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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Project Administrator

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Administrator is requ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn