Keystone Cops at the New York State Athletic Commission
In the early days of silent film, Americans were entertained by the exploits of a group of incompetent policemen known as “The Keystone Cops.” The Keystone Cops had very little idea what they were doing but expended a great deal of energy running around in an uncoordinated manner, screwing things up.
There are times when the New York State Athletic Commission resembles the Keystone Cops.
Last year, in a series of investigative articles for THE RING, I catalogued the problems that plague the commission. Many of the concerns expressed in these articles were confirmed in a report issued by the Inspector General of the State of New York. All of them were viewed against the backdrop of the horrific injuries suffered by Magomed Abdusalamov in a November 2, 2013, fight at Madison Square Garden.
Referencing the sloppy procedures and practices ingrained at the NYSAC that led to the Abdusalamov tragedy, I observed, “A motorist can run a red light 10 times without adverse consequences. Then, one day, there’s a truck.”
The NYSAC is still running red lights with regard to fighter safety.
Let’s start with a given. There are some dedicated, hardworking public servants who work for the NYSAC. One of them is acting executive director Tony Giardina, who has been thrust into a position he didn’t seek. Giardina assumed his present position in August 2016 out of loyalty to New York governor Andrew Cuomo. While with the NYSAC, he has played by the rules of his profession. Unfortunately, these rules sometimes place a premium on political considerations.
Recent fight cards in New York have revealed a commission that’s continuing to spiral downward. There has been significant improvement in some medical protocols. But overall, the NYSAC has been undermined by poor performance on the part of too many commission personnel. In the most dangerous of these situations, a fighter was allowed to enter the ring without undergoing the mandatory fight-night physical examination.
Moreover, not only is the commission endangering the lives of fighters, some of its own personnel now feel endangered by the erratic behavior of other NYSAC personnel.
Further contributing to the problems, NYSAC director of boxing Eric Bentley is leaving the commission on April 21 for a job in the private sector. Bentley was one of the few commission employees who understood the sport and business of boxing and tried to do his job without giving in to the political forces that have weakened the commission. He was also on the short list of NYSAC employees who spoke openly and honestly with investigators from the Inspector General’s office regarding problems at the commission.
The March 17, 2017, St. Patrick’s Day card at Madison Square Garden headlined by Michael Conlan vs. Tim Ibarra exemplified the problems facing the NYSAC.
New York requires that all fighters be examined by a commission doctor on fight night prior to entering the ring. In the past, an NYSAC doctor would come to the dressing room and conduct this examination. Current procedures call for the commission inspector assigned to a fighter to bring the fighter to a designated area for examination. This examination is crucial to protecting the health and safety of the fighter.
On March 17, Jean Seme was assigned to work as an inspector with Jhovany Collado, a fighter with a 4-11-2 (1 knockout) record who was in the fourth bout of the evening. Seme failed to take his fighter to the mandatory pre-fight physical examination. Then, when deputy commissioner Anthony Careccia visited the dressing room prior to the fight and asked if the pre-fight physical examination had been conducted, Seme misstated the facts and told him “yes.”
The consequences that could have followed from this breach of protocol were potentially devastating. Suppose Collado had developed a medical problem subsequent to the previous day’s physical examination and was seriously injured during the fight?
Collado lost a unanimous six-round decision. Later that evening, when the oversight was discovered, Seme was terminated as an inspector. With better procedures, the error would have been discovered before Collado fought, not after.
But that’s not the end of the story. Multiple sources say that Seme waited in The Theater at Madison Square Garden where the fights were held and confronted Giardina, Bentley, MMA Project Coordinator Kim Sumbler and Athletic Activities Assistant Matt Delaglio as they left the arena and demanded to “see the commissioners.” Giardina told Seme that any complaint he might have should be directed to the Department of State’s Human Resources Department. Seme is said to have responded, “You fucked me good.” Soon after, Sumbler passed Seme on the street and heard him shouting into his cell phone, “These motherfuckers can’t do that. I’ll kill them all.” The matter was referred to the state police, who, sources say, visited Seme to discuss the incident.
