By Thomas Hauser
Like most boxing writers, I receive an endless stream of press releases. Recently, one caught my eye. It was for a celebrity boxing event to be held in Pennsylvania on July 24th.
The first co-feature on the card pits “the son of boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard” against Derik Macintosh (identified as “a guy who has never competed before, but trains on a regular basis in the hope of becoming a boxer”).
Leonard, we are told, “is the same kid who was featured in the very famous commercial with his dad for 7-Up.”
The release further advises that, in the co-feature, “baseball star Jose Canseco will step into the ring against 5-time World Wing-Eating champion and athlete Bill ‘El Wingador’ Simmons.”
My first thought was, “Why Is the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission regulating this?”
The answer is worse than that. There’s no regulation at all.
Last year, the State of Pennsylvania sought an injunction against Damon Feldman, who was promoting what the state said were professional boxing contests without a license.
A judge denied the request on grounds that, in order to be a “professional” under Pennsylvania law, a fighter must compete for a purse or other prize with a value of more than fifty dollars. The judge ruled that there was no evidence in the record that any of the participants would receive anything of value in excess of fifty dollars.
But wait! Pennsylvania law also outlaws “tough guy” contests, whether or not the participants are professionals.
Here, the judge (who appears to have the brain of a brontosaurus) simply misread the law.
[Note to readers: For those of you who are untutored in dinosaurs, brontosauri were the stupid plant-eating ones].
The judge decreed that, in order for a bout to be categorized as a tough guy competition, the participants must employ multiple combat techniques, not just boxing. But the Pennsylvania statute that outlaws tough guy competitions clearly refers to boxing “OR” other techniques.
As for Damon Feldman; he’s a former Philadelphia fighter, who crafted a 9-and-0 record in a four-year career that ended in 1992. His first eight opponents had a composite ledger of 8 wins against 50 losses, while his last opponent had lost 10 of 12 previous fights. Say what you will; Damon got in the ring and answered the bell multiple times.
Feldman promoted his first celebrity boxing event in 2008. He says that he now has fifty “personalities” on his roster and that this will be his tenth show. “My dream,” he proclaims, “is to do a fight with Sylvester Stallone.”
“I used to promote regular club fights,” Feldman says. “I was licensed and everything. I wanted to be the next Russell Peltz, but I had a situation that led to some problems. If I could make money promoting regular fights, I would. But I can’t, so I’m doing this.”
Feldman maintains that participants in “Celebrity Boxing” don’t get paid for their ring efforts and receive only a “personal appearance fee” for coming to the show.
“It’s entertainment,” he says. “Each fight is three one-minute rounds. Every fighter wears headgear, a mouthpiece, and eighteen-ounce gloves. You have more chance of being injured walking down the street than in one of my fights. There’s a standing-eight count. I’m at ringside to make sure that everyone is doing their job. The worst thing we’ve had so far was a bloody nose.”
As for officials; Feldman says that the Celebrity Boxing Federation (which he founded) designates the referees and judges. “The judges are mostly friends of mine,” he explains. “The referee can be an actor or a movie star or a local personality. But whoever the referee is, he has to train for three days before the show so he knows what he’s doing.”
Celebrity Boxing exploits a misguided ruling by a state court in Pennsylvania. It appears as though the judge didn’t know anything about boxing and didn’t care about boxing. But a judge should be able to understand the law.
Meanwhile, Greg Sirb (executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission) says, “The entire commission is very disheartened by this. The judge’s decision leaves the door wide open to abuse by Celebrity Boxing and other promoters. It’s bad for boxing. And sooner or later, someone will be badly hurt.”
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One Ring Circus (published by Schnaffer Press) is a collection of articles about the sweet science written by Katherine Dunn. All of the pieces have been previously published; the best three as part of the text of a 2005 coffee-table photo book entitled Shadow Boxers.
Dunn is at her best when she’s writing about gritty gyms and the essence of boxing. When she turns her pen to elite champions and big fights in Las Vegas, she loses her edge. I suspect that’s because she feels more at home at club fights than in glitzy hotel-casinos and has more empathy for club fighters than superstars.
The bottom line is that Dunn writes well and writes well about boxing. Among the thoughts she offers in One Ring Circus are:
* “Each gym is a one-room schoolhouse. As in any other school, what counts is the teacher. Students come on their own time, after school or work. There’s no extra credit, no activity bus to get them home afterwards, no college scholarship to reach for. A few have dreams of stardom; a world championship, big bucks. Most just want to hold their own on the playground or earn the respect of their family, their pals, or their mirror. They are drawn first to the toughness, wanting strength and skill to defend against the outside world.”
