, nothing can be accomplished."
Six months later, boxing had two governing bodies: the World Boxing Council was born, this time including both the British Board of Control and the EBU.
It's largely forgotten now, but Britain passed up the chance to run the WBC, when its representative at the inaugural meeting, J. Onslow Fane, declared himself too busy to accept the post of president.
Instead the job went to Luis Spota, head of the Mexican Federation. Mexico is still the WBC headquarters, or the hindquarters, as was suggested many years ago. Jose Sulaiman has been in command so long - 36 years - that he's made the Guinness Book of Records. Even the WBC website calls him the 'absolute leader'.
Strangely, at that first WBC meeting. the WBA president, Charles Larson, was present, under the misconception that the two organisations would merge.
The WBC declared itself a 'democratic organisation for the betterment of boxing throughout the world', whose members would have 'equal authority to work for the improvement of world boxing'. They were noble, naive, aims - and still do allow members today to use a power they have probably forgotten they have.
To succeed as they sought to win people over to the cause, both the WBA and WBC had to exhibit a skilled diplomacy.
When Sonny Liston took up the rematch option on his contract with Muhammad Ali in 1964, the WBA, under the bizarre misconception that their pronouncement would be respected, stripped Ali of the title for breaking a rule few knew existed. All it did was make them look stupid. New York writer Jimmy Cannon said: "One word from them and the fight mob does as it pleases."
By the turn of the 1970s, the WBA and WBC were already turning the sport into an unfathomably confusing muddle.
In 1970 undisputed lightweight champion Ismael Laguna was stripped by the WBC for breaking a contract with promoter Aileen Eaton. Again, what kind of rule was that?
Laguna then lost the WBA bit of his crown to Ken Buchanan. The WBC and the WBA both recognised Buchanan's first defence against Ruben Navarro in February 1971, only for the WBC to strip him for fighting Laguna again in Madison Square Garden rather than the Spaniard, Pedro Carrasco.
When Buchanan beat Laguna and lost to Roberto Duran, it was for the WBA title only.
Meanwhile, the WBC matched Carrasco with the Mexican-American Mando Ramos for their vacant title in Madrid in November 1971. Ramos was disqualified, Carrasco crowned champion, only for the WBC to declare the result 'null and void', and announce a rematch in Los Angeles in February 1972. Ramos won on points - but the WBC withdrew recognition because they deemed the decision to be 'locally influenced'.
That took us to June 1972 and, two days after Duran had beaten Buchanan for the WBA title, Ramos outscored Carrasco in Madrid and the result stood. By then, hardly anybody could be bothered to work it all out.
The WBC also stripped Carlos Monzon in 1974, in spite of the fact that he had defended his middleweight crown nine times in three and a half years, for failing to box Rodrigo Valdes of Colombia within a stipulated time period. Again, it was mind-numbingly self-defeating. In attempting to enforce its own mysterious regulations, the WBC had not understood it was itself breaking one of the cardinal rules of boxing - that a champion should win and lose his title in the ring. The WBA, and pretty much every boxing fan in the world, continued to recognise Monzon.
Gradually, we got used to the lunacy. The WBC stripped Leon Spinks in 1978 for agreeing to box Muhammad Ali again, in a fight everybody wanted to see, rather than take on Ken Norton, which was the fight Don King wanted to see. To compound the nonsense, instead of making a vacant title fight for Norton, Sulaiman and his sidekicks awarded him the championship.
Of course, it's more sinister than a few weird decisions.
By the 1982 WBA convention Bob Arum was a powerful force within the organisation, and it was said to be Arum's support for the Venezuelan candidate for the presidency, Gilberto Mendoza, that got him elected over the American, Bobby Lee. Mendoza remains in power thirty years on.
Within 12 months Arum had fallen out with the WBA and in a sensational Ring magazine interview he exposed Pepe Cordero, a Puerto Rican who held no official position with the WBA but through whom all deals appeared to be done.
Arum said: "There's one bagman in the WBA and that's Pepe Cordero. And any time you want a fix in the WBA you bribe Cordero and he takes care of it... You have to give him money.
"Boxing is the most poorly regulated, most corrupt big time sport in America today. To take the WBA seriously, to take the WBC seriously, you've got to be a moron."
Arum said to get Ray Mancini his shot at WBA lightweight champion Arturo Frias in 1982 he had to pay Cordero hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Cordero eventually fell out with the WBA, and formed the WBO. The fact that it was launched by a man who had a history of being a 'bag-man', a professional collector of unofficial fees or acceptor of bribes, depending on your perspective, did not, immediately or at any other time, enhance its credibility.
