Without reform, boxing's just the same old con
The news last week—allegations that fighters took dives and administrators took bribes—wasn't really news at all. Corruption is presumed in boxing. But the fact that the federal government indicted four IBF executives for rigging ratings is news. It's good news. It suggests that the era of winking at boxing's buccaneering might be over and that confidence in the sport might someday be restored.
Charges that IBF officials have taken bribes of at least $338,000 from promoters and managers since the mid-'80s were last week's headlines, but they've been ringside gossip for more than a decade. Officials of the IBF and pro boxing's two other major sanctioning bodies, the WBA and the WBC, approve fights and prepare the rankings that move selected fighters into big-money bouts. The rankings of those three organizations have at times been so bizarre that the only conclusion to draw was that somebody was on the take.
Now federal prosecutors have set out to prove it, at least with regard to the IBF. They're particularly interested in the machinations that gave then IBF heavyweight champ George Foreman a special exception to fight un-ranked Axel Schulz in 1995. The feds say Foreman's camp gave the IBF $100,000 to make the fight, and that Schulz's handlers ponied up the same amount for a rematch that never came off. Foreman and his promoter Bob Arum deny making such payments. Cedric Kushner, Schulz's promoter, referred questions to his lawyer, who didn't return SI's calls.
The Foreman-Schulz payoffs are the central accusations in the 32-count indictment charging president Bob Lee and three other IBF executives including his son, Robert Jr., of racketeering and conspiracy. This isn't the first time Lee's organization has been accused of rigging rankings. In 1995, after heavyweight Francois Botha leapfrogged past Michael Moorer in the IBF ratings for a possible fight with Mike Tyson, Moorer sued the elder Lee, charging that he had "solicited bribes and/or extorted monies" in concert with promoter Don King. The IBF suddenly agreed that Moorer deserved a title fight, and the case went away. The smell of corruption didn't.
What's the harm in shuffling the rankings? For one thing, it's a way to fix a fight without making anybody take a dive. "With the world organizations," says one insider, "it's not mandatory for a champion to fight the Number 2 guy. If I have a champion and I want him to fight the least competitive fighter I can get, I pick somebody who just came into the top 10. On the other hand, if I'm a manager looking for a big score, I want to move my fighter into the top 10. If it's known that my guy can't beat anybody, the champ will probably pick him for his next fight. For a heavyweight, that's worth at least $300,000, so I'd pay $25,000 or $50,000 if I had to for the rating."
Last week's charges came on the heels of a Miami Herald story on fight fixing that quoted six journeymen who said they took falls against such bigger names as Foreman and Eric (Butter-bean) Esch. The indictments aren't likely to stop with Bob Lee and the IBF. The government has been pursuing King for years, and after failing three times to convict him of fraud, the feds are dying to bring him down. King, who at times has controlled heavyweight champs in all three organizations, has said he expects to be indicted. The chance that boxing bigwigs might roll over and inform on others of their ilk, including King, has created a near-comical mood of paranoia among the sport's heavy hitters.
The elder Lee says he is "innocent of these outrageous charges." We'll see. In any case reform in the ring is now in the hands of the government—which strengthened its position on Monday when the House passed the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act. That's fine. Boxing has never been able to police itself, and as a consequence it's the least credible of American sports.
The Wizard From Westwood
In the fall of 1977, his senior year at UCLA, linebacker John Fowler was the Bruins' fourth-leading tackler. The next spring he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in biochemistry, and in June those credentials earned him induction into the GTE Academic All-America Hall of Fame.