These are unusual times in professional boxing, when the world is calling for reform. Even Howard Cosell, who made a fortune announcing telecasts of the sport, says he's seen enough of blood and sleaze and wants out.
The public reeled when Duk Koo Kim died after a bout on national television Nov. 13.
After the death, after the hammering of Randall Cobb and Alexis Arguello in November title bouts, after Cosell's bitter departure speech and again last week after Mike Weaver claimed he was robbed in a one-round loss of his World Boxing Association heavyweight title, questions arose about the safety, integrity and direction of the world's oldest and simplest sport.
Inherent in the uproar was speculation about change. The World Boxing Council responded by cutting its title fights from 15 to 12 rounds and instituting a standing eight-count to help out fighters in extremis. On Monday it ordered its top 20 fighters to submit medical records in 60 days or be banned from title fights. The rival WBA has made no changes.
While the WBC's efforts are not insignificant, boxing so far has done nothing about other extremely important matters. Included in the seemingly endless list of issues and answers are: how some fighters attain their high rankings; the lack of a central repository of information for accurate records of boxers' careers, universal medical standards and specifications for prefight physicals; there are no pensions for boxers and no enforced safety standards for rings, equipment, officiating and judging, no standards for pay or benefits and no way of assuring that fighters will get what they have been promised.
Few expect that to change.
"I don't see anything but cosmetic changes," said Mike Trainer, who managed the career of retired welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard. Trainer believes few people care about fighters except the fighters themselves, and they are ill-equipped to do anything.
"Fighters are unsophisticated," he said. "They need more protection than the average athlete but they don't know what to look for and they are the least likely to organize into a union. They're at the mercy of anyone who happens to be there."
In other sports, Trainer said, a concerned public might speak up if athletes were being exploited. Boxers have few, if any, advocates.
"When a kid gets killed in the ring it doesn't worry the average guy in Bethesda," said Trainer. "He knows his son isn't going to get involved in that kind of thing. But let a kid fall off a trampoline at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High and it's front-page news for a week."
Trainer thought public reaction to the death of Kim was short-lived sensationalism. "Don't show me what they said 72 hours afterward," he said. "Show me what they're saying 72 days afterward."
Yet the string of high-visibility incidents of the last six weeks has focused attention on the workings of boxing, a business Trainer calls "the best and worst of capitalism and free enterprise."
It's clear that problems go beyond controversial title fights. Boxing defies significant reform because it really isn't a system; it's a freewheeling mishmash of local rulemakers, self-regulating international sanctioning bodies and self-interested promoters.
The international sanctioning bodies are the WBA and WBC, which run title fights. The ratings they assign to fighters determine who gets a title shot and a big payday. Both governing bodies are headquartered in Latin America and are entities unto themselves. Their principal allegiance often is to the promoters with whom they work.
Specifically, promoter Bob Arum has close ties to the WBA and promoter Don King is closely allied with the WBC.
King and Arum promote most title fights in the United States. They make the matches, rent the arenas, sell the television rights and pay the fighters. For giving their stamp of approval the WBA and WBC earn a percentage of the purses.
In the eyes of many, the association is so close it allows the promoters to exert influence in determining which fighters get ranked. It's a treacherous circle. If a fighter is good, one of the major promoters will bargain to promote his fights; the fighter wants to become allied with the promoter to help get good bouts and become ranked.
Meantime, the manager who handled the fighter on his way up may get left by the wayside, and the fighter who decides he'd rather not tie himself to one of the big promoters may get left behind, too.
When two promoters handle the careers of so many of the top boxers, it raises eyebrows. "I don't know how the government allows certain promoters to control so many fighters," said Mort Sharnick, who does the matchmaking for CBS-TV, which carried Kim's fatal title fight against champion Ray Mancini. "It seems to me to be clearly in restraint of trade."
Sometimes rankings seem to owe more to expediency than merit. Kim's rating as No. 1 contender for Mancini's WBA lightweight title baffled many. He had never fought outside the Orient in compiling a 17-1-1 record. He was not even listed in the Ring Record Book, the Bible of boxing, nor was he ranked in the top 10 by Ring.
Yet Kim won a title shot, for which he was to be paid $20,000, a pittance for a televised championship bout.
