This morning a House subcommittee goes to work on boxing safety. Yes, Uncle Sam is $200 billion in debt with 12 million relatives out of work. Yes, he gets itchy if he thinks the other side can blow up the world more times than he can. So boxing safety is no big deal on the Hill. But it's about time Uncle Sam stuck his nose into this one again.
The last thing anyone wants is for Uncle to create a hundred levels of bureaucracy to make sure fighters don't hurt each other. Deliver us, please, from a bureaucracy that would grow, like a cauliflower ear, with civil-servant clerks, accountants, lawyers, inspectors and enforcers--all the baggage Uncle Sam packs to walk across the street.
Yet something needs be done. We saw Duk Koo Kim, Alexis Arguello and Tex Cobb. No game is uglier than this one. If boxing won't help itself, the elected representatives of a civilized society (to use a phrase semiloosely) ought to show that someone cares about a sport that, done right, makes us better for having been there. Whatever savage instinct Joe Louis carried to work served us well, as did the magic of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.
So often is the game done wrong, though, that boxing is an inviting target for condemnation. The litany of grief, anger and accusation is sadly familiar. When Benny Paret died and then Willie Classen and now Duk Koo Kim, when Tex Cobb was overmatched against Larry Holmes, there was wailing heard across the country. And what was the result?
Howard Cosell said he wanted no more to do with boxing. One association cut 15-rounders to 12 rounds. The dark wheel kept spinning.
Because hardly anyone cares. That is the harsh, clear, undeniable truth. If they cared, this game that lives in the dark would be brought into the light. Cosell calls the fight managers and promoters sleazy. His kindness is awesome. He testified to Congress on this subject a decade ago (nothing happened) and he testifies again today (anticipating, one suspects, only a nice trip to this wintry wonderland).
The parasites and merchants of sleaze run the game. States abdicate their responsibility by creating political-hack boxing commissions that bow to promoters and managers. Instead of having an autonomous association that ranks fighters according to their abililites, we have competing groups whose rankings reflect outside influences such as managerial connections and television commitments.
Out, out, damned spot. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently carried an editorial urging the banning of boxing. Too many fighters suffered brain damage, the editorial said. Too many died. How can a civilized society condone a sport that holds as its object the infliction of punishment on another human being?
There are answers here. Curiously, they are provided by an earlier study approved by the AMA. That study concluded, "Boxing is a dangerous sport that can result in death or chronic brain injury. However, other sports may also result in accidental death or brain injury . . . (Boxing) does not seem any more dangerous than other sports presently accepted by society."
According to AMA data, fewer boxers die in competition (per 1,000 participants) than college football players and jockeys.
Congress doesn't need to pass laws on boxing. It needs only to turn the spotlight on the dark game. Light the cellar. Show that someone cares enough to help the game that can't help itself.
Congress can help by demanding safety changes: thumbless gloves, two-minute rounds, rigorous medical examinations of the most sophisticated type, standing eight counts, doctors with authority to stop fights, uniform record-keeping and single-source rankings.
Innocents may think this is overstated, that surely a professional sport of national interest is more than a parasite's playground.
In that case, let's give one example of how the system is liable to corruption.
Let's say a state boxing commissioner wants to know the career record of a palooka from Peoria.
He wants to know because he is concerned for the palooka's health.
That's a laugh right away. What most boxing commissioners know about boxing would pass through the eye of a needle. Their concern for a palooka's health isn't quite that big.
Anyway, say such a paragon cares about this palooka. He suspects the fighter is on the shady side of 30. He wonders if a flabby, mumbling guy really has won 24 fights and lost only 11. "Never been knocked out," Peoria Palooka promises. "You could look it up."
A boxing magazine says the old boy is 24-11.
The old boy's manager hands over newspaper clippings saying 24-11.
But the commish is still worried (this guy is a saint), and he wants to get the last, official word on Peoria Palooka's career.
Football questions go to Pete Rozelle, baseball calls Bowie Kuhn.
The boxing commish calls an insurance agent in New Jersey.
That agent is the only man in America who keeps anything like official boxing records. He does it with his home computer, getting results out of newspapers and by phone calls.
This man, Ralph Citro, is not a member of any boxing commission. He does not work for any state. He likes boxing enough to be a cut man for fighters and to know that boxing needs help to protect itself against itself.
Recently, Citro said, he figured out that a palooka had fought under eight different names. And not long ago a boxing commissioner called him about a fighter whose manager was looking for a payday.
Citro discovered the fighter had been knocked out three times in a month. This in a time when most states, in cosmetic reply to the wailings, have rules saying fighters can't get in the ring for 30 days after a knockout.
"I've got a stack of those cases an inch and a half high," Citro said.