A Battle Outside The Ring Was Key To Boxing

abattleoutsideArizona Senator John McCain wants to protect the boxing business from itself. The sport’s biggest promoter, Don King, wants to protect the boxing business from John McCain.

Theirs is a fight about the future of prize fighting. Because regardless of whether Evander Holyfield fights Lennox Lewis or either of them fights Mike Tyson someday to unify the multiheaded heavyweight title, boxing’s real heavyweight championship will be decided by two headstrong, street-savvy, powerful leaders. McCain, a conservative Republican and a projected 2000 presidential candidate, is a former collegiate boxer at the U.S. Naval Academy, a Vietnam war hero and a former prisoner of war at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

King is, well, King. He’s a bombastic, electric-headed Hall of Fame promoter who also was once incarcerated but at his own government’s insistence, not that of a Third World country.

“This is nothing but an anti-Don King bill,” says King, boxing’s biggest promoter, when asked his feelings about the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act that McCain proposed and shepherded through the Senate last year. McCain is now trying to move it through the House and into law during this legislative session. “It’s all about the evils of Don King! I think McCain is going to have a rode awakening as to what the world of boxing really is. He’s a well-meaning guy, but he really doesn’t understand the business. The senator is suffering from naivete.

“I welcome anything that’s good for boxing,” King says. “But all they’ve given him is cannon fodder against me, and somewhere in between lies the truth. McCain’s not getting the truth. It’s all against one, and the one is me.”

McCain believes otherwise because King is not the only force in boxing massed against the senator’s effort to reform a sport that’s more disorganized than the wild, wild West. In fact, the only time the sport was organized was during the 1950s when it was run by organized crime–not exactly a viable solution to today’s problems of meaningless rating lists, endless numbers of world champions, and option clauses that tie a fighter to one promoter for most of his career (in exchange for a shot at a world title). Besides, McCain points out, boxing is the only professional sport that has no pension plan, no industry-wide contract stipulating minimums in salary, benefits or health protections, and no real protections for the people who matter most–the fighters.

“I grieve when I see the exploitation of boxers today,” says McCain from his Washington office, where he authored the Ali bill and then maneuvered it through the Commerce Committee, which he chairs, and then through the full Senate. “The sport is littered with contracts like the one signed with King by Oliver McCall [who was briefly the WBC heavyweight champion before drug abuse and an apparent nervous breakdown finished him as a big-time fighter]. It gave King 50 percent of McCall’s money. I have nothing against Don King. He’s doing what businessmen do in every walk of life, which is take advantage of the marketplace. I would love to be enlightened by him. But no one can tell me most of the fighters aren’t being terribly exploited.

“I’m not talking about the Tysons and the Holyfields,” McCain continues. “They’ve made millions. They have enough money to hire their own lawyers and accountants to protect them. They don’t need John McCain for that. But the majority of fighters are never in that situation. They’re the ones who need protection.”

It may seem like a McCain vs. King bout on the surface (King has the reach advantage, McCain the speed), but there are other promoters who are untouchable as well. Bob Arum runs a close second to King, and the two have been the sport’s dominant forces for 25 years, the two biggest promoters in boxing history.

Between them they have, at one time or another, handled the careers of nearly every great champion of their era, from Ali to George Foreman to Marvin Hagler to Sugar Ray Leonard to Oscar De La Hoya to Tyson and beyond. Just about any pugilist not promoted by the King or the prince has then been handled by boxing’s third biggest entity, Lou Duva’s Main Events promotional company.

Duva made his bones with Holyfield and the 1984 Olympic team that included Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland and Virgil Hill. Together, King, Arum and the Duva family have controlled nearly every significant weight class and have had a piece of nearly every champion since their own fighters first won world titles. Why? Because to get a chance to dethrone any of them has consistently required that fighters sign option clauses, which McCain sees as the sport’s greatest evil. In some cases the clauses are only for a few fights, but in too many, he says, the clauses constitute a form of indentured servitude.

“I understand promoters invest a lot of money in a young fighter and want to be in position to get it back if he becomes champion rather than let him just walk away,” McCain says. “And I understand why a guy doesn’t want to risk his champion and have no assurance of getting anything back if his fighter loses. But dear God, to put these guys in bondage … those stories never fail to sadden me. To see these guys at the end of their careers, broken in health and with no money … they fight three to six years and they’re done, and who got the money? I get angry whenever I think about it.

