Clean-up squad squares up to boxing barons: The US has begun a drive to knock out corruption in the fight game. Patrick Cockburn reports from Washington

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The Independent Online
DON KING, the most powerful of American boxing promoters, is being investigated by a federal grand jury in New York for alleged criminal wrongdoing. King, who has promoted dozens of championship fights and whose prize client was Mike Tyson until Tyson was jailed for rape, has also been under investigation by the FBI since last spring after allegations made by his former chief financial officer.

As the most powerful man in American boxing, King has become a prime target in a new effort to clean up the professional fight game, an effort that includes a separate Senate investigation into the sport.

About 30 years ago, another Senate inquiry concluded 'beyond any doubt that professional boxing has had too many connections with the underworld. Nothing has taken place to indicate that professional boxing ever will, on its own initiative, free itself from control by racketeers and other undesirables'.

This month, a fresh Senate investigation concluded, after a year's work, that nothing much had changed in three decades. It asked rhetorically: 'Can boxing survive?' and went on to cite a state boxing regulator as saying that, if American boxing was not better controlled, there would be no need to abolish it; 'it would simply die a natural death'.

The current interest of the Senate was sparked by a heavily publicised middleweight world title fight between James Toney and David Tiberi in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on 8 February last year. The 12-round contest resulted in a split decision, and the judges awarded the fight to Toney. The ABC television commentator called it 'the most disgusting decision I've ever seen'.

Donald Trump, who controls the Taj Mahal where the fight took place, said to Tiberi: 'While your opponent is laid out practically dead, you're here standing up. I think it's disgusting what's happening in boxing. I watched something tonight which made me nauseous. There'll be no more fights in Atlantic City until this disgraceful situation is rectified.'

Among the thousands watching the fight was Senator William Roth of Delaware, whose staff started a preliminary investigation. This rapidly discovered that two of three judges in the Tiberi- Toney fight were unlicensed in New Jersey, and were also unfamiliar with New Jersey boxing regulations. Robert Palmer, the referee, was a last-minute substitute, rated poorly, who had never refereed a world title fight before.

The fight was full of curious incidents. For instance, during the sixth round, Palmer stopped the match for five minutes because he said both Tiberi's gloves had torn simultaneously, an unheard-of coincidence. The investigators noted: 'The gloves tore at a time in the fight particularly fortuitous for Toney, ie, when he needed a rest.' Tiberi himself said afterwards: 'It was a set-up match to benefit Toney's career and line the promoters' pockets.'

Neither the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, in charge of supervising the fight, nor the International Boxing Federation (IBF), whose title was at stake, saw any need for an investigation, although Tiberi was offered a rematch. Their lack of interest is not surprising. Raymond Good, a former boxing journalist, says that, since the 1970s, state control of boxing has grown weak because local regulators are 'political hacks and cronies who could not tell the difference between a fish hook and a left hook'.

With no federal supervision of boxing, promoters who do not like being told what to do in one state can shift their bouts to another. Nevertheless, two states, New Jersey and Nevada, play the biggest role. The gambling casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas like to use fights as attractions. Nor are mismatches easy to stop. The Governor of Wisconsin tried to prevent a fight on the grounds that one contestant was blind in one eye, but was forced to let it go ahead when he was sued for discriminating against an invalid.

Regulation is also made difficult by the power of the three so- called 'alphabet soup' organisations, which award 51 world titles. These are the New Jersey- based IBF, the World Boxing Council (WBC) of Mexico and the World Boxing Association (WBA) of Venezuela, each of which has 17 titles and all of which are frequently accused of collusive relations with promoters.

Bob Arum, a rival to Don King, said Jose Sulaiman, who runs the WBC, 'is clearly partners with King on fighters. This (the WBC) is King's own organisation. There is no difference between Don King and Jose Sulaiman.'

It was Sulaiman and King who, in 1990, after James 'Buster' Douglas had knocked out the world heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson, tried to reverse the decision, claiming Douglas should have been declared knocked out two rounds earlier.

The source of the title-awarding organisations' power is that they set the rankings of fighters, allowing them to compete for titles and earn serious money. Exactly how they do this remains mysterious. The Mexican world bantamweight champion, Carlos Zarate, once found himself defending his title against an unknown African ranked by the WBC as No 1 contender. 'I thought he was trying to sucker me into thinking he couldn't fight,' says Zarate. 'Nobody could look so bad and yet be No 1.' After watching his opponent for a round, Zarate decided he had probably never boxed before and knocked him out.

Real power lies with the promoters and managers. The Senate report has little good to say about either.

It quotes the WBA cruiserweight champion, Bobby Czyz, as saying: 'There is more honesty, loyalty and decency among common criminals and street thieves than among promoters and managers in boxing today.' A manager is theoretically in charge of a boxer's interests, but is often linked to the promoter. In the Tim Witherspoon-James 'Bonecrusher' Smith WBA world heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden in 1986, Don King was the promoter and Carl King, his stepson, was the manager of both fighters. Americans expect professional boxing to have the excitement of close association with criminals. Congressional investigations also like former members of Cosa Nostra as witnesses, because of the publicity they produce. Michael Franzese, former capo of the Colombo crime family of New York, says organised crime is understandably interested in boxing 'due to the huge amount of money that can now be made by controlling major fighters'.

King himself is unworried by the investigations. 'You've got to take the bitter with the sweet,' he said. 'The only thing I've ever had any concerns about is that I don't get framed.

'If I ever slip up, if they ever can get anything on me, where they can half-way say I'm wrong, there's no lawyer in the history of mankind that could defend me.'

(Photographs omitted)