Camacho-Campas and the bounds of a regulator’s reach
You hear these five words before every fight: “Protect yourself at all times.” Implicit in the use of that phrase is the idea that any fighter entering the ring can protect himself when the opening bell rings, and then it becomes the referee’s job to save him if he becomes unable to protect himself as the fight progresses.
Unfortunately, however, not every boxer is capable of protecting himself. In almost any other major sport, if you can’t compete at an adequate level, then no team wants to pay you or you fail to qualify for major tournaments and you’re essentially forced into retirement.
But just about anybody can call himself a pro boxer. And that’s a dangerous quality for a dangerous sport to have.
The last line of defense is the athletic commissions. If a fighter nobody has ever seen is about to make his pro debut, then it’s up to the commission to do a background check of sorts and make sure there’s a trainer or an amateur official who will swear that the fighter didn’t walk into a gym for the first time two weeks ago. And if a fighter was once capable but isn’t anymore, then it’s up to the commission to make what can often be a very difficult call.
Aaron Davis, the commissioner in the state of New Jersey, had just such a decision to make a week and a half ago. A bout between two former titleholders, 37-year-old Yory Boy Campas and 46-year-old Hector Camacho, was headed for the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City on May 9. Campas had lost two in a row and four of his last five. Camacho had fought only once in 46 months. Never mind how absurd it was that this pathetic excuse for a fight, scheduled only for eight rounds, was going to headline a pay-per-view show. From Davis’ viewpoint, what mattered most was whether the men were capable of defending themselves. And because of their ages and recent histories, he elected to take extra measures to be certain.
Both fighters underwent a battery of medical tests and were subjected to random drug testing over the past two months. Both fighters passed. So the final hurdle was Davis observing each of them in the gym. He notified the promoter well in advance that he’d need to see them sparring. The promoter arranged for him to attend sparring sessions in New Jersey about 10 days prior to the fight. Davis saw Campas spar in Hackensack and gave him the thumbs up. Then he saw Camacho spar at the Atlantic City Police Athletic League on April 29.
“It is with the utmost respect for [Camacho] that I have declined to approve the fight,” Davis told the Press of Atlantic City a few days later.
The fight was off – at least in New Jersey. So what did Davis see in the gym that led to his decision?
“I saw seven rounds where Camacho didn’t take control of any part of a round,” Davis told RingTV.com. “He knew that we were there to see him, and he didn’t show any of the elusiveness, he didn’t show any of the moves that he’s shown in the past. He was getting hit by his sparring partners a little too much, and that right there was enough to tell me that it wouldn’t be safe for him to fight. By the time I finished watching him, I was sure of my decision. It really didn’t take any pondering – if, if, if. No, I knew right after he was done sparring.”
A key question for Davis was whether he was judging Camacho on a weighted scale relative to the abilities he had in his prime, some 25 years ago.
“No, it wouldn’t be fair to judge him based on the skills that he once had,” Davis said. “That would be totally unfair. And that’s not what I was looking for. I was looking for a person who wouldn’t get hurt in the ring.”
Camacho sparred with two partners, 36-year-old Patrick Perez (a one-time fringe contender who hasn’t had a fight since 2004) and 32-year-old Shamone Alvarez (a legitimate world-class fighter). Both fighters said afterward that they went at half-speed and tried not to make Camacho look bad.
I didn’t witness the sparring sessions first-hand, but David Weinberg of the Press of Atlantic City did, and he wrote, “Davis made the right call. ÔÇª Camacho did next to nothing in the ring. He threw only a few punches and got hit with almost everything Alvarez and Perez threw, despite the fact that they were going easy on him.”
So Davis decided Camacho would not be allowed to fight in his state. And Florida stepped right in, ignored Davis’ findings and resurrected the fight.
It went forward Saturday night on its scheduled date, at the DoubleTree Hotel in Orlando. I tried on Friday morning to reach Thomas Molloy, the executive director of the Florida commission, for an explanation, but his office informed me that he had fights to attend on both Friday and Saturday nights and would not be available for comment, nor would any other commission members.
Some might say that Molloy’s decision was justified by the fact that the fight ended in an eight-round draw, suggesting that Camacho is no less competent right now than his opponent, whom Davis deemed fit to fight. But it’s important to note that the draw decision came down in Camacho’s current home state and that Camacho survived eight rounds largely by holding excessively.
“I have fought for 15 years,” Campas said afterward, “and no one has hugged me as much as him, not even my wife.”
And while I don’t intend to build a conspiracy out of the decision, the judges surely were aware that a loss for Camacho would make the state that hired them look bad.
