The one thing you have to understand in boxing—whether you’re a fighter, a fan, or someone in fighter management—is that you always have to hustle. Boxing exists on a foundation of cons and hustles built to benefit whoever is sharpest when it comes to protecting his investment.
That’s a harsh statement, but to acknowledge anything less is laughably naive. Boxing is not a sport in the sense that all that matters in the game is what happens on the field of play. In boxing, the system– put together with built-in escape hatches for when the story in the ring clashes (or could clash) with the monetary best interest of those in control—is often just as big a factor as either combatant.
Chief among those built-in cheats is the process by which judges (and officials) are selected. The process is boxing’s dirty little secret, seldom the focus of any boxing media attention, but every bit as important as the ubiquitous pre-fight tales of the tape. The reality behind how boxing handles its own judging and officiating would make boxing outsiders wonder how such things could still be going on, especially in a sport where death is, literally, a possible outcome.
“Believe it or not, the promoters pay the judges,” affirmed former two-division world champ and TV commentator Bobby Czyz in a 2009 Fight Hype interview. “The judges are appointed by the commission and the promoter pays them. That’s part of his responsibility. Now, the sanctioning bodies, what they’ll do is say, ‘Any one of these 12 judges, we’ll accept’ because the sanctioning bodies have to accept the judges or they won’t sanction it as a title fight.”
For those not familiar with the judging system in boxing, here’s how it works:
A list of judges, pre-approved by the lead promoter, is taken by the sanctioning body to the commission (which is also often filled with buddies and old cronies of the promoter) and, from that list, three judges are appointed for the bout. The promoter is then responsible for not only providing payment to the judges, but in some states, required to provide for food, accommodations, and a small per diem to cover the judges’ expenses. In other words, the current system is one where the promoter is in control of virtually every aspect when it comes to selection and compensation of the officials.
So, in short, the person with the most to win or lose from a fight has pretty much ultimate say as to who will judge and officiate a bout featuring his fighter.
Per Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News in a 2009 article:
“…it’s the relationship between the judges and the promoters that should be examined.
In the dense world of boxing, judges who score these fights are on the payroll of the event’s promoter.
For appearances sake, the promoter hands the check over to the commission, who then delivers it to the judges. But the result is the same: The promoter is paying the judge to make a decision in a fight the promoter has a financial stake in…This is outrageous. In no other major professional sport is a team owner responsible for the salary and housing of its officials.
You don’t see Yankees owner George Steinbrenner pulling up in a golf cart and cutting a check for “Cowboy” Joe West, or any other umpire. Major League Baseball handles that fiduciary duty. You don’t see James Dolan, who oversees the Knicks, waiting in a Garden corridor to pay [official] Dick Bavetta.”
While there’s no evidence of overt pressure to score a fight to the benefit of the lead promoter’s fighter, there really isn’t a need for any coercion. The implication is clear if you’re a judge– Score the fight the “right” way or you may not get that next big assignment. No easy paycheck, no paid vacation, no comp hotel room, no per diem, no adrenaline rush from being ringside at a big fight.
“I’ve seen things with judges and promoters that are against the rules,” former two-time cruiserweight world champion Steve Cunningham told The Boxing Tribune. “I’ve seen promoters take judges out to dinner…they ain’t supposed to do that…’we’re gonna treat you good’…you know that’s an underhanded, that’s an under the table handshake saying, ‘alright, I’m gonna go with your guy, no matter what.’ I’ve seen [it]…you guys [in the media] have seen [it].”
Cunningham, who has rarely had the luxury of being the “house” or “money” fighter in his bouts, has come up on the short end of several high-profile controversial decisions over the course of his sixteen-year professional career. At least four of his eight pro losses could be considered, at best, dubious scorecard calls.
Some boxing people will point out, ad nauseam, that judging boxing is a subjective endeavor, influenced by one’s own personal fight aesthetic. And while that’s true to a certain extent, it’s amazing how few horrible decisions are rendered—even from notoriously “bad” judges—when no money is on the table and nothing is at risk for the promoter footing the bill. Also amazing is the fact that, when these horrible decisions do get issued, they are almost never to the detriment of the “money” or “house” fighter.
“You can’t just constantly say that these judges don’t know what they’re doing,” Cunningham added. “They know what they’re doing. It would be easy to say that that they’re not on the take, that they’re mistaken, but it’s like ‘how come it’s always the house fighter that gets the benefit of the doubt?’”
Despite claims that corruption is overblown by apologists for the boxing status quo, all boxing insiders know the reality of the game and how one needs to work within the incestuous system in order to ensure a livelihood in the sport.
“I’m not going to go into any detail or mention any names, “said one active professional boxing manager who chose to remain anonymous for this story, “but you basically have to shop around with your guys…find out what it takes to get a ranking here, a ranking there…who’s open to fitting your guy in…Then, you assume, with the right clout, the right support pulling the right strings, your guy is going to get a fair shake when it comes to judging and officiating in general. That’s just how it is…who’s going to make it any different? We either play the game, as is, or we get out and do something else.”
