Nevada, Texas and Colorado nixed the Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson fight last year, but Tennessee boxing commissioners welcomed it because it was a big event for Memphis. They were willing to overlook what gave other states pause: Tyson's unsavory image as a convicted felon who once bit an opponent's ear in the ring.
Tennessee, which is regarded as one of the laxest states when it comes to policing professional pugilism, saw more of Iron Mike last week, when he scored a first round knockout victory over Clifford Etienne.
All but seven states Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming regulate the sport of boxing. But state boxing commissions don't get much attention unless fight promoters are trying to arrange a controversial match.
The commissions are supposed to enforce state laws intended to protect boxers' health and safety. They also assign referees and judges for matches.
But boxing, a sport historically fraught with corruption, operates in the absence of any private sector association, league or collective organization to enforce uniform rules. Groups such as the World Boxing Association (WBA) and the World Boxing Organization (WBO) supposedly evaluate boxers' skills, but their rankings are widely ridiculed. Last fall, the WBO had a dead man ranked in the super middleweight division's top 10 and during the four months the deceased Darrin Morris was in the top 10, he actually rose in the ranks!
"The entire system is corrupt, and some of the worst enablers are in positions of power at state athletic commissions," boxing writer Thomas Hauser told U.S. senators at a Feb. 5 hearing. At issue was a proposal to have the federal government oversee state boxing commissions.
The commissions operate differently state-to-state, with conflicting rules about assignment of officials, how much taxes are charged, rules of the bout, types of gloves and pre-fight medical requirements.
Some states require fighters to get HIV tests before fighting. Others forbid full-contact boxing known as "ultimate fighting" where almost anything, including kicking and head-butting, goes. New York last year became the first state to require boxers to undergo steroid testing before each fight, and receive annual MRI brain scans.
The job description of boxing commissioner also varies. In New York, the commissioner is unpaid. In Iowa, the state labor commissioner regulates boxing and wrestling matches. In Georgia, it's the secretary of state.
State boxing commissions have faced allegations of conflicts of interest. Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn has gotten complaints that Tony Alamo, Jr. sits on the Nevada State Athletic Commission which regulates his father, well-known fight promoter Tony Alamo Sr.
Legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who fought as an amateur while at the U.S. Naval Academy, would establish the U.S. Boxing Administration to increase federal oversight of professional boxing. Most east coast state boxing commissions favor the measure, but states like Tennessee, Nevada and California do not.
"The purpose of the USBA would not be to micromanage boxing," McCain said at a recent hearing. "Instead the USBA would work in consultation with local commissions, and the USBA administrator would only exercise authority should reasonable grounds exist for intervention."
The legislation would create minimum safety standards that all state boxing commissions must enforce, including testing for infectious diseases and requiring that both a doctor and an ambulance be at ring-side. A similar bill passed the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee last fall, but the full Senate did not act.
Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) and administrator of the Missouri Office of Athletics, said the USBA could enforce federal boxing laws but should maintain the autonomy of state boxing commissions.
Greg Sirb of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission and past president of the ABC, said, "Federal oversight is needed because boxing badly needs some uniformity. It could set up some guidelines for how each state would form a commission. But you couldn't micromanage this sport from Washington, D.C. You'd still need the state commissions to oversee each individual fight."
Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, sees problems with McCain's bill and is working with Nevada U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D) to craft an alternative that would respect state authority and also provide supervision over cable boxing networks HBO and Showtime.
"I don't believe in a one-man federal boxing czar," Ratner said. "There are states' rights issues here. The U.S. government has a lot more to worry about than the sport of boxing."
Tommy Patrick, director of the Tennessee Boxing and Racing Commission, said he has no faith that federal intervention would increase efficiency or fairness.
"This will turn into a bureaucratic nightmare," Patrick said.