He taunted, feigned terror, dropped his hands to his waist and bobbed his head, waved and smiled to the fans from Nova Scotia, but more than anything else Saturday night, Canadian heavyweight champ Trevor Berbick shocked the boxing world. From World Boxing Council champion Larry Holmes he absorbed, “everything I could throw at him and more. I tried to take him out, but he just wouldn’t go,” and like no Holmes-challenger before him, lasted 15 rounds. “He is the strongest man I’ve ever faced,” said Holmes after retaining his title. “Nobody else could have stood up to those shots.” They came from Holme’s left, repeatedly, and from his right, crushingly, but Berbick never slowed. He charged and attempted to brawl, landed enough lunging lefts and right hooks to Holme’s body to keep Holme’s unanimous decision victory interesting.
Earlier in the week, at one of his Don King-orchestrated workouts, Holmes had allowed that “the biggest problem with Berbick is that he can’t fight. Against a boxer or a fighter you know what the guy might do. But Berbick can’t fight, so you don’t know what to expect.” It was, perhaps, that Holmes’s assessment was so commonly shared that no reasonable betting line could be found. The local papers rated Berbick a 50-1 shot, but no bookie would handle that, and but one sport book emporium listed $11 to make $10 only if both fighters answered the bell for the eighth round. Such a confrontation, of such cosmic proportions, was the grist of the sweet science last week.
But even the most casual observer should not be surprised. Long before Bogie muckraked in The Harder They Fall, beyond the dismantling of the mob-controlled “octopus of boxing” (the International Boxing Club) in the 1950s, the emergence of the World Boxing Association (WBA) and the World Boxing Council (WBC) to the recent collapse of Muhammad Ali Professional Sports, Inc. (MAPS) to the current FBI investigation of boxing, the sport has always
created suspicions about match-ups, corruption (largely justified) and criminality. But it may take the combined talents for in-sport political manoeuvring and financial gymnastics of promoters Don King and his arch rival, Bob Arum, (or their successors) to reclaim the sport from the bruises of the past seven months.
First there was The Last Hurrah, Muhammad Ali’s ignominious departure from the sport he had ruled. The King-promoted fiasco last October at the same Caesars Palace site of Saturday night’s fight pitted the aging Ali against Holmes. It was an esthetic and financial disaster. Holmes, of course, fights for no one but King, as did Ali after 1974 and eight years with Bob Arum. After suspicions were raised that King was actually Holmes’s manager, thus creating conflicts of interest as he promoted all the fights, one Richie Giachetti, an old pal of King’s from his days as Cleveland’s king of the numbers racket, became Holmes’s official manager-trainer. Last week, Giachetti walked out of Holmes’s camp. Holmes explained that he thought the FBI investigation might be getting to him.
Then came King’s rematch between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard in New Orleans last November. Losses on the closed-circuit TV alone totalled almost $4 million and boxing will not quickly recover from the spectacle of Duran quitting midway through the fight.
But boxing’s stiffest olow was delivered by MAPS (Ali’s only connection to the group was a $10,000 fee each time his name was used in a promotion). The central figure was one Harold Smith. Never in the history of boxing had any promoter risen so quickly, given so much money to so many boxers while losing so much on his promotions. Smith explained his largess variously: his mother was very wealthy; his wife was very wealthy. He scattered $100 chips in the gaming houses of Nevada like confetti, drove a Mercedes, elevated penny-ante fighters to million-dollar pay days. His bubble burst in February in the midst of his greatest promotion: a Dream Card at Madison Square Garden in New York with an $8-million purse for eight fighters. Then came the charges that Smith was involved in a $21-million computerized swindle of the Wells Fargo National Bank in California. The card was cancelled and Smith disappeared, until last week.
Among his personal extravagances, the house on the Pacific Pallisades near Ronald Reagan, the yacht and the Lear jet, was a racehorse, Johnlee n’ Harold, a contender in next month’s Kentucky Derby. Smith had explained that the colt was named for his son John, his wife, Lee, and himself. Arraigned last week in Los Angeles on charges of filing a false statement in a passport application and for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution on the charge that he had passed bad cheques in North Carolina, an assistant U.S. attorney described him to the judge as “a longtime fugitive, bad-cheque and bunko artist.” And the horse with the unwieldy moniker? It turns out that Harold Smith’s name is actually Ross Fields, his wife Lee’s name is Alice Vicki Darrow. It was revealed, however, that in the four years of his life, son John had stuck to one first name.