The following week, Seme filed a complaint with the Human Resources Department, claiming that Giardina had discriminated him against because he’s black and that his termination was, at least in part, an act of retaliation against him because he had filed earlier discrimination complaints against two other commission employees. The earlier complaints had been dismissed after an investigation into the allegations led to a finding that they were unfounded.
The NYSAC has also been put on notice that three other commission employees have exhibited what was perceived by one or more co-workers as unusually aggressive, hostile behavior. In one of these situations, John Signorile (an NYSAC commissioner since 2013) filed a formal complaint with Human Resources, stating that he’d been physically threatened by Deputy Commissioner Mario Mercado prior to a December 31, 2016, World Series of Fighting card at Madison Square Garden and that Mercado put his hands on Signorile in a threatening manner. Human resources found “no cause” to take action against Mercado. Signorile has filed a second complaint with the New York State Inspector General’s office.
Meanwhile, one night after the March 17 show at Madison Square Garden, the sweet science returned to The Mecca of Boxing. And again, there was regulatory chaos.
The co-featured bouts on March 18 were Gennady Golovkin vs. Danny Jacobs and Roman Gonzalev vs. Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. At the pre-fight rules meeting, John Hornewer (a lawyer for K2, which was promoting the event) asked when a championship fight would become official in the event the fight was stopped because of an accidental foul.
The Unified Rules of Boxing promulgated by the Association of Boxing Commissions and adopted by the State of New York specifically provide that a fight will go to the scorecards in the event of a stoppage “after four rounds have occurred.” The commission representative mistakenly stated that the fight would not become official “until the bell for round five rings.”
There’s a difference. And given the dangerous cut sustained by Gonzalez early in his fight against Rungvisai, that difference could have been crucial.
Also, the Golovkin-Jacobs weigh-in was conducted at the unusually early hour of 9 a.m. on Friday morning (more than 38 hours before the bell for the first round) because the NYSAC felt it would be difficult to handle an early-afternoon weigh-in on the same day that it was overseeing the 7 p.m. Conlan-Ibarra fight card.
Golovkin vs. Jacobs was for the IBF, WBA and WBC 160-pound titles. At the official weigh-in on Friday morning, Golovkin weighed in at 159.6 pounds and Jacobs at 159.8.
The IBF has a mandatory morning weigh-in on the day of its championship fights that limits middleweights to 170 pounds. After this second weigh-in, a fighter can put on as much additional weight as he wants. When the Golovkin camp agreed to the 9 a.m. Friday weigh-in, it did so in the belief that Jacobs would have to weigh-in at 170 pounds or less on Saturday morning. But Jacobs failed to appear at the fight-day weigh-in. The NYSAC could have forced a fight-day weigh-in of Jacobs because it was in the contracts for the fight. But it chose to not do so.
Then a more serious weight problem occurred. One day before the April 8 UFC 210 card at Keybank Arena in Buffalo, Daniel Cormier weighed in.
Cormier was slated to fight Anthony Johnson in a cruiserweight title bout that was the main event on a 13-bout card. The UFC cruiserweight limit is 205 pounds. Cormier stripped naked and, with two defenders of public decency holding a towel in front of him to shield his genitals, weighed in at 206.2 pounds.
Then things got crazy. Literally 143 seconds later, Cormier returned to the scale and weighed in at 205 pounds.
How did Cormier lose 1.2 pounds in 143 seconds?
He didn’t. Video evidence shows that, on the second weigh-in attempt, Cormier was holding onto the towel and pressing downward, an age-old con used by amateur wrestlers in poorly-regulated competitions to make weight.
Thereafter, an article on Deadspin.com referred to “bureaucratic shenanigans.” MMA Weekly referenced a “weigh-in debacle.” Writing for ESPN.com, Brett Okamoto observed, “Cormier clearly pushed down on the towel, which would presumably offset his weight slightly.” Brian Campbell of CBS Sports.com noted that, by using the towel, Cormier “likely shifted his body weight just enough to affect the scale.”
The following night, Cormier won by submission over Johnson in the second round.
The NYSAC’s handling of a scheduled UFC 210 bout between Cynthia Calvillo and Pearl Gonzalez was also farcical.
The commission’s Medical Manual states, “Due to the concern over rupture, boxers who have breast implants are not eligible to box in New York.”
