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Posted 1/20/2004 9:54 PM
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Boxing will remain on its feet no matter how many blows it takes
I had to laugh the other day. In light of the FBI’s probe of another well-known promoter, someone suggested that the federal government fix professional boxing. Right. As soon as it finishes resolving issues involving Iraq, the budget deficit, health care insurance, immigration, Social Security and the war on terrorism, the feds will be all over Butterbean, just you wait.

The government doesn’t care. And neither do you.

That is why boxing never will be reformed.

It is the illegitimate child of professional sports. Even in this latest scandal, if there are indictments and convictions, will anything change? Despite Sen. John McCain’s efforts, politicians don’t want to get involved in the dark alleys of boxing any more than Howard Dean wants to have dinner with John Kerry in broad daylight.

The public doesn’t care, either. Admit it. You kind of like that boxing walks on the wrong side of the street and hangs out under a lamppost. It’s unpredictable, dangerous, sexy. That is part of its enduring appeal — even for highly educated people.

Bob Arum, a Harvard Law School grad, used to work for the government. Now, his company, Top Rank, is being investigated by it for alleged fight fixing and other misdeeds. Boxing, long the cesspool of professional sports, would be comical if it weren’t so tragically inept. An undercover FBI agent, posing as “Big Frankie” the mobster, passed out business cards in Las Vegas from his so-called firm, YGJ & Co.

The letters stood for You’re Going to Jail.

Who said the feds don’t have a sense of humor?

But Arum, of all people, knows the FBI isn’t clowning around, particularly after agents seized computers and records in his office two weeks ago. Back in the 1960s, Arum served as a tax attorney in the U.S. Justice Department for Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

Later he joined a New York law firm and met Muhammad Ali through pro football star Jim Brown. With the expansion of closed-circuit television, Ali made Arum rich and famous. Ali did the same for Don King, a numbers racketeer who left prison and promoted an exhibition for him.

Arum and King have been the best — and worst — things that have happened to the sport the last three decades.

With Ali, they ushered in an era of big fights and mega purses, but they also suffocated the sport by climbing into bed with banana-republic sanctioning bodies who controlled boxing through rigged ratings and sham champions and contenders. A couple of years ago Arum admitted paying a $100,000 bribe to International Boxing Federation President Bob Lee for a heavyweight title fight sanction involving George Foreman. It wasn’t the first time Arum had paid the alphabet boys.

King, who is being sued for $100 million by former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, has been investigated more times by the federal agencies than Al Capone, Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo combined. Now it is his adversary’s turn for scrutiny.

My best guess is Arum neither will be charged nor found guilty of anything in this case, which seems to have evolved from the FBI’s launching of an organized crime sting that had nothing to do with boxing. Arum may not be found culpable, but I don’t know if the same thing can be said for some of the men he employed, including lead matchmaker Bruce Trampler. The government has hours of recordings involving “Big Frankie” and Top Rank employees. Joey Torres, a convicted murderer and Top Rank confidant, also secretly recorded conversations for the government.

Already, one former Top Rank employee, Sean Gibbons, has been fired by Arum. A low-level matchmaker from Oklahoma, Gibbons once told me after a long night of boxing, “Who hasn’t fixed fights?”

The perception, of course, is sometimes worse than the actual outcome. This latest investigation certainly will not aid boxing’s damaged, deteriorating business model, one that includes few sponsors and precious little network television exposure. Boxing is big on cable, but recently ESPN stopped paying rights fees to promoters, asking them to bear more of the financial burden.

The sport continues to be pushed to the fringes despite its general popularity among many viewers. And when it comes to pay-per-view attractions, nothing — not music or any other form of entertainment — can match the gross revenue of a major boxing promotion.

Boxing remains caught in a perpetual eight-count time warp. It will stagger and wobble from time to time but somehow continue to fight on in spite of itself, a wonder in itself.


E-mail Jon Saraceno at [email protected]

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