The computerized intricacies of the Smith/Fields/MAPS/Wells Fargo scam will take a long time to fully unravel, but King’s conflicts were evident last week as he parried any inquiries even vaguely related to the FBI’s investigation. As the fighters’ workouts wound down, King would trail home into the Sports Pavilion at Caesars Palace, Montecruz cigar waving, his crown-coiffed hair rigid as he shouted: “Yay Larry Holmes! Yay Don King!” But his absence was conspicuous when challenger Berbick, satisfied that Holmes had left the pavilion, left his room in the Fantasy Tower and entered the ring. Just as Ali, Holmes, Duran and Leonard were King fighters, so is Berbick. The 28year-old Jamaican fought but 10 amateur bouts while working at the U.S. naval base in Cuba before losing his second match at the Montreal Olympics. He stayed in Canada, turned pro, and in his 19th pro fight knocked out former WBA champ John Tate with a blow to the back of Tate’s head last summer in Montreal. King was at ringside. He leaped to his feet and shouted: “You and me Trevor. You and me.” No such camaraderie was evident in Vegas. From an obscure rating as a British Commonwealth heavyweight, Canadian champion Berbick vaulted to No. 7 in what was once boxing’s bible, The Ring magazine, gradually recovering from a rankings scandal of its own. Not to be outdone, the WBC rated Berbick No. 5 and King signed him for four fights. The first was Saturday night’s with Holmes, the rest contingent on his performance in Las Vegas. For his title shot, Berbick received a purse rumored to be about $200,000 (the most ever for a Canadian fighter); Holmes received about $750,000. Should Holmes have met the No. 1 contender, or WBA champ Mike Weaver, $750,000 probably wouldn’t pay the expenses of the entourage (it is a measure of Berbick’s rapid ascent that last week he acquired a few flashy hangers-on, a step up from the seedy group at his training headquarters in Halifax), but matching the best against the best is not necessarily in the interest of the kingpins of the WBA and WBC.
The WBA was born in the summer of 1962 when the National Boxing Association changed its first name. It was dominated by a clique of U.S. boxing commissioners, irking Latin Americans to the point that the WBC was formed a year later. To this day it is dominated by Latin Americans, more specifically by its president, José Sulaimán Chagnón, 49, a Mexican national of Lebanese descent. Fighters’ ranking and even records are manipulated at the pleasure of Sulaimán. Bob Busse, president of the North American Boxing Federation, is the WBC’S ratings chairman. Says Busse: “How some of the people get into our ratings I couldn’t tell you.” Bob Arum admits that until mid-1978 he was able to get Sulaimán to rate or upgrade fighters he wanted for title fights. Since then, Arum charges, “Sulaimán puts all his efforts into what Don King wants him to do.”
Since 1975, the WBA has been the plaything of Dr. Elias Cordova and Rodrigo Sanchez, both Panamanians. They control the presidency and the ratings committee chairmanship. At their whim, incredible title fights are sanctioned and many fighters are ranked beyond their modest abilities. The WBA’S most blatant manipulation was the denial of a title shot to junior middleweight Ayub Kalule, 27, of Uganda. Ranked No. 1, Kalule waited 23 months for a title fight until October, 1979, when he easily defeated Japan’s Masashi Kudo. (Kalule is scheduled to defend his title againgt WBC welterweight champ Sugar Ray Leonard June 19.)
The severest test of the stranglehold on the sport by the two organizations began last week in a New York City district court. Promoter Teddy Brenner has brought an antitrust suit against the WBC and Sulaimán. The suit, seeking $3 million in damages, charges that Sulaimán ignored an exclusive contract Brenner had with Alexis Arguello, a former WBC junior lightweight champ, and illegally ordered Arguello to fight for no one but promoter Don King. Brenner’s suit seeks to dismantle the WBC and, should he win, the WBC will cease to operate, at least in the U.S., from which it takes about 80 per cent of its income.
But for Trevor Berbick, after going the distance against Holmes, his place in the WBC and with Don King is secure, at least for now. “Give me another shot Don, another shot,” Berbick implored Saturday night. And like a king to a subject, the response came, “You got it, kid, you got it.”
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