Monday, May 29, 2023  |



Insider: Ali Act not the greatest

Fighters Network

When then-President Bill Clinton signed the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act on May 26, 2000, it was a public relations knock out.

The legislation, which combined with the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 became known as the Ali Act, was designed to protect the health and financial well being of fighters.

What could be better than that? And the fact it was named after a larger-than-life legend who is suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease made it all the more encouraging.

Sadly, it hasn’t worked out as planned.

Despite a handful of successes, the Ali Act has almost universally been considered a failure by those in the business because of a lack of enforcement and other factors.

Below are four aspects of boxing and an analysis of how each has been affected by the Ali Act: Boxer Health and Safety, Sanctioning Organizations, the Business of Boxing and a National Commission.


Ask anyone in the boxing industry – promoters, managers, commissioners – and they will tell you without exception that fighter safety is his or her most important concern.

Yet, according to Tim Lueckenhoff, President of the Association of Boxing Commissions, enforcement of the medical laws protecting boxers is nearly non-existent:

“At the ABC we try to be strict but we've come to call ourselves a 'toothless tiger,' he said. “All we can do is write letters. We have sent at least 20 referrals to U.S. Attorney Generals asking for investigations of what we felt were violations of the Ali Act.

“Only two U.S. Attorneys even responded (Montana and Alabama). All the other requests were ignored.”

State athletic commissions are the last line of defense in protecting the health of boxers. And too often they fail.

To the average person, the idea of climbing into a ring to trade blows when you are already injured might sound ludicrous, but fighters do not feel pain the way the average person does. They are trained to ignore physical punishment, to continue battling through dehydration, broken bones, swelled eyes, etc. And since physical punishment is a constant in their lives, it is not uncommon for fighters to accept heightened medical risks in exchange for a much-needed payday.

Here are a few examples of injured boxers who insiders say they have encountered over the years:

ÔÇó One fighter continued to fight despite being legally blind in one eye. He passed mandated eye exams by listening to other fighters recite the letters on the chart and then repeating their words to the doctor.

ÔÇó Another fighter returned to the ring just three weeks after an appendectomy.

ÔÇó More than one fighter has fought with a hernia.

ÔÇó Many fighters have fought with stitches in various parts of their bodies. Several have used makeup to camouflage stitches in their faces.

Such incidences are more common among journeymen fighters but also occur among high-profile contenders.

In November 1997, Michael Grant knocked out Jorge Luis Gonzalez in the first round in Las Vegas, Nev. Following the knockout, Grant informed ESPN television analyst Al Bernstein that he had been in a car accident earlier in the week. Neither I nor anyone else at Main Events (my former employer and Grant's former promoter) nor anyone at the Nevada State Athletic Commission knew anything about the accident.

Grant wasn’t hiding anything. The accident was not serious, so in his mind there was no reason to mention it. However, the incident taught me early on that boxers often need protection from themselves.

Unfortunately, many boxing insiders believe improvements in fighter safety since the Ali Act have been minimal.

“Very few things medically have changed since the Act,” said Dr. Margaret Goodman, former NSAC Medical Advisory Board Chairman and Chief Ringside Physician. “Some states have nothing more than basic physicals, and some don't even do that. There are tons of falsified medical records sent to commissions. The problem is some commissions are afraid that fights won't come to their states if commissions look too closely. They look the other way or rationalize that they don't have the manpower to oversee the validity of medical tests.”

Is the failure of state commissions to enforce the Ali Act one of willful blindness as Dr. Goodman suggests? Or is there merit to the argument that commissions are understaffed and underfunded?

Former New York State Athletic Commission Chairman Ron Scott Stevens believes the problem of enforcement is a result of poor funding.

“Some states are understaffed so there's no way they can enforce the Act,” he said. “In New York I was lucky to have a staff of between seven and 10 people and an in-house attorney. Some states only have a few people.And now it's even worse because many of them have to oversee MMA fights as well.”

Compounding the problem is the political nature of state commissions. Some appointees are simply political hacks whose experience in boxing is limited to the number of Rocky movies they've seen. Naming unprepared cronies to run a government agency like the Department of Motor Vehicles might result in inefficiency and aggravation, but doing the same with an athletic commission might result in deaths, as was the case with Stephan Johnson.

On April 14, 1999, Johnson was knocked out by Fitz Vanderpool in Toronto and placed on suspension by the Canadian commission. On Aug. 7, 1999, the South Carolina commission allowed Johnson to fight there despite the suspension. Two months later, he tried to fight in Georgia but was rejected because of the still-active Canadian suspension. South Carolina then independently lifted the suspension, which, believe it or not was within the law before the Ali Act. That allowed Johnson to fight in Georgia and then again in Atlantic City, N.J. It was there, on Nov. 20, 1999, that Johnson suffered a brain aneurism during a fight against Paul Vaden and died on Dec. 5.

