Boxing: Wanted: A Fifa for the fight game

Bob Mee passes judgement on a world heavy with controversy
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE UNITED STATES is not a good place to be just now if you want to make a serious error of judgement. In the wake of President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, people are ready to look for motive where there may only be mistake; corruption where there may only be wrong-headedness.

Reaction to the Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield draw was volatile here in a nationalistic, "our boy was robbed" kind of way. In New York, the response was coldly aggressive. The respected writer Jack Newfield was among the first to suggest that the promoter Don King had the motive to fix the fight.

Since then, it has been revealed that Eugenia Williams, the 38-year-old American judge who scored 115-113 for Holyfield, filed for bankruptcy six weeks before the fight. An accounts clerk who earns $39,000 a year, Williams refused to answer questions over her financial circumstances.

Williams, who lives in New Jersey, has been working on world-title fights since 1995. I have no knowledge of any previous boxing background. In her time on the international circuit, she has travelled to Italy, France, Britain, Germany and South Africa twice. I have scoured her judging record, and I can find nothing before this fight to suggest she might be incompetent.

So why should she suddenly become so far out of line with reality that she scored round five, when Holyfield was in crisis against the ropes, hurt and bewildered, to the American? Her answer is strange. She allegedly claimed that Lewis was so big he was obstructing her view at the time.

Did Lewis have one of those nightmares that can be put down to human error? Or are those who identify motive and see corruption on to something?

Williams, judging by her financial circumstances, appears to need the extra cash that working a world title fight will bring. She needs, therefore, to stay in favour with Bob Lee, the International Boxing Federation president. Lee's relationship with Holyfield's promoter, King, has become increasingly cosy during the 1990s. There is little doubt that for the IBF to retain a say in Holyfield as champion - of even a divided crown - would be preferable to them losing control, which would have been the case if Lewis, who entered the fight as World Boxing Council champion, had won. But so far we have only suspicion, speculation and conjecture.

Yes, it was a bad decision. I don't care what those who saw it a draw by ignoring, or discounting Lewis's pitter-pat jabs, say to the contrary: the Englishman dominated the fight, psychologically, physically and in terms of points scored.

Punch-statistics can be misleading when one man lands 20 light jabs, then is sent reeling by a single right hand to the head. In professional boxing, impact of a punch matters. Yet at no stage after the third round did Holyfield land significantly damaging punches to turn things in this way.

In this instance, the statistics supplied by the American experts CompuBox are not only relevant, but illuminating. Overall, Lewis landed 348 punches of 613 thrown and Holyfield 130 of only 385 thrown. In every single round, including the third, eighth and 10th, which I gave to Holyfield, Lewis landed more blows.

This past week the furore has snowballed to the point where a grand jury is investigating the decision of the judges, Williams, Stanley Christodoulou of South Africa and London's Larry O'Connell. The probe, ordered by the Manhattan District Attorney, is looking into the possibility of criminal conduct.

The hearing is taking place in front of General Eliot Spitzer, who is already leading a legal task force investigating the way in which boxing is administered. The Lewis-Holyfield hearing is likely to last two months.

Lou Di Bella, the vice- president of HBO, the TV giant which pumps more money into boxing than any other media organisation and which therefore carries the greatest influence, is adamant that the system by which boxing officials are selected must be changed. "Not only should the system in which the judges are chosen be changed, the system under which fighters are ranked must be changed. And the power of the sanctioning bodies should be diminished," he said. "Frankly, these sanctioning bodies do not operate fairly and without influence. They operate under influence and unfairly.

"Judges travel and have everything arranged and paid for by promoters, who have a stake in the outcome. Sanctioning bodies submit the judges - and they have agendas of their own. Sanctioning bodies receive fees from the champion. If it's a popular champion, whose fights are worth a lot of money, the organisation has an incentive to favour that champion."

Powerful words, but where do we go from here? After all, King, who was the main promoter of last weekend's fight and who promotes Holyfield, will counter that Di Bella is biased because HBO have Lewis tied to them, but do not have Holyfield. Therefore, the row over the decision suits them.

Boxing is not like most sports. It does not have the equivalent of football's Fifa, which for good or bad runs the whole show. In the 1990s, sanctioning bodies have sprouted like weeds over boxing's notoriously muddy ground. I do not yet have figures for 1998, but in 1997 if we take only five of the more prevalent organisations operating in world boxing, there were around 200 "world title" fights. These were worked by a total of 322 judges and referees. It is reasonable to suggest that the more officials you have, the likelihood of a less competent one creeping through increases.

For last weekend's unification fight, Christodoulou was provided by the World Boxing Association, O'Connell by the WBC and Williams by the IBF. Christodoulou, who scored 116-113 for Lewis, will presumably be exonerated fairly quickly. For O'Connell and Williams, innocent until proven guilty, the future would appear to be much more traumatic.