By Thomas Hauser
How important is Boxrec.com?
Ask people in the boxing industry:
* Bruce Trampler (Top Rank matchmaker): Short of actually being at a fight, they’re the best source of information out there. I have my own computerized records, and I’m on Boxrec at least a dozen times a day. We take it for granted, but everyone in boxing would miss it if it was gone.
* Cameron Dunkin (honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America as the 2007 “manager of the year”): It’s an incredible tool for everyone in boxing. I use it all the time. We all do. You have to use it.
* Carl Moretti (former matchmaker for Main Events and current DiBella Entertainment vice president for boxing operations): I use it every day, many times a day, for every reason imaginable. It’s the quickest cheapest easiest way to find out what I need to know.
* Ron Scott Stevens (chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission): Fight Fax is the mandated record-keeper for athletic commissions in the United States. But Boxrec does more than supplement Fight Fax. In many respects, it surpasses Fight Fax.
* Mike Silver (boxing historian): Boxrec.com is a dream come true. It’s one of the greatest gifts to boxing fans and boxing historians in the history of the world. Years ago, you needed a whole shelf of Ring record books to track the records of fighters. Now anyone can do it in seconds for free. Every time I write about boxing, I want to thank them.
* Lou DiBella (promoter): Anyone in boxing who says he doesn’t use Boxrec is either a complete imbecile or lying.
* Dan Rafael (ESPN.com boxing writer): It’s great for fans. It’s great for people in the industry. I use it all the time. I don’t know who’s behind it. But whoever he is, God bless him.
The prime mover of the above-referenced adoration is a 44-year-old Englishman named John Sheppard, who was born in London and moved with his family to Doncaster when he was two years old.
Doncaster was once a coal mining town. Sheppard’s grandfather, uncles, father, mother, brother, and sister all worked in the coal industry. In the mid-1990s, John was a computer systems analyst for the National Coal Board. He was also friendly with Riath and Nabeel Hamed (Naseem’s older brothers).
“To be honest,” Sheppard acknowledges, “I didn’t know who Naseem was. But Riath and Nabeel talked me into going with them to see Naseem fight Enrique Angeles [on May 6, 1995]. It was the first time I’d been to a fight, and my reaction to it was that the entire spectacle was barbaric and degrading. I sat there watching people punch each other in the head, wondering why they were doing it. It went on and on interminably for hours. I was sprayed with blood, getting more and more miserable, telling myself, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ And then, during Naseem’s fight, something clicked in my head. The subtlety of what he was doing, the genius of it all, became obvious to me. It wasn’t a disgusting spectacle anymore. It was art, and I found myself cheering.”
In 1999, Hamed broke with promoter Frank Warren and launched his own promotional company. Sheppard went to work for him and soon became the lynch-pin of Prince Promotions and a related company that was formed to promote fights on Sky-TV with Barry Hearn.
“We had a matchmaker who I didn’t fully trust,” John remembers. “I started a little data base to track all the British boxers for myself as a way of keeping tabs on him. The Internet was taking off at the time. And I asked myself, ‘Why not put the data up on the Internet so everyone can use it?’
In May 2000, Sheppard rented space on a server. “It was a hobby more than anything else,” he explains. “I paid for it out of my own pocket. Then I got an email from someone in America saying that he was a record-collector and wanted to help, so I gave him the password. After that, there were more emails from more collectors. Pretty soon, the people who owned the server complained that I was getting more traffic than the other six hundred sites on the server combined and that my traffic was overwhelming the server and they gave me the hook. So I bought a server and installed it at a data center in Manchester; but a year later, that was overloaded.
Boxrec.com has grown organically and exponentially since then. It’s now the most heavily-trafficked boxing website in the world. On a typical day, it has 50,000 visitors who view 700,000 pages. Forty percent of its traffic comes from the United States and twelve percent from the United Kingdom.
Sheppard has worked on the site fulltime since 2005 (“eight hours on some days; twenty hours on others”). “But it’s hard to describe it as a job,” he says, “because I love what I’m doing.”
What he’s doing is fashioning and sharing a data base that’s unparalleled in the history of boxing.
Boxrec now has close to 1,300,000 bouts in its data base encompassing 17,000 active and 345,000 non-active fighters. Those numbers keep growing as new fights take place and old ones are recorded.
