The Blame Game/Fault Lines

By Robert Ecksel on October 4, 2011
The Blame Game/Fault Lines
Boxing was what it was. Boxing is what it is. Boxing will be what it will be. (Robert Ecksel)

Boxing is a dark art performed in the dead of night, and nothing is going to change that simple fact…

How do we apportion blame for the current state of boxing? No one disputes that there is much that is wrong. Nor is there much argument that there’s plenty of blame to go around. MMA’s rise has contributed to boxing’s decline, but that is a recent phenomenon, and we’d be naïve to believe that the boxing establishment isn’t at least partly responsible for the situation as it now exists.

We all realize that boxing isn’t the sport it was once, and that tomorrow it may not be the sport it is today. In the past, boxing, along with horseracing, of all things, was the most popular sport in the U.S. In those days professional baseball had as much impact as minor league ball has today. Football was a sport of speed and movement. Basketball was a minority sport that shunned minorities. And hockey was a game they played in Canada.

Boxing as it exists today is event-driven and star-based, yet the stars that generate substantial pay-per-view revenue are growing old and aging fast. Young fighters are being nurtured, and often protected, in an attempt to fill the void. But some voids are harder to fill than others. Regular TV has shunned boxing for decades. Cable has stepped into the breach, but even cable’s relationship to boxing waxes and wanes. Look no further than late lamented USA’s Tuesday Night Fights, which got bounced to be replaced by wrestling, or the stalwart HBO, whose dominance in the fight game has been slowly eroded by lack of interest from the parent company and the competition flexing its muscles.

So who is responsible for the way things are today? There are two views we can take. We can take the macro view, the broad view, the view that values perspective and considers boxing in light of its long and often squalid history. Or we can take the micro view, the narrow view, and isolate a single culprit (or handful of culprits) as the source of boxing’s ills. If we take the long view we encounter a sport filled with rogues and rascals from its inception. A quick glance at the dearly departed 20th century, for example, features such world-class characters as Tex Ricard, Doc Kearns, James Norris and the International Boxing Club, Frankie Carbo, Blinky Palermo, Mike Jacobs and his 20th Century Boxing Club, and a ragtag parade of fight fixers, bag men, freeloaders, scoundrels and incompetents, leading to terrible decisions, unnecessary deaths, and a besmirched reputation. Boxing’s sordid underbelly isn’t a pretty picture, but it’s an accurate picture, and to deny that that rich dark loam doesn’t support boxing roots is to deny an unpleasant truth.

If we want to point fingers, there are a million directions from which to choose. Is it the fault of the fighters, the low men on the totem pole, all of whom are poorly educated and hence no match for the powers that be? Most of them are underpaid, underappreciated, and underinsured, and end up as BoxRec footnotes, little more than lining for the dustbin of history. How about the trainers, the brains behind the brawn, the cornermen whose artfulness over the centuries has degenerated into artlessness in our time, with a few notable exceptions? Or maybe it’s more fundamental than that. Maybe it’s the fault of capitalism, the corrosive heartbeat of exploitation, where big money doesn’t equal big excellence, where bottom feeders and the bottom line share the same first name.

Boxing is a thrilling, compelling, unique and durable sport. It is, however, the ultimate guilty pleasure, and ambivalence goes with the territory. Boxing’s detractors have pinned tin stars on their chests and embraced a punitive role. These self-appointed white knights claim to want to restore the game to some imagined purity that never existed in the first place. They can rake all the muck they want, but results matter as much as, if not more than, objectives and impressions. Boxing was what it was, is what it is, and will be what it will be. Negativity may satisfy the negative and rouse the rabble, but the drumbeat of disapproval chases those straddling the fence away from the sport. If that’s the purpose, mission accomplished.

The alternative is of course to embrace boxing, warts and all, for what it is. There are enough people outside the sport who magnifying boxing’s faults (can anyone say Dana White?) and would like nothing better than to see it die a slow death. What boxing needs is support— especially from those who are in it—advocates who are critical but fair-minded, not those who are looking for a boogieman, strawman, or test crash dummy to test their mettle. The presumably well-intentioned critics who want sunshine and play in the bright light of day should write about badminton or shuffleboard or golf. Boxing is a dark art performed in the dead of night, and nothing is going to change that simple fact.

For the myopic, the sanctioning bodies are a nice big fat target. Nobody likes the sanctioning bodies. There are too many of them. There are too many weight classes. There are too many titles. There are too many champions. Only those who view other sports as a pale substitute when it comes to the concept of competition know who’s who and what’s what.

I’m not here to defend what many find indefensible. But I am willing to accept things are as they are. The sanctioning bodies didn’t spring up yesterday. Two of them have been in existence for half a century, going back to a time when boxing was popular, and are as much a part of the sport today as knee-high britches and throwing one’s hat into the ring were a part of boxing’s past. What little structure boxing has, and it’s too little for my satisfaction, comes from these institutions. The alternative is anarchy, or an autocracy, like that which controls UFC, and both anarchy and autocracies come with their own sets of problems.

