New York, New York. No boxing. No kidding
The stated reason for the press conference held at Barclays Center on Wednesday afternoon was to herald a Jan. 14 super middleweight title unification mashup between Swedish native Badou Jack, holder of the WBC crown, and Brit James “Chunky” DeGale, current owner of the IBF version.
But the event morphed into more of a rally, a call-to-arms and a gathering of righteous discontents speaking truth to political powers that be, who have, through over-regulation, nearly choked the life out of the sport of boxing in New York as we have known it since basically the 1930s.
Rewind your boxing brain and recall that the most important and illustrious sporting event of any stripe of any age unfolded at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. They titled it, with apt minimalism befitting the obvious immensity of the clash of pugilistic heavyweight titans Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, “The Fight.”
The best traits of athletic gods in human garb were on display and any sentient being in this hemisphere was aware of the event. They packed into the joint, homo sapiens as sardines, and, for an hour or so, marveled at the mettle of mankind. Children of meager means, in squalid tenements lacking a stable and nurturing familial structure, ones for whom the classroom promised frustration and boredom, were able to picture another pathway for themselves.
That ring represented a way out, of deplorable conditions, and a way in, to segments of society where people of means and the serenity that comes with being respected by all tribes.
Now return to the present, when well-meaning persons – to a fault – have set up a new normal, in which boxers are prevented from plying their trades, as promoters are unable to set up shows in New York, because Governor Andrew Cuomo signed off on a bill, which calls for an insurance policy that hasn’t yet been written. The state legislature, in the name of speaking up for the health and safety of combat sports participants working within state confines, demands one million dollars worth of coverage for any fighter, who could possibly sustain a catastrophic head injury in a New York match. Cursory math tells you such a policy would be pricey and, in fact, that it’s borne from the policy that UFC was able to use for its Nov. 12 event at MSG, which drew a massive gate of some $17.7 million dollars and thorough coverage via many mainstream sports news platforms. The mixed martial arts organization paid well over $40,000 to its regular insurer to underwrite the risk of an injury befalling one of the fighters. Common sense tells you, if you are cognizant one iota of the cost of doing business in New York, that such a policy likely disqualifies any promoter who might like to stage a less glitzy program, which won’t draw generous revenue from on-site patrons, and pay-per-view/TV sponsors. Unless that promoter is seeking to swim from the promotion in a sea of red ink…
This brings us to the Wednesday event at Barclays Center, which will stand as the “mad as hell, not gonna take it anymore” moment for the New York boxing community.
Lou DiBella will promote the Jan. 14 affair, along with the (for now) retired Floyd Mayweather Jr., the brash 39-year-old, who has been the leader of the pugilistic pack since Oscar De La Hoya exited the stage. DiBella strode to the mic and laid out his stance, with impeccable coherence, potent reasoning and contained passion and it boiled down to a succinct “WTF?!” Because, with no shows having run in New York since August, with the New York State Athletic Commission offering bland boilerplate “updates” that it is working on the insurance issue, DiBella’s patience has run thin.
Understandable, as his ability to earn an honest living has been compromised. As DiBella put it, the aforementioned insurance provision is basically a poison pill “which has basically ended boxing in New York.” He made sure to mollify any patrons’ concerns, telling me, “Anyone who buys a ticket has my word, there’s going to be a fight. But we’re having this press conference today as a call-to-arms and a leap of faith because I couldn’t buy the insurance for this card. It doesn’t exist.”
The Harvard Law man and former top HBO executive, continued: “There should be an investigation of how this law got passed the way it did and got put into effect before there was any insurance available.” And DiBella is, by no means, alone in seeing the negative optics in play, which had boxing sidelined for months while UFC had the fight sports stage all to itself as it worked on its splashy NYC debut. “Today, there is no policy available for all promoters to get for a show in the state. And there’s something very, very wrong there.”
I messaged the New York State Athletic Commission and asked for an update on the policy, which could be amended to make it financially viable for employment on a smaller show, based on wording contained in the legislation. The response:
“The State is working tirelessly with the boxing community and insurance industry to find a policy that is reasonable and affordable to ensure that boxing continues its proud tradition in New York.
“The regulations that were passed created an insurance market for a product that never before existed and that takes more than three months to implement. We are determined to keep boxing events here in the State, which is why we are going to such great lengths to help boxing promoters find an insurance policy they can afford. To that end, the Department of Financial Services is currently reviewing a submitted insurance policy for boxing events in New York and everyone is working cooperatively to arrive at a final product that will be available to promoters.”
Other troops besides General DiBella rallied to the cause and maybe none was more convincing than 34-year-old Brooklyn resident Heather Hardy. The single mother of a 12-year-old daughter is an ace ticket seller in New York, sometimes selling over $35,000 worth of tickets to see her in action at Barclays Center. Many of her fans, humble souls with modest stashes of discretionary income, take the train to see this emblem of can-do positivity. who proves that willpower and perseverance can elevate one still, in an America and New York City, which tries to more so prove the opposite on an annual basis. As Hardy put it, “I think that sometimes legislators have trouble attaching a face to their choices. This is my plea to the Governor, and New York State, to bring a resolution to this issue. I’m that face…I’m a single parent, wondering how I’m going to put food on the table and pay my rent, since the December show in Brooklyn I was going to fight on was canceled.” Real talk from someone living in the real world where the landlord wants a real check.
