By Jim Thomas, Esq.
All good fighters know how to protect themselves inside the ring, but many fighters have little or no knowledge of how to protect themselves outside the ring. The true stories of fighters being taken advantage of are too numerous to count. Most of the blame for these sad stories is properly placed upon unscrupulous people who use superior power or knowledge or experience to harm fighters, but some of the responsibility must rest upon the shoulders of the fighters themselves. Just as fighters have a responsibility to take the time and effort to learn how to protect themselves in the ring, they have the same responsibility to take the time and effort to learn how to take care of themselves outside the ring. In Part One of this article, I set forth Rule No. 1 for self-defense outside the ring. In this Part Two, I will now set forth Rule No. 2 through Rule No. 5.
Rule No. 2: Take the time and make the effort to know as much as possible about the people you contract with.
Every prospective manager and promoter who has ever talked to a fighter has promised to take care of him. A fighter must go beyond the self-interested talk of the prospective manager or promoter and do some “due diligence.” This is harder than it should be, because there is far too much misinformation floating around in the boxing world, and even the best people are unfairly attacked behind their backs by competitors. But if you try hard to solicit opinions from people with good reputations who have nothing to gain or lose, you can get a pretty good idea how people in the boxing business operate. Don’t listen to attacks from competitors, but when there is too much smoke from reliable and disinterested sources, there is usually fire and danger.
Rule No. 3: Avoid people who do not want you to obtain independent advice from a lawyer.
We are all painfully aware that there are many unscrupulous lawyers, but my many years of experience have taught me beyond doubt that there are many more honest lawyers than dishonest. Perhaps even more important, the vast majority of lawyers do not want to lose their licenses to practice their livelihoods. A lawyer has a legal and ethical duty to put his client’s interests above all others including his own. Most reputable lawyers take this duty very seriously. If a prospective manager or promoter objects to your having a proposed contract reviewed by a reputable lawyer of your choice, that is a huge red flag. I represent a number of fighters as manager, and I uniformly insist that they obtain independent legal advice before signing a contract with me. Anyone who fears that kind of scrutiny is probably not someone you want to be associated with. And don’t fall for the argument that “you know how lawyers are; they always find what’s wrong with everything.” You need to know not only what all the benefits of a proposed contract are, but also what all the risks are and how the contract might be made better for you.
Rule No. 4: Limit your team to people who have a necessary job and do it well.
It doesn’t matter how well a fighter is protected outside the ring if people other than the boxer are ending up with too much of the boxer’s money or giving the boxer bad advice. While having a large “entourage” is a tradition in boxing, in my view, it is a mistake for two reasons. First, every unnecessary member of the team takes hard-earned money out of the fighter’s pocket one way or another. Second, having a group of people around who do not have specific jobs inevitably results in conflicts and disharmony as those without jobs constantly second-guess those who do have jobs.
Evander Holyfield is one of the most successful fighters in boxing history, and has one of the smallest teams ever for a heavyweight champion. Team Holyfield consists of fewer than ten people, and every one of us has a specific and necessary role. While every member of Team Holyfield is generously compensated, Evander still retains a higher percentage of his purse than any fighter I know of. That is how it should work.
Rule No. 5: One way or another, make sure you have a lawyer on your side.
A good, smart, competent, and tough manager can go a long way toward protecting a fighter outside the ring, but when it comes to protecting and enforcing a fighter’s rights, a lawyer who truly understands the boxing world is the ultimate defense. This is not just my view, but also the view of the only Four-Time Heavyweight Champion of the World, Evander Holyfield. As I indicated at the outset, I realize that having a lawyer on your side is easier said than done, especially early in a fighter’s career when he has little or no money, but there are ways to overcome the financial hurdle.
First, you can engage a manager or boxing management company with legal expertise. World Class Boxing, of which I serve as President, provides boxing management services, along with legal expertise, and there are other reputable managers who provide legal expertise as well. Another option is to hire a management team consisting of a boxing management expert and a lawyer with boxing experience. That is how Michael Grant operates with his management team consisting of my colleague, Craig Hamilton, and myself. Similarly, WBA Heavyweight Champion John Ruiz has been managed jointly by Norman Stone and Attorney Tony Cardinale. Obviously, a manager can hire a lawyer to represent the fighter but that results in additional expense to the fighter and the lawyer hired would not know the facts and circumstances on a first-hand basis. In most instances, a manager who is a lawyer or has a lawyer for a teammate can protect a fighter in ways that a manager who is not a lawyer or affiliated with a lawyer cannot.
Second, a fighter should be able to find a reputable lawyer who will help him without compensation. There are many lawyers who are “sports nuts” and would love to help an emerging boxer. Obviously, it is better to have a lawyer who understands the boxing world, but a lawyer unfamiliar with boxing can nevertheless provide valuable protection. Basically, the issues, other than those dealing with the sanctioning bodies, are contract law issues that most lawyers are competent to handle. Also, throughout the United States, there are “Legal Aid Societies” that supply legal services to people who cannot afford a lawyer. Most of the lawyers who work at Legal Aid are extremely competent, dedicated young lawyers who want to help those in need before going to work for private firms. Any fighter can call his local Bar Association and get the telephone number of the Legal Aid Society in his area and should be able to obtain legal counsel at no cost. In addition to generalized legal services available through Legal Aid Societies, I am planning to organize a group of volunteer lawyers in Atlanta who will represent athletes at no cost, and I call upon lawyers all over the country to do the same in their respective communities.
Summary and Conclusion
Learning how to protect oneself outside the ring is a critically-important part of the job of being a professional boxer. Boxing is a tough way to make a living, and involves risks most other professions do not require. Those risks are worth taking only if a fighter receives in return for his services what he deserves. People watch boxing to see the boxers. The other people in boxing are important and necessary, but the boxers should receive the bulk of the profits made from their efforts. By following the advice set forth above, boxers can learn to defend themselves outside the ring as well as inside and make sure they are the primary beneficiaries of their own courage and efforts.
Jim Thomas helped finance his College and Law School education by teaching karate classes as a fourth-degree black belt and Eastern Collegiate Champion. After graduating as the top student at the prestigious William & Mary Law School, Jim began his law practice as a Litigator in a ten-lawyer firm. Jim’s firm, McKenna, Long & Aldridge, LLP, has since grown to approximately 400 lawyers in eight cities in the United States and Europe. Jim runs the firm’s Sports & Entertainment law practice as well as the firm’s Sports Management Company and serves as Chairman of the firm’s Ethics & Professional Responsibility Committee. In 1991, Jim began representing Evander Holyfield and in 1995, Jim became Evander’s Boxing Management Advisor and attorney. Jim now also serves in that role for Michael Grant and serves as President of World Class Boxing, LLC, which manages 2000 Olympian Middleweight, Jermain Taylor, 2000 Olympian Super-heavyweight, Calvin Brock, NABA Heavyweight Champion, Sergei Lyakhovich, and other carefully-selected boxers.