By Mitch Abramson
It’s not hyperbole to say the New York State Athletic Commission took a blow to the gut in the eyes of many in the wake of Magomed Abdusalamov's loss to Mike Perez on Nov. 2 at Madison Square Garden. Abdusalamov suffered a myriad of injuries in defeat, including brain damage.
And the state commission received a lot of blame for what happened.
The commission, which regulates boxing in the state, was heavily criticized by Abdusalamov’s handlers for ignoring his safety. Abdusalamov’s family filed a lawsuit in March in State Supreme Court against a number of parties, including several doctors on the commission who had watched him that night, alleging negligence and failure to provide proper care.
The state inspector general’s office soon launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the bout in early November, an examination that continues to this day.
The atmosphere was so bad that a commission doctor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity at a fight card in Brooklyn on Nov. 9 admitted confidence was at an all-time low.
“Don’t want to be here,” he said.
But not everyone felt that way.
When the position of executive director was formed -- the job was created before Abdusalamov’s bout -- David Berlin, a Princeton-educated attorney, applied.
Berlin, who represented fighters and other boxing types and was a lifelong boxing fan, had ideas for how to make the sport better, from the judging to the officiating to the health and safety of the fighters. After several interviews, he was approved as executive director on March 26 by Gov. Cuomo- the same day Abdusalamov’s family filed the lawsuit.
Even with the ongoing litigation and inquiry, Berlin, 50, struck a confident, even optimistic note in a phone interview, discussing what he hopes to accomplish in his new position.
Though he was not allowed to discuss Abdusalamov’s case because of the commission’s policy of not commenting on ongoing litigation, many of Berlin’s comments seemed to stem from what happened in November with Abdusalamov.
“It is a new beginning for me personally and also, I believe, a new beginning for the Commission,” Berlin said. “That would be true of any agency with new leadership. My first step is to listen and to learn. I am meeting with everyone involved with the commission to get their feedback on ways in which we can improve. I will work to achieve the desired goals of the commission, which are to promote and maintain the health, safety and integrity of its regulated athletic activities.”
Berlin, who gave up his private practice of 15 years to take the job, is assigned with running the day-to-day operations of the commission, from assigning the officials and referees to making sure the fight cards run smoothly.
As a result of the new hire, Chairwoman Melvina Lathan will no longer manage the commission as she has in the past on a day-to-day basis. She will now be involved in making policy decisions for the regulatory body, Berlin said.
In his job, Berlin will report to a board of commissioners consisting of Lathan, Edwin Torres and John Signorile.
Lathan was in favor of bringing Berlin aboard and supported the decision to create an executive director to help relieve the workload on her plate.
Just days into his job, Berlin was teeming with ideas for how to improve the sport when he answered questions, by phone and in Email. One of his first goals is to bring back the public’s trust in the commission.
“Obviously, it’s a desire of mine that the public does have confidence in the way the New York Commission is run,” he said. “Again, I can assure you there’s going to be transparency in the way we’re going to operate and our job again is to have competent people in place, competent people on the staff on the commission and competent officials making decisions about fights.”
He also acknowledged the need for improvement at the commission, without delving into specifics because he said he had just started on the job and needed time to review the different facets of the commission.
“I think in boxing and in other areas of life, we learn from experiences,” Berlin said. “We learn from good things that happen. We learn from bad things that happen. I think that as an organization our goal should be to constantly improve. We want to always move forward and always in the right direction in terms of doing what’s proper for boxers.”
Berlin said the confidence level of the rank and file members was not a problem despite what a commission doctor said back in November.
“Morale is fine and it has been fine,” Berlin said. “We have a number of very competent people in place, among the staff and we’re working cooperatively to make sure we have the right elements in place.”
Berlin has toiled in relative obscurity, running three smaller shows since he formally started on May 1. But that will change on June 7 when Miguel Cotto faces Sergio Martinez at Madison Square Garden in one of the biggest fights of the year. It’s only the second fight at the Garden since Abdusalamov fought in November but it’s by far the biggest fight since then.
“Certainly I’m looking forward to Cotto-Martinez and it’s a huge fight for New York,” Berlin said. “It’s going to be at our biggest venue -- MSG, which is the Mecca of boxing and I’m looking forward to it.”
Berlin was asked if any of his ideas for the new job were colored by what happened in November but he declined to answer, citing the ongoing litigation. The state inspector general’s office offered a “No-comment” as to when its investigation will end and a report will be issued.
Abdusalamov has made considerable progress in his rehabilitation at Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, NY, where he currently resides, according to his former promoter, Nathan Lewkowicz, who said he can now move his arms and say people’s names and eat soft foods. He’s still a long ways from regaining full use of his body, Lewkowicz acknowledged.
The boxer’s attorney, Paul Edelstein, reported no updates on the lawsuit and is looking forward to reading the inspector general’s report. A spokesman for the New York Athletic Commission said it will wait to make any public remarks until after the state inspector general’s office releases its report.
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.