Olympics | OLYMPIC NOTEBOOK

Experts decry bringing pro boxers to Rio

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Whether or not the International Boxing Association (AIBA) allows professional boxers to compete at the Olympics for the first time at the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Games, the idea has sparked widespread criticism.

The sport’s world governing body reportedly plans to finalize its decision on June 1.

Eight-division world champion Manny Pacquiao had expressed interest in fighting in Rio, but recently said he intends to focus on his political career in the Philippines instead.

Prominent fight pundits and former champions have ripped the recent idea, which was revealed publicly by AIBA president Wu Ching-kuo.

In a Thursday email to The Japan Times, ex-heavyweight champion James “Buster” Douglas simply proclaimed that it’s a “bad idea.”

Earlier this week, Mike Tyson, the man Douglas beat at Tokyo Dome in February 1990 to end his reign as unbeaten world champ, also blasted the concept, calling it “ridiculous” and “foolish,” according to The Associated Press.

This week, The Japan Times reached out to more than a dozen boxing experts, and the opposition to the possible plan drew a near unanimous conclusion: an awful plan.

But David Weinberg, who has covered boxing for The Press of Atlantic City (New Jersey) for decades, offered a contrary position.

“That’s a fantastic idea as long as they have pro boxing rules such as four- or six-round bouts scored by experienced, pro judges on a 10-point must system,” Weinberg told The Japan Times. “The current amateur boxing system has lost its luster and is known more for its controversial decisions and confusing scoring.”

Conversely, legendary columnist Jerry Izenberg, a 15-time Pulitzer Prize nominee who chronicled Muhammad Ali’s entire career and many of Pacquiao’s marquee bouts believes the AIBA proposal is stunningly bad.

Izenberg, who has attended all 50 Super Bowls and his 50th Kentucky Derby earlier this month, called it “the dumbest idea to come forth from a governing body that has always led the world in ‘dumb.’

“This ain’t basketball where the debut of the U.S. Dream Team in Barcelona (in 1992) simply embarrassed a lot of opponents but was hardly dangerous to them,” Izenberg insisted in an email. “The skill level between amateurs and experienced pros is absolutely unacceptable in equal competition. But then the world’s governing body for amateur boxing has always run from stupidity and venality on the one hand and absolute corruption on the other —i.e. classic example the (1988) Seoul Olympics where Roy Jones gets robbed against a Korean but also is award the tournament’s outstanding boxer trophy.”

“Amateurs are robbed enough without putting them in the way of dangerous physical harm,” added Izenberg, who writes for the Newark (New Jersey) Star-Ledger.

Mark Whicker of the Orange (California) County Register bashed the idea.

“I don’t think it’s good,” Whicker said. “The Olympics are still a great breeding ground for upcoming boxers, and the promoters and managers use that as a place to find young talent. I don’t think the pros should get in the way of that process. And it’s hard enough to find opportunities for the best pro boxers to meet each other. The Olympics would make it more complicated.”

Thomas Gerbasi, who writes for The Ring magazine, aka The Bible of Boxing, echoed Whicker’s sentiments.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible idea,” he said. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Can you see someone like Manny Pacquiao, who has been at or near the top of the pound-for-pound list for years, fighting some teenager? And without headgear, no less. If this is an effort to bring publicity to Olympic boxing, it’s a cheap way to do it, but the price will be paid later when someone gets seriously hurt.

“This isn’t the Dream Team in ’92 beating another team by 50 points; this is a combat sport, and it’s not a good look for boxing.”

In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, HBO boxing announcer Jim Lampley, who delivered the blow-by-blow account of Douglas’ famous KO of Tyson, supplied a thorough commentary on the issue and criticized the overcommercialization of the Olympics at the same time.

“I covered 14 Olympics, seven summer and seven winter, but I have not been back since Beijing 2008 and I am pretty sure I am finished with them,” Lampley told The Japan Times. “The IOC’s gradual evolutions in the areas of eligibility, commercialism and professionalism ultimately so thoroughly altered the identity of the games that it turned them into just another large, overblown festival of advertising and mythmaking, largely identical to the Super Bowl and the World Cup.

“Inviting professionals to compete in boxing is a desperate ploy on the part of a badly administered sport which has lost its relevance to the Olympic money stream and thinks it can regain it with identifiable public figures in the ring. Theater of the absurd, because frankly professional and amateur boxing are two entirely different sports.”

