Why the Sweet Science Remains Sour

By Joe Masterleo on December 17, 2014
Why the Sweet Science Remains Sour
Dempsey wrote a letter to the New York Times calling for a boxing union back in 1937.

With few exceptions, the bulk of fighters are weak, insular men adept at controlling their destinies inside the ropes, but seldom outside them…

“Nothing helps a man to reform like thinking of the past with regret.”—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot

When will professional boxers unionize? Answer: When pigs fly. That’s because the question of unionizing has been tossed around for nearly a century now, with only a few weak organizational jabs and feeble legislative hooks thrown in its lumbering direction, nary enough to register the kind of blows necessary to effectively wobble the sport’s sordid status quo and seedy public image. If thought is action rehearsed (what shadow-boxing is to real boxing) notions of a viable fighter’s union remain perennially stalled in pugilistic thought — an unrealized idea sorely needing legs and/or a champion to rally its cause. Should this embryonic goliath sooner awaken, energize and unify, of a certainty it would lead to long overdue reforms, and with them the eventual KO of boxing’s sullied reputation as the red-light district of sport. 

Professional boxing has more scandal and controversy associated with it than any other sport in history. A shameful truism if there ever was one. At the organizational level, its dark, self-perpetuating negative energy field draws and selects for characters of its own kind, flocking together like sociopathic birds of a feather. This fact alone should gravely concern its fans and alarm its participants. But ironically, there is a passive acceptance, mysterious intrigue and even moth-to-flame attraction to same. Much like the public’s fascination with things Mafioso, there is a strange public appeal to a cynically powerful entity that acts in its own self-interest, often at the expense of others. Such negativity is based on an energetic force of animal origin, not of a higher-order reason, integrity or power. Perhaps it’s the same negative fascination with lower-order phenomena that makes programming like Homeland so popular, or The Sopranos, or Game of Thrones. Nonetheless, past remedial efforts to address these ills have never approached the kind of critical mass necessary to clean house. Nor do any appear on the distant horizon. 

Though loyal, fans are generally complacent on the subject. Like other inveterate consumers of amusements and pastimes, fight fans demand product, caring little about context and less of character. And while boxers make verbal ripples on the subject now and then, such impotent prattle is far shy of the organized tsunami required to marshal a collective force necessary to separate the sport from its depraved reputation. And so, the sweet science remains lip-puckering sour, its culture tainted by the primitive underpinnings of a chronic dog-eat-dog, “politricks” and greed pathos. No wonder the fight game is often referred to as the “Theater of the Unknown.” As modern-day monikers go, “Theater of the Absurd” would be more fitting.   

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, boxers strangely tolerate the deplorable aspects of their trade as ‘business as usual,’ remaining abusively married to its seedy underlife. Like dead men walking, they hypnotically conform to the sport’s corresponding negative emotional payoffs, desensitized to their plight like soldiers on the front lines of war — not to question why, but to do or die. Never mind “Boxing After Dark;” this is “Boxing In the Dark.” Therefore, boxing-as-usual plods along as sport’s Stone Age remnant, a vestigial carryover resistant to the evolutionary advancements of other professional sports. Some would argue that this stable instability is normative for this sport, a stark metaphor for life in an unfriendly, brutal and hardscrabble world. There can be no Cinderella, they argue, without her harsh ugly sisters, and no Cinderella Man without his corresponding harsh ugly odds to overcome.

Well over 95% of fighters have no money to speak of, with most working an assortment of odd jobs in order to make ends meet. Such makes them rife for the shell-game of contracting with slippery promoters. The annals of boxing are filled with fighters who bowed their heads in shame for believing in grandiose schemers who promised them the world, promises fighters never cashed-in on.

Unlike other union-protected pro athletes, boxers are subjected to exploitation without a strong collective bargaining agency to represent their multiple interests, while promoters, PPV TV and organizers generate enormous wealth for themselves. As a pro boxing career is relatively short-lived, many boxers leave the ring destitute. Recall, the legendary Joe Louis died penniless, with nameless others finding a similar fate once their ring life is over. Health insurance for fighters was out of the question until fairly recently, forced on promoters by legislation. A comprehensive pension plan for retirees is almost non-existent, as is health-care for punch-drunk and brain damaged veterans. Conflicts of interest between promoters and managers, and long-term contracts with promoters abound to the disadvantage of these indentured boxers. 