Gonzalez disclosed that she has breast implants in writing when she applied to the commission for her license weeks in advance of the fight. Then, at the weigh-in, she was told that her fight was off. But after UFC officials voiced their displeasure, the commission reversed itself based on the sophistry that its medical manual refers to boxers, not MMA contestants.
Apparently the people running the NYSAC think that getting punched in the breast by a gloved fist is more dangerous than getting punched, kneed and kicked in the breast by a trained mixed martial artist.
Meanwhile, Ms. Gonzalez was displeased that the NYSAC had announced to the world that she has breast implants. “At the end of the day, it’s out,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m not going to dwell about it. I don’t think I wanted the world to know about my surgery and to be talked about like this.”
The UFC 210 co-main event – Gegard Mousasi vs. Chris Weidman – also posed problems.
The unified rules for mixed martial arts, to which New York purports to adhere, provide that it’s illegal to kick or knee a downed opponent in the head. A fighter is considered down when he or she has both hands on the canvas. Mousasi delivered a knee to Weidman’s head while Weidman was on the canvas. Referee Dan Miragliotta ruled the knee illegal and gave Weidman five minutes to recover. Then Miragliotta consulted with NYSAC officials at ringside, who viewed a video replay and told him that the knee was legal because Weidman was not “down.” At that point, instead of the fight continuing, Mousasi was declared the winner. However, the use of video review as a tool in making in-fight decisions is not allowable under New York law.
Writing for Bleacher Report, Scott Harris declared, “The co-main event of UFC 210 was marred by controversy and ineptitude on the part of the New York State Athletic Commission officials in attendance. No one seemed to know what was going on. No one seemed to fully understand the rule about strikes to downed opponents or how it was supposed to be applied. It was a messy situation that harmed everyone involved, and it was an unfortunate end to a bout that was shaping up to be a great contest.”
Matthew Ryder of Bleacher Report added, “What it does illuminate is a degree of concern surrounding the New York State Athletic Commission and its capacity to regulate MMA to an adequate standard. It’s apparent the NYSAC is as much a kangaroo court as it is a governing body.”
UFC agreed to promote five shows within one year in the State of New York as part of a package of quid pro quos that led to the legalization of MMA in New York. The last of these five shows will take place at the Nassau Coliseum on July 22. After that, who knows?
The list of embarrassing – and potentially dangerous – problems that have undermined the New York State Athletic Commission in recent months goes on.
Last year, the NYSAC made a good decision when it relieved referees of the responsibility for picking up the judges’ scorecards between rounds. That decision was made to enable the referee to more closely observe the fighters and communicate with the ring doctors during these 60-second periods.
Fast-forward to January 14, 2017, when James DeGale and Badou Jack fought to a draw in their 168-pound title-unification bout at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. There were several instances during the fight when DeGale lost his mouthpiece and the referee waited until long after a lull in the action to have the mouthpiece put back in. At the post-fight press conference, Jack told the media that the referee had threatened to disqualify DeGale for repeatedly losing his mouthpiece.
But the reason DeGale kept losing his mouthpiece was that the dental bridge had been knocked out of his mouth early in the fight. He was not purposely spitting out his mouthpiece or losing it because of negligence. That being the case, the ring doctor in DeGale’s corner should have been aware of the situation and communicated the information to the referee.
In the fifth bout on the March 17 card at Madison Square Garden, Brazilian Olympic gold medalist Robson Conceicao made short work of Aaron Hollis, stopping him in the second round. Following the stoppage, the NYSAC inspectors and ring doctor assigned to Hollis’ corner let him stand there even though he was obviously on shaky legs. It was left to an inspector in Conceicao’s corner to bring Conceicao’s stool across the ring and place it Hollis’ corner, enabling a grateful Hollis to sit.
The lead inspector assigned to Hollis said afterward that she thought the ring doctor was supposed to put the stool in the ring if it was necessary. The ring doctor said he thought the stool was necessary if there was a knockout but not a TKO.
Meanwhile, the NYSAC (which is trying to justify its budget while presiding over the elimination of club fights and ruination of small promoters in New York because of ill-considered insurance requirements) is over-staffing big fights at taxpayer expense.
