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Bigger Than Antitrust: Boxing and the Ali Act

The Muhammad Ali Reform Act is at the center of a lawsuit from Golden Boy Promotions against Al Haymon, but the flaws and lax enforcement of the act have failed fighters and the sport in bigger ways than just antitrust.

Last month was filled with the build-up and cookie-cutter hype that could circle only a Floyd Mayweather, Jr. fight at this juncture in boxing. That it just happened to be involving the other grandest fighter of this generation, Manny Pacquiao, may have even been inconsequential to Mayweather in hindsight.

Another kind of anticipatory lunge was made, though, and this one by Oscar de la Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, directed at Al Haymon and his new venture Premier Boxing Champions. As was reported recently, Golden Boy had filed a lawsuit against Haymon and the fledgling PBC alleging multiple violations of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act.

Premiere Of Disney's 'McFarland, USA' - Red Carpet Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Superficially, the new lawsuit appears to be another opportunity to find out just what kind of skeletons are in Haymon and therefore PBC's respective closets. Almost exactly one year ago, promoter Main Events filed a similar lawsuit that it later dropped when it proved unnecessary.

The litigation, while interesting and possibly quite damaging, focuses on the least-threatening breaches of the "Ali Act" in recent years.

In an article titled "No one is enforcing the federal boxing laws," writer Thomas Hauser said for ESPN, "As well-intentioned as it might be, the Ali Act suffers from glaring flaws. First, it accepts the present form of piecemeal state regulation. Second, it has too many loopholes. And most significantly, no one is enforcing it."

Hauser's article was written in 2007. Death arrived in six full rounds, 18 minutes of fighting, that year -- or one minute longer than an ambulance ride from Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas, Calif. to the Northridge Medical Center.

Jackson Kit-tsie Bussell, who just a short while earlier was an anti-drug spokesperson for the Klamath tribe and an engineering student at the Oregon Institute of Technology, was wheeled into the Northridge Medical Center unresponsive, never again to dance in his tribe's ceremonies. He was pronounced dead at 3:15 p.m. on September 21, 2007.

Former cruiserweight contender Kelvin Davis, whose gym Jackson Bussell had been training out of in Reno, Nev., said his fallen friend helped him survive a severe spinal injury months earlier, rescuing him from a permanent darkness, with friendship and encouragement.

Davis fought six more times before retiring in 2009. Like his friend, Davis would never win another fight.

Gone was Bussell's 1997 Colorado State wrestling championship, his 60 amateur fights, the 1-1-2 professional record -- a human being.

Former executive director of the California State Athletic Commission, Armando Garcia, vowed just days later to investigate Bussell's death. The October meeting of CSAC officials shows no mention of the matter, however; theDecember meeting forgot him as well.

If the CSAC had indeed investigated the matter, there is currently no available record of the investigation or its findings. As is often the case when top-heavy oversight is involved, a basic peeling back of layers reveals that Bussell's fight against Javier Garcia deserved more attention before and after the fact.

Four months prior to his death, Bussell made his professional debut in Phoenix, Ariz., and was stopped in three rounds by prospect Eddie Brooks. Bussell's record shows that the Arizona State Boxing Commission handed over a mandatory 30-day suspension following the loss, and he was back in the ring six months later against the 0-1 James Sangrey in Idaho.

Fittingly, Sangrey himself had no business fighting: he had been given a 39-day suspension following the 1st round stoppage loss in his pro debut in Washington, which borders Idaho, just 33 days earlier. Bussell knocked Sangrey out in under one round.

In August, Bussell fought to a four-round majority draw with Ernesto Lara that also earned him a lacerated left eyebrow, and another suspension, though this time for 60 days in the state of California. The suspension report is ambiguously marked "Clear" near where the CSAC suspension is noted. 28 days later, Bussell's life had been claimed.

The BoxRec page detailing Garcia vs. Bussell lists Dean Lohuis as the CSAC Inspector at the Sagebrush Cantina.

A little over one month after Bussell's death, his old foe Sangrey was placed on a 32-day suspension by the Washington Department of Licensing following a two-round stoppage loss in Tacoma. He fought 29 days later at the same venue.

