The world is full of boxing governing bodies; WBA, WBC, WBO, IBO, WBU, WBF, GBC, the acronyms are endless. They have become a byword for corruption, inefficiency and mismanagement in boxing. One though, above all others has a uniquely sordid and interesting past.
The International Boxing Federation. Ultimately, U.S. Attorney Robert Cleary would state "A culture of corruption has festered in the IBF virtually since its inception... IBF ratings were not earned – they were bought... The crimes have bastardized the ratings in most of the weight classes."
How did an organisation founded on the principle that boxing needed to be “comprised of legitimate boxing commissioners”(the inference is unlike its competitors) become faced with one of the biggest racketeering trials in New Jersey history?
The IBF Red and Gold
The story starts with the man who would end up in the dock as the principal defendant in the aforementioned trial. Robert W. Lee Sr., known to most as Bobby Lee, became involved in the sport of boxing in 1976, working as deputy commissioner for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board.
In this role he developed interests with both the WBA and its underling, the USBA. An ambitious man he soon found a permanent post with the WBA. In 1980 he acquired the position of second vice-president as well as his promotion to New Jersey boxing commissioner.
He was one of two men seen as possible presidential successors to WBA President Rodrigo Sanchez. The other was Gilberto Mendoza, a quick thinking, quick talking Venezuelan who had a shrewd political mind. When Sanchez died in 1982 it was Mendoza who moved first, calling an election and rallying delegates. He beat Lee by a 41 to 32 vote.
Lee was furious. He felt robbed and defeated, and like many a despot was absolutely unwilling to concede defeat. He staged a walk out of the WBA convention, Lee and some loyal allies left mid convention.
In the coming weeks they went to Lee's other affiliated organisation the USBA and stated their intention to create a third, world-level organization. Their new ‘USBA-International’ was founded to co-exist with the WBA and the WBC as a new governing body.
The new organisation was based on home turf for Lee, New Jersey, where its offices remain to this day. After a short time as ‘USBA-International the body was soon ’renamed the International Boxing Federation and adopted an acronym like the other bodies ‘IBF’.
In its first year (1983) it was hard to attract fighters to the belt, which at that time had no weight. Only former WBC cruiserweight champion Marvin Camel became an IBF Champion.
However in 1984, Lee decided to start recognising other body’s champions, as their champions. A master stroke that although his the norm today, was unheard of. They recognised Holmes at Heavyweight, Hagler at Middleweight, Curry at welterweight and Pryor at Junior Welter, all as a move to legitimise their belt.
Lee with IBF heavyweight champion Larry Holmes
The red belt soon became synonymous with big championship nights, a desirable trinket for any world champions mantelpiece.What from the outside was Lee’s flexible enforcement of the rules and laissez-faire attitude made him and by extension the IBF a promotional dream.
Soon though the secrets began to spill out. In 1985 Lee was removed as New Jersey Athletic Commissioner after; "he was suspended and fined by the Ethical Standards Commission for accepting contributions from fight promoters and casino executives."
In 1996, former IBF heavyweight champion Michael Moorer levied charges against the IBF in the wake of the bungled Foreman v Schultz fight which had left the belt vacant. The IBF was seen as complicit in the corrupt judging of the veneer of respectability began to slip.
The mask was torn off though when, at the culmination of a three year federal investigation, the entire IBF leadership was indicted under racketeering charges
Foreman v Schultz, the beginning of the end.
President Robert W. Lee, his son and IBF liaison, Robert Lee Jr, former IBF executive and Virginia boxing commissioner Donald William Brennan, and South American IBF representative Francisco Fernandez. At this stage they were all removed from the IBF via a preliminary injunction with the organization being run by a court-appointed monitor.
The trial lasted four months. Of the 38 witnesses, the only big-name fighter to appear was then-IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad, who testified for the defense that he never made payoffs, or had anyone make payoffs, to ensure good treatment by the IBF. Promoter Don King was named as an unindicted co conspirator and refused to appear, although he has always protested his innocence.
After 15 days of jury deliberations Lee was convicted of taking $338,000 in bribes from promoters and managers to fix rankings and sanction fights. He was found guilty of tax evasion, money laundering and interstate travel in aid of racketeering.
Lee was acquitted, however, on charges stemming from improper payments made to him by promoters Bob Arum, Cedric Kushner and Dino Duva.
He was sentenced to 22 months in prison and fined $25,000.
Lee reacts to his sentence
Although this was just six of the original 38 counts levied against him Clearly said “When you get a conviction of six felony counts on a guy who is getting on in years, that’s a result. I think that could act as a general deterrent. Only time will tell if it helps clean up the sport.”
A civil suit followed where, citing extortion; boxing promoter Bob Arum voluntarily testified to having paid IBF president Bobby Lee $100,000 in two installments in 1995, as the first half of a $200,000 bribe, through "middleman, Stanley Hoffman," adding that Lee had first demanded $500,000 to approve the Schulz-Foreman fight, but had settled for the lesser amount of $200,000.
Arum was sanctioned and fined $125,000 by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Boxing promoters Cedric Kushner and Dino Duva also admitted to making similar payments to Lee, despite his acquittal in Criminal court.
This scandal revealed that every major promoter in the United States had been complicit in bribing officials. It showed that a major sanctioning body had been running a Mafia style conspiracy for the sole purpose of lining their own pockets. It was the darkest day for boxing since the mob run 1950’s.
Over 13 years, Lee, the IBF and 7 promoters altered or mismanaged the fights of 23 different boxers. They robbed young men of wins, championship purses and ultimately Glory. Just so they could continue to make money.
Although now the IBF has purged these criminal elements and has gone to extreme lengths to rest a lush itself as an upstanding organisation, I think this episode teaches a larger lesson about our sport.
It has been, and always will be open to corruption. Unless we routinely scrutinise and evaluate the organisations and practices of boxing individuals like Lee will use it to their own nefarious ends.
Ewan Breeze for SimBoxx
Disclaimer: The intention of this article is not to infer any criminality on behalf of the IBF other than that specifically prosecuted in a court of law.