Down for the Count

Minnesota's boxing commission gets socked in the kisser

When James J. O'Hara settles in at his desk in a cramped basement office in downtown St. Paul, he can usually expect flak of one sort or another to soon come calling--a ticked-off promoter at the door, say, or a disgruntled boxer on the phone. O'Hara, a gruff yet affable former state heavyweight champ, serves as the executive secretary of the Minnesota State Board of Boxing, the seven-member commission that oversees the contentious business of amateur and professional boxing.

While much of the board's work is routine--checking fighters' ID cards, ensuring that mandatory physical exams are performed and all required paperwork is in order--it also exercises a great deal of power over what fights are made. The commission's habit of refusing to rubber-stamp promoters' matchmaking--often out of the concern that the boxers aren't evenly paired--has been met with a chorus of complaints over the years. Just last spring "Fabulous" Fred Moore, a crafty southpaw from Zumbrota with a 20-0 record (18 KOs), missed out on a big Don King card after the board rejected nine different opponents. Decisions like those can make or break a fighter, leaving him idle and unable to earn money; they also tend to raise the wrath of promoters and matchmakers with money stakes in the deal.

O'Hara has become used to the guff. The boxing commission's job, he says, is to prevent the sort of mismatches that could lead to severe injury, even death, in the ring. "We got a one-legged guy, 42 years old, and now he wants to fight," O'Hara remarks with a sigh. "He could get seriously hurt if we allowed him to fight as a professional. He says he's gonna sue us, but we have to protect the fighters."

On the ropes: Boxing board chairman Joe Azzone (front) and executive secretary James J. O'Hara
Daniel Corrigan
On the ropes: Boxing board chairman Joe Azzone (front) and executive secretary James J. O'Hara

The board may soon find itself relieved of that duty. Last spring, in a scantly noted vote, the state Legislature put a sunset on the funding for its operations. Barring a reversal of the decision, that means the commission--which has been in existence since 1915, when boxing was legalized in Minnesota--will close shop next July.

That likelihood has O'Hara and board chairman Joe Azzone worried, and boxing-world insiders wondering, about how the sport will then be regulated in the state. "If we're not here, God knows what's going to happen," O'Hara says. "There could be some real turmoil."

Fine by Dan McElroy. The state representative from Burnsville sees the commission as barely more than an anachronism. McElroy says he started paying attention to it after reviewing a legislative auditor's report on how the state oversees various occupations. The boxing board, McElroy says, stood out. Noting that only 14 professional cards were put on in Minnesota last year, he decided a little budget busting was in order. Although he concedes that the board's current $80,000 annual appropriation may be peanuts, he's in favor of putting the kibosh on the board solely on principle. "It's like somebody said to me, if you can't abolish the Board of Boxing, what hope is there for controlling the size of government?" What's more, he adds, "We don't have a state soccer board or a state wrestling board." Why shell out for a boxing board?

For starters, O'Hara responds, high school and college athletics receive all sorts of public subsidies. "Hockey, football, basketball all get dollars at the school level. Where's boxing?" he asks. " Boxing's an orphan, except for the few dollars that are spent to make sure that rules are enforced."

O'Hara is also quick to emphasize the social benefits of the sweet science. The rigors of the sport, he notes, provide its practitioners with both discipline and a healthy outlet for their aggressions--a benefit that can't be measured in strictly economic terms. "We deal with the underprivileged," he says. "We provide a community service. I get 15, 20 calls a week from parents asking where young men can go to get boxing lessons."

Not all in the state's boxing circles are so enthusiastic about the commission's doings. Reaction to the news of the board's impending demise, which has spread slowly through the fistic grapevines, ranges from the perplexed to the ecstatic. When promoter Ron Peterson got the word, he couldn't contain his glee. "Boxing will flourish again in the state of Minnesota!" he predicts. "This is marvelous news!"

Peterson has a reputation as something of a loose cannon, a man quick to criticize his colleagues--one trainer is "a backstabbing fool," another is "a piece-of-shit punk"--and to denounce the board as "a bunch of egomaniacs and lunatics." He is also a very busy man: By his own estimate, the Mounds View promoter, trainer, and manager has put on some 150 cards since he got into the business in 1973. But for most of the past decade he has eschewed the usual Minnesota fight venues for out-of-state locales or rural Indian reservations, where the boxing board has no jurisdiction.

The last straw for Peterson came when the commission forbade his matching of one of his top heavyweights with a journeyman who'd beaten Peterson's guy as an amateur. "They shouldn't even have the right to approve or disapprove a fight," he says. "I'm the promoter. It's my money, not theirs. And if it's a horseshit show, then the people won't come back. In the end I just said I'm not gonna deal with them. I can make more money on the road."

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