So who should run boxing? Should HBO or Showtime run boxing? I think they’d turn the job down flat. Should the promoters run boxing? That may not be such a good idea. Should the state commissioners run the sport, many of whom are political appointees?  Should we turn over the reins of power to journalists, the lily-clean arbiters of all that is right and wrong? Can we expect men who cannot control their appetites or preening sense of self to control something as unruly as boxing?

In the spirit of fair play, I contacted Mauricio Sulaiman, Executive Secretary of the WBC. I asked him to refute some of the charges that have been leveled against the organization. Those who level the charges have a platform to be heard, and what they write or say is often taken as gospel truth. But opinions are opinions, less gospel truth than articles of faith, and quite possibly bogus articles of faith at that.

The first thing I asked Sulaiman was to describe what he thought boxing would be like if there were no sanctioning bodies.

“It would be completely a jungle,” he said. “I’m going to speak for the WBC, which has a worldwide structure in 164 countries. The way we structure our organization is through populations of countries which affiliate through the Federation on different continents. They oversee the boxing activities in their countries, with the parent organization, which is the WBC, trying to enforce and implement the rules, procedures, all the different conditions that have changed world boxing in the last decade. The structure that all boxers follow is first they are amateur boxers. Then they move to professional boxing, which goes round and round and round. And then comes the organization’s involvement which begins with a regional title, like a Federation title, like a Latino title, the Youth International, et cetera. So they’re gaining in experience, in activity, in popularity, as they prepare themselves to fight for a world championship. There comes a time when a fighter wins the title, makes some title defenses, unifies, and eventually becomes a star, a powerful image by himself.”

Sulaiman was describing a bottom up progression, which most of us, dazzled by marquee names and fights, rarely take into account. But that progression is very real and structure, no matter how flawed, gives the game a semblance of order without which it would be, as Sulaiman described it, a “jungle.”

Most fighters from the time they first enter a gym dream about being a champion. They may dream about fame and riches and fancy cars and fine women, don’t we all, but the possibility of being called champion is the spur which drives them on.

“That is absolutely correct in 100 percent of the cases,” Sulaiman said. “A boxer when they start, they either have a dream of winning a medal for their country in the Olympics, or winning a title, a championship, for their family, for the neighborhood, for the city, for the country. The championship is so powerful, it is a tremendous inspiration, and that is how it is done. And it happens in all sports. Why have a football league that goes on a complete season if there is not going to be a crowning in a Super Bowl? Why have Major League Baseball if there’s not going to be a World Series? For boxing the championship is the pinnacle of a career and it’s what every single fighter has a dream of getting. Not money. Not fame. That comes afterwards. After they are champion and they start getting money, that’s when their priorities change. But the essence of the sport is to win a world championship.”

But there are so many champions, in so many different weight classes, it’s almost impossible to keep track. Why are there so many weight divisions? And are all those divisions necessary?

“Each weight division was created for the medical and physical protection of the fighter,” responded Sulaiman. “The WBC is responsible for creating, if you want to call it that, I believe five of these divisions. Why? Because a fighter would fight for a long time in one division to not give an advantage to a fighter in the upper division. So they had to struggle in a tremendous way to continue making weight when the weight between one division and another was so great, which was the case when there were only eight divisions. They either moved up and gave advantage to their opponents, or stayed down. So each weight division that has been introduced has been to lower the amount of weight between one division and another, to allow fighters to be more competitive in a reasonable way according to the body. The implementation of additional divisions was purely for the sake of the medical interests and health of the fighters.”

Sulaiman’s argument was reasonable. Not everyone will buy it, nor should they. But putting myself in his critics’ shoes, I asked the WBC Executive Secretary to address the claims that the many weight divisions and many belts was at heart mercenary, a chance to collect additional sanctioning fees that would not exist if there were only eight divisions.

“The argument can of course be valid,” Sulaiman said, “because it’s a way of looking at things, especially by those who are traditionalists. Traditional people always like to look at things that used to work, that used to be nice, that used to be popular. There are people who would like to have only eight divisions and very few fights. In the past, there were many, many champions who did not have a fight for two or three years and kept the title. It was a different scenario completely.  You might question why the strawweight division, which is the lowest weight, exists. You hardly ever see an American win a strawweight title. But you have plenty of Korean, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Panamanian and so on—many countries that do have people of a lower weight fighting for that title. What is happening in the heavyweight division is of great concern because you have champions weighing near 250 and they have challengers weighing in at 200. So there’s a 50-pound difference, a huge amount of weight. But the traditional division is the heavyweight, and that has not been looked into. But all the scenarios have been for the protection of the fighters and there is a reason to have introduced new divisions.”

If the WBC wanted more divisions, more belts, more sanctioning fees, I assumed Sulaiman would favor adding a super heavyweight division to the mix, as exists in the Olympics, to delineate the old-school heavyweights from today’s giants.

