Boxing Up History

To put boxing’s latest scandal—the International Boxing Federation’s rankings fix—into perspective, let’s go back to 1976 when ABC and Roone Arledge foolishly, almost unbelievably in retrospect, signed Don King to run a made-for-TV “U.S. Boxing Championships.” To be a contender you have to be rated by somebody, so King turned to what was then the “Bible of Boxing,” Ring magazine, edited by Nat Loubet, son-in-law of founder Nat Fleischer. ABC hyped the series and sold a mint in advertising bucks only to discover that Ring had tampered with the records of numerous fighters—by coincidence, those affiliated with King—to make them more suitable as title-fight participants. The Boxing Championships—which failed to include perhaps the best fighter in the world at the time, Marvelous Marvin Hagler (also, coincidentally, not a King fighter)—fell apart in disgrace. ABC’s image was tarnished, and King, to whom no specific corruption could be traced, was seen walking around with a “What, me worry?” grin.

Worst of all, though, from boxing’s perspective, Ring magazine was toppled from its position of influence. There was no one left with the authority or prestige to determine just how fighters should be ranked, thus setting the stage for the alphabet boxing groups (WBA, WBF, IBF…) to take over. The real culprits were the broadcast networks and cable companies (the latter just beginning to make their presence felt) who badly wanted to secure the lucrative title fights and were willing to look the other way at the credibility of the organizations doing the rankings.

If the charges against the IBF hold up, we are left to wonder why HBO, which has selected fighters according to their IBF rankings, can be let off the hook for not having asked a few questions over the years. Like, in 1995, who is this Axel Schulz guy and what has he done to deserve a fight with (HBO’s own) George Foreman? If someone in authority at HBO had done some investigating at the time, the current scandal might never have arisen. After all, it’s not as if there were no prior historical lessons for anyone to refer to.

Meanwhile, HBO, Showtime, ESPN, MSG, and everyone else connected with boxing can give themselves a shot of credibility by immediately refusing to recognize the rankings of any alphabet group. Where, then, should the networks turn to for their rankings? Steve Farhood, editor of Bert Sugar’s Fight Game magazine suggests, “An independent panel sponsored by Budweiser or Schick or somebody associated with boxing that could select perhaps 40 of the leading boxing journalists and historians from around the world.” This sounds good, but isn’t it possible that the same people who bribed organization heads in the past could also get to journalists and historians? “Yes,” Farhood concedes. “But it’s a lot harder to bribe 40 people than two or three, and there are always journalists willing to blow the whistle if someone tried such tactics.”

Headlock… Brainlock

The World Wrestling Federation, already removed from most feminists’ Christmas card lists, found itself embroiled in yet another antiwoman controversy last week. And this time, Wal-Mart—not known as a PC retailer—has sided with the women’s protesters. The chain-store behemoth, along with Kmart, Toys R Us, and Target, has pulled WWF Al Snow action figures from its shelves following a Halloween OpEd piece in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution that described the doll’s plastic accompaniment as a dismembered woman’s head. Word spread, violence-against-women charges flew, and the figure was removed from shelves. (For those interested, the toy can be had on eBay, where an oversupply has driven down bid costs.)

Responding to the brouhaha, the WWF released a statement in its defense, which outlined a key misperception about its superstar: “Al Snow is a fictitious character in desperate need of a friend; he finds kinship in an inanimate object that happens to be a mannequin head. This is part of a longstanding tradition at WWF where performers utilize props as part of their on-stage persona. In addition to Al Snow, one of the most popular performers in WWF, Mick Foley, uses a hand puppet called “Mr. Sock-o.” Currently, Foley is the New York Times best-selling author of Have a Nice Day. The tag team of Crash Holly and Hardcore Holly carry a medical scale when they arrive at ringside to ensure opponents fit in the heavyweight category. In the past, George “The Animal” Steele brought a beloved stuffed animal to the ring daring anyone to touch it.”

Thing is, a central critique of the WWF today is that wrestlers bring real women into the ring, with unfathomably overstuffed bras, and dares viewers (mostly kids) to ogle them. The brutality-to-women charge, if not technically correct, ain’t such a stretch.

Aussie Rules

The United States departed from Rugby’s fourth World Cup three weeks ago, having failed to win any of their three group matches. But the Eagles left their mark on the tournament—the U.S. was the only team to score a try against the eventual champions, Australia, courtesy of Juan Grobler of the Denver Barbarians.

On Saturday, Australia defeated France 35-12 at the new Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, completing an efficient and brutally effective campaign based on rock solid defense and the occasional flash of attacking inspiration from scrum half George Gregan and centre Tim Horan. For Australia, it was the second World Cup title in nine years.

Before the match, thousands of Aussie and French supporters launched the first wave of an all-day drinking assault on Cardiff’s pubs. They received significant help from the their local Welsh hosts, whose team had been defeated by Australia in the quarterfinals two weeks before, and from the legions of fans for defeated semifinalists South Africa and New Zealand. New Zealand had been the red-hot pre-tournament favorites, but they fell to France a week earlier.

Once NZ went down, prompting the resignation of coach John Hart, and causing such a tsunami of criticism back home that it threatened to destroy the reelection campaign of Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, the Australians were installed as clear favorites over an erratic French team that had had been unanimously dismissed by the media before scoring 33 unanswered points against the NZ All Blacks. Surely, said the now contrite press, they couldn’t repeat that feat against the Wallabies? The Aussie fans certainly didn’t think so. “Two world cups in just one year,” they chanted before the game had even begun (the other being the crown Australia won in cricket earlier this summer), and they were right.

As Wallaby captain John Eales accepted the William Webb Ellis trophy from Queen Elizabeth, we were spared one further piece of sporting political intrigue: Just a few hours before, the Australian people had narrowly voted against kicking her out as head of state and becoming a republic. How she would have congratulated diehard republican Eales, then, is anyone’s guess.

Contributors: Allen Barra, Howard Z. Unger, Matthew Yeomans

Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman