Down for the Count

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

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."

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."

Such griping is a favorite pastime among many in the industry. Few are so outspoken as Peterson, though. Others who have on occasion been critical of past rulings took the news badly, on the belief that a regulatory board is crucial to the future of Minnesota boxing.

"As bad as the commission can be, I don't think the solution is to eliminate them," says Tim Eastman, a newcomer on the scene who promoted three shows in Minneapolis this year. Without a board, Eastman theorizes, boxing as we know it--clean, with good matches--could well be taken over by unscrupulous promoters ready to take advantage of less aggressive oversight. "I find it disgusting that they'll stop the funding for the boxing commission [while] they're talking about building a goddamn stadium for the Twins that will cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars per taxpayer."

Bill Kaehn, who has been training and managing Minnesota fighters since the Forties, agrees. "I don't have any trouble with the board. I think they do a good job," he says, adding that Minnesota's commission is more strict than most and tends to err on the side of caution in matchmaking. "There's nothing wrong with being safety-minded in this sport. It's a rough, tough, nasty business."

That's one thing everyone can agree on. According to the Association of Boxing Commissions, in the 44 states that have some form of oversight board, the trend is toward more regulation of a sport notorious for its vulnerabilities to sham fights, mismatches, and all sorts of sordid abuses. Dismantle the board that keeps fights and promoters at least nominally legit, says association director Greg Sirb, and "you're cruising for a bruising."

Indeed, some of the sport's worst disgraces have occurred in places where regulation was in short supply. Take the case of the late Jerry Quarry, former top heavyweight contender who fought Ali, Frazier, and a slew of other greats in the Seventies. At 47, a decade after signs of what's called pugilistic dementia showed up on his CAT scan, the punch-drunk boxer couldn't get approved for a fight by any board he approached. So in 1992 he headed for Colorado, which has no commission. There, in the inglorious finale of his career, he got his teeth knocked out, his brain scrambled, and his body mauled--for a thousand bucks.

Cautionary tale? Representative McElroy says no: The commission's regulatory duties will likely be taken on by another state agency, perhaps the Department of Health. "We can make sure that we comply with all the federal laws and protect the health and safety of boxers, but still make government smaller." The transfer-of-power details are slated to be hammered out in the next legislative session, and McElroy has vowed to quash any efforts to reinstate the commission's funding. "We fought round one in the last session," he declares with gusto. "Round two is coming up."

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