“I personally do not like the idea of adding a new division. Most of the heavyweights I would put in the 220-230 range, which is acceptable. Despite the fact that the two current champions are 250 or so, I personally would not favor or like to see another division. If there’s a medical situation that proves that something should be done, I’m sure we’ll look into it. But I personally would not like to see one more division.”

But aren’t there too many sanctioning bodies?

“We have a tremendous disadvantage,” Sulaiman pointed out. “For example, UFC is a one person company and has one person ruling on everything. You have a professional sport like the NFL or Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League where the league is the owner of the television rights. So basically they rule and control most of the matters that have to do with the sport. In boxing, the owner of the TV rights—which is basically where the championship level begins, without television it would be impossible to promote championship fights nowadays—and the promoters, and there are so many different promoters which cannot unify even their way of acting. They go one way, they go another way: it’s hard to establish continuity. In other sports you have a team that when a player gets injured or something happens, the team goes on and plays and the league and the season continues. In boxing you have a star, and if he gets hurt or loses he may never fight again. So the continuity and the way things are done are very difficult compared to other sports.”

I wanted to return to Sulaiman’s analogy of boxing becoming a “jungle” if there were no overriding authority. What animal in the jungle would be the lion, and which lion would roar the loudest? What would boxing be like?

“It would be complete anarchy and an abuse of power. We live it right now and it’s very difficult, and what the organization does is try to be a mediator and a judge and to try to make the right call, the right decision, the fair decision. In boxing, the organization does not have a monetary or economic benefit for making adjustments. The promoters do. Let me give an example. When you go to a convention you see at a meeting promoters trying to get their fighters up in the rankings to a mandatory position. In one division you have five or six promoters making the case that their fighter is the best in the world. So the organization tries to evaluate, tries to make a mediation process to make the right decision. Of course we make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. But we always try to do what is fair and what is best for the sport. Many of the rules from the WBC were implemented to eliminate abuse of power, to eliminate so many of the things that have happened in the history of boxing, where people who do not have the power find it’s almost impossible to get an opportunity.”

So who exactly is to blame? It’s easier to find fault than to propose solutions. If you think the blame rests with one organization, one TV executive, one promoter, one manager, or whatever and whoever is the target du jour, you’ll never see the forest for the trees. Boxing is not black and white, a fairytale of good versus evil. Boxing, like life, is composed in shades of gray. Certainty is an illusion. Certainty is a shell game. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Groupthink spares people the trouble of needing to think for themselves. Thinking for oneself does require effort. But since when did something of value not require effort? The herd instinct may be hard to resist, but it’s not irresistible. We can reach our own conclusions without having “experts” reach our conclusions for us. There’s no law that says you can’t hate sanctioning bodies if that’s what rocks your boat. But make sure it’s your conclusion, that you’re not just parroting what you read or heard from someone who should know better but might not.

“Boxing is a great sport,” said Sulaiman, “and 99 percent of the people in boxing are honorable and dedicated, passionate, it’s their dream, and we all leave our family, our personal things, everything to the side to serve boxing. Boxing people are very serious. There are common, irresponsible people who have the power, with a microphone or a web page, where they simply, without consideration, accuse others, and I would publicly like to say that I invite ANYONE to prove any wrongdoing, any dishonorable act of corruption by Jose Sulaiman or by any member of the WBC. Anyone that has a single proof should come forward. We heard Max Kellerman just the other day say, ‘They are corrupt,’ and that’s horrible for a family member to hear that about your father, your friend. That is not correct.”

It sounds like Mauricio Sulaiman has thrown down the gauntlet.

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  1. Erwin 06:06pm, 07/28/2012

    If they can’t make fight fans wanted to see, then what’s the use of PPV when everyone knows they’re just getting robbed. But then again some people do like it that way in order to preserved status quo.feed35

  2. Mark 09:46am, 10/05/2011

    Not much to argue, other than… why isn’t more being done? Here’s a guy with the power to create a protected product - just like Dana White does. UFC isn’t MMA. It’s a little piece of MMA. They have the same zillion-faction problem. Just so happens he has most of the best fighters.

    Instead of signing a contract with Don King, Lou DiBella, et al, why don’t fighters sign contracts with the WBC? Why not formulate a “season”? Why doesn’t he contract with his fighters, once signed, to fight for (relative) peanuts to get on a real network, and site “the future of the sport” as his reason?

    I don’t know. Sounds like a guy with a lot of power and potential is yet another on the list claiming he’s just a victim of the system.

    Wanna change it? CHANGE IT.

  3. mikecasey 07:27am, 10/05/2011

    Agreed. I once wrote that my big reservation about having a boxing czar was that it would probably be a bean counter in this day and age who would know nothing about boxing at all. Boxing is unique because of its roguish charm and we can’t lose the rascals along with the villains - or we will end up with something that is only marginally more offensive than ping-pong. That being said, the subtle ‘better the devil you know’ message from Snr Sulaiman and others is very convenient and won’t do either. And the safety argument regarding the number of weight divisions will surely only be believed by the crashingly naive.

  4. The Thresher 06:41am, 10/05/2011

    Really, really great stuff here.

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