Boxing and the Dangerous Art of the Mismatch
Nevada Athletic Commission's Bob Bennett on how approving fights can be a matter of life and death.
“We are in the hurt business,” Bob Bennett declared. “People don’t like to put it that way, but we are.”
Bennett is the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission (NSAC). He’s held the job since 2014 but followed boxing far longer: “I was at the first Frazier-Ali fight.” (The Fight of the Century happened way back in 1971.) As Executive Director, Bennett decides if proposed bouts will be approved or rejected, from title fights down to the undercards.
“I don’t want to mention names, but some promoters give you fights that are absolutely ludicrous to approve,” Bennett said, noting how fortunate he felt to have the backing of Chairman Anthony Marnell III when choosing to reject bouts.
Understand: strange matchups can turn out just fine. Bennett approved Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor, in which a 49-0 fighter took on an opponent making his pro boxing debut. Bennett noted at the time that “Conor is the younger, stronger, the longer, more powerful puncher” and pointed out McGregor’s extensive experience in MMA. Whether you viewed the fight as a dream battle or a weird gimmick, at no point did either man seem to be in exceptional jeopardy. Mayweather ultimately won by TKO—his first victory by stoppage in six years—but McGregor reached the 10th round, wasn’t knocked down at any point, and indeed went out partying afterward.
Still, tragic things happen in the ring. Back in 1981, Vegas hosted a bout between Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Duk Koo Kim. A brutal slugfest, it seemed to have the making of one of those fights we remember as a classic if not for the horrific outcome. Mancini won by knockout in the 14th, but by that point had Kim suffered brain injuries that soon ended his life. More tragedies were still to come, in a reminder of the impact events in the ring often have on the world outside it. Referee Richard Green and Kim’s mother both committed suicide within the year—Mancini himself reported being overwhelmed by guilt and depression. (Only 21 at the time with a record of 25-1, Mancini fought just eight more times, losing four.)
Bennett is in the position of balancing his desire to keep a fighter safe—“I care about every one of them”—while recognizing the fighter’s need for “making money and putting food on the table.” (After all, if you can’t fight, you can’t get paid.)
Luckily, Bennett happens to be working at a time when technology can provide a huge assist: “The Internet has proven to be invaluable when approving or not approving a fight.”
First though, let’s touch on why he needs to do his research by explaining why boxing is so prone to mismatches.
The Search for Certain Victories. A handful of fighters become true stars: people want to see them win, lose, or draw. Mike Tyson was in this category, putting up solid pay-per-view numbers and commanding respectable purses even as his life and career imploded. But what about the promising young fighter who’s yet to reach that level of notoriety?
The simplest way to market a fighter is to have him rack up wins and completely avoid losses, preferably in dominant fashion: 20-0 with 19 KOs does catch the eye. Indeed, a gaudily unblemished record can potentially score a fighter a title fight and the money that comes along with it.
Of course, many boxers—particularly relatively inexperienced ones—have an unfortunate tendency to lose. Promoters often don’t want to chance the gravy train derailing until they get at least one significant payday. The result is there’s a tendency to seek opponents who simply aren’t a threat. Indeed, they may have no business being in the ring at all.
(Sometimes even the notion of a competitive fight is deemed too much of a risk. Before entering the boxing business, Bennett spent over 24 years with the FBI: “We investigated a case where fighters were receiving cash for losing on purpose to advance the career of another fighter who was trying to become a champion.” He noted ultimately two defendants pled guilty and another two were convicted.)
Bennett said years ago the regulators approving fights might receive little information beyond “Fighter A was 20-0, and Fighter B was 19-1.” Happily, that’s changed: “You can Google, YouTube, call up amateur boxing, there’s a litany of sites you can go to for information.”
In particular, he reported he consistently finds three red flags suggesting a bout may be a one-sided beating:
The Endless Vacation. Bennett always asks: “How active is his opponent?” Obviously, fighters need to take time off between fights, but it can get excessive: “There’s a guy in 2017 who didn’t fight in ’15 and ’16. I called the promoter: ‘What happened to this guy the last two years?’” Quite simply, there’s no way of knowing “what kind of shape he’s in” if it’s been years since he even entered the ring, making for a mismatch where one fighter has no real shot to win but possesses an excellent chance of getting hurt.
Amateur Alert. It’s possible to have two fighters who, at first glance, are virtually identical: similar size, age, and pro record. Then you look at what happened before turning pro: “The guy’s pedigree from the amateur fights: 144-6 in amateurs, gold medal. And you’re asking me to approve some young man who’s got three fights. C’mon.”
Location, Location, Location. “I won’t mention the state or the country, but there are certain places in the world where it’s easier to get a win than it is in others.” Bennett added, “That doesn’t mean a good boxer can’t come from that state or that country,” but you “really have to do your due diligence.”
Getting matches right matters because we continue to see what can happen when they go wrong. In 2013, New York witnessed boxing’s hat trick from hell: a mismatch, a ref who refuses to stop a fight, and inattentive physicians. Magomed Abdusalamov, despite a grotesquely swollen face, was not only allowed to go the distance but inexplicably not required to get medical care after the bout. This caused a delay in seeking desperately needed treatment—indeed, he was ultimately forced to catch a cab to the hospital. Once there doctors discovered he’d suffered brain damage and placed him in a medically induced coma. He remains paralyzed on his right side, unable to walk, and with limited speech. He recently reached a settlement of $22 million with New York State.
“When I hear that a fighter gets a brain bleed or expires in the ring, first of all, you feel bad for the fighter and his family,” Bennett said. “Then I go right to Fight Fax and boxing records and say, ‘Would I have approved this fight?’”
Bennett and I discussed at some length one of the riskiest ring situations when a fighter is extremely tough but not particularly talented: “They can take a big punch and then all of a sudden they land two or three punches out of nowhere against the superior opponent. So then the referee can’t stop it because the guy’s fighting back.”
One way to making boxing matches safer is rewarding boxers for taking on evenly matched fights—we need to focus less on won-loss records and more on the caliber of people they’re fighting. After all, Muhammad Ali lost the Fight of the Century to Joe Frazier, even suffering a knockdown. Frazier himself went on to lose two fights to Ali (and two more against George Foreman). But both are still beloved decades after their retirements because they dared to face the best, producing bouts that enhanced both fighters despite one officially taking a loss.
Ultimately though, boxing will always be dangerous. As Bennett put it: “Somebody’s going to get hit in the head.”
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