Saturday, November 06, 1999

Suspect rankings yet another blow to boxing's rep




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Larry Donald is two years between knockouts. Two years to the day. The Cincinnati heavyweight is a contender conspicuously short on punching power. He wins bouts because he has a quick left jab and quicker feet.

        But Donald has never moved so fast in the boxing ring as he has in the boxing rankings. His rapid rise toward the top of the charts — coincidental with his affiliation with promoter Don King — has been a source of wonder to those who have followed his long-stagnant career.

        Now, it is a source of suspicion.

        The indictments of International Boxing Federation President Robert W. Lee and three IBF associates have placed boxing's Byzantine rating systems under harsh and overdue scrutiny. A New Jersey grand jury Wednesday charged Lee and his lieutenants with conspiracy, racketeering and the acceptance of more than $330,000 in bribes to manipulate their rankings.

        Seven promoters and managers and 23 boxers — none of them named as yet — have been implicated in the illicit payments. Everyone in the fight game — regardless of their relative guilt — is sure to feel the fallout. With Congress already debating boxing reform, this latest scandal will likely stimulate legislators to take a swing at the corruption that pervades and pollutes pugilism.

Lack of credibility
        If Congress succeeds only in reforming the rankings, it would be an enormous first step in stabilizing the sport. (Whether stabilizing this sport is a worthy goal is a subject for another day.)

        “Boxing's sanctioning organizations are routinely vilified by boxers, broadcasters, journalists and fans,” Arizona Senator John McCain told the New York State Senate in boxing hearings earlier this year. “And most of the criticisms are well deserved. Their ratings procedures have no credibility or consistency.”

        Consider: When Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis fight next Saturday to unify the heavyweight title, Holyfield will enter the ring unranked by the World Boxing Council (WBC). Lewis is unranked by both the World Boxing Association (WBA) and the IBF.

        Boxing generally operates as three parallel universes, each one officially oblivious to the others. Ludicrous oversights and outright larceny abound in almost every weight class.

        Earlier this year, the IBF made Vincent Pettway its No.1 welterweight contender, though he had not fought anyone with a winning record since suffering successive knockouts three years earlier. The ranking entitled Pettway to a mandatory title shot at Felix Trinidad. Both fighters, curiously enough, are controlled by Don King. (King's offices were raided earlier this year as part of the federal investigation.)

        Cincinnati's Tim Austin, the IBF bantamweight champion and another King client, appears nowhere in the WBA or WBC rankings. The only heavyweight contenders who are listed by all three sanctioning bodies are Larry Donald and John Ruiz. How they managed this feat is a mystery.

        Donald, a former Olympian, is 35-1-1 as a professional. He was the IBF's seventh-ranked contender a year ago, and is No.4 today. He has moved up by padding his record with low-profile victims and has yet to conquer anyone of real consequence.

        Nineteen different heavyweights are ranked among the top 10 contenders by the various sanctioning bodies. Donald has fought none of them. His most recent opponents have been Levi Billups, Ross Puritty, Mike Sedillo, Artis Pendergrass and Marion Wilson.

        Who? Who? Who? Who? And who?

Fakes and frauds
        In other individual sports — in golf or tennis or track — rankings are the result of open competition, and an athlete's progress is plain to everyone. Boxing is mostly about politics and payoffs.

        At best, it is organized chaos. At worst, it is criminal.

        The Miami Herald reported Sunday that at least 30 fights have been fixed or tainted by fraud during the past 12 years. Former heavyweight Andre Smiley was quoted as saying he had faked 14 knockouts. Tony Fulilangi admitted taking a dive in losing to George Foreman in 1988.

        Boxing is never short on scandal. What it longs for is structure.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.