In This Corner

Ex-middleweight Paul Johnson's fight to unionize pro boxers

Torres was immediately taken with Johnson's pitch, and he was quick to throw his weight behind it. As the former chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, Torres understood better than many the ways in which boxers can be exploited. And he'd done something about it, having once banned promoter Don King--the most powerful figure in the sport--from staging fights in New York. Torres says he made the move after learning that King and his stepson Carl, who, in the sort of conflict of interest endemic to the sport, manages King's stable of fighters, had enticed Harlem heavyweight Mitch "Blood" Green to sign two contracts--a dummy one drawn up for review by the state commission and a less generous one for the actual payout. After Torres left office, King applied for and received a New York promoter's license once again.

"Boxers are the weakest athletes in the world today," Torres says. "They're not considered relevant in anything connected to the business of boxing. When they fight, where they fight, how much they get paid, they don't have a say in any of it." Instead, prizefighters' careers are generally governed by a triumvirate of feudalistic cabals: television networks, promoters, and the so-called Alphabet Boys--masters of the sport's three major sanctioning entities, the International Boxing Federation (IBF), the World Boxing Council (WBC), and the World Boxing Association (WBA). "As a result," he concludes, "fighters make less money than the promoters, and to me that's absurd. People have always said we should have a union, and now we're getting closer and closer."

Since he first met with Torres, Johnson has recruited some of fistiana's most respected figures to join the Boxing Organizing Committee (including Hall of Fame trainer Irv Abramson and Roy Foreman, brother of noted ex-champ George Foreman); both men say they expect to be mailing out ballots to some 4,500 to 6,000 boxers across the nation before the end of the calendar year.

Put 'em up: Paul Johnson is ready to go the distance for his brothers in the ring
David Kern
Put 'em up: Paul Johnson is ready to go the distance for his brothers in the ring

As Johnson sees it, this is an ideal time for a union push precisely because the sport is in such rough shape. Late last year U.S. attorneys indicted the three top officers of the New Jersey-based IBF on charges that they demanded and received kickbacks to fix rankings. "You have the government and the public saying that boxing is all fucked up, that it's the red-light district of sport, and the government is talking about regulating the sport. With all these problems, this is an opportunity for us," Johnson says. "We think we can be in on the ground floor of the entire reorganization of the sport." A union, he adds, could bring its weight to bear in ways that would benefit both fighters and the fans--specifically, by developing a league-style system to create undisputed world champions. As it stands, each of the three major sanctioning bodies names their own champs. Owing to the rivalries between those bodies, there are just two undisputed titlists in the sport's 17 weight divisions--a development that has made boxing difficult to follow for all but the most devoted fans.

To date, Johnson's efforts have received only modest notice in the boxing press. That, according to boxing historian Bert Sugar, may be due to the considerable skepticism among insiders that anything will come of the union push. "I hate to be a naysayer. I think it's very wonderful and high-minded, but I just don't see it. It's just another wet dream," Sugar sighs. People have been complaining about the exploitation of boxers for decades, he adds, and notes that former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey--one of the best-known figures in all of professional sports in the first half of the 20th Century--wrote a letter to the New York Times calling for the formation of a boxers' union in 1937. "Nothing came of it. And that was the heyday of unionism. Unionism was in its flower," Sugar observes. "Maybe if boxing were at the top of its game, a union could happen. Sharing wealth is easy then. But boxing is not on top of its game: If 1999 had been a funeral for boxing, it would have been an insult to the deceased."

Others are less pessimistic. "That's the way the old-timers have always thought, and that's been the uphill struggle for Paul since day one," says Scott LeDoux, a former heavyweight contender and current member of the Minnesota Board of Boxing, the state agency that regulates the sport here. "When Paul initially started, I thought, 'This guy has a long way to go, this is never gonna happen.' I couldn't imagine anyone putting the financial and personal effort into it. But he's really done his homework."

According to Johnson, the Boxing Organizing Committee has already received endorsement from some of the biggest name fighters around, including light heavyweight Roy Jones Jr., who is widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world; former welterweight champion Oscar De La Hoya; Sugar Shane Mosley, a rising star; George Foreman; even Muhammad Ali. The well-connected Torres has brought some other unlikely figures into the fold. Former South African president Nelson Mandela (who was a national champion featherweight as a young man) and former New York mayor David Dinkins have lent their names to the cause as prospective members of the union's Board of Trustees.

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