Some of boxing's dirtiest linen is due for public washing next month when Teddy Brenner, the former Madison Square Garden matchmaker who is now a fight promoter, takes the World Boxing Council to court in New York. Victory for Brenner could conceivably put the WBC out of business in the U.S. and thus reduce it to penny-ante status (see box, page 47). Whatever the outcome of the Brenner trial, it will serve a useful purpose by focusing public scrutiny on the WBC—and high time. A SPORTS ILLUSTRATED inquiry has found that under Josè Sulaimàn Chagnón, its president, the WBC has: 1) produced some of the most dubious boxer ratings and bizarre mismatches in the history of the sport; 2) assigned officials in such a way as to invite suspicion of impropriety; 3) arbitrarily punished a number of fighters, while favoring others; and 4) created meaningless weight division—e.g., super fly—resulting in lucrative sanctioning fees and global junkets for WBC officials. And the WBC's rival sanctioning group, the World Boxing Association, has displayed similar tendencies. In these pages SI examines the WBC in detail. Next week: the WBA.
The irony is that both the WBC and the WBA were small-time operations, cadging nickels and dimes, until the urgent need of U.S. network television for "respectable" fighter rankings catapulted the organizations into positions of power. Until 1977, boxing's rating bible was The Ring magazine. In that year it was discovered that The Ring was supplying phony records and rankings for the Don King-promoted, ABC-aired United States Boxing Championships. Goodby, Ring; hello, alphabet soup. The Ring has subsequently undergone a thorough housecleaning. Now the WBC and WBA need an application of mop, pail and broom.
Upon their sudden elevation the WBC and WBA found themselves in a position to demand sanctioning fees from fight promoters, plus lavish expenses for title-fight "observers." Moreover, they became arrogant panhandlers, exacting tribute.
Says promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank. Inc.: "They demanded that we wine them and dine them or we couldn't get a fight. If I don't pay I can't get a cockamamy letter of sanction, which TV demands, and I can't earn a living.
March 16, 1981
"For years we told them to drop dead. They begged for tickets to a fight. Nobody paid any attention to these amateurs until the networks forced us to pay attention. Hell, I don't mind giving them the money, but I give them the money and it doesn't buy a thing. I still have to pay all their expenses and put up with their hassling. They come and bring their wives. And they don't go anyplace or do anything unless it's first-class."
The abuses multiplied. Under the stewardship of Sulaimàn, a Mexican national of Lebanese descent who was educated in the U.S., the very ratings that gave the WBC its sole claim to recognition have become a mockery. The ruling powers of the WBA have not earned higher marks.
Sulaimàn, 49, is a short, stout manufacturer of paper for specialized medical uses—e.g., electrocardiograms. His pleasant round face reflects riptides of emotion, shifting from great elation to abject embarrassment to deep depression. Everywhere, he sees enemies—people who dislike him, he says, because they are Communists or because he is Mexican. Or because they are against whatever he happens to be for at the moment. Or because their minds have been poisoned against him.
"With Josè, there are no in-betweens," says Bob Busse, president of the North American Boxing Federation, a member of the WBC. "He's on an ego trip. If you agree with him, you're his friend. If you disagree, you're his enemy."
Nevertheless, Sulaimàn is generally thought to be a decent man. Indeed, he has done some good things for the sport: he has taken a special interest in ring safety; and he has instituted medical plans for boxers, required mandatory life insurance for them and, on occasion, has paid the medical bills of injured fighters. But his failings outweigh his positive actions. The trouble is, Sulaimàn's instinct for decency is often easily overridden by a dread of being disliked. He wants to be loved, he wants to be regarded as a benevolent monarch. To those who bend the knee he dispenses favors.
The quirks of Sulaimàn's complex character are most likely responsible for many of the mysteries of the WBC's ratings and its title-fight sanctioning, although to the objective observer these appear at times to be geopolitical payoffs in exchange for pledges of fidelity to good king Josè.
