It's Time For The Feds To Step Into The Ring

Although no one will ever confuse it with croquet, professional boxing seems to have made great strides since 1962, when the late Estes Kefauver launched a Senate probe of a sport he called "infested by racketeers and hoodlums." Some of boxing's more sordid figures are out of the picture. Convicted rapist Mike Tyson, whose quick hands made him a great heavyweight in the ring and a lousy role model outside it, is sitting in jail. And his manager and promoter, Don Iing, hasn't been heard from in a while. Riddick Bowe, the new undisputed heavyweight champ, seems as squeaky-clean as a new pair of gloves.

But don't be sucker-punched. Boxing remains stuck in a Runyonesque time warp. Just as they did in the days of the Kefauver Committee, the states still regulate the sport inconsistently, and mobsters still lurk in the corners of the ring, undisturbed by the legitimate businesses that make millions from the sweet science.

So little has changed, in fact, that it's time for the feds to step in. Self-policing has been a failure. As Steve Farhood, editor of the boxing bible, The Ring, points out: "What could the government do to boxing that it hasn't already done to itself?"

ALPHABET SOUP. It's hard to know where to begin listing boxing's woes. After all these years, the fight game still hasn't set up an authoritative governing body. Instead, an alphabet soup of sanctioning organizations still holds sway. The Mexico-based World Boxing Council, the Venezuela-based World Boxing Assn., and the International Boxing Federation, headquartered in New Jersey, are the three dominant bodies. Each issues its own ratings and is more concerned with advancing its interests than in setting up a credible system of challengers and champions.

The sanctioning bodies have been known to deny reality rather than lose a meal ticket. Consider the 1990 heavyweight title fight between Tyson and James "Buster" Douglas. Tyson was knocked down and counted out, but WBC President Jose Sulaiman didn't want to lose a crowd-pleaser such as Tyson, so he refused to recognize the fight's result. Only public outrage persuaded Sulaiman to award Douglas the WBC title he earned in the ring.

More important than the integrity of ratings and championships, boxing's haphazard regulation threatens boxers' lives. In September, 1986, the Maryland State Athletic Commission suspended former WBC welterweight champion Wilfredo Benitez when a postbout medical examination found evidence that he was irreversibly punch-drunk. But just 10 weeks later, the cash-strapped Benitez fought in Argentina. He later fought in Canada, until authorities there questioned his fitness to fight.

A federal boxing commission could intercede to protect fighters such as Benitez from themselves. By maintaining a data base of fights and issuing a boxing "passport"--a record of up-to-date medical and fight history--a federal body could prevent an injured or unlicensed fighter from hopping state lines to fight. And while a desperate boxer could still seek out a bout in another country, he would be less likely to find a willing promoter if the U.S. had deemed him unfit for the ring.

The commission could attempt to bring the three main sanctioning bodies under one umbrella organization. At the least, it could force them to negotiate every time one threatens to stage a fight that would result in, say, two middleweight titleholders. And with a federal agency investigating obvious mismatches, the boxing organizations would be less quick to send a palooka out to battle a champ. Armed with subpoena power, the commission could also license referees and hold hearings anytime a fighter is robbed of a clear victory. It probably should stay out of the actual ranking of boxers, leaving that to the sportswriters.

MONEY LAUNDRY. Federal intervention could also address Kefauver's main concern--organized crime. Mobsters still fix fights or try to use bouts to launder money, according to Michael Franzese, an admitted former capo in the Colombo crime family. Franzese told a Senate panel in August: "Boxing will always hold an interest for organized crime, but organized crime figures are becoming increasingly reluctant to get involved in activities monitored by the federal government."

Senator William V. Roth (R-Del.) plans more hearings, and a bill to regulate the sport could follow. ESPN, Time-Warner, and other cable-TV interests that profit mightily from boxing would do well to get behind such legislation. For one thing, it's good business: Public cynicism and confusion about the sport keep the fan base down.

It's also the right thing to do. The TV outlets that feature boxing owe something to the fighters. The average fighter is an inner-city kid who's tossed aside when his talents are spent. If most boxers were white and middle-class, odds are that a fighters' union would have been formed by now to protect the athletes' interests. And maybe then, the lords of boxing wouldn't be so quick to forget their gladiators when they can no longer answer the bell.

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