Federal probe of fight game targets sport's high-profile names
Posted: Thursday May 13, 2004 5:07PM; Updated: Thursday May 13, 2004 5:07PM
Make no mistake, the on-going federal probe that has targeted boxers who allegedly fixed fights and the promoters who paid them to do it, has always had an eye on the sport's biggest fish -- Don King and Bob Arum.
Boxing manager and matchmaker Robert Mitchell told SI.com that when FBI agents knocked on his office door four years ago, he was promised a deal if he'd turn against King and the sport's other kingpins, such as Arum. Mitchell, 41, of Irma, S.C., turned down those agents and was subsequently indicted. He and Thomas (Top Dog) Williams, 33, a heavyweight from Washington, D.C., whose matches were sometimes promoted by Mitchell, are scheduled to stand trial this summer on federal sports bribery charges in connection with an alleged dive Williams took in a fight against Richie Melito Jr. on August 12, 2000, in Las Vegas. Mitchell and Williams have both pleaded not guilty.
"What they wanted me to do was act as an undercover agent on their behalf and set people up,'' Mitchell said of the FBI. "They said I could work with them and there wouldn't be any problems. They were looking at King and some people in New York. Those were the names mentioned. They wanted [to target] all the players in boxing. They wanted [me] to talk with everybody -- try to put shady deals in front of people and see who would take what.''
The world learned of the sting earlier this year after the FBI raided the Las Vegas office of Arum's Top Rank Company, but neither Arum nor King has been charged with anything and federal authorities refused to comment on Mitchell's claim. However, according to law enforcement sources, it's common to seek such cooperation when investigators are hoping to build a case against someone higher on the food chain.
The FBI probe has resulted in indictments against a handful of bit players in the sport, the most significant of whom is boxing manager Robert Mittleman. Last week he pleaded guilty to fixing two fights and attempting to bribe a federal prosecutor and a judge. Mittleman briefly managed Oscar De La Hoya after De La Hoya turned pro following the 1992 Olympics, but he has made a living in recent years handling lesser-known fighters. Abdullah Muhammad, a former associate of Mitchell's, earlier pleaded guilty to sports bribery.
Both await sentencing and are expected to testify at the trial of Mitchell and Williams. According to the U.S. Attorney's office in Las Vegas, Mittleman told authorities that a Danish promoter, Mogens Palle, arranged for Williams to be paid up to $40,000 to lose a March 31, 2000, fight in Denmark to Brian Nielsen. In addition, says Mittleman, later that year Williams was paid about $15,000 for taking a dive in Las Vegas against Melito, a heavyweight with a 27-1 record. (Palle denied the charge last week.)
Mittleman's admission was not a surprise to George Peterson, Williams' former manager, who watched the Nielsen fight in disbelief. "It got to the point where he hurt [Nielsen] several times by accident, and he just backed off when he could have just taken the guy out,'' says Peterson. "About the second round, I noticed Williams going down -- without a punch [landing]. He had anticipated the punch that never landed, and went down.''
Peterson confronted Williams, who told him that he'd been threatened and that he couldn't leave the country if he didn't lose. He said he was being paid under the table by Mittleman, who also gave him a Lincoln Navigator. Peterson later brought Williams into his office and had a similar conversation, which Peterson taped. (Williams could not be reached for comment.) Williams, Peterson says, laid it all out, including an offer he had to throw an upcoming fight with Melito on the undercard of the Evander Holyfield-John Ruiz WBA heavyweight title bout.
Peterson took that information to Tom Mishou, the executive director of the Georgia Boxing Commission. Those tapes were in the hands of the FBI a week before the Williams-Melito fight. Based on that information, FBI agents were inside the Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino ballroom when Williams and Melito stepped into the ring. What those agents saw was Williams taking a right to the chin in the first round and falling out of the ring.
Melito signed a promotional deal with Don King just before the Williams fight. Soon after the allegations surfaced King dropped Melito, and it's been three years since he fought. Sources say he isn't likely to be charged.
Dozens of fighters, trainers and boxing insiders interviewed by SI.com over the last four months -- including seven who participated in fixes or claim to have first-hand knowledge of them -- describe the scheme uncovered by the FBI as one built on the desire to create marketable white heavyweights, such as Melito.
Mitchell denies doing anything illegal, saying of those lined up to testify against him: "If you take any one of those clowns -- and you can quote me on that 'cause they are not fighters -- they don't qualify to be in the ring with each other, much less somebody else. They were nothing but a stepping-stone that we were using to get Richie Melito toward the top.''
A stepping-stone perhaps, but journeyman fighter Shelby Gross told the FBI that Mitchell, who had a promotional contract with Gross, offered him $8,000 to take a dive against Melito in 1999. "Bobby Mitchell asked me [if I] was looking to make some money,'' says Gross, who was given a $2,500 advance by Mitchell but backed out of the fight and then secretly taped conversations with the promoter about the offer, portions of which were played before a grand jury last year. "He says, 'Well, Shelby, they want to do a sure thing.' He says, 'A sure thing pays $8,000 and a straight up fight pays a certain amount.' I forget what it was. And then I was like, 'A sure thing?' He said, 'Well, they're protecting Rich Melito.'''
The word "dive" never came up. Instead, Gross says Mitchell repeatedly told him to "do the right thing,'' instructing him to "at least go a couple rounds with Richie, and then you can act like your shoulder is hurt or something has happened.''
Mitchell denied any wrongdoing or that the $2,500 was a down payment on a fix, saying, "[Gross] just told me he needed some money; [he] was about to get kicked out of his house or some junk. His rent was due. His electric bill was due. He had some bills to pay.''
Gross hoped to use the tapes as leverage to get out of his contract with Mitchell, so he turned them over to his Camden, S.C., attorney, William Tetterton, a former local prosecutor. The promotional contract eventually expired and Mitchell never got his hands on the tapes, even though it appears he wanted them. SI.com obtained an agreement drafted by Mitchell's attorney, Steven Dennis, on Aug. 3, 1999, stipulating that Gross turn over the tapes, all copies and transcripts, as well as keep silent about the conversations. Further, it stated: "SHELBY GROSS shall instruction his family, friends and others over whom he has any control, not to discuss the substance of any conversations taped by and between SHELBY GROSS and BOBBY MITCHELL.''
Word of the tapes circulated quickly in boxing circles. By late August 2000, within days of having watched Williams allegedly tank against Melito in Las Vegas, FBI agents Bob Bennett and Joe Degnan were in Camden retrieving the tapes. So far no big fish have been reeled in -- but at least the Feds seem intent on doing what they can to clean up the sport.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.