Sulaimàn contends, quite illogically, that any champion of any division of the WBC's seven federations deserves world ranking. While this may be salve for many a nationalistic soul, it also masks a lot of mischief. Busse is the WBC ratings chairman and as such should determine the monthly rankings. Yet he estimates that 90% of the ratings are made by Sulaimàn himself. "How some of the people get into our ratings, I couldn't tell you," Busse says. "Promoters call me and ask about fighters they say we have ranked, and I didn't even know they were ranked. What can I do about it? Maybe I don't complain enough. But it sure makes me look bad."
As bad as the WBC's ratings are, and we'll examine them more closely later, its blithe disregard of its own rules and rulings is even worse. Bearing in mind that the U.S. isn't one of the WBC's most-favored nations, take the case of Oklahoma City lightweight Sean O'Grady. O'Grady fought James Watt, the Scotsman who is the WBC lightweight champion, in Glasgow on Nov. 1. Stopped by a cut resulting from a butt by Watt in the 12th round, O'Grady petitioned the WBC for an immediate rematch. You've got it, replied the WBC, but the fight must take place before Feb. 28, 1981 and the contracts for it must be negotiated and signed within 15 days.
No problem was on the horizon until Mickey Duff, a British promoter who has Sulaimàn's ear, informed O'Grady's people on the last day of the negotiating period that Watt had required surgery for eye cuts suffered in the O'Grady fight. This was news to Jim Reynolds of The Glasgow Herald, who, in a phone call to Dean Bailey of the Oklahoma City paper The Daily Oklahoman, said, "I was with Watt that day, and there was nothing wrong with his eyes then. He could fight today. He did go to see a plastic surgeon to seek advice, but he was told he didn't need surgery."
Five hours later Reynolds phoned Bailey again, this time with word that Watt had collapsed at a charity function and had been rushed to a hospital for an appendectomy. That shouldn't have altered the WBC's obligation to O'Grady any more than Watt's earlier alleged eye-cut surgery, but now O'Grady was told by the WBC that he must stand in line behind the No. 1-ranked lightweight contender, Alexis Arguello, a Nicaraguan living in Miami.
"What can I do?" said Sulaimàn, a man who often seems able to do what he pleases. "Watt must have a mandatory defense against the No. 1 contender, who is Arguello, by June 7. We tried to get the fight for O'Grady, but if Watt cannot be ready in time, what can we do? We must follow our rules and mandates. In this we have always been strong. But O'Grady will get his chance. We have ordered that the winner must fight O'Grady next. It is only a matter of time."
Not necessarily so. For O'Grady it could be a matter of a good deal of money. If O'Grady beat Watt and then fought Arguello, and if that fight were to go to purse bidding—i.e., competitive bidding among promoters—as required for title bouts under the rules of both organizations, O'Grady, as champ, would receive 75% of the total purse. But now, he will get only 25%, the standard challenger's share, when he fights the winner of the Arguello-Watt bout. The flimflam could cost him half a million dollars.
"It was rigged," says Pat O'Grady, Sean's father and manager. "They had no plans to give us a rematch. The Arguello-Watt match had already been made. They just led us along. It was a royal screwing."
One of Sulaimàn's indefensible acts of late was to set in motion machinery that could have stripped Sugar Ray Leonard of his welterweight championship. Leonard's crime: a proposed bout with the WBA junior middleweight champion, Ayub Kalule of Uganda, now resident in Denmark. Sulaimàn backed off when cooler WBC heads prevailed. As of now the bout is still on—for June 19 in the U.S.—but the background of the affair gives a revealing glimpse of the WBC in eccentric action.
Sulaimàn wasn't upset because Leonard was to fight for a WBA title, but because the opponent was Kalule. Sulaimàn said Leonard thus was showing disrespect for the WBC.
And furthermore, said Sulaimàn, it wasn't he who wanted to strip Leonard—oh, no: "It is the Africans and some European countries. The Ray Leonard thing is nothing but my embarrassment, that he is bringing within our organization a factor of bad feelings of the people we support in that he is fighting a man called a traitor to his continent."
