Washington hasn't been the site of a professional title fight in 24 years, but the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission keeps on trying--and flying, to destinations such as Italy, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic--in hopes of attracting a big-time bout to the nation's capital.
The little-known three-member commission spent $11,200 last year, about half its budget, attending boxing association meetings, which often lasted up to a week. Members say their goal was to strike up friendships with boxing promoters and boost the city's modest reputation in boxing circles--a reputation that wasn't helped by last month's aborted Michael Spinks-Eddie Mustafa Muhammad title fight.
"If there were no travel there would be no commission, because the boxing commission is part of an international situation," said Cora M. Wilds, chairman of the commission and a political science teacher at the University of the District of Columbia.
"If there's criticism about travel, I'm sorry, but we have to travel," said Wilds, noting that commission members draw no salary. "I have no apologies for that. If we didn't travel, we wouldn't know what in the hell was going on."
Mayor Marion Barry says he agrees that public officials must travel if they hope to attract prize fights to the District. He used the same argument in 1981 in explaining his use of D.C. Armory Board funds to pay for a trip to Las Vegas to attend the Sugar Ray Leonard-Tommy Hearns fight.
Washington never has had great success in attracting major fights, experts say, partly because of the city's high gross receipts tax and the dearth of local facilities to compete with boxing centers such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City. For those reasons, says Bobby Mitchell, a former Washington Redskins star and one-time member of the boxing commission, the commission can do little to promote major fights in Washington.
"It's almost like a joke," Mitchell said. "I just don't think the city is equipped to handle a major fight. . . . It doesn't really matter who the boxing commission chairman is. I just don't think this city will take a large fight."
City Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), author of the legislation that extended the life of the commission, contends that much of the travel, financed with tax revenues from boxing events, is a waste of time and provides the city with few tangible benefits.
"The cost for travel to all those conventions should be at their the commissioners' own expense," said Wilson. "The city doesn't get anything from it."
Boxing commissioners in some other states often pay their own way to association meetings, said Robert W. Lee, deputy commissioner of the New Jersey Athletic Commission.
"I've been paying my own way the last couple of years," said Lee. "You'll find more that have to spend their own money."
Michael G. Trainer, a fight promoter and lawyer who represented Sugar Ray Leonard, questions the notion that extensive traveling gives boxing officials an edge in luring major fights to their cities.
"In my experience in promotion , when I look at a market to put a fight in, it doesn't matter whether I know the boxing commissioner or not," Trainer said.
"It's whether the site makes sense."
The commission's primary legal responsibility is to regulate local professional and amateur fights.
Board members and others see the agency's role as also one of promoting local contests.
"If Cora's not out traveling, people will say she's not doing her job, and if she is, they'll say she's abusing her job," said Stuart Long, a local businessman and member of the D.C. Armory Board.
"I'd rather see her out traveling, selling the city."
Commissioner Burtell M. Jefferson, a retired D.C. police chief, said he thinks commission members should travel even more than they do.
"The only way to get to intimately know other promoters and matchmakers is through personal contact," Jefferson said.
Wilds, who was appointed to the commission by Barry 2 1/2 years ago and assumed the chairmanship this year, spent $3,748 last November on first class air fare to attend an eight-day World Boxing Council meeting in Venice, staying at the luxurious Hotel Bauer Grunwald.
Wilds said she was under a doctor's orders to fly first class so that she could stretch out and relieve pressure on her back, which had been injured.
This year Wilds attended a United States Boxing Association (USBA) executive committee meeting in New Orleans, Feb. 22 through 24, and the USBA's annual convention in Atlantic City, April 23 through 28.
"Traveling is very important because that's where you make the rules and regulations, that's where you meet the other commissioners and develop cooperation," said Wilds, who is a vice president of the USBA and a member of its rating committee.
Wilds recently helped devise a new "passport" system for the USBA that makes it difficult for boxers who have been suspended for medical reasons to fight under an assumed name.
Jefferson and former commission chairman York Van Nixon Jr., who left the board last month, attended World Boxing Association conventions in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, in October 1981 and in San Juan, Puerto Rico, last October.
The cost of the two trips totaled $2,346.
A few of the city-financed trips were to places somewhat closer to home. Nixon was reimbursed $300 for a three-day stay at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, where he attended a USBA convention.
Nixon was an official of the World Boxing Association while he served as chairman of the boxing commission. He was replaced on the commission last month by Hewitt V. Wilkinson, a U.S. Defense Department technician and one-time amateur boxer.
Wilds canceled the commission's membership in the WBA after she replaced Nixon as chairman. Both Wilds and Jefferson have been active in the relatively new USBA, which was founded by dissident members of the WBA.
Washington, a big league city for professional football and basketball, is a virtual backwater for professional prize fighting. There hasn't been a title fight here since 1959, when Joe Brown retained his lightweight title with an eighth-round knockout of Paolo Rosi at the old Capital Arena.
Part of the problem is that the city has difficulty competing with Las Vegas, Atlantic City and other casino gambling capitals that can offer major fight promoters such as Don King, Bob Arum and Butch Lewis much larger gates and more handsome profits from closed-circuit and cable television.
D.C. officials and fight experts say that even small-time promoters are discouraged from staging fights here because of high rentals and poor facilities at the D.C. Armory and the combination of a 6 percent city tax and 5 percent boxing commission tax on their gross receipts.
"We have a lot of good young fighters coming up who have to go elsewhere to get experience because a lot of the promoters are afraid to come here," said David Jacobs Jr., a veteran local fight trainer and manager.
"We don't get much publicity for fights and it costs so much money to have a professional fight in Washington that a lot of promoters just back off."
The City Council recently reduced from 10 percent to 5 percent the boxing commission tax on receipts from closed-circuit telecasts of boxing events as an incentive to attract matches. Also, officials of the new Washington Convention Center have purchased a professional boxing ring with an eye to attracting prize fights to the city.
But for the time being, the fight game in Washington remains dismal.
Last year's schedule of professional boxing matches sanctioned by the boxing commission illustrates that point.
Of the seven bouts held in Washington, only one involved a fighter who is ranked. Lloyd Taylor, a welterweight from Washington who is ranked 18th by the World Boxing Council, knocked out unranked Stanley Hewey in the second round at the Bertie Backus Junior High School on South Dakota Avenue NE.
Barry put his administration's prestige on the line this year in persuading promoter Lewis to schedule a light-heavyweight championship fight July 15 at the D.C. Armory between champion Michael Spinks and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. The city spent $15,500 on a prefight promotional reception at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel alone.
But the mayor's dream that the contest would spark a boxing renaissance in Washington evaporated when the fight had to be called off at the last minute because a puffy Muhammad couldn't make the weight limit.
Barry was angered and embarrassed by the cancellation and the stormy controversy that ensued.
"You know how no one was supposed to talk about the Mary Treadwell trial around the mayor?" asked a high-ranking mayoral aide, referring to the recent federal court conviction of Barry's ex-wife. "Well, no one is supposed to talk about that fight either."
Lewis told reporters after the debacle that he still wants to stage a championship bout here. But Wilds acknowledges the cancellation was a major setback for the city.
"I haven't given up trying to get another title fight here," she said. "We've got a jinx on our name now. It's very disheartening to me. . . . It wasn't our fault and we deserve to get a championship fight so I'm still pushing."
Washington Post staff writer Ted Gup also contributed to this article.