ABCs of boxing far from simple

Hierarchy: The world of professional boxing has never held a stable orbit. Once again, with Hasim Rahman's rise to the world heavyweight championship, the sport has been struck by the unexpected.


May 10, 2001|By Peter Schmuck and Lem Satterfield | Peter Schmuck and Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

It took just a split second - one lightning-quick punch - for Baltimore boxer Hasim Rahman to become the heavyweight champion. He conquered the boxing world with one iron fist and positioned himself for at least a $14 million payday that will come with his first title defense.

Seems simple enough, except that nothing is ever entirely as it seems in the complex, confusing and sometimes shady world of professional boxing.

Rahman's situation was less complicated than most, because he landed that big right hand and dropped heavily favored Lennox Lewis without selling the rights to his next fight. No one had expected Rahman's next fight to be all that valuable.

But the upset put him in the middle of a tug of war between cable giants Home Box Office and Showtime, who have emerged as the major power brokers of boxing after decades of infighting among the various governing bodies that created their own fiefdoms within the sport.

There still is plenty of "alphabet soup" - the term coined by eminent boxing historian Bert Sugar to describe the confusion wrought by the WBC (World Boxing Council), the IBF (International Boxing Federation), the WBA (World Boxing Association) and several lesser organizations - but the Rahman situation clearly highlights the growing influence of the two cable networks, even as it raises questions about the failure of HBO to plan adequately for the possibility of a Rahman upset.

Slipping through cracks

HBO could have locked Rahman into a contract beyond the April 21 bout in South Africa that would have guaranteed an initial title defense against Lewis, who has a multi-fight contract with the network. Showtime, which has No. 1 WBC contender Mike Tyson and WBA champion John Ruiz under contract, wouldn't even have gotten a chance to bid on the fight.

Instead, Rahman and his management team signed three contracts related to the first Lewis bout, one of them calling for a rematch within 150 days and another that allows for an interim fight as long as it occurs at least 60 days before the Lewis rematch. The third contract, filed with the IBF, did not include any rematch clause, in accordance with IBF rules.

In short, there was enough ambiguity to make Rahman the boxing equivalent of a baseball free agent, and his handlers have spent the past few weeks playing HBO and Showtime off each other to get the best deal.

"There's no way they [HBO] should have let me go over there [to Africa] contract-free," Rahman said recently. "They had an arrogance about their fighter, and now they have a hefty price to pay."

If Rahman showed he could pack quite a wallop during his first title shot, no one foresaw how much clout he would have after the fight.

"I see Hasim Rahman as a miracle worker," said Showtime senior vice president Jay Larkin. "He not only defeated the odds, he defeated a powerful cartel that was stacked against him."

Evolution of power

The boxing world has always been something of a split decision. Promoters have been fighting over the economics of the sport as long as fighters have been battling for sanctioned titles.

The sport was controlled largely by the New York State Athletic Commission during the early part of the 20th century, but a split in the middleweight division in the 1930s led to the formation of the National Boxing Association, which would change its name to the World Boxing Association in 1950.

The World Boxing Council was founded in 1962. The IBF split from the WBA and gained legitimacy with the 1983 title bout between Marvin Hagler and Wilford Sypion.

There are other sanctioning entities - most notably the World Boxing Organization - which just adds to the confusion and possibility of corruption.

"Boxing has fallen apart because of these sanctioning bodies," Sugar said. "You now have four lemonade stands on different corners, and they're selling championship belts and ratings."

The sanctioning bodies produce the championship belts that help drive the marketing of the fighters, but the promoters - the businessmen who book the fighters and promote the big events - have controlled the sport for much of its modern history.

Network television helped them create star power in the 1950s and '60s. The advent of pay-per-view in the 1970s took the revenue potential of major boxing events into the stratosphere, but it also would signal the eventual decline of the promoter as the driving force in the industry and the end of broadcast television's close association with the sport.

"When boxing was one of the most popular sports in America, it was accessible to everyone on radio and broadcast television," Larkin said. "In the '60s and '70s, there was a great amount of high-quality boxing on ABC, CBS and NBC, and that's where the real stars were created.

"When the numbers started to go up, HBO came into the mix and started outbidding the broadcast networks, which put them in the position of being a farm team for HBO. They didn't want to develop fighters only to lose them to pay television."

Where money flows

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