Unlike the WBC, the WBA recognizes and ranks South African fighters. Apartheid has split the two boxing groups even as it has divided South Africa. Because Kalule, an African, fought for and won a WBA title, he has become persona non grata to fellow Africans, at least those who voice their opinions in the councils of the WBC.
Kalule won the title from Masashi Kudo, a Japanese. He has since defended it against Marijan Benes of Yugoslavia. Both Kudo and Benes continued to be ranked by the WBC despite the taint of fighting Kalule. And Benes is the European champion, which makes it hard to believe any European country could be upset over the prospect of Leonard doing what their own champ did just last June.
Said Sulaimàn: "Oh, yes, the Spanish, the Italians and the French have all mentioned this to me. We will take a vote."
(Ray Clarke, general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, has served as chairman of the WBC's disciplinary committee for the last five years. In that time, Clarke says, "I have never had a case to deal with. Why that should be, I do not know. Neither have I had instructions by the WBC to deal with any disciplinary matters.")
Sulaimàn continued: "I have had some requests from the Africans to avoid wrong things and to, ah, recognize Tommy Hearns as the welterweight champion. And he's an American."
Reminded that Hearns is the WBA welterweight champion, Sulaimàn said: "This has nothing to do with the WBA. This is just Kalule, and I am in the center of a turmoil because I must defend myself and my principles. This is not a legality but only the humane respect of the heart that has worked from the beginning of the WBC. What Leonard is doing has no respect. I told him if he fought Kalule it would be an embarrassment, and he said he understood. Then this happened [Leonard's decision to go ahead and fight Kalule] and I don't even receive the courtesy of a call to say that he is going this way. I am still waiting for a call. My God, I vow I never do anything wrong to anybody. I do things wrong but in good faith."
As to things wrong, return now to the the WBC's ratings.
Item: Top Rank's Arum candidly admits that until mid-1978 he was able to get Sulaimàn to rate or upgrade rated fighters Top Rank wanted for title bouts. "After the middle of '78," Arum charged, "Sulaimàn put all of his efforts into doing what Don King wanted him to do."
Item: Mensah Kpalogo of Togo was the bantamweight champion of Africa in 1979 with a reputed 44-4 record. By Sulaimàn's often curious yardstick he deserved to be rated, and was. Next, Colonel Hassine Hamouda, a citizen of Tunisia living in Paris and the secretary to the African Boxing Union, persuaded Sulaimàn to make Kpalogo the No. 1 challenger to the WBC champion, Mexico's Carlos Zarate. More than one promoter told Sulaimàn he was out of his mind to do it.
"Oh, no," Sulaimàn countered, "Colonel Hamouda told me that he's a very good fighter. And I know two of the fighters he beat. I admit one was a very mediocre Mexican."
In a championship bout on March 10, 1979 in Los Angeles Kpalogo was knocked out in the third round by Zarate, who earned $100,000 for his part in the farce. "Kpalogo didn't even know how to hold up his hands," growled Don Fraser, who promoted the fight Even Sulaimàn admitted to embarrassment. "How could those people lie to me," he said.
Zarate was managed by Cuyo Hernandez of Mexico City, one of Sulaimàn's closest friends. During the 37 months Zarate held the championship—until he lost it in June 1979 to his countryman Lupe Pintor—the Kpalogo travesty was his only defense against a No. 1 contender. Why Pintor, also managed by Hernandez, was rated No. 1 is another WBC mystery. Until he fought for the title, Pintor had never beaten anyone in the WBC's Top 20.
Item: Mike Baker is a junior middleweight out of Washington, D.C. managed by Edward Bennett Williams, the attorney who represents both Sulaimàn and King. In 1979 Baker was rated No. 7 by the WBC and given a title bout with the British champ, Maurice Hope. Baker took a savage beating and the fight was stopped in the seventh round. Baker had never defeated a world-rated opponent; his last two victories before the title fight came against club fighters, yet somehow they moved him up three places to the No. 7 spot.