The question, though, is how long boxing can keep playing the game “as is” before the sport does itself even more harm. The mainstream media and corporate America have already abandoned boxing for the most part and diminishing TV ratings and pay-per-view revenue tell the tale of a fan base also beginning to move on. In America, the death rattle can already be heard as the best of the best can barely make the needle move on their own, even in tough, elite-level match-ups. Without the presence of a Mexican fan base and the ghost of a recently-retired Floyd Mayweather popping up here and there, the American fight scene would be almost completely barren.
Boxing isn’t going to die anytime soon and there’s still big money to be had at the top of the sport’s food chain. Right now, the UK scene is thriving and there are other pockets of growth in various parts of the planet. But, overall, everything is being scaled back. The talent pool in the sport’s historically biggest and most important market is thinning out as the fan base shrinks and it’ll only be a matter of time before an increasingly sophisticated international market also grows tired of the typical boxing hustles.
The bottom line is that a sport must be a run like a sport or be considered merely sports entertainment, like the WWE. Boxing has been trying to play it both ways for years, but it’s clear that patience is wearing thin, even from its most loyal fans. In this day and age, with so many other sports options, people are no longer eager to invest their time in a sport that so frequently deals in frustration and sleight of hand. If you’re a fight fan, you’ve walked away from the sport (or have threatened to walk away) at some point. Most fans come back after rotten decision and general shoddy business practices in the sport they love, some do not.
Steve Cunningham feels that an effort to install more former fighters as judges could help the integrity of the scoring, believing that a fighter may be more loyal to the integrity of the sport and less likely to be influenced by business.
“There should not be a judge, in my opinion, [or] a referee dealing with major fights who has not fought before. I’m not saying that people who haven’t done it [fought] can’t do a good job, but I would personally feel better if there was a fighter judging my fight versus a guy just on the business end of boxing…When you don’t have fighters who are judging the sport, there’s no loyalty to the sport. [An ex-fighter may feel] ‘I did this, I know what it is to get to this point, this guy doesn’t need to be jobbed.’”
Whatever the strategy behind improving the integrity of scoring and officiating, though, the universal feeling among just about everyone is that the boxing media should play a stronger role in covering the realities of the sport or, at the very least, informing the public, before hand, when something doesn’t quite seem on the up and up.
Every writer worth his/her weight in newspaper ink and/or internet bandwidth is aware of boxing’s dirty little secret when it comes to just how compromised the system is. However, one could probably count on one hand the number of exposés written on the dirty business behind the business of fighting. The incestuous, inherently corrupt set-up in boxing is a taboo subject in the media. Fingers will be pointed at sanctioning bodies and at specific judges at times, but rarely does a media voice actually talk about the moving forces behind the convenient public boogeymen.
“They don’t want to get blacklisted and they want to get those credentials…everybody wants to go to the fights,” Cunningham commented. “Writers will not go out on the independent limb like that because really, in boxing, that’s career suicide if they start doing that.”
Veteran writer and boxing trainer, Gordon Marino feels that misguided loyalty may also be at work when it comes to the media’s unwillingness to tell the full story.
“For boxing writers,” Marino told The Boxing Tribune, “there might also be a sense of ‘why should I hit a sport that I love and cover that is already on the ropes,’ especially if you think that boxing will never stop hitting itself in the kisser. Many have come to accept not just bad but ridiculous decisions as part of the gloved game. It is sad, in some cases, even tragic, but true…As though you need me to tell you, some promoters are quick to take offense and vindictive enough to deny credentials. That could also be a factor.”
So, there is a problem—a problem nobody is really addressing. But where does anyone go with this?
Nobody is really looking for a solution or even a mild restructuring of the way boxing handles its business. The movers and shakers of the sport won’t be changing a thing unless they’re dragged to reform, kicking and screaming. The media that covers the sport isn’t in a hurry to dig too deep into the business dealings of those who could refuse them access to fights/fighters as well as cut them off from the promoter-driven, network-approved paying gigs that represent much of the actual money to be made in boxing writing.
There’s also the odd reality that many who watch the sport, report on the sport, and dabble in the business end of the sport get a vicarious thrill in “slumming it,” noir-style, in a business that exists outside the boundaries of polite society. Boxing is supposed to be dirty and sleazy and a place where good hearts get broken and where comfortable middle class men can dabble in death and danger without really dirtying their hands.
As a sport with a flawed foundation that’s no longer embraced by the mainstream sports fan and not really doing all that much to attract new fans, the sins of impropriety are costly. Boxing can’t afford to be quaintly dirty anymore. Fans do walk away, money does go elsewhere.
Nobody’s suggesting that a wide scale cleansing of the sport is possible or even long-term beneficial, but there has to be at least some reasonable expectation that the actual winner will win and that the fans will walk away satisfied.
Make no mistake about it, boxing can and will survive, even with the cheats and skullduggery in place, but is it wise anymore that the fans and fighters pay the price as pawns in a game made by confidence men? Things change, culture changes.
Welcome to 2017. Sea World has cancelled its killer whale shows and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus just announced that its caravan is coming to an end after nearly 150 years. People don’t feel right anymore about dealing in entertainment soaked in greed and cruelty. People want to walk away from a show feeling good and satisfied or, at the very least, content that what they saw was real. Boxing needs to learn that.