The existence of the two superpromoters and two governing bodies works in other ways to complicate boxing. For example, with the retirement of Leonard there were two legitimate contenders for the welterweight title--No. 1-ranked Milt McCrory and No. 2 Donald Curry.
In a sensible world it would seem that they would fight for the undisputed title. Instead, the WBC announced that Curry failed to sign to fight McCrory in a reasonable time, so WBC slated a fight for its title between McCrory and Colin Jones of Britain, ranked seventh by Ring.
Meantime, Curry was said to be negotiating to fight for the WBA title with the winner of an upcoming bout between fifth-ranked Pipino Cuevas and unranked Roberto Duran. The Nos. 3 and 4 contenders, Roger Stafford and Marlon Starling, don't get to fight anyone.
The apparent intent is to establish two world titlists, doubling the potential revenues for title defenses. Few expect McCrory and Curry ever to fight for the undisputed title.
In addition to the ratings mess, boxing lacks a universal law or policy on the mechanics of fighting. Rules and medical requirements for individual fights are left to state and local governing bodies and, in some cases, no oversight agency at all. Virginia has a state commission (which recently dropped out of the WBA, along with several other states and Canada); Florida has city boxing commissions; South Carolina has no commission at all.
Each state keeps its own records, most extremely limited, so there is no central repository for information on boxers. That is not a problem at the top levels, where the press and television keep track of a fighter's progress, but it leaves a void at the lower levels.
With no one else doing it, one Ralph Citro, a cut man and insurance agent from Blackwood, N.J., bought a computer and started keeping results of every fight he could get his hands on.
Now some state agencies are calling him to find out about fighters seeking to box in their states and Citro is learning some interesting things.
Most states insist that after a fighter is knocked out he take off at least 30 days to recover. Nice rule if it worked, "But I can tell you about a guy who fights under eight different names," said Citro.
"Listen to this. Here's a kid from Columbus, Ohio. On April 19 in Sterling Heights, Ohio, he's knocked out in the first round; on May 13 in Danville, Ill., he's knocked out in the second; on May 22 in Detroit he's knocked out in the second by the same guy who knocked him out in Sterling Heights. Three knockouts in a month, and I've got a stack (of cases) like that an inch and a half high."
Recently, Citro kept a middleweight from fighting in suburban Virginia. Doug Beavers, the executive secretary of the state commission, was unable to trace the fighter's record. Finally he called Citro, whose computer showed that the fighter had had seven bouts in 1982 and lost them all, six by knockout. Beavers disqualified him.
Citro said he recently sent out 1,000 questionnaires to boxing people (commissioners, promoters, managers, trainers) around the country asking the question, "Are you in favor of a national boxing commission?" Of 347 replies, he reported, 340 said yes, seven said no.
And indeed, throughout the fight game and mainstream America there is a feeling that someone needs to gain control of boxing and take it out of the hands of those to whom the test of a good fight is simply how much money it will make.
The question is how to set up a national commission. Generally, the feeling is that the federal government will not and ought not get involved, having more pressing matters to attend to.
Fight people expect that if a national boxing oversight organization evolves, it will emerge from a decision by the state commissions to band together under a common commissioner. The best result, according to Trainer, would be a national commission with the power to rank fighters, document their records and establish uniform rules and an arbitration system for disputes.
"That would put the test on whoever wants to run a fight to prove that it's a credible match," said Trainer. "You couldn't fly someone in from Argentina that nobody ever heard of and call it a title fight. They (the commission) would say, 'Show us the films, the records. If you don't have them you can still run the fight. But you can't run it in this country.' "
But there are jealousies and rivalries among the states. With Nevada, New Jersey, Texas and California getting most of the money from the sport, they are unlikely to band with boxing-poor states to set up regulations that in the end could deny them capital.
As Trainer puts it, "In boxing, if you open a door all it does is lead to another door."
If nothing changes soon, even Arum predicts boxing will collapse under its own complicated weight. He favors establishment of a federal commission on grounds the current system creates an "opportunity for corruption."
Without major reform within the next two years, said Arum, corruption will become so widespread that "the networks and pay TV will run away from boxing," exactly as Cosell did.
And once wealthy television abandons ship, said Arum, there will be nothing left to keep it afloat.