Item: On May 31, 1976 Aniceto Vargas, once of the Philippines but by then fighting out of Hawaii, was knocked out by Juan Josè Guzman of the Dominican Republic. That was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. For Vargas, the only thing unusual about the bout was the locale. He was more accustomed to being knocked out in Honolulu. The San Juan fight was the third straight technical knockout of the glass-jawed Vargas, and his fifth defeat in his last 11 fights.
Then Vargas got lucky. In October he defeated Cesar Gomez Kee of San Francisco, Calif., a club fighter of little note. For this, his first victory in four fights. Vargas was suddenly ranked as the WBA's No. 10 junior flyweight. The same month, the WBC introduced him in the No. 9 slot.
Vargas was so overcome by his sudden celebrity that he took 1977 off—and remained ranked by both groups. In fact, by December of his sabbatical year the WBC moved him up to No. 5, the WBA to No. 6. At that point, Vargas hadn't had a bout in 16 months. Emerging from retirement in January of 1978, Vargas fought Yoko Gushiken of Japan for the WBA championship. In this fight he hung around until the 14th round. He took two standing eight counts in the 11th and another in the 13th, and finally the referee said "enough" when Gushiken dumped him in the 14th.
In March of the same year, Vargas fought Kee again, this time to a draw, and didn't fight again until losing an eight-round decision to Julio Rodriguez of Mexico in July of 1979. The WBA had finally dropped him from the ratings in September of 1978. The WBC was a bit more stubborn; it still had Vargas ranked—as No. 12—as late as November 1979. That marked his 38th straight month in the WBC ratings and was 38 months after his last victory.
Said Sulaimàn, after Vargas' amazing tenure among the elite was pointed out: "See, when we found out he was a bum, we got rid of him."
Consider now the Sulaimàn-appointed ring officials, a number of whom seem more concerned with protecting the house champions (i.e., those who seem inordinately favored) than with rendering just decisions. The WBA officials are no better. Says a U.S. judge who no longer works WBA bouts: "I was officiating a fight in Puerto Rico and Dr. Elias Cordova [the most powerful personage in the WBA] came over to me just before Round 1, touched my arm and said, 'Remember who you are working for. We want to keep the championship here.' The fight was between a Latin American and a U.S. fighter. Later, at another fight that year, Dr. Cordova told me that the reason I wasn't used much was because I wasn't a house referee. I had just voted against one of their fighters. The WBA has never called me to work again."
Lope Sarreal, a Philippine promoter, poses the question: "What is it they call a neutral official?" And answers it: "An official who is either my friend or someone I can buy."
It is also disturbing that the WBC and WBA seem to call on certain officials whenever a house champion is fighting. For example, in seven of 11 title defenses by Mexico's Pipino Cuevas, the former WBA welterweight champion, one of the judges was Marco Antonio Rodriguez, a Mexican. Rodriguez is one of a small cadre of officials, at least one of whom invariably shows up when a house champion is in action.
And so it goes. "The WBC regulations are like the secrets posed by the Sphinx to the inhabitants of Thebes," says Jesus Rivero of Mexico, manager of former WBC flyweight champion Miguel Canto. "Those who could not solve them were destroyed."
Canto and Rivero assert that Sulaimàn forced Canto to fight in Chile against their wishes; forced them to sign a return contract with a contender; forced them to take $20,000 less for a title fight than the sum originally contracted for; and demanded that Canto sign a paper promising to decide whether he would retire, within seven days, should he defeat Chan-Hee Park of South Korea in their September 1979 championship match.
Canto did retire, on Oct. 4, 1979, after failing to regain the title, and said, "I retire because I have the commission against me and they set the judges. Why bother to continue fighting to lose on account of the WBC who designates the judges? Since before we won the championship. Sulaimàn acted badly with us. He never accepted totally that we disputed for the world title and less that we won it. Now, at all costs, he wished we would lose it."
