Skip to main content
Original Issue

Arrest the Alphabet Bandits

Boxing's robber-baron governing bodies are ripping off both the fighters and the fans

It's hard to believe what boxing's governing bodies, the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council and the International Boxing Federation, get away with these days. In most parts of the world it's called extortion. The WBA, WBC and IBF—the Alphabet Bandits, if you will—rake in millions with a scam in which boxers are assessed hefty "sanction fees" for the right to light for championship belts handed out by the governing bodies.

Only 20 years ago the WBA and the WBC (the IBF didn't exist until 1983) were delighted just to cadge a few free tickets to a bout in exchange for sanctioning it. However, that was before network television—looking to deflect the ire of viewers for broadcasting dreadful mismatches disguised as championship fights—made the WBA and WBC important and, worse, arrogant. The networks said to the fight promoters, "No sanction, no money."

The promoters were suddenly at the mercy of the WBA and WBC. Sanction fees, once little more than service charges to pay for paperwork, skyrocketed. Until recently the WBC was happy to take 3% of the fighters' purses in any bout for a WBC title, with a $150,000 maximum for each boxer—the same rate still assessed by the WBA for a championship bout. (The IBF charges 2%, with the same lofty $150,000 ceiling.) Now the WBC demands 3% with no ceiling.

In the case of the Evander Holyfield-Larry Holmes heavyweight title light, scheduled for June 19, all three organizations will get to collect from both boxers because Holyfield is recognized as the universal champion. Thus the WBC is demanding that Holyfield surrender 3% of his $15 million purse ($450,000), while the WBA and IBF want another $150,000 apiece from him. What's more, all three organizations are demanding $100,000 apiece from Holmes, whose purse is being listed as $3 million. That's a total of $1,150,000 in sanction fees.

Had the Holy field-Mike Tyson fight come off, the combined sanction fees would have been $1,965,000, including $1,356,000 to the WBC alone. And here's the topper: For reasons known only to God and the IRS, the three members of boxing's cartel are supposedly nonprofit organizations, so all this booty is tax-free.

Mama, I'm not a WBC, WBA or IBF official, honest; I'm playing piano in a whorehouse.

Another result of the reliance on these sanctioning bodies was the creation of myriad new weight divisions—so there could be more championship lights and more money for the Alphabet Bandits. This watered down the sport with dozens of mediocre champions. The last time I counted, there were 48 of them in 17 divisions.

But that's not all. Lately the WBA, ever the Machiavellian innovator, has been assessing "special fees." For instance:

•In December the WBA stripped Mike McCallum of his middleweight crown because he refused to hand over $115,000 of the $500,000 purse he had received for lighting James Toney. Fifteen thousand was the usual 3% sanction fee. The other $100,000 was tacked on because McCallum had fought Toney, the IBF middleweight champ, instead of the WBA's designated challenger, Steve Collins, whom McCallum had previously defeated.

•Two weeks ago, when WBA welterweight champ Meldrick Taylor fought Terry Norris for Norris's WBC super welterweight title, the WBA demanded a $30,000 fee from Taylor even though the bout didn't require the WBA's sanction. If Taylor didn't pay the $30,000, the WBA said, it would strip him of his crown. Taylor, who was already forking over $30,000 of his $1 million purse to the WBC, paid up.

Had enough? Me, too. It's time to get rid of the Alphabet Bandits and return to having one champion for each of the eight classic weight divisions. Which throws the whole mess into the rich laps of HBO, TVKO and Showtime, the cable networks that are now the important money players in boxing. All the cable guys need to do is tell the promoters that WBA, WBC and IBF sanctions are no longer necessary—or desired.

Seth Abraham, president of Time Warner Sports, took such a step when he accepted the McCallum-Toney fight for TVKO after McCallum had been stripped of his WBA title. "It's a good fight," Abraham said. "We don't need the WBA." Promoter Bob Arum added a championship trophy, the Marvin Hagler Trophy, as a symbol of the world middleweight championship. Of course, to get rid of the sanctioning bodies, HBO and TVKO, both of which are owned by Time Warner, and Showtime would have to sit down and talk, which may be harder to arrange than getting today's heavyweight contenders into the same ring. But those rivals, working in concert, can tear the first board from the outhouse.

To replace the multiple Alphabet Bandit rankings of contenders, the cable powers should accept Boxing Illustrated' rankings, a monthly consensus of 50 international boxing writers and announcers. And no more belts, please. Corporate sponsors could be found to supply championship cups.

To start, all titles, unless already unified, should be vacated. In each of the nonunified weight classes, have the top four boxers in Boxing Illustrated' rankings fight—No. 1 vs. No. 4, No. 2 vs. No. 3—with the winners meeting for the world title. Such a format would make for some terrific bouts. The boxers would keep a larger share of their earnings, and the only place a champion could lose his title would be in the ring.