Paragraphs south in Hauser's article -- penned four days following Bussell's death -- he stated, "The Ali Act also requires that states honor medical suspensions imposed on a fighter by another state. That provision... is violated on a regular basis."

In the 1980s, the Association of Boxing Commissions was formed as a way to link the independent state commissions and form unified rules governing boxing regardless of U.S. jurisdiction. Under the Chapter 18, article 6306 in the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996, adopted by the ABC and upon which the Ali Act was built, a rule regarding suspension states that "no boxer is permitted to box while under suspension from any boxing commission" unless there has been a formal appeal, or the suspension was not related to a medical or drug-testing issue.

It had happened before, and Garcia-Bussell wasn't a far cry from an unfortunate 2005 bout between Brian Viloria and Ruben Contreras that ended with the latter suffering a seizure, falling into a coma, and incurring permanent brain damage. Like Bussell, Contreras had been placed on medical suspension in another state. Unlike Bussell, however, from 2003 to 2004, Contreras was placed on suspension three times within a year by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. But again like Bussell, Contreras was allowed to fight in the state of California anyway, walking into the ring with a 3-6-1 record in his previous ten outings. Against a vicious undefeated puncher.

And once more like Bussell, the investigation, this time pledged by the CSAC Inspector appointed to oversee Garcia-Bussell, Dean Lohuis, was never noted at commission meetings that month.

Just over one year after Bussell was laid to rest, CSAC's Armando Garcia resigned from his position, a sexual harassment scandal the centerpiece, multiple allegations of incompetence and corruption the backdrop. Garcia had also violated Chapter 18, article 6308 of the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 when he accepted compensation in the way of tickets and admission to fight cards, and more.

Antonio Margarito v Shane Mosley Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Two months later, prior to Shane Mosley's January, 2009 drubbing of Antonio Margarito, CSAC Inspector Che Guevara attempted to gloss over a potential issue with Margarito's hand wraps, according to Mosley's trainer Nazim Richardson. When Richardson insisted that Margarito's hands be unwrapped, he discovered illegal, reused knuckle pads covered in a "plaster of Paris"-like material. The subsequent hearing was tabloid fodder, and two months later, Garcia's temporary successor, Bill Douglas, resigned less than six months after Garcia had; Lohuis was fired around the same time, with no explanation given, but the fiasco with Margarito's hand wraps makes the timing of the shakeup curious.

Later in 2009, the CSAC essentially fell apart. As Chairman Timothy Noonan resigned amid an ethics investigation, former Inspector Lohuis slammed the commission's negligence. Another commissioner, Howard Rose, also a promoter and agent in California, resigned shortly thereafter.

Most damning and likely tragic: a September, 2009 article from the LA Times stated, "Records from a national registry, Fight Fax, indicate that [other fighters] have been permitted to compete this year while on suspension -- pending, for instance, medical tests -- or without an identification card required under federal law."

The financial and legal inability, or even lack of desire to enforce the Ali Act in California may have led directly to at least two fighters paying an incredible price. Every step of the way -- from sanctioning of fights, to suspensions, to communication between commissions, and finally the actual eyeballs on the ground belonging to likely over-worked and under-funded inspectors -- Contreras and Bussell were failed.

The Ali Act failed them.

An extremely rowdy fourth set-to between Sandy Saddler and Willie Pep in 1951 saw both fighters bloodied and fouling incessantly. As founder of The Ring Nat Fleischer put it, Saddler-Pep IV showcased "wrestling, heeling, eye gouging, tripping, thumbing--in fact every dirty trick known to old timers." The malevolence was such that both men had their licenses revoked, and in what may have been the first case of cooperation between state commissions, the New York State Athletic Commission's ban of the Willie Pep business was upheld in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Michigan, Illinois and Pep's home state of Connecticut.

Not coincidentally, Pep's situation would have then been the first instance of a fighter circumventing such a process by traveling elsewhere to peddle wares, as he relocated from New Haven, Conn. to Miami, where he was welcomed with open arms.

Such avoidance became easy, and has grown into a monster in some cases.

Pep's involvement doesn't end there, however.