One of the saddest stories illustrative of same involves the great Muhammad Ali following his punishing defeat in 1980 at the hands of former sparring partner, Larry Holmes. The aging Ali had no business being matched with Holmes, or in the ring — period. Pummeled, bruised and urinating blood post-fight, it was clear Ali was done, obsolete as a relevant heavyweight contender. While The Greatest was yet in a post-bout haze, the shifty and lawyered-up Don King, who owed Ali well over a million dollars, sent in one of his stooges with briefcase in hand carrying $50,000 in cash. The go-fer accosted the prostrate ex-champ with a dirty-dealing King ultimatum. Whence Ali was pressured to accept the cash and forthwith sign a waver absolving King of any financial responsibilities to him. The usually sassy but now deflated Ali compliantly took the cash and signed on the dotted line. Pitiful it was, and tragic, déjà vu all over again. If such can be the plight of the mighty Joe Louis, or the fate of a legendary Ali, how shall the rest of the boxing field fare? Talk about Requiem for a Heavyweight. Play it again Sam.  .  .and again.  .  .and again.  .  . with monotonous regularity.

The absence of real money-making ability leaves the average boxer with little choice but to latch onto a promoter who provides support, money and lines up bouts, giving said promoter great influence and control. Many promoters are aware of the power they wield over the boxer who relies on them, and take full advantage of it. Some promoters have used option contracts that tie the boxers to them for many years. Some have been known to make fighters sign blank contracts to be filled in later, and/or accept the promoter’s relatives as managers and trainers, giving them a third or more of every fight purse. The stories involving the abuses and manipulations of power and wealth in boxing are legion, to say nothing of scandal and corruption, or the farcical proliferation of divisions and belts, or the inadequate certification, training and regulation of judges. Unacceptable decisions rendered by ringside judges continue as unscrutinized travesties that further undermine the credibility of the sport, an insult to boxers and fans alike. 

Sometimes, promoters even take or act the role of managers, controlling what fights boxers are offered, as if directly involved with the training and fighting themselves. Wanting to move a fighter in a fast or slow climb can fall exclusively to scheming others. And there are too many state athletic commissions with far too many rules. As rugged individuals striving uphill in a rugged individualist culture, no wonder fighters are wont to look only after themselves, contributing to the sport’s reputation as a lower-tier phenomenon. Blinded in one eye with the other nearly swollen shut, boxing lacks vision and a long-term strategy, reeling like a dazed club fighter out on his feet, too ornery to take the count.   

The late Bert Sugar was a commendable boxing writer and sports historian.  Sugar knows sweet from sour (and bitter) when it comes to boxing. He recalls one of the best known figures in all of professional sports in the first half of the 20th century, Jack Dempsey, writing a letter to the New York Times calling for a boxing union back in 1937. That was the heyday of unionism in America, when such was in its flower. Boxing and horse racing drew the biggest crowds back then. Boxing especially was at the top of its game, with plenty of wealth to spread around. Dempsey, a successful and influential businessman, died waiting for his union dream to crystallize. If collective bargaining didn’t happen back when the sport was on top, what chance does unionizing have in gaining a foothold nowadays?

What’s more, the excuses hindering the formation of same continue to be ready-made. Some objections raised are legitimate, real impediments to progress. Yet with the right organizational groundswell, none of them are insurmountable. Some of the contrary arguments sound good, but on closer scrutiny aren’t good and sound. Here are just a few; (a) fighters are not employees, they’re independent contractors; (b) boxing is an individual sport not a team sport, making unionizing difficult if not impossible; (c) boxing is an international sport, even organizing efforts in Europe have not met with success; (d) fighters are lone wolves, not given to cooperating as a group; (e) the underpaid rank and file can’t afford and won’t pay union dues, etc. Says here, every excuse is but an unsightly turd in boxing’s self-defeating mental punchbowl. Amid such inert negativity, boxing and boxers shall remain under the yoke of its cross-generationally transmitted bad karma, long a fixed part of its adulterated DNA.

With few exceptions, the bulk of fighters are weak, insular men adept at controlling their destinies inside the ropes, but seldom outside them. They’re living paradoxes, Titans in the ring, wimps in business; fistic Jekyll and Hyde’s, contradictory as the squared circle itself. The sober fact remains that the impetus for boxing reform must come from the fighters themselves, not the Congress, Jose Torres, Teddy Atlas, John McCain or the Teamsters. Until then, refusing to be an active part of the solution will continue to find them in tacit alignment with the problem, pulling their organizational punches, having no one to blame but themselves. Taking a collective shoulder-shrugging dive, they linger on the canvas for the count, satisfied to take their paychecks and run. Attitude has everything to do with altitude. Says here, if boxers don’t like their past, they should change their future. The handwriting has been long on the wall. But boxers convinced against their will are of the same opinion still. While I once held to the firm belief that boxing and boxers deserve better, now I’m not so sure. 

