By Terence Dooley
The British Boxing Board of Control has a fight on its hands over its complete control of the sport here in the U.K. Bruce Baker, David Currivan and Jim Evans are opening legal proceedings against the BBBoC in a bid to open up the U.K. market for other regulatory bodies such as the German Boxing Federation or the Malta Boxing Commission, who have both operated on these shores in recent years.
Philip Williams and Rupert Beloff of No 5 Chambers have issued proceedings in the High Court against the BBBoC. They will argue that two of the Board’s regulations (4.12 and 5.15) are unlawful in nature under the laws surrounding restraint of trade.
Regulation 4.12 states that: ‘A Member shall only participate: (a) in or at a Promotion that is licensed by the B.B.B.of C.; or (b) in or at a Promotion organised by a Federation Commission or Controlling Authority affiliated to, or recognised by the B.B.B. of C.’.
Regulation 5.15 reads: ‘No Boxer resident in the Territory and holding a valid B.B.B. of C. license shall take part in any Contest or exhibition outside the jurisdiction of the B.B.B. of C. without obtaining the prior written permission of the Board. Contracts for such Contests shall not be signed by a Boxer until such permission has been granted by the Board. Application for such permission must be made to the Registered Office of the Board at least 14 days prior to the date of the Contest…’.
Baker and others were sanctioned by the Board for staging events under the auspices of the German Boxing Association throughout 2013 and earlier this year. Baker has had his license withdrawn as a result of this involvement. He intends to argue that this contravenes restraint of trade laws and runs contrary to the EU’s objective of the freedom of trade.
The Board argued that last year’s April 27th show at York Hall was effectively unlicenced, the parties insist that it was licenced due to the backing of the German Boxing Association setting both sides on a collision course that could see them land before the High Court.
The BBBoC is the sole governing body in the U.K., all fighters, promoters and managers must go through them for their licences. The claimants hope that the case will clear the way for other European authorities to operate on these shores under a free market that allows and encourages competition.
Mike Cotter is a solicitor for Regulatory Legal Solicitors; he is also a former BoxingScene writer who worked with the Board prior to beginning his legal career. Cotter is advising No 5 Chambers on this matter. He told me that, far from seeking to destroy the Board, the claimants simply want to encourage competition.
“We invited the British Boxing Board of Control to reinstate Mr Baker’s license,” said Cotter when speaking to BoxingScene. “In addition, we asked the Board to look at amending its rules so that they comply with domestic and EU procurement law. We await the BBBC’s response.
“It is also our allegation that the Board have a number of unlawful rules in their regulations that effectively restrain trade for people who want to participate in boxing in Britain. The Board, at present, are still putting out the tired old line that anyone who participates in a non-Board regulated show in Britain is liable to pay sanctions or be called in front of the Board, the argument they made when the Luxembourg Boxing Federation sanctioned [David] Haye against [Dereck] Chisora [in July 2012].
“We have taken advice from other QCs on this and believe our case is as watertight as can be. When you accept that the Board are a Limited Company, it becomes quite clear that they don’t have any authority, so competition can and should be brought into the marketplace.
“If we’re successful it will both justify the position of the claimants and open the door for other regulatory bodies in Europe to put on shows in this country, but, more importantly, there will be a clear understanding amongst licence holders that the Board cannot restrain movement between different jurisdictions that operate within Britain.
“There isn’t a single market where competition hasn’t been proven not to be beneficial. When you only have one player in town, as you do with the Board, then there’s no one around to keep them in check. Competition is healthy, as it will shake the Board up and make them realise that they will have to do things differently to maintain the membership levels that they currently have by virtue of their domination of the market.”
The sticking point for many fans and pundits is that boxing is a dangerous sport subject to stringent medical procedures. Yes, there will always be injuries and fatalities, but the chief concern is that other governing bodies will not share the Board’s stringent approach to pre-fight medicals and the provision of top-class medical facilities on fight night: two doctors, including a neurosurgeon, an ambulance and two paramedics.
“We’re not the regulatory bodies, we’re the claimants, but what we will say is that any body that chooses to operate on these shores is free to use whatever medical body they want to use,” said Cotter when asked about the medical provisions.
“Unfortunately, boxing doesn’t have a set minimum standard in respect of medicals, but I image that any governing body that wants to put a show on in this country will have to at least adhere to the standards that the Board has implemented or no one would want to use them.”
Cotter insists that the proper medical standards will be maintained. He said: “People will vote with their feet, if they’re not happy with the medical body used then they won’t use that regulatory body. The bodies are not going to go from putting on well-organised shows in European to putting on lesser shows in Britain—the boxing press would report it and the public wouldn’t accept that.”
