Some of boxing's dirtiest linen is due for public washing next month when Teddy Brenner, the former Madison Square Garden matchmaker who is now a fight promoter, takes the World Boxing Council to court in New York. Victory for Brenner could conceivably put the WBC out of business in the U.S. and thus reduce it to penny-ante status (see box, page 47). Whatever the outcome of the Brenner trial, it will serve a useful purpose by focusing public scrutiny on the WBC—and high time. A SPORTS ILLUSTRATED inquiry has found that under José Sulaimán Chagnón, its president, the WBC has: 1) produced some of the most dubious boxer ratings and bizarre mismatches in the history of the sport; 2) assigned officials in such a way as to invite suspicion of impropriety; 3) arbitrarily punished a number of fighters, while favoring others; and 4) created meaningless weight division—e.g., super fly—resulting in lucrative sanctioning fees and global junkets for WBC officials. And the WBC's rival sanctioning group, the World Boxing Association, has displayed similar tendencies. In these pages SI examines the WBC in detail. Next week: the WBA.
The irony is that both the WBC and the WBA were small-time operations, cadging nickels and dimes, until the urgent need of U.S. network television for "respectable" fighter rankings catapulted the organizations into positions of power. Until 1977, boxing's rating bible was The Ring magazine. In that year it was discovered that The Ring was supplying phony records and rankings for the Don King-promoted, ABC-aired United States Boxing Championships. Goodby, Ring; hello, alphabet soup. The Ring has subsequently undergone a thorough housecleaning. Now the WBC and WBA need an application of mop, pail and broom.
Upon their sudden elevation the WBC and WBA found themselves in a position to demand sanctioning fees from fight promoters, plus lavish expenses for title-fight "observers." Moreover, they became arrogant panhandlers, exacting tribute.
Says promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank. Inc.: "They demanded that we wine them and dine them or we couldn't get a fight. If I don't pay I can't get a cockamamy letter of sanction, which TV demands, and I can't earn a living.
"For years we told them to drop dead. They begged for tickets to a fight. Nobody paid any attention to these amateurs until the networks forced us to pay attention. Hell, I don't mind giving them the money, but I give them the money and it doesn't buy a thing. I still have to pay all their expenses and put up with their hassling. They come and bring their wives. And they don't go anyplace or do anything unless it's first-class."
The abuses multiplied. Under the stewardship of Sulaimán, a Mexican national of Lebanese descent who was educated in the U.S., the very ratings that gave the WBC its sole claim to recognition have become a mockery. The ruling powers of the WBA have not earned higher marks.
Sulaimán, 49, is a short, stout manufacturer of paper for specialized medical uses—e.g., electrocardiograms. His pleasant round face reflects riptides of emotion, shifting from great elation to abject embarrassment to deep depression. Everywhere, he sees enemies—people who dislike him, he says, because they are Communists or because he is Mexican. Or because they are against whatever he happens to be for at the moment. Or because their minds have been poisoned against him.
"With José, there are no in-betweens," says Bob Busse, president of the North American Boxing Federation, a member of the WBC. "He's on an ego trip. If you agree with him, you're his friend. If you disagree, you're his enemy."
Nevertheless, Sulaimán is generally thought to be a decent man. Indeed, he has done some good things for the sport: he has taken a special interest in ring safety; and he has instituted medical plans for boxers, required mandatory life insurance for them and, on occasion, has paid the medical bills of injured fighters. But his failings outweigh his positive actions. The trouble is, Sulaimán's instinct for decency is often easily overridden by a dread of being disliked. He wants to be loved, he wants to be regarded as a benevolent monarch. To those who bend the knee he dispenses favors.
The quirks of Sulaimán's complex character are most likely responsible for many of the mysteries of the WBC's ratings and its title-fight sanctioning, although to the objective observer these appear at times to be geopolitical payoffs in exchange for pledges of fidelity to good king José.