It perhaps says enough about the WBO that, when they struggled out from the earth's crust in 1988, Mike Tyson was beyond dispute the best heavyweight in the world. So who did they recognise? Francesco Damiani of Italy.
The Darrin Morris episode came in the spring of 2001, when he moved up from no.7 to no.5 in spite of having died the previous October, his illness having restricted him to one minor fight in the previous three years. WBO boss Francisco Valcarcel, who had taken over when Cordero passed away, said: "We obviously missed the fact that Darrin was dead. It is regrettable."
That followed their unscrupulous behaviour in the first, classic fight between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, a WBO/WBC unification at super-bantamweight. Morales won a disputed split decision after one of the genuinely great fights in boxing history, but the WBO refused to accept the result and continued to recognise the beaten Barrera as their champion. However much they disagreed with the decision of the judges they broke one of the great traditions of the sport, twisting reality to suit their own purposes.
Bobby Lee's background seemed impeccable. He had been a police officer for ten years, with a spell as Lieutenant of Investigations in the Union City and Hudson County prosecutors' offices.
When he lost the WBA vote to Mendoza in 1982, he felt there was enough support for him to move forward. Already in control of the United States Boxing Association, which had attempted to represent the USA at the WBA, he decided to transform that into the International Boxing Federation. The strength and appeal of the IBF was immediately apparent as it was the first 'governing body' to be based in the United States. Its first champions were an impressive bunch: Larry Holmes, Carlos De Leon, Michael Spinks, Marvin Hagler, Donald Curry, Aaron Pryor, Ray Mancini, Roger Mayweather, Juan LaPorte, Jeff Chandler and Santos Laciar.
Over the next decade, the IBF established itself as the third organisation, a viable alternative.
It made significant ground with Mike Tyson's unification of the heavyweight division - and then more with his defeat by Buster Douglas in Tokyo in February 1990, when both the WBA and WBC exposed themselves as Don King's flunkies.
King already had Tyson's next defence against Evander Holyfield signed and sealed - and when Douglas won, with a flagrant disregard for boxing's great tradition King demanded the result be changed. Referee Octavio Meyran, he said, had given Douglas a long count when he was knocked down at the end of round eight.
The world knew it didn't matter if Meyran took time out to recite the Ten Commandments or the Gettysburg Address between every second, all Buster had to do was be on his feet when he heard the word nine, but King screamed and shouted and Sulaiman and Mendoza cowered and placated.
"There was a violation of the rules," said Sulaiman, pre-empting any decision his supposedly democratic championship committee might make. Sulaiman announced he was refusing to recognise the result. He and Mendoza sat on either side of Tyson as Mike pleaded to the world's media that he had actually won, not lost.
It was absolutely bizarre, and within days the sheer pressure of world opinion forced King, Sulaiman and Mendoza to back down.
Bobby Lee, who was not at the fight, emerged as a momentary beacon of integrity simply because he had not joined in the nonsense and had immediately confirmed Douglas as IBF champion.
Lee's credibility didn't survive the decade. In 1999, following a two-year federal inquiry, he was indicted on 34 counts of racketeering. The indictment outlined what it called a 13-year conspiracy in which IBF rankings were bought, including sums of $25,000 and $100,000.
When the IBF ratings head Doug Beavers was approached by FBI agents in 1997, he asked:
"What took you so long?" He was then wired up, and his evidence was used in the case.
Lee was acquitted on most of the charges but convicted of money laundering and tax evasion, and sentenced to 22 months in jail and fined $25,000 in February 2001. He had already resigned.
The IBF was placed under Government supervision and although that was lifted after a time, it has staggered on since then rather than provided any great level of credibility. Mustapha Ameen's nonsensical ringside appearance in Washington DC last month, following their request that he be given a credential, has damaged it again.
Through the 1980s Sulaiman's close relationship with King was repeatedly criticised. At one point Jose was accused of knocking back a title fight only to approve it once King came on board as a partner in the promotion.
Sulaiman insisted in 1983 that he always declined kindly any attempt to bribe him. He was also acquitted of charges in a strange case in Mexico that he possessed archaeological artefacts belonging to the nation without registering them. Bert Sugar famously, unkindly, unfairly, referred to him as The Raider of the Lost Artefacts.
Sulaiman declared long ago that any criticism of him, or the way the WBC is run, comes from mediocre journalists, not good ones. Well, here's to mediocrity.
In March 1998, Sulaiman went too far. The WBC sanctioned a vacant light-heavyweight world title fight between Graciano Rocchigiani and Michael Nunn after Roy Jones had moved up to win the WBA heavyweight title against John Ruiz. Rocchigiani won, only for Jones to return to light-heavyweight and be reinstated as champion by the WBC.