If the medical violations are as bad as industry insiders like Dr. Goodman suggest, it is a wonder that there haven't been more Stephan Johnson-type tragedies.


Sanctioning organizations, such as the World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association, International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization, were a major target of the Ali Act. Their history of questionable ratings made them the poster boys for why boxing reform was necessary.

Who can forget when boxer Darrin Morris jumped in the WBO rankings from No. 7 to No. 6 two months AFTER dying from meningitis?

The Ali Act sought to remove the arbitrariness of the rankings by stipulating that sanctioning organizations publicize their rankings, explain their rankings, and explain the changes in their rankings.

But have the provisions made a difference?

ABC President Lueckenhoff said that “across the board, the IBF and the WBO have done an excellent job for the most part following the Act. The WBA and WBC pretty much don't. Their actions are self-serving.”

How batty are the rankings? Here are a few examples taken from the sanctioning organizations' websites on January 9, 2009:

ÔÇó Welterweight Carlos Baldomir is ranked No. 4 by the WBC even though he has lost three of his last four bouts. The WBA, IBF, and WBO don't even rank Baldomir in their Top 15.

ÔÇó Light heavyweight Clinton Woods is ranked No. 3 by the IBF but is not ranked in the Top 15 by the WBC, WBA or WBO.

ÔÇó Junior middleweight Oscar De La Hoya is no longer ranked in the Top 15 by the WBO, WBA or IBF but he is still ranked No. 1 by the WBC.

ÔÇó Jr. welterweight Dmitry Salita is ranked No. 3 by the WBA, but is only ranked No. 15 by the IBF and is not even ranked by the WBC or WBO.

Ranking boxers is a subjective endeavor.

There will always be differences of opinion based on factors such as the popularity of a fighter, the caliber of opponents, the manner in which he won and lost fights, etc. The problem with the ratings are the extent of the differences. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was dizzying trying to compare and understand the wide disparities in the ratings among the organizations. Stark differences like those in the examples cited lend themselves to questions of corruption, whether it’s there or not.

Recently, the WBA installed Evander Holyfield as their No. 12-ranked contender, which enabled him to challenge defending WBA champion Nicolai Valuev on Dec. 20 of last year. (Although he lost on the scorecards, most observers believe Holyfield won the
bout). Prior to the Valuev bout, Holyfield had not fought since October of 2007 when he was dominated by WBO champion Sultan Ibragimov. When asked by ABC President Lueckenhoff how the WBA could justify the jump in Holyfield's ranking, WBA Ratings Chairman Jose Oliver Gomez responded by citing the “good level of competition” Holyfield faced in 2007 (Vinny Maddalone, Lou Savarese, and Sultan Ibragimov) and
by arguing that “Mr. Holyfield has been a legacy for the WBA during his excellent career when conquering and defending our WBA heavyweight titles. His level of competition throughout his career is admirable for the sport of boxing. He has also shown a loyalty
to the WBA.”

And here is the key point:

In the WBA’s “Guidelines for the Ratings,” a fighter may be rated “whenever there are important and powerful reasons for the WBA, which in accordance to the judgment of the Ratings Committee justify the entrance of the boxer in the ratings.”

These types of “exception” clauses are the “aces up the sleeves” of the sanctioning organizations. The clauses allow them to circumvent their rules to bring about a desired result. In this case, it was used to justify Holyfield as a viable Valuev opponent. Perhaps there are select times when exceptions are necessary — and some would argue that Holyfield's performance is proof of that — but too often it appears that these exceptions are abused to favor certain fighters and promoters.

Unfortunately, other than dragging the sanctioning organizations into court, not much else can be done. Legal expenses alone preclude most people in boxing from exercising this option. The only other tactic is to expose these incidences in the hopes that the bad publicity will spur action. Usually it does not. The event comes off as planned and people forget about the injustice until the next time an exception is invoked.

It truly is a vicious cycle.

(In a side note to be filed under comic relief, despite the overwhelming number of spectators who believe Holyfield defeated Valuev, the WBA has bestowed Valuev with Honorable Mention for Boxer of the Month.)


In an effort to prevent boxers from being financially victimized, as they have been historically, several much-needed provisions were included in the Ali Act. Here are a few of them:

ÔÇó The Firewall Provision – The provision mandates a complete separation between promoters and managers. Managers have a fiduciary responsibility to protect their clients – the fighters. This cannot be accomplished if the manager is serving a dual role as manager and promoter.

