New crisis brings game to its knees

Those who believe boxing is rotten to the core have more ammunition: in the lead-up to next weekend's Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield rematch in Las Vegas, one of the organisations sanctioning the fight stands accused of being fundamentally corrupt.

Those who believe boxing is rotten to the core have more ammunition: in the lead-up to next weekend's Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield rematch in Las Vegas, one of the organisations sanctioning the fight stands accused of being fundamentally corrupt.

The International Boxing Federation, which recognises Holyfield as world champion, may be forced out of business after its president, Bob Lee, and three other officials were indicted on racketeering charges by the US Attorney and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A 32-count indictment, centred on bribes accepted in order to manipulate world rankings, has been approved by a federal grand jury. The 56-page document says the IBF accepted a total of $338,000 (£206,000) in bribes and suggests, without naming individuals other than those charged, that seven boxing promoters, seven managers and 23 boxers are also involved.

If proven, the case could wreck the entire structure of international boxing. The sport is already in depression following a series of disappointing big fights, beginning with the drawn verdict in the first Lewis-Holyfield contest in New York in March. It was the scoring of the IBF-appointed judge, Eugenia Williams, which was considered most scandalous. She scored the fight for Holyfield and even gave the American round five, when he was badly hurt against the ropes and close to going down.

This year boxing promoters seem to have accepted that divided titles with different champions recognised by each of the leading bodies lead to public confusion and the marginalising of the sport.

However, unification attempts have floundered. The Lewis-Holyfield situation should be resolved this week, but the welterweight fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad in Las Vegas in September, hyped as a throwback to the great days of the 1980s when Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler were household names, was hugely disappointing. Again, the verdict of the judges, for Trinidad, was extremely controversial.

Last month the featherweight unification fight in Detroit between Naseem Hamed and Cesar Soto of Mexico was a foul-filled brawl. Hamed won, but apologised for his performance to Lou DiBella, head of boxing at Home Box Office, the American TV company which financed the match. The following day, Mike Tyson's after- the-bell punch against Orlin Norris in Las Vegas ruined another multi-million dollar, high-profile occasion.

Now this latest crisis. Bob Lee is charged with accepting bribes to manipulate the rankings along with his son, Robert jnr, 86-year-old Donald Brennan, who headed the IBF championships committee, and a fourth official, Francisco Fernandez.

Lee snr also faces multiple charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering. He has been allowed bail of $100,000 but has had his passport confiscated. He will be allowed to travel to the Holyfield fight, but after that is effectively restricted to the State of New Jersey.

In a side issue, reports also said that when Robert Lee jnr was arrested at his New Jersey home 15 bags containing a white substance were removed for forensic examination.

The IBF has consistently denied any impropriety but must now make a detailed public defence of its actions over the last 15 years. Under a section headed "Racketeering Acts", the indictment cites the first example of wrongdoing as May 1985, when Lee snr, Brennan and others allegedly accepted around $2,000 in order to mandate a rematch between the IBF bantamweight champion and a challenger. These fighters are not named, but the bout is easy to trace. Jeff Fenech of Australia was the champion, Sitoshi Shingaki of Japan the challenger.

By the early 1990s, the indictment alleges the "price" for rating fighters had risen from $2,000 to $10,000. There are a total of 102 clauses in this area of the document, a number of which deal with what is plainly the George Foreman-Axel Schulz heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas in April 1995. The indictment says a substantial amount was paid into the IBF in order for it to approve the fight. The licensed promoters were Top Rank Inc, the organisation run by Bob Arum.

Arum has gone on record to insist that he has never made payments to Lee in return for rankings or favours. Incidentally, the Foreman-Schulz outcome was another that was highly controversial. Schulz appeared to have won clearly, but Foreman received the decision.

The document also suggests a boxer was installed in the super-middleweight ratings at No 2 in January 1996, but then removed in May because a payment of $10,000 had not been made. The boxer referred to was a Brazilian, Reginaldo Andrade.

It is also suggested that the current IBF light-middleweight champion, Fernando Vargas, was rated No 1 contender only after a payment of $25,000. Vargas is promoted by the Main Events organisation run by the Duva family. Other items refer to the Don King-promoted light-welterweight Terron Millett, who is now the IBF lightwelterweight champion.

For some time, the feeling in boxing has been that this was just another investigation that would eventually go away. Now it is clear it will not.

To talk of boxers serving their sport is crass, but those who make a living from this strange business know that a great fight, no matter who wins, has never been more urgently required. If it's bad, or controversial, the last big fight of the millennium might just be boxing's last big fight.

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