Unshakeable Pugilist to Unhealthy & Penniless

“Mickey Loves Ya” While You’re a Prize Fighter, but Who Looks Out for Boxers Afterward?

In an era dazzled with heavyweight names such as George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier nevertheless held his ground as one of the greatest prize fighters of all time.  Smokin’ Joe won a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics and defended the heavyweight title from 1970-73.  His run’s highlight came in 1971 when he defeated Ali in the “Fight of the Century,” the first of their infamous bout trio.  Despite his ongoing feud with Ali, the truth is that when Ali was banned from boxing, it was Frazier who petitioned President Nixon to reinstate him.[i] Often regarded as a brawler from the fighting streets of North Philadelphia, he was born into humble beginnings and died this past month amidst humble ends.  While the other three premier contenders of his era continue to sit upon a comfortable cushion of accumulated wealth, Frazier had not relished in a comparable lifestyle for some time.[ii]

Frazier connects with Ali using his infamous left hook. "Fight of the Century," March 8, 1971. Courtesy: AP

How could such a legendary champion fall from grace in such a manner?  To be sure, part of the responsibility can be attributed to poor investments and money management.  Nevertheless, the question arises as to what role the boxing community – which Frazier headlined for over a decade – can do to support these athletes in their times of need.  Of greater relevance, what actions does the boxing community take in anticipation of the long-term injuries endured by career fighters?  While Frazier’s passing was due to liver cancer – a condition certainly not as connected to a boxing career as Parkinson’s disease, from which Ali suffers – his untimely death justifies an examination of the safeguards in place to ensure boxer safety.

Health problems from boxing are to be expected.  Research shows that close to 85% of career boxers are diagnosed with chronic brain damage.  Despite these staggering statistics, boxing is the only major American sport that does not provide its athletes with long-term health benefits, nor is there a players’ union to lobby for boxer interests.  In fact, until federal legislation passed at the last turn of the century, there was not even unified regulatory authority to ensure athlete safety.

At present, boxing is primarily sanctioned by four bodies, which approve fights and award title belts: World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC), International Boxing Federation (IBF), and World Boxing Organization (WBO).  Regulation is left to the states, which establish rules through their state athletic commissions (the most famous for boxing, of course, being the Nevada State Athletic Commission).  Given the numerous sanctioning bodies and the variations in regulations by the fifty states, boxing is often criticized for its unsystematic character and lack of self-policing.

While these attributes have led to corruption and other problems over the years, it also leaves fighters with fewer protections than their team sport counterparts.  Professional football players, for example, have both the National Football League (NFL) and the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) to institute quarterback sliding rules, instruct referees on concussion precautions, and enact other similar measures, whereas such a methodical lobby does not exist in the boxing ring.

Two main pieces of federal legislation have laid a basic foundation for boxer safety.  The Professional Boxers Safety Act of 1996 (PBSA) stated its intention to “to improve and expand the system of safety precautions that protects the welfare of professional boxers.”[iii] In essence, the statute primarily protects boxers in the ring by requiring pre-fight physical exams and other standards.[iv] The purpose of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act (“Ali Act,” enacted in 2000), on the other hand, is “to protect the rights and welfare of professional boxers on an interstate basis by preventing certain exploitive, oppressive, and unethical business practices,” among other similar out-of-the-ring concerns.[v] Not surprisingly, the PBSA is more on point when it comes to long-term health of boxers.

“Senator John McCain, who sponsored both the Professional Boxers Safety Act and the Ali Act, has introduced legislation every year since 2002 entitled the Professional Boxing Amendments Act (‘PBAA’).  The central purpose of this ‘truly revolutionary’ bill is to create the United States Boxing Administration (‘USBA’), a federal regulatory agency to oversee the sport.”[vi] According to Senator McCain:

The primary functions of the USBA would be to protect the health, safety, and general interest of boxers. . . . The USBA would, among other things: administer Federal boxing laws and coordinate with other Federal regulatory agencies to ensure that these laws are enforced; oversee all professional boxing matches in the United States; and work with the boxing industry and local commissions to improve the status and standards of the sport.[vii]

Muhammad Ali poses with Sen. McCain in support of boxing regulation. Courtesy: Getty Images

While the bill has its fair share of holes and Congress probably has more pressing places to allocate funds, the idea of a unified association could have a place in boxing.  In the alternative, a boxers’ union could reach for similar goals.  A key barrier to both of these concepts is the inherent disorganization based not only on variations in state regulation, but perhaps equally as a result of the nature of a boxing career.  Leagues such as the NFL, for example, have the opportunity to negotiate with their players and establish health/pension plans based partially on the fact that even after a player’s career is over, the franchise lives on.  In the absence of teams in boxing, the lifetime of each “franchise” is essentially the length of each boxer’s career.

The prospect of a union is also materially restricted by the sheer number of competitors in the nation and the fact that many maintain other jobs to pay the bills.  As one analyst points out, it is unclear whether boxers would be able to even legally establish a union based on current labor laws, since boxers are typically compensated as independent contractors instead of salaried employees.[viii] Without a union, the prospect of long-term health benefits is probably an unrealistic dream, even with the recent legislative developments.

I am not suggesting that any boxing organization (or lack thereof) is at all responsible for the early death of one of their all-time greats, nor do I have any reason to suspect that Frazier was receiving anything less than the best care available.  The tragic loss of one of my sports and hometown heroes merely spurred the thought that boxers go largely unprotected after their careers despite the inherent danger of their profession.  While legislation has helped, the fact is that no players’ union exists to insulate boxers against future health problems, many of which can go without remedy at the hands of financial woe.  Many professionals including U.S. Congressmen and the American Medical Association have called for a total ban of professional boxing.  Whether or not you are of this attitude, looking after the guys that take a beating for our entertainment is not an extraordinary consideration.

This article is dedicated to Smokin’ Joe Frazier: gold-medal Olympian, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, family man, and friend.

[i] Matt Breen, Ali on Ailing Frazier: “I Am Praying He is Fighting Now”, Phila. Inquirer, Nov. 7, 2011, at C1.

[ii] Vincent M. Mallozzi, Smokin’ to Ashes, but the Fire Still Burns, N.Y. Times, Oct. 18, 2006, at D4.

[iii] 15 U.S.C. § 6302 (2006).

[iv] 15 U.S.C.§ 6304 (2006).

[v] 15 U.S.C.§ 6301 (2006).

[vi] Brad Ehrlichman, In This Corner: An Analysis of Federal Boxing Legislation, 34 Colum. J.L. & Arts 421, 444 (2011).

[vii] 148 Cong. Rec. S5032-02 (daily ed. June 5, 2002) (statement of Sen. John McCain).

[viii] Ehrlichman, supra note 6, at 450-51.


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One Response to Unshakeable Pugilist to Unhealthy & Penniless

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