By Ivan G. Goldman
A Sunday article in the New York Times details how gamblers rigged hundreds of games in big-time international soccer for years and may still be at it. The thoroughly documented story is a heads-up to the entire sports world, particularly boxing, whose events are usually decided by subjective scoring from a panel of judges.
Times reporters spoke to cops and gamblers around the world regarding games on several continents, including exhibition games leading up to the 2010 World Cup. Investigators told them gambling syndicates obtained most of their results by identifying players and referees ripe for bribery — particularly in countries that pay low wages. There’s no evidence the manipulation has ceased.
Police said some of the European fixers had Chinese backers who supplied money apparently laundered through casinos in Macau. Interestingly, the Venetian Casino in Macau has recently been moving into big-time boxing, with shows organized and promoted by Bob Arum’s Top Rank company. Apparently the Venetian’s chairman and CEO, Sheldon Adelson, has found success attracting Asian “whales” (big, big gamblers) to his Macau casino by offering them gambling junkets that include fight tickets.
Nonito Donaire took the WBA featherweight title in Macau Saturday by beating Simpiwe Vetyeka. Donaire, cut and frequently head-butted by his opponent from South Africa, won a unanimous technical decision by making it through the fourth round with a bad cut that the referee ruled was due to an accidental head butt in round one. Officials there ordered the bell starting the fifth round to ring in order to satisfy the rules allowing the scorecards to count.
Donaire was clearly not happy to win a title this way and immediately offered a rematch.
Movies, when they depict fixed fights, usually show fighters taking dives, but it’s far more likely that any rigging, if it takes place, is done through officials, not fighters, including officials working for the alphabet gangs that award the titles. Occasionally evidence of such shenanigans bubbles to the surface.
Arum once admitted under oath that he paid a $100,000 bribe to then-IBF president Bob Lee so he’d sanction a 1995 bout between George Foreman and Axel Schulz. Lee had demanded $500,000, and they settled on $200,000. The second payment was never made, said Arum. Lee was sentenced to 22 months for money-laundering and tax evasion. The New Jersey-based IBF was run by a federally appointed official for years afterward.
The WBC is based in Mexico City and the WBA in Panama, where it’s harder for local or federal investigators from the U.S. to gain access to files or monitor procedures. The WBO is headquartered in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
As for the fighters themselves, it’s virtually impossible to bribe a boxer to take a dive in a fight whose outcome is worth millions of dollars to the victor. But officials are paid directly by the promoters, who have input on their selection. Judges and referees get paid much more for big title fights and tend to look forward to their all-expenses-paid assignments around the world. They always know the identity of the house fighter favored by a promoter they hope to work for again.
The rules aren’t always clear about just what constitutes a legitimate expense.
Ever notice that referees wear alphabet gang patches for title fights? They compete fiercely to win the favor of these groups so they can secure those assignments. Does that mean they’re taking bribes? No. Without doubt there are straight arrow-officials who draw lines for themselves and won’t cross them. But there’s also no doubt that some officials draw their lines vaguely, and that this has much to do with why after some decisions we see smoke pouring from the ears of enraged network analysts such as Teddy Atlas. Sometimes bad decisions are rooted in incompetence, but not always.
Referees sometimes submit to interviews to explain their decisions, but judges rarely.
The Times article was filled with references to characters such as “Uncle Frankie,” a Chinese-Indonesian businessman who was a legend among fixers. Only some were arrested and convicted.
In February 2011, a gambling syndicate orchestrated an entire tournament featuring the national teams of Estonia, Bulgaria, Bolivia and Latvia with all games played in Turkey. The games weren’t televised and tickets weren’t sold. Yet the games attracted millions of dollars in bets on the Asian market. In one game all seven goals were scored on penalty kicks — all awarded by referees the syndicate had chosen and flown in, and there were no TV cameras to second-guess the accuracy of their calls. The referees were later barred by FIFA, the group that organizes and sanctions World Cup games.
How much corruption spills into boxing is almost impossible to gauge, but squeaky clean it is not.
` Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag, by New York Times best-selling author Ivan G. Goldman, was released in 2013 by Potomac Books, a University of Nebraska Press imprint. It can be purchased here.
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