Billy Costello, Bob Arum, Don King, José Sulaimán, Oscar De La Hoya, Pepe Cordero, Saoul Mamby, Thomas Hauser, WBA, WBC, WBO
In The Black Lights Thomas Hauser quotes Bob Arum as saying “I’m a businessman. Two guys fighting in a ring, that has nothing to do with me.” A reader of this exceptional book, in which Hauser explores the “red-light district of professional sports” by following junior welterweight Billy Costello as he builds a record, then wins and defends a world title, might come to feel that Arum’s line could serve as the motto of the entire boxing business.
The book is immaculately written. Hauser’s prose is clear and concise, never suffering from overwriting or affectation, but able to capture a moment or an individual with a single precise phrase (he describes José Sulaimán “choosing his words like a man taking only green jelly beans from a multicolored jar”). More importantly, despite the extensive access he is obviously granted, making him a direct witness to some extraordinary events, Hauser is willing to restrict himself to the role of narrator. British sportswriters have a habit of putting themselves into their own books, especially when they write about a subject as personal and intimate as boxing. Hauser never succumbs to this temptation, preferring to disintermediate himself: in letting Costello & and his manager Mike Jones tell their own story, and by adeptly filling in the sporting, commercial and moral background, he shows us an entire world.
It is a world of dirty gyms, partisan crowds in sweaty halls, of the tedium of training, and of fear: and also of glory, honour and excitement. Hauser is good on the quotidian grind of the boxer’s life, including not just the champions and challengers but also capturing the lives and the language of the sparring partners and the club fighters (who, in another powerful formulation, “don’t even know the names of the men who wrap their hands”). The fights, in particular, are brought alive by Hauser’s taut, unshowy style. But the book is at its best when it uncovers the parallel world of gross conflicts of interest, of near-criminal neglect, and of betrayal and frustration as impotent fighters wait for their title shot, or their TV debut, their fates in the hands of people who, in the words of Michael Katz of the New York Times (quoted here), “should be in jail” but “are looked upon as characters instead of the scum they really are”.
It says much about Hauser’s portrayal of Bob Arum, for example, and the state of boxing during Arum’s dominance, that the reader understands how Don King could have looked like a palatable option by comparison. Accused of being untrustworthy, Arum simply says “I’m a lawyer and I use very precise language, but no matter what you say, they hear what they want to hear”. Two guys in a ring? Nothing to do with me. Read the small print.
Of course, King turns out to be anything but palatable. So complete is his monopoly over the heavyweight division, and so perfect his arrogance, that when promoter Butch Lewis takes him to court for interfering in the contract of prospect Greg Page, King simply argues that he was doing both of them a favour: since all twelve of the top heavyweights are on King’s roster, Page’s career would be over if he didn’t join them.
Complacent television executives, ignoring the behaviour of Arum, King & co., repressing their own discomfort with the violence and danger, and with an eye to boxing’s high ratings and low production costs, argue that TV is good for boxing: “[t]he glaring eye of the TV camera encourages honesty in judges’ decisions. We get rid of more mismatches in a week by turning down prospective opponents for champions than the public could possibly imagine”.
Hauser responds witheringly with the notorious story of the “US Boxing Championship”, where King and others faked records to win televised bouts, and then rigged the results to get wins, for King fighters, at the expense of others. More powerfully still, he also draws out the way that TV grants to the sanctioning bodies “an imprimatur which [they have] not earned”. Everything one needs to know about the WBA and the value of their titles is summed up by Arum’s remark that “[t]here’s one bagman in the WBA, and that’s Pepe Cordero. Anytime you want a fix in the WBA, you bribe Cordero and he takes care of it. When I want something done, I have to pay off Cordero.” The WBC is painted as a rather more substantial operation, but in the end also revolves similarly around a single individual, Jose Sulaimán. Hauser’s account of the WBC conference is brilliantly revealing, particularly the all-important rankings session, where a handful of unknowns, wholly dominated by Sulaimán, decides which fighters will qualify for a shot at which title (and therefore win TV exposure, with all the economic advantages that brings). Anyone who still thinks such rankings and titles mean anything about the relative ability or achievements of different fighters should read this section carefully. Similarly, anyone who thinks that the alphabets are therefore harmless should reflect on the fact (which I did not know before reading this volume) that when Duk Koo Kim was killed in the ring by Ray Mancini in 1982 he was the No.1 contender for Mancini’s WBA title, but was not ranked among the top 40 fighters in his own country by the Korean authorities. “Yes, my rules are flexible”, says Sulaimán, “but that is necessary for fairness and compromise”. It apparently never occurs to him, nor to the TV executives with their limitless appetite for worthless title fights, that there might be anything wrong with this kind of “fairness and compromise”, much less with the fact that “the rules” are, as he says, Sulaimán’s.