This isn’t the first time one state took a stand on a well-known fighter, and every time it happens, it raises the question of where we draw the line on saving boxers from themselves and on saving the sport from embarrassing fights.
A valid argument can be presented that if a fighter passes all of his medical tests, then he has the right to fight. But at the same, in the last two weeks alone boxing has seen one ring death (Benjamin Flores), one death as a result of a sparring accident (Andras Nagy) and one death of a former heavyweight titleholder as a result of complications from a ring injury a decade earlier (Greg Page). The sport’s reputation is constantly at stake.
“What’s the point of having an athletic commission if you see that a fighter is not capable of defending himself and you let him fight?” said former New York commission chief Ron Scott Stevens. “The health and safety has got to be the first and foremost agenda for an athletic commission, along with protecting the consumer and protecting the state.”
Stevens wasn’t speaking about the Camacho case, as he didn’t witness Camacho’s sparring session and didn’t talk personally with Davis about it. Rather, he was referring to the much-publicized case of Evander Holyfield, who was suspended by Stevens following his one-sided loss to Larry Donald at Madison Square Garden in 2004.
“I was laying in my bed at 3 or 4 in the morning, and I was thinking, ‘My God, this guy’s gonna be a punching bag, and he’s gonna be walking on his heels.’ And I was thinking about how people would say, ‘Look what boxing does to its fighters, it doesn’t look out for them,'” Stevens said.
Initially, Stevens put Holyfield on an indefinite medical suspension that had to be honored by all states. However, the future Hall of Famer passed a series of seven medical exams and was taken off of indefinite suspension and instead put on administrative suspension. That meant he couldn’t fight in New York but that other states were free to make their own decisions. Then, after Holyfield returned to the ring in 2006 and won three consecutive fights, including one against a solid fringe contender in Fres Oquendo, Stevens felt it was only fair to lift the administrative suspension.
Looking back, Stevens has no regrets and actually places the blame for the suspension on Holyfield.
“He had a shoulder injury, and he didn’t disclose it; he hid it,” Stevens said. “Had he disclosed the shoulder injury and explained that the reason he wasn’t throwing punches in his fights against Chris Byrd and James Toney was because of the shoulder injury, none of this may have happened. But he would also have disqualified himself from having the fight in the Garden with Donald, which is what he didn’t want to do. So he brought this upon himself.”
Whether his decision was right or wrong, and whether he was misled by Holyfield keeping his shoulder injury quiet, the bottom line is that Stevens acted out of a desire to protect a fighter and the sport. The same goes for Davis’ decision: If he erred, he erred on the side of safety. His heart was in the right place. And his efforts were rendered impotent by the Florida commission hurriedly accepting the fight.
“I know different states have different rules, but I wish that all the states would be uniform, and if a person is suspended or denied a license, at least look in to make a decision,” Davis said. “I’m not saying you have to follow my decision, but make the right decision for your state. Make sure that it’s safe, because it’s not just somebody’s reputation that’s at peril here, it’s somebody’s life.
“It’s not about collecting money, it’s not about what’s best for the Taj Mahal. It’s about what’s right and taking care of our fighters so nobody else gets hurt.”
ÔÇó A win is a win is a win, but if Chad Dawson’s goal against Antonio Tarver was to earn a major fight against Bernard Hopkins or Joe Calzaghe, then a win isn’t a win. I’ve been a Dawson believer from the start, but frankly, he needs Glen Johnson right now just as much as Johnson needs him.
ÔÇó Speaking of Dawson-Johnson II, Gary Shaw reportedly ruled out that rematch immediately after Dawson’s lackluster win over Tarver. This, of course, is the same promoter who’s doing everything in his power to block Nonito Donaire-Vic Darchinyan II. Never let it be said that Gary Shaw has an excess of faith in his fighters.
ÔÇó My first question upon learning that HBO will soon begin airing Joe Buck Live: Is Bryant Gumbel OK with losing his title as the network’s undisputed king of ego? Poor Jim Lampley comes off downright self-loathing compared to this all-star lineup HBO Sports is putting together.
ÔÇó Speaking of Lampley, Exhibit Z in why he’s the best blow-by-blow man in boxing. In the sixth round of Dawson-Tarver, there was an uninterrupted stretch of 62 seconds where none of the three HBO commentators said a single word. Almost any other blow-by-blow man would have felt the urge to blurt away and fill “dead air” even if they had nothing interesting to say. But this isn’t radio, and Lampley understands that you can sometimes just sit back and let the action speak for itself.
ÔÇó All right, Teddy Atlas, we get it: They have air conditioning in the studio in Bristol, they don’t have air conditioning at ringside. It’s time for a new running joke (preferably one that involves the word “hyperbole”).