Boxing: The gripes of Senator Roth: Rupert Cornwell on a boxing fan's attempts to impose a single governing body and uniform standards on the sport

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IT BEARS the legalistic, less than exhilarating title of the Professional Boxing Corporation Act (1992). But just conceivably, the new bill sponsored by a little- known senator from the tiny state of Delaware could turn into Congress's first successful effort to clean up the 'noble art,' making it a sport regulated almost like any other.

A lifelong boxing fan, Senator William Roth has never harboured many illusions about the seamy underside of the fight game. But his patience finally snapped after witnessing a blatantly unjust split decision which deprived the middleweight, Dave Tiberi, of the International Boxing Federation version of the world championship in a bout in Atlantic City, New Jersey, last February.

His outrage produced first a probe by his staff, which uncovered a host of irregularities in the handling of that contest, and then the first full-blown Senate hearings into the state of professional boxing in the United States since the celebrated hearings by Estes Kefauver 32 years ago into boxing's links with organised crime.

For two days last week, a procession of witnesses trooped before the subcommittee on Investigations to allege abuses ranging from old-fashioned mob involvement, rankings fiddles, and deliberate mismatches, as well as the exploitation of fighters by managers, promoters and the 'alphabet soup' of world bodies which claim to govern the sport: the IBF, the World Boxing Council (WBC), the World Boxing Association (WBA), and the World Boxing Organisation (WBO).

Those testifying included boxers detailing their treatment as mere 'pieces of meat', state regulators who failed to regulate, and a former FBI agent and a Mafia family member who described pay-offs, fixed fights, and the persisting influence of organised crime on professional boxing. All culminated in a vibrant appeal from the undisputed world heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, for proper federal regulation of his sport. Now with Senator Roth's bill, that might at last be forthcoming.

With only five weeks of the current Congressional session remaining, there is no chance of progress this year. But he plans to reintroduce the measure at the start of the next session. And unlike previous ill-fated attempts to reform boxing, this time there is bipartisan support for the initiative. 'There's been nothing like this since Kefauver,' a Roth aide said, 'with Democrats and Republicans behind it, we've got a real chance.'

The centrepiece of the bill is the establishment of a Professional Boxing Corporation, headed by an executive director appointed by the President and approved by the Senate, who would become a 'boxing Tsar' akin to the commissioner of baseball.

The PBC would enforce uniform minimum standards for all boxing matches in the US, where an estimated 90 per cent of all fights are promoted. It would set up a computerised databank for the professional sport, and impose basic health and safety standards, and uniform standards for boxing contracts. Where these conditions are not met, the PBC would have the power to withdraw licences, ban specific contests, and order investigations of those where criminal conduct is suspected.

As anxious as any Republican to avoid excessive government intervention, Roth insists the PBC would not 'micromanage' boxing, by officially ranking individual fighters. In fact, a single unified ranking system in the various weight divisions, drawn up by a respected neutral body, was another of Holyfield's demands in his testimony.

Separate ranking lists, often wildly at odds with boxer's actual records, are a key source of influence for the IBF, the WBA, and of the WBC which is closely linked with the promoter, Don King. A single ranking list, Holyfield argued, could force the competing bodies to become one.

(Photograph omitted)