Said Sulaimàn: "Rivero hates me because he is a Communist; he drinks; he runs with loose women; nobody in Mexico likes him; and everybody knows what a liar he is."
Rivero, who at present "administers property" in Yucatan, has studied law and the history of philosophy at the National University in Mexico City. In a lengthy statement attacking Sulaimàn, he quoted from Seneca. Goethe, Dostoevski, Shakespeare's Othello and King Lear, and Octavio Paz' The Labyrinth of Solitude. Last year the Mexican Boxing Commission named Rivero Manager of the Decade.
Another of the WBC's and WBA's suspect practices is the proliferation of weight divisions. The traditional eight weight classifications have ballooned to 29—15 in the WBC and 14 in the WBA. Just last November the WBA added the junior bantamweight division (113 to 115 pounds) to match the WBC's super flys. In the '70s there were 531 world-championship fights; in 1980 alone there were 94. (Middleweight Marvin Hagler is the only fighter who holds both the WBC and WBA versions of his title.)
Clearly there aren't enough quality fighters around to justify so many divisions, but Sulaimàn has his reasons—humanitarian reasons, he says. Citing the super bantamweights (119 to 122 pounds), Sulaimàn says, "We have made it easy for the fighters. Where were the 122-pounders? You never saw them. They were either in a steam bath getting down to 118 [bantam] or overeating to get up to 126 [featherweight]. We don't just want fighters; we want human beings."
The additional divisions also mean additional sanction fees, additional fighters' purses to be cut, additional junkets and additional ratings to be parceled out. In every title fight the WBC takes 1½% of the champion's purse and 1% of the challenger's. In his last four championship fights, Sugar Ray Leonard, for example, paid the WBC no less than $300,000 in sanction fees.
The charm of the sweet slice hasn't been lost on Colonel Hamouda, he of the Kpalogo affair. One of the WBC's most powerful operatives, if not the most sensitive to conflicts of interest, he is a member of its executive council and chairman of its finance committee. At the WBC convention in Madrid in 1977, Hamouda offered Arum this proposition: that Muhammad Ali make a defense of his heavyweight championship in Tunisia the following year. Hamouda's share of the show would be 10% of Arum's gross revenues. Arum noted that there was a problem: the convention had approved the first Ali-Leon Spinks fight, with the proviso that the winner then fight No. 1-ranked challenger Ken Norton. Hamouda told Arum that his people didn't want Norton because the fight would be too expensive. They desired a less prestigious opponent, one who would accept a smaller purse. For such a fight Hamouda's Tunisian associates would put up $1 million and expect American TV to provide the balance of the fight's costs.
The American promoter said he "pointed out to Colonel Hamouda that the WBC had ordered that Norton be the next opponent. He told me not to worry about it, that he could handle the situation. He said that all I had to do was find the right opponent and he would see that the fight was sanctioned."
Arum says Hamouda also requested a document appointing him as Top Rank's representative in Africa and the Middle East. That contract, dated Dec. 1, 1977, provided that Hamouda would be entitled to 10% of the total revenue paid Top Rank for all title fights promoted in his areas. "For example," the contract read, "if we [Top Rank] receive a fee of $2 million from the sponsor of a match in Africa or the Middle East, you [Hamouda] shall be entitled to a commission of $200,000." That agreement covered two years, expiring Nov. 30, 1979.
Arum says he met Hamouda again in Milan in January 1978. Says Arum: "Colonel Hamouda again assured me there would be no difficulty putting this fight on despite the prior WBC directive requiring the winner [of the Ali-Spinks bout] to fight Norton."
But on Feb. 15, 1978 in Las Vegas. Spinks scored an upset victory over Ali, and plans for the Tunisia fight died. It is ironic that after his triumph Spinks was stripped of his title by the WBC and it was given to Norton.