“There are roughly 150 editors,” Sheppard says. “On an average day, about sixty of them contribute to the site. Nobody on the staff gets paid. It’s all on a volunteer basis. Our editors are motivated by incredible passion for the sport. As best I can tell, very few of them are young. Record-collecting is an old-fashioned hobby. But the young editors we have are just as enthusiastic as the old ones.”
“Where active fighters are concerned,” Sheppard continues, “we assign different editors to different countries and, in some instances, regions within countries. The majority of work done on the site now is historical. The historical editors work on historical data and don’t touch current data. We’ve exhausted the record books and obvious sources like old boxing magazines. So a lot of what the historical editors do now is combing through old newspapers, looking for local fights that have never been recorded. Our records are incomplete for many of the old fighters. But the closer we get to the current day, the more complete our records are.”
The site also has data on 28,000 non-fighters (referees, judges, managers, promoters, matchmakers, and supervisors). And a boxing “encyclopedia” was added in 2005.
In addition, Boxrec rates every active fighter in each weight division, using a purely statistical formula based on the outcome of fights. An "active" fighter is one who has a fight scheduled or has fought within the previous 365 days. A fighter who announces his retirement is reclassified as “inactive.” Every active fighter with one fight or more in the database is rated.
The Boxrec ratings aren’t perfect. But they make a lot more sense than those of the world sanctioning bodies. And equally important, the process is open, verifiable, and not influenced by anyone’s subjective opinion. The BoxRec computer re-calculates the ratings on a daily basis. A boxer earns or loses ratings points with every bout he has fought since the last calculation and with every bout added to any of his opponents’ records or to their opponents’ records.
Boxrec also maintains historical ratings within each weight division. But Sheppard concedes that these are mostly for entertainment purposes, since he has been unable to develop a computer program that credibly matches boxers across generational lines.
The main competition (such as it is) to Boxrec comes from Fight Fax, which is the only record-keeper whose reports are officially accepted by members of the Association of Boxing Commissions in the United States.
Every state athletic commission in America is required by law to send bout results, suspensions, and federal ID numbers to Fight Fax (as are ABC associate members in Canada). Boxrec tries to get this information. Some commissions provide it to Sheppard as a matter of course. Some send it upon request. A few refuse to send it to Boxrec even when asked.
Fight Fax, in essence, is a government-mandated monopoly. In exchange for its favored position, it provides an updated list of suspended boxers to state athletic commissions free of charge. But everyone else must pay for the list.
And more significantly, the ABC requires that promoters submit a Fight Fax record for each boxer on a proposed fight card before the card is approved by the governing athletic commission. Fight Fax charges promoters (and everyone else) nine dollars to fax up to three records.
Fight Fax’s records contain less information regarding individual fighters and fights than Boxrec’s offerings. But because Fight Fax enters only official commission reports in its data base, its records are believed to be more accurate.
Promoter Russell Peltz observes, “There’s no such thing as perfect record-keeping. Very few things in life are one hundred percent. But I’ve come across some glaring errors at Boxrec, mostly in the historical records.”
And Dan Rafael notes, “So many people have a hand in Boxrec that the records aren’t always accurate. Ricardo Mayorga’s record has been wrong for years. There’s a mistake on Derrick Gainer’s record too.”
Sheppard is aware of the issue. “The thousand-dollar question,” he says, “is how we check for accuracy. For historical data, whenever possible, we go back to local newspapers and other primary sources. For contemporary results, we exchange emails and faxes with local commissions and do back-up research for commissions we don’t trust.”
“Also,” Sheppard adds, “unlike Fight Fax, we have an open system. The data is there for everyone to see. So if we make a mistake, particularly on a contemporary fight, the aggrieved boxer and a dozen of his fans let us know about it.”
In addition, Boxrec is now tracking suspensions. If a visitor to the site goes to an individual fighter’s record and clicks on a box, a report of suspensions will be emailed to him. It’s not official, but it’s a start. The site has also begun posting the federal ID numbers of fighters when those numbers are available to it.
And there’s another feature unique to Boxrec that makes it the clear industry favorite. Anyone who views a fighter’s record can also see the complete record of that fighter’s opponents, his opponents’ opponents, and so on down the line.
