The Fight of Their Lives

Pugilists and stars hope to unionize the sweet science

Johnson says Pete Hamill, Norman Mailer, and Budd Schulberg, all celebrated writers, have agreed to serve on a planned pension trust fund advisory board. As for the past and present boxing greats who have lent their names to the cause, BOC literature lists Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Roy Jones, Jr., Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Fernando Vargas, Felix Trinidad, Bernard Hopkins, and Arturo Gatti.

At two symposiums hosted by Fordham University in New York during this past March and April, Johnson and executives from HBO and Showtime discussed the need for a union. “I think boxing is in desperate need of overhauling,” comments one panelist, Jay Larkin, a Showtime vice president. “The Muhammad Ali bill is a good start. Although a boxers union is a very well-intentioned thing, it has to be better thought out.”

The BOC hopes all the talking and lobbying will lead up to one grand event: a major title fight that will feature prominent figures from the world of sports and entertainment who will endorse the union concept. (For example, according to Johnson, members of the Screen Actors Guild, have promised to attend.) The plan is for boxers to sign a union charter in the ring and one of the provisions would have fight revenues funneled into a pension trust fund. Never mind that arrangements have fallen through several times over the past decade. In boxing there's always some glitch, crisis, or feud. “It's an organizer's dream, to instantly get the word out across the United States,” Johnson says. “Some of the boxers in the smaller gyms are concerned about repercussions from the boss or manager, but once they see the fight and have champions come forward ... they aren't going to be afraid to join a union.”

Organizers then plan a drive to obtain the signatures of hundreds of boxers on union cards, a preliminary step toward union representation. And Sweeney's AFL-CIO would have to charter the group. “[BOC members] called me up almost three years ago,” says Peter Rider, assistant director of organizing for the AFL-CIO. “I've been giving them advice since.”

Skeptics, however, question whether it can be accomplished. Boxing is a solitary sport, and boxers aren't usually joiners. A very small percentage (from one to three percent) would essentially subsidize the union, while many small-timers wouldn't want to have dues deducted from their measly purses. And legal questions may arise. For example, the National Labor Relations Act, which governs labor union activity, doesn't grant independent contractors the right to collectively bargain. Rider acknowledges the legal uncertainty but asserts boxers could be considered employees of the bout promoters who hire them.

“There is some case law ruling that boxers are employees [as opposed to independent contractors].” Rider says. “And if no one decides to fight the efforts to organize [a boxers union], questions of employer-employee relationships don't come up. Thus the [BOC] has spent a fair amount of time gettting the money people in the industry to see that a union can help them as well as the boxers.”

Hank Kaplan of Miami, a long-time authority on the industry and friend to many world champions, is skeptical. “I don't believe in [a boxers union]; I just don't think it's practical,” he opines. “Boxers don't have the ability to organize themselves. Boxing is a kind of unique sport, and the management of it is different than any other sport. Possibly there should be laws which force boxers into establishing their own pension fund.”

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