Tim Graham

Monday, April 3
Updated: April 4, 2:27 PM ET
McCain's loss is boxing's gain

By Tim Graham
Special to ESPN.com

One of his heroes is Teddy Roosevelt. He also can relate to Casey at the Bat.

John McCain
McCain has been one of boxing's biggest supporters over the years.
Like both, John McCain carries a big stick.

Yet he doesn't speak softly. His words are as bold as a Mike Tyson left hook or a Randy Johnson fastball -- hard and right at your head.

And while McCain struck out in his insurgent bid to become this year's Republican presidential nominee, the maverick senator from Arizona doesn't follow Casey's lead by taking failure lightly.

That's why some close to McCain claim he's more eager than ever to get back in the political ring and make an impact. At the top of his agenda is bringing a little joy back to Mudville, Fist City and any other sports town.

The country's loss is the sports world's gain.

Now that he's out of the presidential race, McCain's full attention will be on his role as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, where he might very well carry more clout than anyone else in Congress.

Of the 100 U.S. senators, McCain is one of only a handful who is a significant force on name alone. Aside from Ted Kennedy, how many senators can people name? Most probably can't even remember the two who represent their home state.

McCain, 63, was named one of the "25 Most Influential People in America" by Time magazine more than two years before he ran for president, and his national presence is exponentially higher now.

The former career Navy officer and Vietnam POW is an authority on national security and foreign policy. He feverishly presses major issues such as campaign finance reform, Social Security and Medicare reform, tax reductions and the elimination of pork barreling.

But he has a passion for sports, and he isn't afraid to use his sway to show it.

Because of that, he is our best hope to salvage boxing from the sewer.

"Welcome back, senator. We need you," boxing promoter Dan Goossen said. "Boxing has had a terrible time policing itself and until such a time arrives where we can properly oversee our own industry, we need the strength of Senator McCain to right this ship."

McCain, as was Roosevelt, is one of the strongest sports advocates in American political history. He has been a season ticketholder for Arizona's big-league teams and has been known to watch multiple NFL games simultaneously via satellite. He sits ringside at the major Las Vegas boxing matches. His government web site even has a page dedicated to sports issues.

He has fired volleys at International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch and introduced a bill to expand the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to include the scandal-ridden IOC. He introduced legislation honoring Jackie Robinson. He urged passage of a resolution honoring "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.

McCain's first committee appearance since suspending his campaign was to chair a hearing March 29 on a bill aimed at abolishing legal wagering on college, amateur and high school sports, even in Nevada. Early indications point to the bill's easy passage.

McCain's greatest impact, however, has been in boxing, a sport in dire need of reform.

"I don't think there's any doubt the sport is spiraling down into despondency, despair and corruption," said McCain, who boxed at the U.S. Naval Academy and grew up worshiping the skills of Sugar Ray Robinson.

"The sport is now being overtaken in popularity by professional wrestling, and that's indicative of the decline. The sport has been called the red-light district of sport, and I'm afraid it's resembling the latter more than ever."

Congress passed McCain's first boxing bill, the Professional Boxing Safety Act, in 1996. It created an identification card system and mandated individual state athletic commissions honor each other's medical suspensions or penalties.

Yet it is McCain's current project, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, co-authored by Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan, that might mark the first step toward shaking up the boxing establishment. The act is designed to eliminate boxing's back-room antics by limiting the control of fighters by promoters and sanctioning bodies.

"If we can pass this legislation, there's some hope," McCain said. "I believe that boxers are the most exploited of all professional athletes. They come from the lowest economic rung, and they generally are the least educated, and they're in the only major sport that's not unionized.

I don't think there's any doubt the sport is spiraling down into despondency, despair and corruption.
"And the tragedy of it is that this is a sport that gives young people the opportunity to rise above the depths of poverty. I hear the great Julio Cesar Chavez, who made millions, is broke. How does that happen? There are too many Julio Cesar Chavezes walking around.

"I can't force boxers to invest their money and save their money, but I sure think I can prevent them from being exploited by unscrupulous outsiders."

The Ali Act, easily the single most dynamic attempt to reform boxing, requires no additional funding and addresses the following key points:

  • Places a one-year limit on coercive contracts. This means a promoter cannot force a fighter to sign away his career in exchange for a big-money fight or title shot, returning the fighter to free-agent status in a reasonable amount of time. It also helps prevent a promoter from monopolizing a particular weight class.

  • Prohibits promoters from coercing options from No. 1 contenders. A promoter would no longer be able to force a fighter who has earned a top ranking to become a client in exchange for fighting the champion.

  • Prohibits conflicts of interest between managers and promoters. How many times has a promoter signed a fighter and forced him to use a specific manager who was on the same payroll? Too many to count. And remember when it was discovered Don King was paying his daughter a tidy sum to be president of Mike Tyson's fan club? That wouldn't be legal anymore.

    "I think what the sport really needs to do is break the grip of the promoters from binding the fighters, thereby allowing other promoters to compete" for the fighters' services, McCain said. "Then the fighters will experience the benefits of getting paid adequately for their involvement in the sport. When fighters are allowed to be free agents, they obviously get a much higher value for their services."

  • Reforms ratings organizations by 1) prohibiting hidden payments and mandating explanations of changes made in their top 10 rankings; 2) requiring full public disclosure of their ratings policies, voting members and bylaws; and 3) requiring full disclosure of revenue and all charges they impose on a fighter.