In a reflective mood, Sulaimàn says: "We are not perfect, but even God makes mistakes. I make a strong invitation to any person in the world who has any knowledge, little or big, to prove us wrong. We are honest; we have integrity; we have a good organization; we are just. Prove us wrong and you will easily have our prestige in your hands to throw us through the sink."
Teddy Brenner is going to give that a shot, in court, next month.
In January of 1975 the WBC ordered Rafael Lovera of Paraguay to fight Luis Estaba of Venezuela for the vacated light flyweight title. At the time the president of the WBC was Ramon Valesquez, a playground director in Mexico City who likes to be addressed as "doctor." (A year before, a stunned American fight official claimed to have seen Valesquez collect $20,000 in cash from a Bangkok promoter and pass it off as a combination of sanction fees and fines.)
Although no one in South America had heard of Lovera, his record was cited by the WBC as 20-1-1. The champion at the time was Franco Udella, a mediocre fighter from Italy. Valesquez first ordered Udella to fight Lovera, but when the Italian pleaded illness, he was stripped of the title.
Valesquez then ordered the Lovera-Estaba fight for the vacated crown. Lovera was knocked out in the third round. That was no surprise. It was, in fact, Lovera's first professional fight.
BRENNER'S SUIT AGAINST THE WBC
Discontent with the WBC and the WBA is worldwide and smoldering, but only one man has dared to fight back. Promoter Teddy Brenner has brought an antitrust suit against the WBC and its president. Josè Sulaimàn. The case is scheduled to go to trial April 7 in the U.S. district court for the Southern District of New York. A decision for Brenner could cost the WBC $3 million in damages. More important, the suit seeks the dismantling of the 18-year-old organization that has come to control the lion's share of world boxing. If it loses the case, the WBC will cease to operate, at least in the U.S. And without U.S. dollars, which make up approximately 80% of its income, the WBC would revert to its small-time pre-1977 status.
Brenner's action, which is being handled by the New York law firm of Coudert Brothers, is similar to the antitrust suit brought by the U.S. in the mid-'50s to smash the International Boxing Club. A gangster-controlled fight empire fronted by millionaire Jim Norris, the IBC was reduced to ashes when it was found in violation of the Sherman Act for engaging in a conspiracy to control world championship fights.
Originally Brenner's suit charged that Sulaimàn: 1) ignored an exclusive contract Brenner had with Alexis Arguello, then the WBC junior lightweight champion; 2) illegally ordered Arguello to fight for no one but promoter Don King; and 3) without cause or hearing prohibited Brenner from promoting WBC championship fights.
Issue No. 3 was resolved last May. After Brenner had asked for a temporary injunction against the WBC in the same district court, Sulaimàn said he no longer had any objection to Brenner if Brenner paid his WBC fees, proved he was a licensed promoter and followed all WBC rules and regulations.
That was but a small fire fight. The big battle is the antitrust suit coming up.
"We won every point today," Brenner said after the 1980 hearing. "But this case has nothing to do with the other. Just because Sulaimàn says I can now promote WBC title fights doesn't alter the fact that I lost a chance to promote five Arguello fights, four of them for a title, while I was suspended."
In his suit, Brenner has also charged: "Defendants and their co-participants have coerced contenders for the title, as a condition of being afforded an opportunity to compete for the title, to enter into contracts with favored promoters, providing that, should he win the title he would render his services as a professional boxer in title contests exclusively to the favored promoter."
And "...defendants have manipulated the ratings by adding or by advancing the names of boxers indentured by multiple-bout service contracts with favored promoters, in order to enable favored promoters to obtain an anticompetitive commercial advantage...."
Sulaimàn has denied all of Brenner's charges. He has also hinted that the suit really doesn't matter. "The WBC is above the law—that is, any law but its own," Sulaimàn has said. If it's Sulaimàn's defense that the WBC is above the law, he is riding a leaky boat. And April is a month known for heavy rains.
The WBA and its doubtful practices are scrutinized, notably the ordeal of junior middleweight Ayub Kalule, who was deprived of a title fight for two years.