* “It’s a crapshoot for a novice walking into a gym for the first time. You want to learn to box; you need a coach to teach you. But not all coaches are created equal. An experienced fighter in a new town knows how to call around and find out who to work with. But a greenhorn rarely has a specific coach in mind. They choose a gym because they pass it on their way to work or school, or they find it in the phone book. They assume that any coach will do. Once a kid talks to a coach, he’s linked to him, belongs to him. The coaches are rivals, possessive of their fighters. None of the other coaches will even pass the time of day with the kid for fear of being accused of ‘buzzing’ another coach’s fighter; the fistic equivalent of cattle rustling. They would sooner fry than tell a kid he’s accidentally picked an idiot instead of a real coach and thereby, in the first thirty seconds of his boxing career, doomed himself to failure.”
* “The gym is home. For many, it’s the safest place they know. A boxing gym is a place where men are allowed to be kind to one another.”
* * *
The June 27th fight between Victor Ortiz and Marcos Maidana has sparked a lot of comment from Internet writers and also from fans. In that regard, I pass along the thoughts of Luis Cortes, who wrote to me shortly after the fight as follows:
“For all of the things that boxing may not be; it is a great sport for one simple fact. You can make a guy smile from ear to ear all day. You can teach him all the right things to say. You can even put him on cardboard cut-outs for beer. But at the end of the day, you have to put him in the ring and he has to rise to the top of the crop. He has to be able to get punched in the face, cut above the right eye, and have a swollen left eye. And when that young fighter, who has faced similar situations before, turns to his corner and says ‘I’m okay; I got him; I’m going to knock him out,’ that’s when you know you have a STAR.”
* * *
Top Rank and Golden Boy are the two most powerful promotional companies in boxing. Recently, their CEOs reminisced about the first professional fight they ever saw.
BOB ARUM: It was the first fight I promoted; Muhammad Ali against George Chuvalo [on March 29, 1966]. Jim Brown put me together with Herbert Muhammad [Ali’s manager]. We formed a promotional company called Main Bout, and the first fight we did was a nightmare. It started as Ali against Ernie Terrell in Chicago. Then we got kicked out of Illinois because Ali had said he had no quarrel with them Vietcong, and I ran around the country without any luck looking for a state where we could have the fight. Finally, I took it to Montreal and then it was Toronto and then Terrell pulled out and we wound up with Ali-Chuvalo. On fight night, I went to the arena [Maple Leaf Gardens] and all I cared about was the fight should happen. I didn’t walk in and look at the ring and say “wow.” I knew nothing about the preliminary fights because, at the time, I knew nothing about boxing. All I knew was, I wanted the bell for round one of Ali-Chuvalo to ring because I’d been promoting the fight on my Diners Club card and had something like $29,000 in charges to pay off.
RICHARD SCHAEFER: After I moved to the United States, I became friendly with Gabriel Brener, who was from a prominent family that lived in Mexico City. Gabriel was living in Los Angeles and asked if I would like to go to a live boxing event with him. He was friends with the Azcaraga family, which owned Televisa and Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. So we went to see Julio Cesar Chavez against Greg Haugen [on February 20, 1993]. We arrived in Mexico City and drove to the stadium. As we were driving, I could see the magnitude of the event on the streets. There was this wave of humanity, all going in the same direction. I remember walking into the stadium and looking up at all these faces [the announced attendance was 132,247]. It was absolutely amazing. We walked through the crowd to the middle of the field and sat in the third row. Then I saw this guy in the ring, dressed in a tuxedo with his hair standing up in the air, waving Mexican and American flags, shouting, “Viva Mexico.” That was my first look at Don King. I have to hand it to him. Don created an extraordinary event. I was very impressed by what he did. So there was Don King; there was the crowd; and then the fight [won by Chavez on a fifth-round knockout]. I was thinking, this is the way it must have been in the old days of Rome with the gladiators. It was a remarkable experience. And as we were leaving, Gabriel said to me, “Be careful; they throw stuff. It’s a tradition at fights in Mexico.” So there I was, leaving the field, a Swiss banker, with piss in cups being thrown at me.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (“The Boxing Scene”) was published earlier this year by Temple University Press.