    "You've got to remove the money from these organizations that do the ratings at least through full disclosure," McCain said. "You've got to sever the connections between the promoters and the various boxing organizations."

  • Mandates financial disclosures from promoters to state boxing commissions. Promoters would have to supply to the state commission complete copies of their fighter contracts and a detailed account of all charges and fees imposed on the fighter. They also would have to disclose to the fighter a rundown of all revenues generated by the event in question.

  • Orders "misconduct reciprocity." No doubt placed on the act by Tyson's antics, this forces other state commissions to honor the disciplinary suspensions of other states.

  • Enforcement. Violators of the above rules would be subject to one-year jail terms and $100,000 fines with cases handled by state attorneys general. Boxers also could bring private action against promoters.

    The Ali Act has been widely embraced by fans, boxing experts, athletic commissions, most promoters and the media.

    "Boxing should be very grateful for Senator McCain," said promoter Bob Arum, who served on the Nevadans for McCain Host Committee during McCain's presidential campaign. "I've become one of the big advocates of the (Ali Act)."

    Only two high-profile people in the boxing community have spoken out against the act.

    One was International Boxing Federation president Bob Lee. Of course, Lee and three of his underlings were federally indicted in November on charges of taking at least $338,000 in bribes from promoters and managers to rig rankings.

    The other was Don King, whose name will appear again shortly?

    It's possible the only world more corrupt than boxing is politics. Maybe that's why when someone decides to run for office he is said to be throwing his hat in the ring.

    The Ali Act passed the Senate on a voice vote and passed the House. It was returned to Senate for a final vote, but was mysteriously held up by two anonymous senators right before Congress adjourned for the year.

    "Boxing fans everywhere should be appalled," McCain said at the time.

    The senators have yet to be named, but there are whispers.

    It was discovered last month that Sen. Harry Reid -- from act co-author Bryan's state of Nevada, no less -- had received from King $50,000 in soft-money donations for his political action committee. The donations equaled nearly one-sixth of Reid's 1999 soft-money total. A New York Post columnist railed Reid for sitting on the legislation.

    Reid has publicly denied holding up the act, but it's difficult not to raise an eyebrow.

    "If it was Senator Reid, then there's obviously a problem within the delegation because Senator Bryan has been extremely helpful to me in getting this job done," McCain said. "But I know of no direct connection between (King's donation) and Senator Reid's actions on the bill. But I've always opposed these so-called PACs, no matter who gives the money."

    Reid has admitted he was against the Ali Act because it didn't properly address the increasing role of networks such as HBO and Showtime as de facto promoters and because he wanted to protect host sites -- chiefly Nevada hotel-casinos -- from being punished due to a promoter transgression.

    Many, including ardent Ali Act supporters and bitter King enemies, quickly defended Reid.

    "Senator Reid is one of my best friends," said Arum, whose Las Vegas-based Top Rank Inc. also donated $10,000 in soft money to Reid's PAC. "I know that King has supported Reid for many years. But I don't think Reid can be influenced by $50,000 or $500,000."

    Added Goossen, who runs Denver-based America Presents: "I have more confidence in our government that a senator's decision-making process wasn't affected because of a $50,000 donation. Certainly I see how people can look at it and see a conflict of interest, but the appearance doesn't necessarily make it so."

    Regardless of who delayed the Ali Act, McCain has made its passage a high priority and said it could finally be implemented "within weeks."

    "I think we'll be able to move forward on it pretty soon," he said. "The latest IBF scandal gave it a much-needed push.

    "It's become a very important issue for me. There's no reason for it to be held up. There's no controversy associated with it."

    The Ali Act will be a significant first step in restructuring the sport, yet more needs to be done before boxing can truly thrive.

    "Once we get this piece of legislation done," McCain said, "we'll look at other areas where we can help the sport."

    Marc Ratner, the Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director, might be the biggest boxing fan in the world. He loves the sport as if it were a member of his immediate family. But even Ratner has begun to doubt the sport's future without more legislation.

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    Once a strong opponent of a federal boxing commission, Ratner now is having second thoughts. At the very least, he claims a binding arbitration board needs to be created to handle contract issues and more funding is needed to bolster the relatively flaccid Association of Boxing Commissions.

    "I love this sport with a passion like nothing else, but to see some of these things happen is heartbreaking," Ratner said.

    "At one time, I thought the worst thing for boxing was federal intervention. But as time has gone on we haven't gotten a lot better. We've made some big steps, but the states are so disjointed. I don't want to legislate the state commissions out of business, but there has to be some kind of umbrella.

    "I know the status quo is not going to work."

    Privatizing the sport would be the optimal answer and would send boxing toward a state of legitimacy like the NFL or NASCAR.

    That, however, is too radical a thought right now. None of us probably will live long enough to see that day if ever dawns.

    A federal commission, however imperfect, offers a solid foundation. With everyone in the boxing business answering to one commission, the chances of serious organization -- possibly a boxer's union or the creation of a pension plan -- would improve dramatically.

    "We need to make boxing as clean as the other sports," Goossen said. "There's going to be more changes if we can't police ourselves, and right now we can't properly police ourselves."

    Fortunately, John McCain carries a stick big enough to smack some sense into boxing.

    "We won't give up the fight," he said.

    Tim Graham is a veteran boxing writer who pens a bi-weekly column for ESPN.com.

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