Even if Pacquiao doesn’t compete in the Olympics, Lampley questioned the wisdom of the Filipino superstar’s presence in a Rio ring.

“Does Manny Pacquiao truly believe he wants to risk his wellbeing and his outsized monetary power in a competition that puts him in the ring five or six times in two weeks, with no direct access to ticket or TV revenue?” Lampley said.

“Does AIBA truly believe it is in the best interest of boxing to put novice amateurs from the Congo or Hungary or Sri Lanka into the ring with Manny Pacquaio? Without headgear (a seemingly hasty rules change which invites the suspicion AIBA realized TV would be more interested in faces the viewers can see)? And would anyone meaningful in professional boxing other than Pacquaio take them up on such an absurd proposition? How about obscure amateurs against GGG (Gennady Golovkin) or Canelo (Alvarez) — does that sound safe?

“Does anyone truly remember or care who won tennis medals in Beijing or London? Did adding pros in basketball and hockey truly elevate the Olympics as an attraction, or simply expand the bland sameness of the television sports inventory?”

Thomas Hauser, a columnist, investigative reporter and prolific author whose books include several Muhammad Ali biographies, penned a stinging rebuke of the International Boxing Association’s aspirations for boxnation.com.

He wrote: “Boxing is a rude sport and business. But the people who oversee world amateur boxing are taking things to a new level. . . . The proposal is part of an effort by (AIBA) to expand its power base and regain its following in parts of the world (most notably, the United States) where interest in amateur boxing has waned. It’s absurd.”

Hauser added: “Professionals are allowed to compete in most Olympic sports. But this isn’t a question of young competitors being outrun by Usain Bolt or flummoxed by Stephen Curry. Does (AIBA) really want 18-year-old amateurs being hit in the head by the likes of Sergey Kovalev and Gennady Golovkin?

“The remedy for what ails amateur boxing is a better scoring system (one that weighs debilitating punches more, more heavily than jabs) coupled with judges who are competent and honest.”

Hauser included hard-hitting comments from Lennox Lewis, another former heavyweight champion, in his column.

“It’s preposterous,” Lewis was quoted as saying. “The amateur system is for amateurs. They have a lack of experience and they are not that primed as a professional. Now, all of a sudden, you get a world champion or somebody in the top 10 as a professional going against an amateur, somebody with a lack of experience. I don’t look at that as being fair. It’s a different type of boxing all together. So for them to marry the two, I don’t think they marry well.”

Versatile journalist Brin-Jonathan Butler, who has traveled extensively to Cuba and written boxing books and articles and made documentary films, dished out an in-depth analysis of boxing’s woes, putting the controversial Olympic proposal into the overall equation.
“I’m completely against the idea of pros in the Olympics,” Butler, the author of “The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba,” told The Japan Times via email. “Seems a cynical bid to boost anemic ratings for the sport of Olympic boxing but I think it only serves to undermine its legitimacy with farcical mismatches.

“Olympic basketball became ridiculous with the inclusion of the Dream Team, but it allowed Americans to remain dominant against rising tide of competition. There’s no infrastructure in American amateur boxing any longer and boxing’s wild-west attitude to how business is run for the fighters — no union, medical or retirement plan, huge chunks of money fleeced off the top of their wages in no commiserate with other sports — leads blue-chip athletes to seek greener and safer pastures anywhere but boxing.”

Butler added: “I believe investing in boxing for youth and cleaning up the sport is what would incentivize a renewal of talent. But nobody in the sport who pays lip service to the health of the sport is ever talking about anything but lining their own self interest.

“Boxing still can make megafights that MMA can’t, however, as GGG and Canelo are proving, the middle ground of simply supplying demand for boxing fans in anything like a timely fashion, as May-Pac (Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Pacquiao) proved (last year), is as egregiously incompetent and self-interested as ever.”

What’s the solution?

“It all starts with developing talent on the Olympic and amateur level, allowing the pros in further marginalizes new talent and injures a very polluted delicate ecosystem,” Butler stated.

The last word: “The opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics remain to my eyes the best things we do on the planet, legitimate sharing of worthy international goals and aspirations. The commercially frenzied, drug-riddled and ego-driven two weeks in between reflect the worst of sport and by extension the worst of politics. Inviting professional boxers is just another in a long unending series of lamentably bad decisions. And I don’t expect anyone or anything to reverse that trend.” — Jim Lampley