Another potential problem is that other governing bodies could licence fighters who are deemed unfit to box by the Board. Robin Deakin had his licence withdrawn by the Board yet still wants to fight. The 1-51 (0) journeyman could go head for the unlicenced circuit or, should Baker and co. win their case, Deakin may once again approach other bodies once they are cleared to operate within the U.K.—he lost to Antonio Counihan (TKO 4 on a GBA show in October) and Damian Lawniczak (L4 on a Malta Boxing Commision event in March).
“Any regulatory body has to make sure a boxer is given a thorough examination,” said Cotter. “The Board gave Mr. Deakin a licence to box for long enough, so if you’re bringing people in to do things better and more efficiently then maybe it gives the Board a level to raise themselves to.
“These people are not looking to disgrace the sport of boxing. They want to tap into a marketplace that they feel they’ve been prohibited from operating in previously and can add value to.
“As with all markets, the market will determine what is wanted and required. There are unlicenced fights up and down the country every week that have no medicals whatsoever. They go on and will continue to do so no matter how many regulatory bodies are operating in this jurisdiction.”
Medical issues aside, the shows themselves will need to be of a decent standard. The Malta Boxing Commision’s April 19th show in Dorset features Stephen Bendall (40) versus Emmanuel Clottey (39) as the bill’s standout contest, both men have clearly seen better days. If the other bodies cannot attract the middle and top-level fighters then surely their shows will provide potential value for money on the business side yet poor fare for the paying public?
“Well, I think it’s fair to say that the March show went without hitch, it was well enjoyed and well regarded,” argued Cotter. “In terms of poor quality, my clients would say the opposite, it was professionally ran to Board standards and the bouts were competitive. We’ve all been to cards where the fights aren’t competitive. I don’t think it was more of a problem than at any other event.
“Mismatches are a problem in boxing as it is, but that’s to an extent something that any regulatory body could look at by making it one of their requirements that the bouts are more competitive. They could say they don’t want mismatches to occur and want to ensure that the fights are well matched and the crowds get value for money.”
In mitigation, the Board have refused to sanction contests that are deemed to be mismatches and refused Frans Botha a licence. Still, mismatches are part and parcel of the sport, especially when you move further down the fight cards.
Indeed, we have sometimes seen TV bill toppers that are, in effect, mismatches that are weighted 70-30 in favour of the “home” fighter. The nature of sport will always result in this widespread imbalance; journeyman Vs prospect fights are never going to be eradicated.
In theory, then, boxers could take out a number of licences, gaining themselves more options in the process and could do so without worrying that the Board will crack down on them. “That’s the ideal situation, the case in a nutshell,” said Cotter.
“In all jurisdictions in Europe, the bodies allow for fighters to fight under each other’s regulatory codes, especially in Germany. At the moment, the Board’s regulations are too restrictive because you need Board permission to operate over here. Our argument, along with EU Competition Law, is that you don’t have to have their permission.
“We envisage a future where multiple bodies offer a variety of services to give fighters, managers, promoters and trainers a choice to go with whoever they want to go with without fear of repercussion from the Board. It will allow people to move around, use different services for different reasons and requirements without interference from the Board.”
The issue of the cost of small hall shows rises year in and year out. Baker discussed the situation with The Evening Standard in 1997, arguing that small hall promoters are being priced out of the sport.
Mike Shinfield even took the unusual step of opening up the books to the newspaper to prove Baker’s point, revealing that purses, hall and ring hire, and medical cover for a typical small promotion totaled £9680, which meant that they would need to shift 553 £17.50 priced tickets just to break even. It now costs on average £25,000 to put together a small hall show.
Promoters are struggling to keep up with purses, medical fees and sanctioning fees, so they may opt to use other bodies if the pricing is more competitive. “It will make the sport much more enticing at the grassroots,” said Cotter.
“For every [Carl] Froch against [George] Groves there are hundreds of small hall shows that get little or no media attention whatsoever. It becomes incredibly financially prohibitive to be involved with the sport due to the way the Board run this jurisdiction at present. The model in British boxing at the moment seems to be broken. It is incredibly hard for people to make a living out of boxing.
“The three people involved in this action are involved in small hall shows. Yes, their fighters sometimes break through one of the many glass ceilings within boxing, but there are shows where the financial margins are minute to the point where many promoters seem to lose money on every show they put on.
