Boxing’s biggest turkeys
I am a contrarian. Instead of giving thanks today, I am going to point out past failings. Boxing is portrayed as the red light district of sports, with great movies and books chronicling the back stabbing, dirty dealings and other emotional plays on the exploitation of a vulnerable workforce. The real scandals are mostly self-inflicted wounds, done by the minority that reinforce stereotypes many hold but are largely mythical today. To ignore corruptions is to feed into storylines of suppression and it is better to know than to give conspiracy theories ammunition by ignoring valid history. Given the 150-year history of Queensberry boxing rules, it is impossible to chronicle all and some big fiascos have lost their relevance or importance with time.
Don’t let the title confuse; this is not a list of boxers who did not make the grade, after being touted by others, or themselves, as the saviors of boxing. I don’t trivialize people for failing to meet others’ expectations and behind many unmet expectations are hidden issues of which fans and journalists are not aware until the boxer has withdrawn from public life. Nor do I list infamous boxing deaths, like Duk Koo Kim or Benny Paret, as they are in no way a premeditated product, like most scandals. The 10 cases I focus on are of historical import and, in two cases, ventured into societal realms that irrevocably influenced culture.
The Riot at Madison Square Garden (1996) – From the outset of boxing, through the 1980s, riots at world title fights were not unheard of, as incidents in London (Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. Alan Minter) or Los Angeles (Lionel Rose vs. Chucho Castillo, David Kotey vs. Ruben Olivares) show. We thought that was in the past and HBO’s high visibility platform vividly brought the scenes to life. A rowdy crowd of Polish Andrew Golota supporters and hometown Riddick Bowe fans, engaged in a melee after Golota was disqualified for low blows. The Polish side’s disappointment was magnified by Golota looking superior before a valid disqualification and seemingly destined for a career-defining victory. They also reacted to Riddick Bowe’s corner rushing the ring, then physically confronting Golota (who suffered an 11-stitch gash to the back of his head, after being hit with a walkie-talkie by a Bowe entourage member) and his trainers. That triggered a racially tinged riot, which rendered a weak Madison Square Garden security staff impotent. The HBO crew took cover under a table, with George Foreman protecting Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley from projectiles and kicks. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was rushed to a dressing room and the violence only ended when riot police showed up. They helped more than 20 injured to a hospital and made 16 arrests.
The bankrupting of Shelby (1923) – Usually boxing is a self-harmer but, in this case, was responsible for the financial ruin of a city. As with casinos today, in the 1920s, it was sensible to announce yourself on the national stage, as a choice destination, by hosting a world title fight. The Montana town of Shelby thought it a good idea too, in order to draw real estate developers, but it backfired with popular heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey’s title defense against Tommy Gibbons. Hall of Fame manager Doc Kearns and promoter Tex Rickard milked the oil-infused prairie town out of $300,000 before a punch was thrown. The logistical staging was inept, with special trains and a 40,000-seat stadium adding to the cost, and boxing fans did not travel for an ordinary title defense against a little-known foe. Only 7,702 paid to attend; another 13,000 scaled temporary barriers since ticket prices were too high for many city residents. Local business investors and banks (four went out of existence because of their financing) got zero return on their investments, going into forfeiture leveraging too much to sustain their losses. Shelby still exists but has not lived down the humiliation, in state lore.
Don King’s manipulation of THE RING Magazine’s rankings (1977) – Because of this disgrace, THE RING Magazine’s rankings are done differently today, empowering a diverse international panel to prevent tampering. The ratings were first imagined as a topical reference for fans, not a deciding factor in match-ups. That changed when Don King made a deal with THE RING, employing its rankings to televise a “United States Boxing Championship” for which ABC paid 1.5 million dollars. King then manipulated the previously respected rankings, bringing boxers aligned or managed by him into the top 10. King told Sports Illustrated, “I needed their reputation and their ratings and their sanction to give validity and authority to the tournament.” Eleven boxers had falsified won-loss records, while legitimate contenders like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who refused to sign with Don King, were ignored. It came to a head when King-promoted Johnny Boudreaux got a gift decision against non-King boxer Scott LeDoux, who crashed the post-fight interview accusing the competition of being manipulated. It spurned investigative journalists (mostly Malcolm “Flash” Gordon and Alex Wallau) into action, uncovering the ranking manipulations that imploded the tourney and ruined THE RING’s previously impeccable reputation.
The IBF racketeering conviction (1999) – Once again, it was rankings manipulations. THE RING Magazine scandal elevated the sanctioning body rankings, in many people’s eyes, that determine title shots, which were at the heart of this betrayal. The FBI monitored Bob Lee (founder of the IBF) and three other officials for years, gaining convictions of all four men on money laundering and tax evasion. They proved Lee took bribes and extorted others, in the cases of at least 23 boxers and seven promoters, in order to hand out title shots through his influence. Famously, Top Rank CEO Bob Arum testified that he paid Lee $100,000 to sanction George Foreman’s title defense against unknown German Axel Schulz. The IBF remains a force today but was initially put under government control after Lee was sentenced to two years in prison and given a lifetime ban from boxing.
