Bell tolls for ring-king Lee and the 'whore-house of pugilism'

IBF faces disbandment over bribes for rankings scandal as investigation threatens to expose big names in the fight game

By the time Axel Schulz had finished with George Foreman, there wasn't a lot left in the ageing champion. At 46, Foreman was taking his life into his hands when he faced the 26-year old German back in April 1995, and he came within an inch of it, his left eye swollen to the size of a golf ball. But to the astonishment of everyone present, the judges gave Foreman the majority verdict.

By the time Axel Schulz had finished with George Foreman, there wasn't a lot left in the ageing champion. At 46, Foreman was taking his life into his hands when he faced the 26-year old German back in April 1995, and he came within an inch of it, his left eye swollen to the size of a golf ball. But to the astonishment of everyone present, the judges gave Foreman the majority verdict.

That bout is just one of hundreds that are now being carefully scrutinised by US law enforcement officials, part of a vast investigation that could lead to a transformation of boxing.

At issue is the International Boxing Federation, one of the acronymic sanctioning organisations that "run" boxing and the only one to be based in the United States. Along with the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council, it ranks boxers, helping to determine who meets who in the ring and how much they get paid. A federal judge will decide today whether to appoint a government monitor to the IBF and freeze its accounts, amid widespread allegations of bribery.

Robert Lee, the president of the IBF, and three other officials, including his son, have been indicted for taking bribes from promoters and managers to manipulate rankings. The US government is applying to have the organisation taken over, using legislation developed for use against the Mob. That puts it in the very select company of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the notoriously corrupt Fulton Fish Market in New York City, hardly flattering counterparts for the sport.

But the charges against it are just as severe as those against any other corrupt organisation. "In the IBF, rankings were bought, not earned," said federal prosecutor Robert F Cleary. "The defendants completely corrupted the IBF ranking system."

Lee has strenuously denied the allegations, blaming racism for his problems. He and his son and and former Virginia boxing commissioner Donald William Brennan, 86, a past president of the US Boxing Association, have all pleaded innocent. The other indictee is the Colombian Francisco Fernandez, the South American representative of the IBF, who remains at large.

The sanctioning organisations emerged in the 1970s as the arbiters of the sport, helping to determine not just the names on the bouts but which ones were televised. A great deal of cash was at stake, and allegations flew like blood off a glove.

The IBF was formed in 1983 by Lee, supposedly to restore some independence to these judgements. The bribes, according to the indictment, started soon afterwards. More than $300,000 (£187,000) was handed over, the government case argues. Seven promoters as well as two dozen boxers are affected.

The indictment refers to one bout in which a previously unranked boxer faced a heavyweight champion in 1995. That must have been Foreman versus Schulz. Lee took credit, at the time, for Foreman's return to the top. "If you remember, we were the only one of the major sanctioning bodies to rate Foreman in 1994," he said. "This enabled George to get the match with Michael Moorer and earn somewhere between $20-30m in his bouts with Moorer and Schulz." Foreman won the WBA and IBF titles, though he was stripped of both subsequently for failing to defend them.

Lee has what might politely be called a chequered history. He was a New Jersey boxing commissioner until 1985, when he was suspended and fined by the Ethical Standards Commission for accepting contributions from fight promoters and casino executives. Lee said that he never solicited money or gifts; there were merely donations. Bills were sent to fight promoters like Don King, who was "reminded" that he had "offered" to pay for a dinner and three cocktail receptions. Bob Arum of Top Rank was sent a $7,000 bill for a copying machine for the IBF offices.

Arum, a former lawyer who once defended Muhammad Ali when he refused to go to Vietnam, figures very large in the rise and fall of Bobby Lee. Arum was Foreman's promoter. And when the New York Post's Jack Newfield first pinned the corruption label on Lee in 1996, Arum was widely believed to be the source of the allegations.

Arum denied that at the time but Lee certainly blamed him for the furore. "I'm very annoyed and disgusted with Arum," Lee wrote in a newspaper after the accusations appeared three years ago. "I pin the racism charge on him because he once told me: 'We will let the Blacks and the Latinos fight in the ring and we will count the money on the outside'." The animosity continues: Arum, in a letter to the Nevada Athletic Commission earlier this month, asked that the IBF be removed from the Holyfield-Lewis fight.

Unlike the other boxing organisations, it has emerged that the IBF has a for-profit arm, based in Portland, Oregon. Pat English, a lawyer for the promoters, Main Events, says that he had discovered the shadow IBF in 1996 when he was representing Moorer in a lawsuit against the organisation. "The IBF was originally formed as a non-profit company," English told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He had been an enthusiast, hoping that it would emerge as an independent and reforming organisation. "We were sorely disappointed as the IBF turned toward the dark side," he said.

Lee's lawyers claim that there is a struggle for control of the organisation between him and three people described as minority shareholders and officers of the for-profit company in Oregon. They had "diverted" $1.5m from the organisation since 1992, Lee claims in a separate court action, apparently seeking to blame any misdemeanours on these mysterious figures.

Whatever happens today, it is highly unlikely that this is the end of the affair: it is more likely to be the beginning of a series of probes that starts to rip to shreds the game's already shabby mantle of respectability. New York law enforcement agencies have their own investigation into the IBF, stemming from the first Holyfield-Lewis fight. The crowd and most commentators gave the fight to Lewis; the judges - or, more precisely, the IBF judge, Eugenia Williams - gave the fight to Holyfield. Lewis, of course, cleared up any doubts when he beat Holyfield earlier this month on a unanimous verdict in Las Vegas. This time, it was the Nevada Athletic Commission, not the sanctioning organisations, which chose the judges.

More indictments are on the cards, and some big names could follow Lee into the courtroom. Don King's Florida offices were raided in July, and though the flamboyant fight king denies that he has ever paid bribes or that he is being investigated, he has been (characteristically) voluble. "It takes two people to commit a criminal act - the briber and the bribed," he pointed out. He himself had never bribed Mr Lee, he said; but then if anyone had, "they didn't put no gun to his head".

The reaction of most people in the industry - and a lot of fans - will be equivalent to that of Captain Louis Renault in the film Casablanca. "I'm shocked... shocked to find that gambling is going on in here," he says as the croupier hands him his winnings.

Everyone who loves boxing has watched the saga of Bobby Lee with sadness, little surprise, and some hope that it may finally start to restore some lustre to the sport. "The indictments could be good for boxing, because it could lead to the disbanding of the IBF or, better yet, the restructuring of the rating group into an upstanding organisation with new leadership," wrote Royce Feour, the boxing columnist of the Review-Journal.

Newfield was more concise in the Post, saying simply: "One hopes the indictment is just a start in cleaning up the whore-house of pugilism."

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