“If I were in the Board, I’d see this as an impetus to offer a service that a licence holder is willing to accept. As you know, there are a number of licence holders who are not expressing their discomfort because the Board will remonstrate with them if they make their feelings known. We are aware of around 15 promoters who, if we’re successful in the High Court, will look to engage the use of other bodies on these shores.
“It will have an impact on the Board’s financial position, but it should give them the inspiration to give an offering that is ultimately in line with what people in boxing want. A lot of people are unhappy with a number of issues, for example the voting issue that makes them feel they don’t have any influence within their own sport [Writer’s note: Regular Licence holders do not have voting rights].”
Bruce Baker outlined his own position in a statement that was released to the press: ‘The Professional Boxing Promoters Association acts as the German Boxing Association’s representative in the UK. It takes applications for GBA licences, which are then submitted to the GBA offices in Germany for approval. I, as Chairman of the PBPA, also recommend the appointment of officials and, again, the final approval lies with the GBA itself.
‘The PBPA assists in the operation of GBA shows in the UK and I acted as the GBA representative on shows promoted by a member who held licences with the BBBC and the GBA. Following my involvement, the BBBC revoked my manager’s licence, causing me significant difficulty as, in my capacity as a BBBC manager, I manage seven boxers.
‘The British Boxing Board of Control has the same legal status as, for example, a private tennis club. It is a limited company which is neither government nor Sports Council recognised and yet it has conferred upon itself the sole right to decide upon which fights can take place in Britain, a cut of boxers’ purses and TV money and the authority to dispense or withhold or withdraw licence s and thus restrict promoters’ opportunities and abilities to trade.
‘Anyone involved in professional boxing in Britain, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands has to be a fee-paying Member of the Board but is barred from having voting rights, which are reserved for the board of the Board.
‘The BBBC has awarded itself the right to regulate professional boxing bouts in Britain to the exclusion of any other boxing regulators while, in contrast, there are multiple regulators in many European countries and federations from one country may and do sanction contests in other countries. There is thus a greater element of competition in mainland Europe.
‘The Board is a private members club looking to restrict competition and trade. The objective of my case is to persuade the British Board of Boxing Control to act lawfully, so that the market for professional boxing may expand and our members might have the choice of either running events under the auspices of the BBBC or with the GBA. They should not be restricted by out-dated and unlawful regulations imposed upon them from above by the BBBC, which only regulates in its own self-interest.’
That’s the legalese done with, so what could this mean for the sport itself? The situation kicked into gear when Chisora and Haye had a public brawl following Chisora’s decision loss to Vitali Klitschko in February 2012. The Board withdrew Chisora’s licence, which prompted Queensberry Promotions and Hayemaker, the Upton Park show’s co-promoters, to licence the event via the Luxembourg Boxing Federation.
When the LBF’s involvement was announced, the Board released a statement threatening action against any licence holders who were part of Haye versus Chisora. However, the people who participated in the show kept their licences and still operate under the Board’s auspices.
What began as a public show of strength by the Board turned into a white flag of surrender, and alerted people to the fact that, ultimately, they are the equivalent of a golf club. The Board can refuse membership, but cannot effect law or prevent other bodies from operating on their shores.
With no real authority, the Board’s best hope of survival was to persuade their members to ignore the overtures of other regulatory bodies yet this case could further expose their soft underbelly and lead to a situation in which fighters can switch between licences without fear of sanction.
What does this mean for the sport? Horrible fragmentation, in all likelihood, with a number of promoters opting to use other bodies, especially if it is cost effective, while the rest stick with the Board. Yet another potential divide in a hopelessly fractured sport as the gap between the haves and have nots widens.
Imagine the scenario. Fighter A holds a licence with body X; Fighter B fights under the Board; neither side wants to cross the divide. Therefore we could see fighters kept apart by their promotional ties, TV networks and their choice of governing body.
Sadly, boxing fans are the casualties of the sport’s many political wrangles. They do not care about the highfaluting events atop the business side of the sport, they want to see competitive fights between domestic rivals. It's a disgrace that the sport consistently fails to make the competitive 50-50 bouts that the fans call for, it is also an embarrassment.
The best-case scenario is that the Board decides to reform, turning what is seen as a closed shop, old boys network into a modern sanctioning body that can move with the times. They could extend the right to vote to their members and remove the perception, right or wrong, of institutionalised cronyism. Either way, the Board’s recent weaknesses have left them exposed—they could find themselves further damaged if things do not change.
The party’s over, it is time to clean up the debris and get the house back in order. Or put it into order for the first time in its history, depending on your perspective.
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