“That’s invaluable,” says Bob Goodman (director of boxing for Don King Productions). “When you’re looking at a fighter, you don’t just want to know that he’s 20-and-2. You want to know who he beat to get to 20-and-2, and you want to know who he lost to. In terms of accuracy, Boxrec is getting better all the time. Even when it’s not one hundred percent, you get a good picture of any fighter you’re interested in. The cross-referencing is what makes the site great.”
Ron Scott Stevens adds, “Boxrec isn’t the official record-keeper. But you get the records of opponents and the records of the opponents’ opponents. You get weights. You get the judges’ scores, so you can see how close a fight was. Those are important elements in deciding whether or not the commission should allow a fight.”
“And it’s not just the record of the fights themselves,” points out veteran matchmaker Ron Katz. “There are so many things on Boxrec that help me do my job. I can find out who manages a fighter, who promotes a fighter. I can search for fighters by location, which is important because it costs money to bring guys in for a fight.”
Lou DiBella sums up for his brethren when he says, “Fight Fax might be slightly more accurate. But Boxrec is free and gives you more information. And Fight Fax isn’t online. You have to email or fax or call in your request. Usually, they get back to you quickly. But sometimes you have to wait until the next day. It used to be that, if a promoter was considering thirty guys for three open slots on a fight card, he had to pay ninety dollars to Fight Fax. Now you pick your three guys on Boxrec and pay nine dollars to Fight Fax for their official records.”
Fight Fax is feeling the pressure. As Dan Rafael notes, “Boxrec is cutting into Fight Fax’s business. Fewer people are ordering records, and it’s the primary reason why a lot of people don’t buy the Fight Fax record book anymore. Why pay sixty-five dollars for a cumbersome book that’s increasingly out of date from the moment you buy it when you can get the same information updated on Boxrec for free?”
Indeed, many people on the boxing scene are beginning to question why the ABC isn’t more receptive to Boxrec. Or at the very least, why it doesn’t require its member commissions to share data with Boxrec. Here, the thoughts of Greg Sirb (executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission and former president of the ABC) are instructive.
“As far as I’m concerned,” says Sirb, “The most important provision in the Ali Act, and certainly the one that has been the most effectively enforced, is the requirement that all results and all suspensions be reported in one place. The ABC determined that Fight Fax would be the proper clearing-house for that information. There’s a certain administrative burden in sending the information to more than one record-keeper, and it’s better if there’s one official organization for everyone to go to.”
But having said that, Sirb goes on to say, “Boxrec has been a pleasant surprise. I use it five or ten times a day. They’re definitely an asset to get a feel for fighters who are coming into your jurisdiction for the first time and for a first look at everything. If Fight Fax went out of business, Boxrec would be a logical candidate to step into the void, and I’m not aware of anyone else who could do that.”
Meanwhile, Boxrec.com has become the one indispensable website in boxing. Virtually everyone (from the most powerful to the most insignificant denizens of the boxing world) uses it.
Fighters check out prospective opponents on Boxrec. Television executives reference it in determining which fights to buy. Craig Hamilton (the foremost boxing memorabilia dealer in the United States) says, “I absolutely love it. Let’s say I have an uncut ticket with a date and venue but no fighters’ names on it. I can go to Boxrec, punch in the information I have, and see who fought on the card. Usually it’s not much. But every now and then, I find out that someone who wound up in the Hall of Fame was early in his career and fought in a preliminary bout that night.”
Given Boxrec’s prominence in the boxing industry, it’s frequently suggested to Sheppard that he turn his creation into a pay-site. At present, managers pay ten cents a day per fighter ($36.50 a year) to list their email address, telephone number, and fax number. There’s also modest advertising revenue.
A pay-site could mean big dollars (or pounds sterling as the case may be). But so far, Sheppard has resisted the lure. “I’ve always lived within my means,” he says. “I’ve never needed a lot of money to be happy. That’s not why I started the site. That’s not what it’s all about. I don’t want Boxrec to ever become a closed shop.”
“I’m much more cynical now than I was when I first got into boxing,” Sheppard acknowledges. “But I like to think that Boxrec is a driving force to improve the quality of the sport. It’s an industry tool, but it also lifts the stone a bit so fans can see what’s crawling around underneath and decide for themselves if a fight is worth watching.”
In sum, Boxrec.com is making a significant contribution to the conduct of the sweet science today. And it has become a key player in the recording of boxing history. That merits a sincere “thank you” from the entire boxing community.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org