“That’s why our bill has a provision for a one-year option as a prerequisite for a boxer to participate in a particular match but bans such options if a fighter has already become the No. 1 contender,” McCain says. “The No. 1 contender has earned a mandatory title fight. Why should he be forced to contract long term with a promoter against his will to secure something he’s already earned? Nowhere does the bill preclude a fighter from entering into a long-term promotional deal if he so desires. It just can’t be forced upon him to get a title fight.”

King, not surprisingly, hears these words and shakes his woolly head. He argues that McCain is well-meaning but simply lost in a Byzantine world. To King–and Arum has argued many of the same points–the idea of the federal government getting involved in boxing is absurd. As absurd, he says, as the idea that Don King ever exploited anybody.

“Years ago the fighter was exploited, but I came into the picture and paid fighters more than they ever earned,” King claims. “Larry Holmes said, `If he’s robbing me, I still get more than half as much again as I got before.’ Even he could see that in his limited mentality. The sport has problems, but all I see is inflammatory, anti-Don King rhetoric. What they want is another Don King investigation. I don’t need that no more.” (King has been indicted and tried three times on federal charges but never convicted.)

In almost the same breath (though who could ever tell with King?), the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Promoter reverses the argument. “Everybody thinks the prize fighter is pious and benign,” King says. “That’s bull—-. They screw promoters without compunction or remorse.”

McCain doesn’t disagree, but he contends that the real evils are exploitative promoters who maneuver their fighters by manipulating shaky ratings organizations like the World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation. Those “governing bodies” have no one to answer to but those promoters whose fighters pay them enormous sanctioning fees for title fights.

It’s why even Holyfield had to sign a long-term promotional deal with King to get a shot at Tyson after having spent his career handled by the Duvas. It’s also why fighters with far less pull battle a ratings system in which their promoters have more say in the rankings than the fighters’ performances do. Further, it’s why a host of welterweights and junior middleweights recently signed with Arum, to get a shot at De La Hoya, and why fighters often spend as much time in courtrooms as gymnasiums, fighting to break contracts that seem to block them from the big fights they want.

“The current system to rate boxers has zero credibility in the industry and among the public,” McCain says. “Hopefully, the reforms in the Ali Act will foster some more legitimate practices by the alphabet groups. This bill will be good for competition and integrity in the sport. But I expected ferocious opposition. Arum has been very opposed. I got one call from King when I first started talking about a pension plan, which we all know has to be funded by pay-per-view money.

“He called and said, `Senator John McCain! Senator John McCain! I’m sending you a check for $1 million today! I’m giving you $1 million [for the plan].’ It was classic Don King. I was amused and entertained but not persuaded of his sincerity. He kept saying he and I together would clean up boxing. Talk about looking for the exits.”

McCain knows that King’s mantra of “Only in America,” is not just a saying, it’s the gospel. “In a way I admire and respect these guys like Arum and King,” McCain says. “They’re just taking advantage of the system as it exists. Look at cable companies trying to raise rates 15 percent. It’s exactly what ordinary businessmen do. The difference is they’re trying to maximize their profits on the health of young men with no help. That bothers me.

“If you’re a Muhammad Ali or a Mike Tyson, you have tremendous leverage,” he says. “If it was always like that I wouldn’t have entered into this. It’s the other 99 percent I worry about. State commissions can’t do it. They’re afraid of getting cross-threaded in the competition with other states.”

But what King and others fear most is not the Ali Reform Act itself but any effort to form a national boxing commission that would serve as a watchdog on promoters and sanctioning bodies. Such a regulatory body could forever change boxing’s lumpy landscape, but McCain says King can at least rest easy on that score because that is not his goal.

“So many people have said I want a federal commission with ultimate authority,” McCain says. “That would be a last resort. I’m a fundamental conservative. I want to limit government.”

So does Don King. He wants to eliminate it from boxing, and that is where the battle stands.

In the end, whoever wins will affect boxing’s future long after Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson have exited the ring, fighting only in people’s memories or on the Classic Sports Network.

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  1. Paulie

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