Max Kellerman

Wednesday, November 28
Max: Butler's suspension should be in proportion

By Max Kellerman
Special to

Last Friday night, James Butler, the "Harlem Hammer," committed a violent crime on national television. He punched his opponent, Richard Grant, after their fight had ended. Grant had outboxed Butler and won a 10-round unanimous decision. The bout was a rematch of a four-rounder the two fought earlier in their careers, a fight also won over the distance by Grant.

Butler's assault on Grant after the fight was unlike anything most boxing observers can remember seeing. The decision was announced, and Grant walked over to Butler to put his arm around him, as fighters commonly do after a match. As Grant extended his left arm to put it around Butler's shoulder, Butler, his boxing gloves off but his hands still wrapped, threw a right hook to the exposed left side of Grant's face. The punch landed flush on Grant's jaw and Grant fell semi-conscious to the canvas, coughing up blood, legs quivering.

Butler was arrested and led out of the arena by members of the NYPD. Ironically, the entire boxing card that night was held in order to raise money for victims of the World Trade Center attacks. The boxers who fought that night, including Butler, took substantial pay cuts in order to pitch in to the charitable effort. There were large groups of off-duty police officers and firefighters in the arena and after Butler landed his cheap shot, many of them chanted in unison "lock him up, lock him up."

From the moment the incident occurred, there have been cries from all over the boxing world to permanently revoke James Butler's boxing license. The new New York State Athletic Commissioner, who is also the new chief of the NYPD, Ray Kelly, was in attendance and was quoted after the fight as saying that if he had his druthers Butler would never fight in New York again. Kelly's feeling seems to be the prevailing sentiment in the boxing world.

Most boxing insiders I have spoken to think the handling of this situation will be the first test of the new and ostensibly improved New York State Athletic Commission. Indeed it will be.

The test, however, is not for the members of the NYSAC to demonstrate how tough they are, but rather to show how responsible -- in this case, how restrained -- they can be. There will be a great deal of political pressure to mete out a severe punishment that will make an example of Butler, and the fact is that NYSAC is an organization of political appointees.

While everyone is caught up in the emotion of the moment -- Butler's attack was an eerie and sickening sight -- let's take a step back and review what actually happened, what steps have been taken in the past to deal with situations similar to this one, and what the appropriate punishment might be.

Riddick Bowe punched Larry Donald with his bare fist at a press conference promoting their match in 1994. The blow did no real physical damage. Nonetheless, it was assault. Bowe was neither led away in handcuffs nor handed a lifetime suspension from any state athletic commission. It could be that the handling of Bowe's assault was a mistake, and a more severe reaction was warranted. Yet if an example is made of Butler, the Bowe incident will beg the question: was Butler punished out of proportion? (As I recall, Bowe was not punished at all.)

The circumstances for Butler and Bowe were different, and Butler's punch did more damage than Bowe's, to be sure. But the act -- a boxer punching another boxer with a bare fist -- was the same. Should a harder punch elicit a more severe punishment? Maybe it should.

Mike Tyson bit a part of Evander Holyfield's ear off, knocked Orlin Norris down and ended the fight after the bell had rung to end the first round of their bout, admittedly tried to break Frans Botha's arm in a clinch, and hit and knocked down the referee who tried to stop his fight against Lou Savarese. Tyson's license has not been permanently taken away, despite this pattern of bad behavior.

James Butler has no such pattern. His attacking Grant was an isolated incident. Zab Judah put his glove on referee Jay Nady's neck and threw a corner stool after he was stopped in the second round against Kostya Tszyu. No one is talking about permanantly suspending his license.

The emotional response to the effect of Butler's punch has led to a reaction whereby the suggested punishment is all out of proportion with the crime. And, make no mistake, it was a crime. In the criminal justice system, assault usually carries a punishment of probation. In this case, because it was a trained boxer, because it was witnessed by millions on national television, and because the punch did do actual physical damage, it would not be unthinkable that Butler will wind up actually doing a little time. But to suspend his boxing license for more than one year would not be right.

If a fireman punches another fireman, is his ability to earn a living fighting fires permanently taken away? What about a policeman hitting another policeman? A teacher hitting another teacher? A baseball player hitting another baseball player?

This is really a labor issue. There is no labor union for boxers, which is why in the past, state athletic commissions (and any number of other parties) have been able to walk all over fighters. Boxing is how James Butler earns a living. It is how he pays his rent and buys his food. It is his day job and night job. To permanently deny him his right to earn a living in his chosen profession, not because of a pattern of bad behavior, but because of one monumentally stupid act, is simply not just. Imagine if the worst moment of your life, a moment you wish more than anything you could have back, was nationally televised. How much sympathy would you expect?

Nobody has much sympathy for Butler right now, and rightfully so. He does not deserve sympathy. But he does deserve justice. An automatic one-year suspension of his New York State boxing license, with a behavioral review once that year is up.

Only one year? Yes. We are not talking about a fighter who has made millions, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. James Butler fights on average three times a year, and earns altogether somewhere between $30,000-$50,000. A working guy trying to make a living like everyone else. Of course, in his profession you have to work harder than most, take more risks than most, accept more punishment and humiliation than most and do it all for less financial reward than most fans realize.

Butler is not Mike Tyson, who can take a year off and live like a king. He is a blue collar guy who did a very stupid thing and has already begun to pay for it dearly. One year, automatic, plus a substantial fine. That's plenty.

Max Kellerman is a studio analyst for ESPN2's Friday Night Fights.

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