Greg Sirb, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, says that, for its biggest events, the Pennsylvania commission has 25 to 30 people on site. Bob Bennett, who oversees the Nevada commission, says that, for a big card (e.g. 10 fights including three 12-round championship fights), the NSAC has up to 45 people on site.
By contrast, the New York State Athletic Commission had more than 60 people on site for the January 14 (DeGale-Jack) and March 4 (Thurman-Garcia) boxing cards at Barclays Center and the March 18 (Golovkin-Jacobs) boxing card at Madison Square Garden.
More than 60 NYSAC personnel were also assigned to work the 10-bout February 11, 2017, UFC 208 card at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Were all these employees (most of whom are paid on a per diem basis) necessary? Let’s compare fight cards. Roughly 20 fewer NYSAC personnel were assigned to UFC 210 on April 8 in Buffalo.
One might divine from these numbers that assignments are made (and taxpayer dollars are unnecessarily spent on transportation, hotel, meals and salary) so some NYSAC personnel can travel from upstate New York to New York City and have a good time. After all, if more than 60 NYSAC employees are necessary to properly regulate a 10-fight card in Brooklyn, shouldn’t the same number be necessary to properly regulate a 13-fight card in Buffalo?
And by the way, isn’t it time that the New York State Athletic Commission stopped wasting taxpayer dollars by “regulating” professional wrestling? In February 2017, Anthony Bazzoffi was named deputy director of upstate athletics. According to an NYSAC memorandum, Bazzoffi’s responsibilities include, among other things, “overseeing all activity regarding professional wrestling.” The NYSAC could just as appropriately regulate theatrical performances on Broadway.
There have been several welcome additions to the New York State Athletic Commission in recent months. In that regard, newly-appointed deputy commissioners Ed Kunkle and Tom Aceto come to mind.
But Kim Sumbler, who was installed last year as MMA project coordinator, has failed to coordinate.
Jim Leary, who developed considerable expertise in recent years while serving as counsel to the NYSAC, is moving on to another assignment.
And the departure of Eric Bentley is a body blow to the commission. Bentley will go to work for Evander Holyfield’s new promotional company (Holyfield Real Deal Promotions), where he’s expected to oversee boxing-related activity on a daily basis. Bentley was one of the few bright spots at a commission that has institutionalized mediocrity in the appointment and assignment of personnel and is laden with political appointees of limited ability who know next to nothing about the sport and business of boxing.
How can the problems be fixed?
It starts at the top. Under New York law, the NYSAC is supposed to be overseen by five commissioners. At present, there are three commissioners, two of whom are serving as holdover appointees pursuant to terms that have expired. That means New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has four seats to fill.
In autumn 2016, multiple people were told that the governor would announce his choices to fill the four commissioner seats by the end of the year. Then they were told that the governor was holding the positions as bargaining chips for use in negotiating with state legislators. It’s now expected that the nominees for the commissioner positions will be named and voted upon before the state legislature adjourns at the end of June.
It’s essential that Governor Cuomo appoint qualified men and women with a history of excellence and a working knowledge of combat sports to these positions. If past history is any guide, he won’t.
Interim NYSAC chairperson Ndidi Massay, who has been serving on a per diem basis since July 2016, is said to be lobbying for the chair on a permanent fulltime basis now that the state legislature has decided to retain the six-figure salary for the position. The chaos at the commission that has accompanied Ms. Massay’s stewardship to date speaks for itself.
Acting executive director Tony Giardina has said that he would like to leave the commission in the not-too-distant future. In replacing Giardina, the powers that be should keep in mind that administrative ability is just one prerequisite. Here too, a working knowledge of combat sports is required.
The New York State Athletic Commission isn’t unique among government agencies in New York or elsewhere. We live in an age when not enough qualified people opt for government service. Too often, poltical considerations take precedence over good performance. And once employees – even per diem employees – are in the system, there’s an unfortunate tendency at the NYSAC to give them equal responsibilities regardless of performance.
But what’s particularly troubling here is that lives are at stake. The Keystone Cops were funny. No one will be laughing if a fighter is killed or damaged for life.
Tragedies happen in boxing, sometimes even when everyone does their job properly. What’s happening now at the New York State Athletic Commission makes a tragedy inevitable.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book – “A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing” – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.