The fight game has been pounded and pummeled by some classic scandals over the years. But many inhabitants of the often seamy world of professional boxing invariably describe the sport's latest problems -- particularly the MAPS affair -- as something other than another boxing scandal.
"It's not a boxing scandal, it's a banking scandal," says Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Muhammad Ali's former doctor, now a fight consultant for NBC Sports.
Briefly, the allegationis that promoter/matchmaker Harold J. Smith and some friendly officers at the Wells Fargo Bank teamed up to embezzle about $21.3 million over the past three years, according to a bank suit. The money allegedly was used to finance Smith's jets, cars and condos and the fantastic purses he paid fighters to hoist high the banner of his company, Muhammad Ali Professional Sports Inc. (MAPS).
Smith, the 37-year-old central character in the complex drama, masked his recently modest past in Alabama with trendy clothes and a lavish lifestyle.
For a while, Smith's aggressive, free-spending ways confused and worried such top boxing promoters as Bob Arum and Don King, himself reportedly under FBI investigation in a case involving alleged profit-skimming from boxing events he promoted.
Whatever the outcome of the litigation and the FBI investigation currently under way in Los Angeles, the affair is a reaffirmation of a boxing business golden rule: There's no such thing as financial excess -- if you can get away with it.
Unlike football, baseball, tennis or just about any other major professional sport, boxing is virtually unregulated. Even the nominal leadership of professional boxing is split between rival factions, the World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Association. Then there are the various state commissions, which generally are viewed as toothless.
The result is a laissez-faire atmosphere that makes promoters beholding to almost no one.
The basic elements used by a promoter in putting together a big-time fight deal are simple enough. They include a champion and a challenger, a hall, television rights, and as many advertisements as can be fit on a pair of boxing trunks or a ring post.
And perhaps most important, there has to be a multimillion dollar purse to generate headlines for weeks before the fight.
But while the elements are pretty much the same for all championship bouts, it's the fine hand of the promoter that makes each fight unique.
The first trick is getting the champion to agree to a fight, says Pacheco. The promoter does this, he says, "by maintaining a steady drizzle of lies."
The promoter, says Pacheco, tells a challenger that he has the champion lined up and he tells the chanpion that he has a network willing to pay millions to carry the fight. In the meantime, he is trying to convince CBS or NBC and ABC to broadcast the fight by telling them he has the champion and the challenger in his pocket. "And all this time, he's lying like crazy," says Pacheco.
"There are no poor promoters around," says Bob Holloran, director of sports and special events for Caesars World in Los Angeles, which promotes many fights at its hotel-casino in Las Vegas, including 12 championship bouts in 1980. "When a promoter goes to a fighter's manager and he agrees to pay X amount, the manager or the fighter doesn't have any idea what the promoter is getting for site rights, television, advertising or anything else."
One notable exception, of course, is Sugar Ray Leonard. Leonard's manager, Mike Trainer, a Silver Spring attorney, even provides his boxer-client with a weekly printout detailing his financial condition.
In Leonard's first bout with Roberto Duran last June, Trainer decided he wanted to put all the elements together to make at least $7.5 million for Sugar Ray.
Trainer did this despite King, who represented challenger Duran, and the presence of Arum, who was brought in because he is an expert in putting together closed-circuit television deals.
The bottom line, according to Trainer, who is unusually candid, in discussing fight finances, was that Leonard made about $10 million, Duran $1.5 million and the two rival promoters about $1 million each.
But the Montreal Olympic Stadium, which paid $3.5 million to stage the fight, reportedly was unable to cover its costs with gate receipts. Still, the loss to Montreal was nothing compared with that suffered at the Superdome in New Orleans, which staged the Leonard-Duran rematch in November.
With Duran the champion and Leonard the challenger, King struck the deal with Hyatt Management Corp., which operates the Superdome. The two fighters were guaranteed $17.2 million -- $7 million to Leonard and $10 million to Duran/King.
It was a disaster for Hyatt, with rows of seats left empty in the cavernous Superdome and at a record 365 closed-circuit sites around the world. The privately owned Hyatt company does not publish its financial results, but boxing industry sources estimate the loss was as high as $8 million.
Denzil Skinner, who signed the deal for Hyatt and now works in a Hyatt subsidiary called Facility Enterprises in McLean, Va., says bitterly, "You've seen the last of guaranteed purses for a long time."
Skinner, who clearly has given the New Orleans fiasco a lot of thought in the months since, blames his troubles on three factors: "There had been lousy television reception on the first Leonard-Duran fight, which caused customers to stay away for the second one. Ticket prices kept going up because we were crazy enough to pay guarantees. And the economic times were not the best."
Even as the managements of Montreal's Olympic Stadium and New Orleans' Superdome lick their wounds, Madison Square Garden has made a bid to return to big-time boxing after two years out of it. The Garden was rented by Harold Smith's MAPS for a card featuring a fight between Gerry Cooney and Ken Norton on Feb. 23. Now, with MAPS under a cloud, the Garden is hustling to make its own deal with the two heavyweight contenders. It's a measure of what's happened to boxing in recent years that the Garden has relied on Smith to promote a fight, instead of promoting itself, as it would have only a fews years ago.
Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Caesars Palace has discovered that big-time boxing attracts big-time gamblers, and the combination of the two has translated to big profits in the casino.
In a recent letter to shareholders, the parent company, Caesars World Inc., crowed: "In October, Caesars Palace achieved gaming revenues of $29 million, the record win in a single month by a U.S. casino."
The report went on to give credit to the Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes fight of Oct. 2, which produced gate receipts of $6.2 million. What was not mentioned was that high rollers were given complimentary fight tickets, which ranged from $25 to $500 apiece. The company figured correctly that the gamblers would more than cover the investment by their losses at the tables.
But the success of boxing, like just about every other sport, hinges on television revenues. This means that the promoters must schedule the fights to please television executives. And, currently, the networks are scheduling matches during their weekend afternoon sports anthology programs.
"Nobody goes to the Garden to see a fight at 3 p.m.," moans Teddy Brenner, who for 20 years was the Garden's matchmaker and recently joined Arum's Top Rank organization.
But fight promoters now see a day when they won't be beholden to network executives and when crowds at ringside will be there for sound effects, not revenues.
"The big, big payoff is what we call pay-per-view, when viewers pay for each program. That's the future," says Arum, his voice rising with emotion. "By June there'll be $800,000 to $900,000 on it. In a couple of years, $3 million to $4 million."
That's the future. For now, however, the members of the fight game are watching with fascination the developments in Los Angeles. With each day, the bizarre MAPS affair has produced a steady flow of questions, but few answers. And while veteran promoters are quick to dismiss Harold Smith, who enjoyed bad-mouthing them during his brief stay in the big time, they wonder about what role Muhammad Ali played in the affair.
Smith reportedly came to Ali's attention in 1967 when Smith gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to protest the champion being stripped of his title after his refusal to be drafted into the military.
Ali has said that he merely lent the organization his name, and that recently he, too had become suspicious of its finances and had launched his own informal probe of MAPS.
But there are those who think Ali had to suspect that Maps was not an altogether legitimate operation.
In the fight game, however, history has shown that legitimacy is strictly in the eye of the beholder.