Rocchigiani sued in a US federal court and in May 2003 was awarded $30 million in damages. The WBC, on the brink of bankruptcy, came to an arrangement to pay Rocchigiani a lesser sum in instalments. It is believed that every so often they pass round the begging bowl to their members, including the British Board of Control, to help pay him off. I doubt anybody refuses.
For the record, the WBC list their achievements on their website - which include the reduction of championship fights from 15 rounds to 12 to make boxing safer. This is a spurious claim: the distance was reduced primarily so that championship contests could fit into an hour of live television.
They also claim to be responsible for the moving of the weigh-in from the day of the fight to 24 hours before, which medical officers argue is safer, but which remains a question some are unconvinced by, given the fact that it allows boxers, in effect, to make a lower weight than perhaps they should.
The WBC also claims the creation of extra weight divisions as a positive - again, it is questionable who the introduction of categories sometimes only 3lbs apart benefits, except the WBC and a minority of boxers. How many people in the high streets of Britain and the shopping malls of the US know what a light-flyweight or a super-flyweight is?
Then we go to the four-rope ring, the thumb-attached glove, doping tests, life and hospitalisation insurance, and support of former champions who have problems - for example, the Thai, Sot Chitalada, did have his eye surgery paid by the WBC, which is laudable.
These are advances, but hardly support the WBC boast that it has 'risen up and transformed the way we look at this wonderful sport called boxing'.
The 1990s saw the ludicrous proliferation of world sanctioning authorities - most of them could not put up the slightest argument for governing anything outside their own office, even if they had an office. The World Boxing Union, set up by an Englishman, Jon Robinson, was run from his house in a Norfolk village.
The WBU began as if it might make an impact, and in 1998 was invited to a meeting of the 'major' organisations to discuss the introduction of a unified set of rules, but Robinson fell out with his American contacts, the WBU became increasingly confined to Britain, Italy and South Africa and eventually petered out.
We had the World Boxing Federation, which had to change its name to the World Boxing Foundation when it was sued by a boxer, Bashiru Ali, then later resurrected itself. So we now have two organisations operating side by side with the same initials! The list of WBF world heavyweight champions include a 48-year-old Joe Bugner and Audley Harrison.
We had the IBA, IBC, GBU, GBO, GBF and no doubt half a dozen others.
And with the arrival of new sanctioning bodies have come the new titles... in the last two or three years the WBC has bestowed upon us the Diamond and Silver belts, we've had Emeritus Champions, Interim Champions, Champions in Recess, all complete nonsense.
The International Boxing Organisation flickered into life in the 90s with hardly anybody noticing, before Ed Levine, a real estate lawyer living in Florida, took over in 1999. Levine believed that by using computerised ratings and by acting transparently, with honesty and integrity, he would provide an attractive alternative to the four 'big guns'.
Levine admits he felt the business would embrace his ideals and work with him because he was publicly attempting to correct the mess the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO had created. They didn't. Critics, too, had just become too tired to see any benefit in just one more Alphabet Boy.
Perhaps it needed a much more aggressive publicity campaign to highlight each and every moment of madness the 'big four' committed for the IBO to make significant progress. The mud was too thick, too deep for anyone to lead us out of it by example alone. And as always there were cynics who would whisper out of the sides of their mouths that he wasn't the shining light he seemed. These people may well be wrong, but smear campaigns all too often work.
In the end the bald truth is that people make a lot of money at the top level and if they are already manipulating the business to increase their profits, it makes sense that they would not agree to conform to something that might be intrinsically fairer but which would diminish their influence, power and financial health.
I happen to think the IBO, while not perfect, presented the first genuine alternative for many years but that the weight of those already in power was too vast.
The WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO are, superficially at least, organised with a formidable structure that provides heads of national commissions with the fantasy that they have power and responsibility - as well as a front row seat at major fights. And how they love to give anybody who can move their gloves in the general direction of an opponent a belt in return for a sanction fee and illusory recognition.
As the statistics demonstrate, the big four won't go away easily, or any time soon, because they don't have to. Theirs is a pretty comfortable life.
Perhaps the best way to change is still to work from the inside, but it will take a great deal of time, commitment and diplomacy to do it. And probably the help of a fully equipped national commission being established in the USA, which should have been provided long, long ago.
All those of us on the outside can hope is that somebody does care enough to force change - and then one day perhaps a world champion will once again be exactly that, rather than a king of nothing, in a palace of his imagination, cradling just one more meaningless belt that nobody in the real world understands or values.