Initially ecstatic at winning his own title, Costello says, “after a few days I didn’t even feel like a champion. All I’d gotten . . . was twenty-five thousand dollars, and I owed more than that. No one recognized me on the street.” More generally, Costello, who comes across as dignified, intelligent and decent, is under no illusions about the nature of his “sport”. He knows the likely fate of the fighter: after watching one get pummelled insensible at New York’s Felt Forum, he remarks only that “[i]f that guy tries to get into the Felt Forum next week to watch a fight they’ll charge him ten dollars.”
And it is here that Hauser is at his most penetrating. The meaningless glitz of the sanctioning bodies is no substitute for the competent regulatory authority boxing so desperately needs. Instead, dozens of state commissions preside over a mishmash of different rules and regulations and widely divergent safeguards and standards. Since these bodies do not share information efficiently it is idiotically easy to game the different systems, meaning that even a fighter who has lost his licence or been recently knocked out can fight again somewhere. Add the facts that, firstly, promoters and managers are effectively wholly unregulated (King gets around the legal split of promoters and managers by having the fighters he promotes “managed” by his stepson Carl), and secondly, that gambling on boxing (unlike the great majority of sports) is not restricted in the US, and the scope for misbehaviour is wholly unlimited.
It is, of course, the fighters who suffer. “The bulk of boxing’s revenue is divided among noncombatants, and the fighters – who have no union, and none of the protections normally accorded professional athletes – are left with poor wages, inadequate medical care, and no pension beyond a pocketful of memories when their career is done”.
Emphasizing this, Hauser finishes the book with a dramatic, clever, unexpected and very effective flourish. After Costello’s comfortable title defence over Saoul Mamby, for the last few pages Hauser leaves Costello behind and takes us into Mamby’s dressing room. By refusing to end on the easy high note of a triumph for his subject, Hauser reminds us once more that for every champion there is a defeated – literally, beaten – challenger.
But the most important thing about this book, and the reason for revisiting it now, is that so much of it could have been written today. The cast has changed, in part at least, but the stories are still wearyingly familiar. Don King’s influence may have faded, but Bob Arum is still around, and his biggest modern competitor, Golden Boy Promotions, has clearly learned from the King playbook: Golden Boy’s principal (indeed, the original Golden Boy himself) Oscar De La Hoya is not above tempting fighters to sign contracts with a King-like briefcase full of cash. The WBA and WBC have been joined by the IBF and the WBO, but this has scarcely improved matters. In August 2000 IBF founder and president Bob Lee was convicted on six counts of racketeering after being videotaped taking bribes to fix rankings and sanction fights. Super-middleweight Darrin Morris was promoted in the WBO’s rankings twice in 2001 despite, firstly, having fought only once since December 1997, and secondly, having died in October 2000.
More seriously still, despite the Ali Act, fighters are still not given the protection they deserve. No one has written more convincingly on this than Hauser himself, whose articles on the unfortunate Magomed Abdusalamov still raise the questions “whether proper procedures were in place, and whether those procedures, if appropriate, were properly implemented”. Abdusalamov’s corner failed to stop the fight when he was clearly struggling; post-fight, no one on the medical staff seemed to know the way to the nearest hospital; and whatever insurance was in place, it was clearly not enough to cover his medical bills, even though provision of such insurance is a requirement of the Ali Act. The outcome of the family’s case against the NY State Medical Commission could be immensely significant.
The book is not perfect. The first few chapters, clearly aimed at giving the general reader some background, now feel dated, and will anyway be too familiar to the enthusiast. There are almost no women in the book – there may not be many women “in boxing”, but there are plenty in the lives of boxing people – and when they do appear they are not terribly plausibly drawn. Jones’ wife complains of his spending three days of their holiday with a boxing colleague called Bill Miller, who, she conveniently lets the reader know, “coordinated the Hagler-Scypion fight for Bob Arum and used to manage Alexis Arguello”. This is not the only example of clunky dialogue, where Hauser is perhaps trying so hard to capture a theme or message that he forgets that real people are more than ciphers and symbols, and don’t really talk like that.
But these are minor quibbles. The Black Lights is serious, angry, and magnificent. If there is a better, clearer, more thorough explanation of the many flaws of the boxing business, then or now, I have yet to read it. Recommended without reservation.