Down for the Count?
CAPITOL HEIGHTS, MD.
Here at Round One Gym, just outside Washington, life is measured in three-minute intervals. Every three minutes, a round ends and a buzzer sounds, telling the fighters to either rest or resume their workouts on the heavy bag, on the speed bag, or shadow boxing in one of two elevated rings.
For Beethavean Scottland, known here as "Bee," those intervals gave definition to a life that might otherwise have lacked purpose. But it was also those intervals that led to his death at age 26.
The story of Bee Scottland in some ways mirrors the story of boxing, a sport that remains enormously popular, but at the same time has reached new depths of disorganization, corruption, and run-ins with the law. Significant efforts are under way to reform the sport through federal legislation, but the path ahead appears bumpy.
Scottland, who grew up in a poor family with eight kids, developed into a moderately successful super-middleweight, with a record of 20-6-2.
On June 26, he filled in at the last minute to box in New York City against a slightly bigger and more accomplished opponent, George "Khalid" Jones.
For Scottland, it was the most important fight of his life, a chance for an $8,000 payday and an appearance on ESPN2. With a win, he could go somewhere, maybe even get a larger purse down the road so he could support his wife and three children, so he could quit his day job as an exterminator.
It didn't end up that way. Scottland was overmatched from the start, although not enough to overly concern ringside officials from the state boxing commission or veteran referee Arthur Mercante Jr. "I never thought of stopping the fight," Mercante later said.
In the 10th and final round, Scottland was knocked to the canvas, unconscious. He remained in a coma for six days, and then died.
"That kid should never have died," says Aaron Braunstein, a boxing promoter in New York. "He was basically a club fighter. He was too small. The referee should have stopped it."
On one hand, boxing can provide an escape for young men with dead-end futures. Most boxers come from impoverished backgrounds, where jail time and drug addiction are a more common currency than education. Getting in the ring every day gives them purpose. They work hard. They take care of their bodies. They dream of million-dollar purses.
Clarence Vinson, the winner of an Olympic bronze medal in 2000 who recently turned professional, compares his fate with that of his brother, who was killed on the streets at age 14.
"Boxing saved my life," he says after a recent workout. "It saved me from the streets. [Before boxing], I was getting in a lot of trouble and getting locked up a lot."
On the other hand, the sport of boxing is violent by nature, and rife with injustice. Scottland was the first to die from boxing this year; 4 deaths were reported last year. It is a sport in which only a handful of the participants make decent money, and the mediocre often retire either penniless or physically damaged. The unknowns like Bee Scottland are the ones who most frequently pay the price.
Rarely have the sport's pitfalls been more glaring than now.
"When people tell me that boxing has a black eye, I say that boxing ran out of black eyes in 1910," says Bert Sugar, who has spent much of his life writing about the sport.
The problems begin with organization, or lack thereof. Unlike other major sports, boxing has no central governing body that can ensure the safety of the participants. That task is left up to state commissions, which are often motivated by political interests and profiteering.
If boxers are banned from fighting in one state - because of health problems - for example, it is easy for them to find work in a state where the restrictions are not so tight. Boxing's coveted championship belts and rankings are controlled by more than a dozen sanctioning bodies, a veritable alphabet soup, most of which are headquartered outside the US.
The most prominent one in America, the International Boxing Federation (IBF), has been tainted by corruption. Four high-ranking IBF officials were recently found to be taking payoffs in exchange for changing boxers' rankings. Promoters Bob Arum and Cedric Kushner testified in court that they had paid bribes.
The organization is currently under the control of a federally appointed monitor. "Those four individuals [accused of corruption] are no longer with us," says Daryl Peoples, the IBF's ratings committee chair. "We're pretty sure that the federal monitoring will end shortly."
But boxing is really run by the almighty dollar, which is most effectively shoveled in by pay-per-view events run by the cable-television stations HBO and Showtime. A premium event, especially one featuring Mike Tyson, a convicted felon, can attract more than 1 million viewers who pay upward of $50 to watch the event from their homes.
Following closely behind the television networks in the money trail is a small cadre of promoters who often use strong-armed, shady tactics to make quick money. When promoter Don King recently signed heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman to a deal with a $5 million signing bonus, Rahman walked out of the meeting with a duffel bag stuffed with $500,000 in cash.
Rahman, however, is the exception. Most boxers are cut out of the real money, giving up about half of their earnings to managers, trainers, and licensing fees, and even more to bad investments. Joe Louis, one of the greatest boxers in history, retired broke.
"Boxing is still beset by corruption," says Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Nevada who is an avid fan and who has taken the lead in efforts to reform the sport. "This is still a very dangerous sport."
"Generally speaking," Mr. McCain adds, "[state] boxing commissions are used by governors as a place to give political awards. A large number of boxing commissioners wouldn't know a boxing glove from a catcher's mitt."
McCain, the former chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which oversees sports, has already won approval for two measures: the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 and the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000, which aim to improve boxing safety and take care of the participants by developing a pension fund.
McCain, a former boxer in high school and in the Navy, admits that neither law has been particularly successful, partially because they have not been uniformly enforced.
His latest push is to establish a federal entity that could supervise the sport. A federal boxing "czar" could, for example, establish uniform safety requirements to protect the fighters, organize the rankings and promoters so that the most skilled boxers get a chance to advance, and weed out corruption among referees and judges.
But McCain's proposal, which he has yet to put into the form of a bill, would surely face an uphill battle. It would be difficult to enforce, and opposition from state commissions would be enormous.
"There is very strong opposition on the part of the states," says an official at the New York State Boxing and Wrestling Commission who asked to remain anonymous. "People feel that the bureaucrats in Washington would drive down the boxing business."
Without a central governing body, experts say, boxing is likely to remain a free-for-all, in which the sport is governed by the people with cash up front. And ironically, that may be just what many of the fans want.
Boxing is enormously popular, and that is unlikely to change. Its seedy nature, its rawness, its bravado, and its unpredictability are part of what make it appealing to some. Few will forget Muhammad Ali's poetic abuse of Joe Frazier. Few will forget Mike Tyson's stare. What other sport could spawn a film character like "Rocky"?
"It has the most wonderful characters, they're all Damon Runyonesque," says Sugar, the writer. "In a day of homogeneity, when everything is controlled by corporations, this is a last vestige of individuality."
That individuality can be seen at the Round One Gym, where Bee Scottland spent his evenings working out with trainer Adrian Davis.
The action here is real, not polished for prime time. Musty and hot, the gym buzzes with grunts, groans, and laughter. Shirtless men do push-ups on a dusty, wooden floor. Sweat drips freely. A jump rope flickers endlessly. It is a solitary pursuit.
A poster on the wall reads: "The harder you train, the luckier you get."
There is no visible remembrance of Scottland, but he lives in the back of everyone's mind here.
William Joppy, a highly ranked middleweight, was a close friend. They sometimes sparred together. "It breaks your heart," says Joppy, who recently lost his middleweight championship belt to Felix Trinidad. "We practically grew up together. But it doesn't scare me one bit. That's part of the sport. The same can happen anywhere else, in a car accident or on the street."
Davis, the veteran trainer who himself lost his left eye to boxing, tries to go on with business, running the family gym and training the rest of his stable, including Rahman, the heavyweight champ. He says the gym needs to accept its loss and move on.
"I loved Bee," says Davis. "But Bee Scottland's death didn't stop the possibility that it will happen again."