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By God, I tell you we have found our place in the sun!
Of course, its very name—World Boxing Association (on the stationery there is not even a The to emphasize its singularity)—implies that it occupies a fairly key spot in the solar system. Its motto—Uniformity, Cooperation, Control—seems to connote just the right amount of noblesse oblige required to bring sweet reason to a sport too often racked by chaos and ruled by avarice. And for the next few months, as American Broadcasting Company television announcers thrill millions by introducing another World Boxing Association Heavyweight Championship Fight, it may well come to sound as if the WBA is a kind of corporate Kenesaw Mountain Landis, wisely distributing world titles in return for full portions of love, honor and obedience from every ring this side of Saturn.
That, precisely, is what the WBA would dearly love to be. Its announced constitutional purpose is to assure "greater efficiency...in the supervision of professional boxing" and, like Caesar's Gaul, the WBA's terra omnis has been officially divided into parts—four in this case. North America, Latin America, Europe- Africa and the Orient—for handier administration.
The sad truth is that the WBA does not meet its own dream. Although it may have chosen to recognize the planet, the reverse is not necessarily so. There are many, many hours a day when the sun is not shining on WBA territory. As for its corporate image, it was not Judge Landis who came immediately to mind when a gymnasium full of WBA delegates assembled in late August in Reno for their annual convention (about the only guaranteed uniform act of cooperation and control of WBA men is that they always have a convention). The image was more a combination of Happy Chandler and Tony Galento.
Nevertheless, the World Boxing Association is in a new position of prominence these days. As one delegate put it in Reno, "Jeez, we're getting more press than Liz and Dick." Not really. But the ABC-televised heavyweight elimination tournament, which has pumped some wholesome new excitement into boxing, has been sanctioned, blessed and baptized by the WBA; the group does get its name in the paper a lot because of it.
For the champion who survives the eliminations, the WBA's blessing will be negotiable in much more than newspaper clippings. Thanks to TV, he will be generally accepted by a reasonable majority of boxing fans as the Champ; his paydays will increase accordingly. For all that, he can look to the WBA for giving him his big chance. All of the eight contestants who started the tournament were selected on the basis of the WBA's decision to rank them among the best heavyweights in the world. More important, there would have been no tournament, no new champion, no big paydays, no new kicks for the boxing crowd if the WBA had not summarily dethroned Muhammad Ali (the WBA still refers to him as Cassius Clay) for refusing to join the U.S. Army. There is a certain irony inherent in such a star-spangled display of ultra-American patriotism by a group that likes to boast of its multinational membership, but then, as one WBA man carefully explained, "Guilty is guilty, I think, even overseas."
Since everyone is hearing its name a lot more these days, now is a good time to examine the anatomy and machinations of the World Boxing Association. It is 48 years old this year, although it was not until five years ago that the WBA widened its horizons from being just plain National Boxing Association. The idea for the original NBA was pretty much hatched by an English go-getter named William A. Gavin. He wanted to build an "international sporting club" in New York, and he thought something like a coast-to-coast boxing authority might add some class to his promotions. For his club building Gavin bought some land in Manhattan, dug an excavation and waited for money to pour in so he could build. The club never got beyond that hole in the ground, but the NBA, which originally had the athletic commissions of 13 states in its membership, climbed out of Gavin's basement, incorporated and set about trying, with what often seemed chilling ineptness, to set straight the ways of boxing men.
Over the years the association did produce a sound safety code. It campaigned for the eight-ounce glove and the mandatory eight-count after a knockdown. It also made medical examinations more stringent and fostered some rigid regulations about boxing contracts. Its rules were widely ignored, but they are still considered reasonable. For example, the organization insisted that a champion fight at least every six months and that within one year of winning his title he meet the No. 1 contender in his division—as selected by the NBA/WBA's ratings committee. The group also tried to outlaw contract clauses that demanded a return bout between a defeated champion and his successor. The point of both rules is to keep a title active and to give rising contenders a fair chance at the championship.
Praiseworthy as such ideas may be, the association just never did impress many people beyond its own membership. For decades sportswriters have cruelly but consistently referred to the general run of WBA men as "buffoons" or "windbags" and have implied that their heads are shaped like upturned ice-cream cones. Though colorful, such descriptions do not do full justice to the WBA.
It is made up of men who sit on the athletic commissions of various sovereign governments—nations, states, territories, provinces and cities. The WBA is a voluntary association, but there always seems to be a shortage of volunteers. Right now, there are only 31 states on the list. And they include places such as Montana, North Dakota and New Mexico, where boxing runs second to the barbershop for attracting crowds. Then, too, there are Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee, where the best bouts in recent memory have been between policemen and civil rights demonstrators. Notably missing from WBA rolls are the relatively busy boxing centers: California, Texas, Massachusetts and New York.