ÔÇó Prohibition against options for mandatory contenders — Once a fighter has earned mandatory contender status, he does not have to sign away future promotional options to the title-bout promoter in order to receive that title bout. He is free to fight for the championship under contract to a different promoter or as a free agent if he so chooses.

ÔÇó Restrictions against giving gifts to commissions and sanctioning organization – It has been assumed for years that certain promoters paid bribes to the sanctioning organizations in exchange for higher ratings for their fighters. This provision removes even the appearance of conflict.

As a group, promoters agree on the necessity of the above provisions. However, they are much less enthusiastic about another provision in the Ali Act: the mandatory financial disclosure of revenue to fighters. Some promoters, like Lou DiBella, believe
“financial disclosures are appropriate” and that they are “the only way to really make a
long-term relationship with a fighter work.” Others, like Kathy Duva, have fundamental issues with the provision.

The provision states the following: “A promoter shall not be entitled to receive any compensation directly or indirectly in connection with a boxing match until it provides to the boxer it promotes the amounts of any compensation or consideration that a promoter has contracted to receive from such match.”

The theory behind the provision is that by forcing a promoter to divulge the expected revenue for a bout, a boxer will be in a better negotiating position to demand a fair purse. For example, it would be more difficult for a promoter to offer a fighter only a $50,000 purse when the fighter knows that the revenue for an event will exceed $1 million. Sounds fair, doesn't it?

But is the disclosure provision helping or hurting the sport?

Those opposed to the provision believe that it doesn't take into account the long-term investments a promoter might have made in a fighter's development. According to Main Events CEO Kathy Duva, “promoters typically invest between $250,000 and $500,000 over the span of about five years nurturing a young fighter's career. We also cash-flow events, make highly-speculative investments, have staff overheads and are liable for lawsuits. Yet, fighter-promoter deals are generally made according to an 80 percent-20 percent or 70-30 split in the fighter's favor. In any other industry, if you invest capital, you receive the majority of the profits. In publishing, for example, the publisher receives 85 percent of the profits while the author only receives 15 percent. But in boxing it's presumed that promoters are evil so we are not given the same ability to make money as other business ventures.”

Promoters were willing to accept these lopsided purse split deals during the 1990s, when boxing was rolling in cash. Twenty percent of $40-million or $50-million events is a lot of money. Unfortunately, those blockbuster events are becoming rarer. In truth, they are virtually non-existent when Oscar De La Hoya is not the headline attraction. With less revenue to be generated, it becomes that much more imperative for a more equitable split. The bottom line, say promoters, is that it is impossible to stay in business when they are forced to disclose all revenue to a fighter who refuses to budge from a 80-20 or 70-30 split.

The logical question is: Why doesn't the promoter just refuse to grant the 80-20 split? Fighters have to fight to earn money, correct? So if the promoter doesn't cave in to the fighter's demand, the fighter will have to accept a lower percentage split. Unfortunately for the promoters, it doesn't work that way. Bluntly speaking, when it comes to money, boxers will never be mistaken for Bill and Melinda Gates. Most boxers believe promoters deserve no more than a pittance for their services and some even think that's excessive. Often boxers will grumble when a promoter, and sometimes even a manager, collects his or her percentage, accusing them of “taking my money.” This angry response is even more pronounced when a fighter realizes that the disclosed revenue figures he was given did not include the deductions for expenses incurred by the promotion. Most boxers argue that promotional costs (such as public relations and marketing, staff lodging and travel, etc.) should be the sole responsibility of the promoter. Yet they don't hesitate to demand free tickets and extra hotel rooms to satisfy their entourages.

Boxers tend to think in a zero-sum manner. Many a fighter has turned down a lucrative payday because it was not the purse amount they wanted. For example,
former world champion Winky Wright has not fought since July 21, 2007 but has turned down several fights since then, including a $5 million offer for a rematch against Jermain Taylor. Only recently has he accepted an April bout against Paul Williams.

Most people would argue that boxers need to recognize that the financial landscape is very different today and that, if they want to maximize their Revenue, they need to treat their promoter as a partner, a member of the team. Or, as Top Rank President Bob Arum says, “Those (fighters) who will not accept the economic reality will only hurt themselves and ride the pine.”