Activist/actress Rosie Perez wasn’t playing in her role as pissed-off pugilism fan. She grew up watching boxing and, without any shadow of doubt, drew strength and the will to persevere through a quite turbulent and trying home life as a child. The ability to fight on when common sense screamed to surrender, as she negotiated a mentally ill mother and absent father, sometimes ebbed but boxers imbued her with periodic injections of courage. Perez told me she is going on the offensive, campaigning to get boxing back on track fully in New York, so grass roots cards and showier events can each have a place in this melting pot city, which threatens to shove out the 80 percent of citizens who live paycheck to paycheck. On her turn at the mic, Perez said, “I am the number one boxing fan in New York, maybe in all of America,” and lobbied Albany to restore the status of the sport, for the people who earn their living through it, let alone for the fans. “This is not right! You know how much money boxing generates for New York State, in New York City alone? It’s mad money! It’s mad Mayweather money! He’s gone and we’re still bringing in the dough! Let’s find the next Mayweather. Let’s find the next (Mike) Tyson. Let’s find the next Mark Breland!”
Just as moving was boxer Boyd Melson. He is the pound-for-pound ace in the fighter-as-philanthropist sphere. At 15-1-1 (4 knockouts), he is not on a fast track to a world title or the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota. But he deserves as much acclaim as a Mayweather, if we judge him by his actions as a humanitarian. Melson, a New York resident who is a captain in the Army Reserve, wanted to fight a farewell fight in the state this month. That option removed, he instead takes himself to Connecticut, which doesn’t have onerous insurance restrictions. On Saturday night, he will fight Courtney Pennington and donate his purse to help fight the heroin scourge on Staten Island. Since turning pro in 2010, he has raised more than $400,000 to aid stem cell research for para and quadriplegics, and several other causes. At the mic on Wednesday, Melson said the charity will get less because fewer fans will make the longer trek. “Shame on this policy and the people who put it together for not doing their due diligence…In New York, we will not stand for this!”
Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark is now seen as the most boxing-friendly building boss in the nation. Since the building opened two years ago, he’s shown a consistent commitment to the sport, and the athletes, who he realizes often gravitate to the ring as a therapeutic outlet, as it provides them a means to stability and self-worth. He told me Wednesday, “In my estimation, moving forward, boxing will be even better here than it has been. We are working on a very robust schedule. I think the type of program we had in the second half of last year, when we had Keith Thurman versus Shawn Porter and Carl Frampton versus Leo Santa Cruz, those are the sort of events, those are the type of events we want to replicate, the best fighters in the best matchups.” That’s his personality and his innate manner; upbeat, unfailingly perseverant in his positivity and drive. That said, Yormark won’t drape himself in a cocoon of optimism regarding this chill sign attached to pro boxing in New York. He said, between Barclays and the revamped Nassau Coliseum, his crew aims to put on eight-to-10 “A-caliber events,” with big fight atmospherics and electricity. But he seeks to maintain momentum gained last summer, with the faceoffs he mentioned. And he shared that he will be stepping up his personal involvement to do so. “I’ve been playing an active role behind the scenes within the industry,” said Yormark, when I queried him about direct interface with pols who may not comprehend the widespread upsides of boxing within the community. “Now I think I need to be a little bit more front-and-center. What that means exactly I don’t know yet but I think it means I need to be a little bit more aggressive. We do have a voice in the marketplace with Barclays Center and then moving forward with the Coliseum and I think we need to use that voice for the betterment of the sport. And we’ll do that. Our voice has been heard behind the scenes but now I think we need to be a little bit more aggressive.”
The Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams knows the impact, a most positive one, that boxing has on at-risk youth, every day. He gets it, that a regulation supposedly crafted to keep athletes safe can instead serve as an impediment to wellness and prosperity. Hey, if all youth had a brain and temperament suited for conventional education paths, and a free ride to Harvard, then maybe we’d all consider the abolition of the Sweet (and sometimes savage) Science. But some people are born with different brains and circumstances can alter and warp others. Adams knows that politicians ensconced in comfy existences sometimes traffic in theory more than concrete reality. “I think it’s imperative that any legislation we pass, we look at not just the paper it is written on but on the faces of the people impacted,” Adams said on Wednesday. I asked, are there legislators who are on our side, the side of the folks not fated to an Ivy League education and path to upward mobility? “We’re going to find that out,” he said, making clear he thinks that he will find open minds among some elected officers who can help find a middle-ground solution.
I want to believe. I want to be that optimist. But as months pass, and this noble sport stays stuck in the mud in this region, optimism has to give way to either resignation or heightened resolve. The New York boxing community has chosen resolve, it looks like, chosen to channel the ways and means of those upper-tier talents who have grabbed our attention and admiration with their ring majesty. They have chosen to fight harder.
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