by David P. Greisman
The officiating was bad, they said, and perhaps corrupt. They expounded on conspiracy theories — that the outcome was rigged, they said, and that it was rigged because the league had a financial interest in what happened.
The reasons behind their conspiracy talk made sense, but there was never anything more than circumstantial evidence. The Sacramento Kings had lost Game 6 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers, and they would go on to lose Game 7 and the series, too. The Lakers ultimately won the championship. The Kings and their fans, meanwhile, would spend years wondering whether everything that had gone down had truly been on the up-and-up.
The most common theory: The NBA had wanted the ratings and profits that could come with a Game 7. The league had the referees call more fouls on the Kings, sending Lakers players to the line and in essence giving them the win.
It is a perceived conflict of interest, being both the arbiter of the rules and the promoter of the sport. It is a situation that has led to allegations in the past, often from sore losers who are looking to latch on to some excuse for their defeat, and they are often fueled by circumstances that help support their conspiracies. It is unavoidable in the major pro sports: the league provides the structure by which rules are enforced and money is made. There are no teams, and no games, without it.
The situation is less obvious in the combat sports, in which sanctioning bodies and state athletic commissions make the rules and license the bouts, but promoters pay for the cards and rake in the revenues. There are still allegations, which are backed by good reasons: commissions, they say, will back the house fighter — the boxer and the promoter who bring in the money — because a win will bring them, and the profits that come with them, back to that state.
Nevertheless, a more direct conflict of interest is more rare in pro boxing. It’s not unheard of, though, not with the entry of the International Amateur Boxing Association, or AIBA, into the realm of pro boxing promotion. And while no one is accusing AIBA of the kind of wrongdoing alleged against the NBA a decade ago, this is the kind of situation that should raise both eyebrows and questions.
The association has announced its AIBA Professional Boxing program, or APB, which it says in a statement will start in the fall of 2013 and be “a fully professional competition that will still allow boxers to compete in the Olympic Games.
“APB will revolutionize the world of boxing and establish a blueprint for its development,” the statement said.
AIBA President Ching-Kuo Wu, speaking to BoxingScene.com via email, said the organization has said since 2007 that its mission is to govern boxing worldwide in all forms.
“For that, AIBA had to control professional boxing, which was not the case in the past,” he said. “This is why it is a need for AIBA to launch its own boxing program.”
The APB, he said, will allow all Olympic boxers, as well as those involved in its affiliate World Series of Boxing tournaments, to get paid to compete — all while maintaining their Olympic eligibility.
The 2016 Olympics in Brazil will have “56 quota places” for APB boxers, he wrote, and another 10 for World Series of Boxing participants.
Some current pros will be allowed to compete in the APB, so long as they have fewer than 15 pro bouts, Wu said.
There have been some in boxing who have long called for a national boxing commission. AIBA is an international commission made up of nearly 200 amateur boxing federations.
The difference is that, prior to the WSB and the APB, AIBA had previously served solely as an umbrella group that brought structure to international amateur competition. Once it starts bringing pay to otherwise amateur fighters —and earning money from them — then the perspective changes.
Both amateur and pro boxing have long been under fire for charges of corruption, most often just perceived, though occasionally actual cases surface. The 1988 Olympics, for example, which included Roy Jones Jr. being blatantly robbed of a gold medal, led to a move to computerized scoring in amateur competitions.
There were problems with that system, which required a majority judges at ringside to register landed punches within a one-second window. Often the scores didn’t match what people saw. AIBA moved away from that system for this most recent Olympics. While the scoring was still computerized, the one-second window was gone. An oversimplication: Each judge had his or her own score, and those tallies were then averaged.
Even still, problems persisted, as did allegations. Several months before the Olympics, BBC aired a report alleging that AIBA had been offered $9 million in support of its World Series of Boxing in exchange for two gold medals for Azerbaijan. AIBA vehemently denied the veracity of those claims, and an internal investigation released this past December said the allegations were “groundless and unsupported by any credible evidence.”
An investor from Azerbaijan had indeed paid money to the World Series of Boxing, the investigation found, but “documents show that he made a commercial investment aimed mainly at making profits from the sale of U.S. TV rights of American WSB franchise matches in the United States, unconnected to the Olympic Games.”
In the end, Azerbaijan did win two medals — bronze medals. There were indeed controversial fights involving the country’s boxers, though.
Why bring this up? Because those allegations cast a pall over the proceedings, particularly as questionable officiating and scoring led to questionable results.
Money creates a perceived conflict of interest when combined with what is supposed to be an impartial body.
With the Olympics over now, AIBA has started signing some of the fighters from the London games, including a gold medalist (heavyweight Oleksandr Usyk), a silver medalist (light welterweight Denys Berinchyk) and two bronze medalists (light heavyweight Oleksandr Gvozdyk and welterweight Taras Shelestyuk).
(Last week, the father of Vasyl Lomachenko — who won gold at featherweight in 2008 and gold at lightweight in 2012 — was quoted as saying that an announcement that his son was joining the APB was premature, and that they were also considering other offers)
AIBA now has a financial stake in how these fighters do, all while governing the competitions in which these fighters participate.
There need not be any actual corruption for there to be a questionable situation — only a perceived conflict-of-interest, which could in turn fuel the conspiracy theorists.
Perception is everything. It is why news reporters are supposed to abstain from putting forth their views in public — and are even advised to register to vote as “unaligned” — even if their views don’t have any bearing on their coverage. The perception alone of potential bias is something that those who purport to be objective are best to avoid.
The APB is still a year away from its planned start date. There haven’t been any actual allegations against it yet. All it will take, though, is one notable questionable decision — as we saw during these Olympics, in the wake of the BBC’s disputed report — for the conspiracy theories to flow forth, be they from sore losers or from reasonable circumstantial evidence.
Wu, for his part, underscores the positive that will come to the sport from AIBA’s foray into promotion:
“AIBA’s interest is to develop the sport of boxing worldwide. This is why 30 percent of each fighter’s winning purse will be distributed to its national federation in order to help it develop the sport in its country,” he wrote. “Until now, boxers are trained for many years by their national federations and then disappear into the pro world without any kind of return on investment for the national federations. This has to change. And this is why AIBA will concentrate its efforts on grassroots.”
In addition, he said, AIBA will open a boxing academy in September 2013 for the most promising boxers from developing countries, giving them “top-class training facilities and great development opportunities,” Wu wrote.
“In the near future, such academies will open on each continent. AIBA wants to bring the sport of boxing into a brand new era, and this has to be done by putting a lot of effort into the development.”
The 10 Count will return soon.
“Fighting Words" appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter at @fightingwords2 or send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org