Although this is a fair argument on the surface, in fairness to the boxers, promoters have done little historically to deserve trust. Instances abound of promoters abusing their percentage-split agreements with boxers by charging ridiculous expenditures to a promotion. I’ve witnessed some of these instances myself. On one occasion, a promoter charged the promotion for the cost of his private-jet flight to the event. On another occasion, a promoter billed the promotion for the bodyguards he hired to “protect” him on fight night. In both cited examples, the boxer in the main event was on a percentage split with his promoter (probably 80-20), meaning that although the fighter would receive 80 percent of the revenue, he would also be responsible for 80 percent of the costs. In other words, the boxer was paying for 80 percent of the bodyguards' fees.

Is it any wonder boxers and their managers are skeptical of promoters?

And as far as the fundamental issues that promoters have with the disclosure provision, they will find little sympathy from boxers’ representatives. Long-time boxing manager Shelly Finkel dismisses as a non-issue the assertion that disclosures prevent a promoter from recouping his or her investment. He argues that since very few promoters today have “built the fighter from the beginning,” there are no investments to recover. Golden Boy Promotions is the best example of this. All of the revenue-generating boxers they represent have been free agent signings. Boxers such as Shane Mosley, Juan Diaz and Juan Manuel Marquez were already considered elite boxers when they signed with Golden Boy. Thus, the promotional firm made no investment, other than perhaps a signing bonus.

Finkel also draws on his experience as a former music promoter to defend financial disclosures: “I built [Bruce] Springsteen in Connecticut. When he got big enough, he expected to see every dollar that was produced and every expense incurred. All music acts when they get big enough expect this from a promoter. If I hadn't provided that information, they wouldn't have played for me.”

Promoters and fighters walk a fine line with respect to revenue sharing. Since there is nothing like the collective bargaining agreement that exists in other major sports, the question remains: How do you ensure that fighters are fairly compensated while allowing promoters to make enough of a profit to justify continued investment in the sport? As it stands now, according to Duva, the incentive is not there.

Said Duva: “Fighters say, 'Networks and arenas are paying for me. I don't care about your overhead. That's your problem.' And that's fine. But everyone has to understand that the deals aren't fair to promoters and that promoters can't afford to stay in business if this continues.”

There are already signs that promoters have drastically reduced their investment in young talent. Is this because, as Duva says, unfair deals with the fighters are ruining promoters? Or is it because, as Finkel contends, there are fewer outlets to showcase and develop young fighters now that boxing is no longer televised on networks like ABC, NBC and Telefutura? Regardless of the reason, one need only look at the future landscape of the sport to see that there are no obvious stars on the horizon.

From where will the fighters emerge? Who will carry the mantle when current household names like De La Hoya, Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins retire?


The inability or unwillingness of states to enforce the Ali Act has led to greater calls for a national commission, which would oversee the sport nationwide. But would federal oversight make a difference? Or would it simply add an additional layer of bureaucracy?

Some people, such as ABC Lueckenhoff, support federal oversight believing it is “the only way change will come”. Others argue that the federal government has more important things to worry about, especially considering the financial recession currently pounding our nation.

Stevens best summarizes the major concern with respect to a national commission: “Unless it is funded properly and unless the right people are running it, what's the point?”

He compared a national commission to a courtroom trial he witnessed in 2001 between promoters Cedric Kushner and Don King: “I sat in the courtroom and listened to the volumes of information that Judge Miriam Cederbaum listened to. She was asked in seven days to digest the entire boxing industry. She did a great job, but it was too much. It was overwhelming. You'll be doing the same thing to a national commission if you name people to it who are not familiar with boxing.”

Although Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-sponsor of both the Reform and Boxing Safety acts, told Norm Frauenheim in a recent interview with THE RING that he plans to continue his quest for a national commission, few in the boxing industry believe it will happen anytime soon.

A bill proposing a national boxing commission is now in the hands of Congress for the fourth time. In the first two Congressional sessions, the bill was approved by the Senate unanimously but then died in the House of Representatives. In the 3rd Congressional session, the bill was again approved by the Senate and even approved in the House on a voice vote. However, a House representative then called for a roll-call vote and it failed to pass. Now the bill is in the Senate where it is being held up by one or two senators.

Lueckenhoff is among those who don't expect the national commission to materialize soon.

“At this point there isn't support for a federal commission,” he said. “Many states don't want it because they see their rights being taken away. They also worry that a federal commission would institute medical requirements that would excessively raise costs and prevent fighters from being able to fight.”

So what should the boxing industry do next? After all, as DiBella points out, “As we've seen, self-enforcement in this business doesn't work.”

It appears the Ali Act has raised more questions than it has answered.

Donald Tremblay was the publicist at Main Events for 11 years and is now a free-lance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He can be reached at [email protected]