The loaded gloves of Luis Resto and Antonio Margarito (1983 and 2009) – Movies scenes are based on the loaded gloves theory and our highest visibility cases are of Resto and Margarito. With Resto, many claim, it led to an indirect loss of life, while Margarito’s cheating only brought a public shaming and questions over the validity of previous victories. Undefeated prospect Billy Collins Jr. never boxed again (suffering a torn iris and permanent vision loss), falling into a deep depression after the Resto loss. Collins died in a driving accident, a year later, that friends claim was suicide. Sadly for Collins, the cheating was only discovered after the fight, when his father shook hands and felt the padding in Resto’s gloves had been removed. Resto and conspiring trainer Panama Lewis spent two years in prison and were both suspended from participation ringside in boxing for life. Margarito’s cheating, using a hardened knuckle pad, was luckily discovered by trainer Naazim Richardson (with the substance lab-proven to be Plaster of Paris-like, which hardens when moistened by sweat) before his fight with Shane Mosley. Most are convinced this was not a one-off betrayal by Margarito, a logic validated by Miguel Cotto easily defeating Margarito in their rematch, which came after the Mosley revelation.
Jack Johnson’s conviction (1912) – In this case, the outside world of politics and the era’s social morays crashed into our sport, although boxing’s big players did little to stop the institutional racism, as it suited their profit-driven motives. Famously, Johnson was the first African-American world heavyweight champion and did not respect or bow to racist standards of the time. The ruling class wanted Johnson gone. Since they could not find a white challenger to beat him in the ring, the American justice system was used to unseat Johnson instead. Johnson’s flamboyance aided racist oppressors (I do not write that as a condemnation), as he was convicted of transporting a white woman over state lines for immoral purposes. An all-white jury found Johnson guilty, sentencing him to prison, which he avoided by fleeing to Europe. The exiled Johnson continued to fight, in France, Argentina, Spain and Cuba but, seven years later, returned to America to serve a one-year prison sentence.
“The Bite Fight” (1997) – The life and career of Mike Tyson could have a Top 10 of its own, given his rape case and emotional press conference or interview outbursts. It was The Bite Seen Around the World that caught the public’s gory imagination. Tyson’s frustrations built up like a pressure cooker, after his first loss to Evander Holyfield, boiling over into a near-act of cannibalism, when Tyson felt the second fight ebbing away. Boxing became a worldwide butt of jokes, from late-night television to water cooler conversations against which boxing fans had to defend themselves. Tyson was first enraged by a second round headbutt, resulting in a cut, and Tyson believed headbutts were why he lost the first encounter. In round three, Tyson retaliated, taking an initial nibble at Holyfield’s ear, for which referee Mills Lane deducted two points. The bout was allowed to continue and, a minute later, Tyson bit Holyfield’s right ear tearing cartilage off and spitting it out. This time, Tyson was disqualified, as was the sport of boxing for a large part of the 1990s because of his actions.
Muhammad Ali loses boxing license over Vietnam protest (1967) – Ali was on the right side of history and today Colin Kaepernick and others’ social protests are compared with Ali’s. Fifty years ago, Ali was the undefeated and reigning world heavyweight champion but refused to step forward and serve, when drafted by the U.S. Army. Ali was at the height of his athletic ability and earning power and spent the next three years in a courtroom, instead of a boxing ring. It happened because The New York State Athletic Commission, then the most influential boxing body, cowardly opted to revoke Ali’s license before he was ever convicted of a crime. The loquacious Ali proved he could make money with his mouth alone, going on speaking engagements to pay his bills and remain a burr under the government’s saddle.
Mob affiliations – Many tie boxing to the mob with vigor and sometimes appropriately so. There are proven cases of preordained outcomes involving world champions Primo Carnera (manipulated by mobsters Owney Madden and Dutch Schultz) and Jake LaMotta (Frankie Carbo told him to take a dive against Billy Fox for $20,000 and promised a title shot against Marcel Cerdan), though LaMotta inhibited his skill for the mob, while poor Carnera thought he won on merit. Frankie Carbo lorded over boxing for 15 years, as the real power behind the International Boxing Club. While Carbo may not have had a hand in hundreds of high-level outcomes, he surely played a role in whom received title shots or boxers given a helping hand up along the way. Boxing came good in the end, with Carbo jailed for 25 years, but it created an image of corruption, portrayed in many mediums, that lingers to this day.
Inept or bribed judges at the Olympics and in world title fights – There is nothing worse than the implication of corruption at boxing’s biggest or most viewed events. Unfortunately, that list is long and ignominious (starting with Australia’s Reginald Baker in the 1908 London Olympics) and, every four years, seems to add an additional entry, despite promises to the contrary. At the most recent Olympics, Irish star Michael Conlan lost controversially and, in just fashion, retaliated by flipping the judges an accusatory middle finger. In the recent past, future American greats like Roy Jones Jr., Evander Holyfield and Floyd Mayweather Jr. felt the pain of bad decisions. These men escaped to professionalism, in the misplaced belief that it will be better in the paid ranks. Not true, of course, as the list of bad judging in the pros is longer and equally unjust. That subject merits a Top 100 list all its own, so let me get to work on that, while everyone enjoys a fantastic Thanksgiving!