There’s nothing boxing loves more than a phony maudlin farewell. After a death, in the midst of everyone screwing everyone else, the industry pauses for a moment to feign grief for “one of their own” before going right back to their dirty work.
Sometimes, that grief is well-founded and proper. Sometimes, though, it shows you just how phony and superficial the fight game can be.
Last Thursday, WBC President for Life, Jose Sulaiman, died at the age of 82.
Beloved by like-minded creeps and easily-swayed dolts, Sulaiman was, by no means, a popular figure among knowledgeable boxing people. Still, social media was overrun with tearful farewells and touching tributes.
Several websites ran blindly with a WBC-issued death announcement painting the long-time boxing bureaucrat as a “man of integrity, honorability and pure heart.”
“Don” Jose Sulaiman, though, was no friend of boxing. Not by a long shot.
Born to Lebanese immigrants in Mexico, a young, wealthy, well-fed Sulaiman found a thrill in the rough and seedy world of boxing. After a brief run as an amateur boxer, the young hustler really hit his stride when he found a place on the boxing commission in San Luis Potosi, Mexico at the age of 16. There, he learned the ins and outs of the boxing business and all of the accompanying hustles to be found. As timekeeper, referee, and judge, the young Sulaiman learned every angle of the sport and excelled in his boxing internship before being sent abroad to be educated in American universities.
Upon returning to Mexico, he dabbled in his parent’s business before eventually getting back into the boxing biz. In 1968 he joined up with the WBC. Seven years later, he was unanimously elected president of the organization. He never looked back from there.
As WBC figurehead, Sulaiman found his calling as the perfect stooge. Intimidating and domineering to underlings, yet subservient to the money men and power brokers who really run the show, Sulaiman served as the ideal buffer between the public and those calling the shots.
Like the middleman in a mob stolen merchandise operation, Sulaiman allowed for one set of crooks to bring stuff in the back door and then arranged for it to be pushed out the front door by another set of crooks, all the while he smiled, lived large, and developed a reputation among colleagues as a swell guy because he threw mighty tips at waitresses and really knew how to show visiting big shots a good time.
His accomplishments in the sport (twelve round bouts, thumbless gloves, same day weigh-ins, the creation of “junior” and “super” weight divisions, and the funding of brain injury research programs at UCLA) are far outweighed by a massive, literally too-large-to-list legacy of improper conduct and convenient incompetence. Many would even argue that most of his “accomplishments” as WBC president were actually setbacks to the sport.
At any rate, a list of rotten WBC decisions under the reign of Sulaiman could fill several volumes, but would all follow the same pattern. Big money talked and Sulaiman never failed to err in favor of the money. Famous fighters with powerful connections suddenly found themselves with high rankings, deserving fighters without the right connections were left to twist in the wind. Rotten judges, who always seemed to favor the house (or money) fighter, were actually rewarded for apparent screw jobs with bigger fights in exotic locations. And when scandal would strike boxing, Sulaiman never wavered in protecting his pet fighters from any punishment outside of his tender embrace.
Through the decades, Sulaiman ran interference for everyone from Don King to Roy Jones to the Chavez family, Golden Boy, and “Canelo” Alvarez. But there were many, many more. And with a set of bylaws, each tagged by the phrase, “unless the WBC in its sole discretion otherwise directs,” he created the perfect home for deceit. The WBC would be bound by its own rules and regulations– unless they decided not to be.
Sulaiman’s election to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007 serves as a testament to the utter buffoonery of the Boxing Writers Association of America, which gladly voted to honor him alongside some of the true heroes of the sport.
In a lot of ways, Sulaiman could be considered boxing culture incarnate, the perfect representation of the boxing business. He was a pompous, self-important ghoul who pledged honesty while exhibiting shameless greed and a total disregard for the integrity of the sport.
He was the embodiment of a sport that accepts corruption with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge and a shrug of the shoulders. He was the embodiment of a sport which has come to accept and, in way too many cases, even embrace those who cheat, lie, and steal at the expense of the fans and athletes.
“It’s part of the business,” the boxing intelligentsia will tell you. “Everyone is compromised, everyone is shady.”
And like the battered wife who has come to accept a split lip once a week, fans have learned to settle for this fatalistic world view. Aided by a putrid mainstream boxing media that only exists to maintain the status quo and a delusional second tier media that sits on their thumbs, diddling themselves to the empty glory of laminated press credentials, boxing has developed an almost guilty love for its creeps and crooks.
Sulaiman was fond of talking about the dignity of the poor, but heaven help these poor if they ever found their way on to the WBC’s top 10 and some rich fighter with better connections wanted their spot. He was capable of grand gestures like reportedly paying for an elderly Kid Gavilan’s rent and groceries, but practically sociopathic in his inability to care about cheating fighters in the hear and now.
He was the oft-suffering and fragile-egoed elder statesmen wise guy who generously took care of a select few at the expense of just about everybody else. He showered his allies with generosity and did plenty of small favors in exchange for a free ticket to keep doing what he wanted. Exhibiting Robin Hood thuggery at its highest level, his behavior more closely resembled something out of Prohibition-era Chicago than the modern landscape of a corporate-owned world.
Sulaiman’s family and friends will mourn him and should be allowed to do so in peace. But let’s not confuse simple respect with complete absolution.
Jose Sulaiman could only legally get away with his kind of hustle in one business– the boxing business. He was a colorful character, an impact player, and a guiding force in the sport. But Don Jose Sulaiman was no saint, no ally to the little man…and he certainly was no friend of boxing.
You can email Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or watch as he outrages boxing nerds everywhere. You can also buy his book, Notes from the Boxing Underground! Paul is a full member of the Burger King Kids’ Club, a born iconoclast, and an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church.