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Jose Sulaiman: Administrator respected, feared and hated in equal measure whose reforms made boxing a safer sport


Jose Sulaiman was the boss at the World Boxing Council, boxing’s most respected governing body, for 38 years, and he liked to be called the Father of Boxing, Don Jose or Mr President. The tiny Mexican certainly helped make boxing safer by drafting and pushing through some drastic changes to the way the sport works during his reign as President; last November, when he was in a coma at a hospital in Los Angeles, he was made the WBC’s President for Life at the organisation’s annual convention in Thailand.

It was widely reported in the Mexican press that he woke after 22 days, following complications after open-heart surgery, and uttered the single word: “Convention?” Sulaiman loved a dramatic flourish and during his 109 days in hospital his weekly column, “Hook to the Liver”, was written at his bedside by his six children. Amazingly, the unintentional humour remained and Sulaiman’s pomposity, matched only by his generosity, still shines in updates on his love of Tarzan, hatred of witchcraft, loyalty of dogs and a burning desire to string up drug dealers ‘by their testicles” in town squares and let them swing. The final column was last Sunday. 

In boxing Sulaiman was respected, feared and hated in just about equal measure. There are prodigious lists of questionable acts made by the WBC under Sulaiman’s control and equally thorough accusations of corruption, favouritism, nepotism and incompetence. There also exists the greatest dossier of fights, arguably, to have ever taken place and Mr President had a role, often crucial, in most of the sport’s highest-profile encounters involving Muhammad Ali through to Floyd Mayweather Jr.

The British fight figure Mickey Duff, now confined to a London nursing home, had dealings with Sulaiman for over 30 years. They often rowed over promotional deals, fights that were ordered by the WBC, and opponents - which is not a shock as Sulaiman and Duff were extremely confrontational. “Sulaiman is not happy his friend Don King is the biggest promoter in boxing,” Duff said in the 1980s. “Sulaiman will only be happy when Don King is the only promoter in boxing.”

He was also, as Duff noted, forced into making political decisions to survive. The relationship between King and Sulaiman was extremely close and reached a low point when Sulaiman decided not to recognise Buster Douglas as the world heavyweight champion after the underdog had knocked out Mike Tyson in Japan in 1990. It was a disgraceful act, which finally ended when a remorseful Sulaiman emerged from his plane, 24 hours after the fight, and declared Douglas the champion. King was crushed by the treachery and briefly lost control of the heavyweight division.

Under Sulaiman’s aegis so-called impossible fights were made, vicious impasses regularly overcome and a lot of money generated. “Jose Sulaiman is the greatest boxing man that I ever met,” King said. “I think he is a knight in shining armour for the boxer.” Indeed, it was the WBC under Sulaiman that aggressively sought to reduce the rounds in championship fights from 15 to 12, which he implemented in 1983 after witnessing a savage death fight the previous year that ended in round 14; the change was soon adopted throughout the world.

In the 1970s the WBC, with Sulaiman’s forceful backing, pushed through and put in place early drug-testing protocols. On one occasion in 1974 Sulaiman returned from Buenos Aires after watching a world middleweight title fight involving the troubled Carlos Monzon, with the samples in his bag for analysis in a Mexico City lab. Monzon, who was a glorious playboy, had filled his bottle with champagne. “Carlos was like all fighters and I think of all boxers as my sons,” Sulaiman said.

During his reign Sulaiman met and befriended kings, queens, presidents and despots on a regular basis. They were all, so he was fond of saying, big fans of boxing and what he had achieved at the WBC. It was because of his wise guidance that the WBC is recognised now as the best of boxing’s many governing bodies; Sulaiman knew how to get fights made and knew how to schmooze all the right people. He was, I can attest, the same in front of the Mexican president as he was with a teenage boxer fresh from a four-round fight.

He talked often of the WBC’s benevolent side and he certainly put in place several schemes to help boxers who were left with nothing at the end of their careers. “Is it fair that these great boxers should talk to walls and live like animals?” he asked. “When I came to the WBC boxing was like a jungle. It was legalised savagery.” There should never be any doubt that the Father of Boxing loved his business.

“I have been called a whore and a pimp,” said Sulaiman, who had been an amateur boxer and then a trainer, promoter and judge. “I thank my enemies for inspiring me to get up earlier each morning and forcing me to work harder for the good of boxing.” I will miss the weekly updates.

Jose Sulaiman Chagnon, boxing administrator: born Ciudad Victoria, Mexico 30 May 1931; President, World Boxing Council 1975-; married Martha (five sons, one daughter); died Los Angeles 16 January 2014.