As for reform, let the $ guys with clout, the Klitchkos, Pacquiaos, Hopkinses, Mayweathers, Wards, Golovkins, etc. come together as unified, cross-divisional representatives of their sport, refusing to fight unless/until promoters, organizers and TV moguls sit down at the bargaining table and hammer-out solutions for legitimate top-to-bottom reform and regulation. Then we’ll see how quickly the deep pockets and scheming minds of the money moguls open up. In boxing timing is everything, but when it comes to the business of collective care-taking, fighters are very slow on the uptake. While there’s nothing wrong with any blue-collar endeavor, willful blue-collar apathy is a horse of a different color. And don’t ask what color. Notwithstanding, boxing is sorely in need of an integrous whip-cracking czar, a hands-on commissioner bent on minding the store to preserve, protect and improve its image.   

As the gravitational pull of this sport’s dark side is varied and formidable, an intelligent and articulate leader would need the collective backing of his notable fistic cohorts, along with a sizeable contingent of the sport’s rank-and-file grunts in order to successfully escape its black-hole vortex. No small task. Like the capable Gene Upshaw of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, someone like an Andre Ward would make a fine executive director of a professional boxing association. Volunteers or nominations, anyone? Don’t hold your breath. Good things come to those who wait, save for boxers. 

Ward and Floyd Mayweather have already been vocal about the drastic need for same. Having made countless multi-million$ as adept and wily lone-rangers, why not jointly put-up or shut-up on the single most important subject central to the welfare and credibility of their sport? Boxing and its fans, after all, have been loyal and generous to them. Consider the imprint and impact it would have, and the legacy it would leave — boxers stooping to help each other off the deck, not clawing to consign one another to bleak futures in hellish Palookaville. Imagine a formidable contingent of boxers showing-up in one accord for picket line support? Man, who could stop them? 

Like a living soul, any house, sport, nation or globe divided against itself fails the integrity smell test, and shall not stand. Like a punch-drunk over-the-hill champ, such entities may survive as a caricatures of themselves, but will not thrive.

So we end where we began, with the nagging question: When shall pro boxers unionize? The answer remains — when pigs fly. Possible perhaps, but unlikely.

Not as long as pigs prefer wallowing in the mud over taking to the skies.

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  1. Mohummad Humza Elahi 02:33am, 12/18/2014

    I don’t think it would be difficult at all for fighters to unionize, to be honest, what a union would look like would be much closer to fighters breaking the duopoly of GBP/TR and forming their own stables.  If the fighters cared about their own, they would form their own promotional companies that would have the requisite health insurance and pension benefits as part of their contracts.  There are so many ways to structure the same outcome without having to form a union.  I would have no qualms seeing boxing move to a more tightly regulated UFC model; have a single, regulated entity (that can be formed nationally, with entities from different nations entering into bi-lateral contracts with each other) that ensure consistent terms for all fighters and a guaranteed minimum pay (or even more strictly, a pre-determined pay scale).  Great article.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:49pm, 12/17/2014

    I say Stallone should organize a boxers union along the lines of SAG-AFTRA….after all it’s not like he doesn’t owe something to these guys….he’s made hundreds of millions pretending to be one of them, in fact he got a statue in Philadelphia before Joe Frazier did…..I often wonder just what Joe thought about that in his heart of hearts,

  3. kid Blast 07:34pm, 12/17/2014

    Boxing is structured in such a way that it is virtually impossible to unionize it. There are no leagues or teams. Just individual contractual situations.

    The late Johnny Lira, Eddie Mustafa Mohamed, and then Garry Balletto all found this out the hard way. Can’t be done.

    The best way to get benefits is through legislation at the state level

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:30pm, 12/17/2014

    Which further reminds me….Lois Lerner is a sexy looking thing and I wouldn’t mind boinking her…if you get my drift. This is all about interconnectedness….if an article doesn’t get you thinking….what good is it?

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:24pm, 12/17/2014

    Kovalev’s purse was $500,000…after “expenses” he ends up with $125,000 and damn lucky to get that much!....let’s hope that included the Lois Lerner’s “taste”!

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:09pm, 12/17/2014

    I enjoyed this article….which reminds me…..Kovalev ended up with $125,000 for performing that public service on Hopkins a couple of weeks ago…..Mago’s purse for getting his brains bashed in by Perez’s elbows and forearm shivers probably wasn’t anyway near that…..Chaves’ purse was $35,000 for that ugliness with Bradley the other night, using the same math he’ll probably end up with something like $7,500…..Christ! I hope he didn’t have to spring for a RT ticket Argentina to Vegas. You put it on the fighters…..I say the fans that support this “sport” are way more fuked up than the fighters, in fact they’re more fuked up than Obama and DeBlasio voters, which most of them probably are anyway.

  7. Eric 08:07am, 12/17/2014

    The flying pig looks more like a canine than an oinker. Maybe a bull terrier with a long skinny snout.

  8. Eric 07:37am, 12/17/2014

    “Nothing helps a man to reform like thinking of the past with regret” Taint dat the troof.

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