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The Riddle of the Jolly Do-gooders
William Johnson
October 09, 1967
Called buffoons, windbags and political hacks, the men of the World Boxing Association have achieved a measure of control in the sport—but in the end the payoff decides
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October 09, 1967

The Riddle Of The Jolly Do-gooders

Called buffoons, windbags and political hacks, the men of the World Boxing Association have achieved a measure of control in the sport—but in the end the payoff decides

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Through the years there has been a good deal of trouble over WBA casuistry in attempting to inject its version of morality into the ring. For example, the tentacles of Carbo, Palermo, Norris & Co. were wrapped tightly around boxing for years without so much as an official mimeographed whimper from the association; yet the WBA kept itself busy by issuing dozens of furious denunciations and widely ignored suspensions of such champions as Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson because they failed to defend their titles within six months. At times there are good and charitable motives behind a WBA notice of suspension (which is sent to all member commissions but cannot be enforced). One such was the decision in Reno to tell members that Heavyweight Willi Besmanoff, the German punching bag, should no longer be allowed to fight in the interests of keeping him alive.

But too often the group gets all tangled up in its own esoteric legalisms. Nowhere has this been more evident than in its attempts to make its prohibition of return-bout clauses work. Take the Clay-Lision affair. There had been some dubious contractual shenanigans between the two before their title fight in Miami. The WBA retaliated by declaring Clay persona non grata in all its environs. After a lot of bombast and a boring fight or two, the association awarded its world heavyweight champion's certificate to Ernie Terrell. In the meantime, of course, Clay (that was still his name) continued to be a spectacular attraction—and a powerful temptation to people who like to hear the jingle of money in the box office.

Now, regardless of how high-toned boxing commissioners may sound when they are pontificating in public about the need for "uniformity, cooperation and control," one should never forget an intrinsic fact about them: when all is said and done, nearly all decisions about whether or not to allow a local bout are governed more by chamber of commerce boosterism than by Marquess of Queensberry morality.

A good fight draws a good dollar for the local hotel, restaurant and amusement industry. No matter what the propriety of WBA rulings may be, they will almost certainly be overruled or ignored by any local commission that smells a quick buck for the boys in the Retail Merchants Association.

Sound and realistic boxing men in the WBA have never deluded themselves about the root of the association's ineptness. Abe J. Greene, 66, associate editor of The Paterson ( N.J.) News, has been in the WBA for 29 frustrating years—seven as president and now as something called "World Commissioner." Says Greene: "Boxing is subject to the will, whim and fancy of local conditions. The mighty dollar is a built-in condition everywhere, and any commissioner anywhere is going to be reluctant to pass up a lucrative bout—no matter what the WBA says about it."

Of course, in 1964-65, Cassius Clay was the very living, breathing, poetry-spouting personification of lucrative bouts and, sure enough, a whole string of WBA states in good standing bolted the association to sign up Clay to fight. Massachusetts scheduled a match between Clay and Liston but after some nasty legal problems the bout was moved to Maine. A bit later, the commissioners of Texas thought they glimpsed a fat civic payday in an Ali-Cleveland Williams fight. Texas had been in the WBA for years, but with the prospect of a rich gate, the commissioners suddenly produced a convenient attorney general's ruling saying they should never have joined the WBA in the first place, because the organization is incorporated in Rhode Island and " Texas cannot subject itself to the laws of another state."

Obviously, the WBA has all the teeth of a Rock Cornish hen when it comes to enforcing its own rules. Money one-ups it every time, although its officers continue to spout golden platitudes. This irks a lot of responsible boxing men. California, a long-time member of the old NBA, quit in 1960 because the association did nothing about so-called "undesirable characters" in boxing. The state returned with high hopes after the "new" WBA was formed in 1962, then quit again in exasperation in 1965. Says knowledgeable Jack Urch, an attorney in Sacramento who served 17 years as the California commission's executive officer: "There was an overall period of disgust during our short membership in the WBA. We found its purposes fitting and the words of its officers high-sounding, but we quit when they failed to uphold our suspensions. We tried disciplinary measures for the failure of managers and boxers to live up to the WBA code, then they'd go to some other states that would say, 'To hell with California,' and our decisions wouldn't stand up. We still favor a strong national body, but what good is a world association if the states in the U.S. won't cooperate?"

As chaotic as its inconsistencies may be, even more confusing is the fact that among the WBA's top men there is often a surfeit of uncertainty about what the group has actually decided. Before this year's Reno convention, there was lots of talk about Sonny Liston's status. Could he or could he not fight in WBA states? It seemed that he could not, because at the 1964 convention in Norfolk, Va., the delegates had pretty much agreed (as those present seemed dimly to recall) not to sanction Liston's bouts. It seemed that Sonny would have to make an appeal for "reinstatement" to the convention in Reno before he could fight again in WBA territory.

Former WBA President James Deskin, who is executive secretary of the Nevada commission and was chairman of the convention preparations, thought this was so and told reporters that Liston would get a "hearing" before the WBA executive committee. (Of course, Nevada had already licensed Liston last fall.) Greene was under that impression, too. "I think boxing has to have at least a facade of morality," said the venerable Mr. Greene, who likes to talk in the flowery phrases of an eyeshade-era editorial writer. "I am firmly opposed to letting Liston box any longer; I will not cast my ballot for reinstatement in Reno." And Liston himself said, "I will take in that meeting and see what the WBA says."

Liston did turn up at the Riverside Hotel. He walked in on a floor session looking trim and enormous in a tailored blue suit. Bob Evans, fresh and brisk after his re-election, hustled over to whisper with Liston; then Sonny strode out again and Evans hurried back to the microphone to clear things up. "There has never been," he intoned solemnly, "any bona fide record in the World Boxing Association records that deals an official suspension of Sonny Liston. The officers of the WBA have no right themselves to suspend a fighter unless it gets notification of his suspension by some member state of the WBA. I don't care what we voted for or against in Norfolk, we have never got no notice of a recorded suspension for Sonny. So he can be a contender again for the heavyweight championship if he gets a license in any WBA state."

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