In 1949, the International Boxing Club of New York was formed by James Norris and Arthur Wirtz. Utilizing mafia involvement, questionable buyout tactics, and even the help of former champion Joe Louis, the IBC gained a stranglehold on the heavyweight title picture after Louis' 1949 retirement. The IBC's reach extended to other major boxing centers like Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis, with Pep and Ray Robinson being the last major holdouts. Upon becoming middleweight champion, Robinson relented and signed a contract, but Pep held fast, even briefly signing with another former champion in Jack Dempsey, who often found himself competing with Louis and the IBC.

In 1952, Boston Daily Record writer Dave Egan referred to the IBC as "Tentacles, Inc.," and "the Cartel of Clout."

It all came crashing down in April of 1956, as the Justice Department submitted evidence to the U.S. District Court that the IBC had engaged in business practices that violated federal antitrust laws. Their investigation found that in four years, the IBC had promoted 13 heavyweight title bouts, and 23 other title bouts in five other weight classes. The investigation also uncovered that the IBC had been buying out competitors and purchasing exclusive leases at strategically-located stadiums and arenas, including Chicago Stadium, the Detroit Olympia and St. Louis Arena.

The IBC was eventually ordered to be dissolved in 1959, but major damage had been done to boxing's credibility, even if the fights themselves were still enjoyable.

Once again in 2007, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., then generally known as a petulant virtuoso with a respectable following,obliterated revenue and Pay-Per-View buy records in defeating boxing's biggest active name, Oscar de la Hoya.

Before that bout, Al Haymon was a former concert promoter who got involved with former welterweight titlist Vernon Forrest's career and also "advised" Floyd, Jr. Upon Mayweather capsizing De la Hoya's ship and assuming the helm, Haymon became the entity whispering into the heir apparent's ear, seemingly steering him from the shadows, well beneath public perception.

In eight years, Haymon has developed a stable of talent so jam-packed that the final tally is constantly changing. But it's somewhere approaching 200 fighters.

Among the news cycle reporting the newest lawsuit against Haymon is an article by Yahoo's Kevin Iole that states, "[Golden Boy attorney Bert] Fields alleges that Haymon is serving as both promoter and manager and is systematically eliminating competition."

Lou DiBella Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Promoter and former HBO Boxing matchmaker Lou DiBella has more or less formed a business alliance with Haymon, and now defends the lawsuit's allegations by pointing out Golden Boy's exclusive output deal with HBO and Brooklyn's Barclays Center from a few years ago.

Indeed, in a 2010 Q&A with Broadcasting & Cable, De la Hoya said, "We need to sign all the talent and get all the TV dates," citing the Ultimate Fighting Championship's control-heavy business model. Then-CEO of Golden Boy Richard Schaefer clarified by stating, "I use Golden Boy as the model, not UFC."

DiBella's response then seemed more like resignation or even indifference, compared to now. "I'm not surprised by Oscar's comments about how they want to take over. Their behavior has made it apparent what they want to do."

Schaefer has since resigned from his position, and crossed the street to Haymon's PBC, now in the midst of a potential UFC-style takeover -- right down to the production and streamlined teams.

Alternating between the "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" argument and burying heads in the sand is precisely how boxing maintained its lawlessness and controlled chaos. These small oversights that snowball into gore and tragedy overwhelm a system already forgotten or unfunded time and again, bringing progress to a standstill.

Though the handle of boxing's momentum has clearly shifted with the rolling out of PBC and subsequent massive TV network push, the heart and soul of the sport is the prize in this particular game. Boxing can endure yet another attempted coup at its very structure, if for no other reason than because it has before -- multiple times. For every mistaken soul measuring boxing to be fitted with a suit and casket, the sport has rebounded stronger, or with moremoney involved.

What matters are the lives, though. The opportunity to lay bare the failings of the Ali Act and bring transparency to the business dealings of boxing, and in particular Al Haymon, is a chance that should be seized upon. Not for the control, or to win, or out of spite driven by bad feelings and murky history. The Ali Act and governance of boxing deserves reexamination so that we love a sport that respects life, and is honorable; a sport that we are truly proud of.

Mahatma Gadhi once said, "Speak only if it improves upon the silence." In boxing, silence ends lives.

Bussell's friend Kelvin Davis said of his comrade, "He said he wasn't afraid of dying."

Boxing wasn't afraid of killing. And the lawsuit against Al Haymon is bigger than antitrust.

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