Updates On Two Seedy Boxing Incidents (No Antonio Margarito, Though: The Alexander Povetkin “Sparring Session” And Tavoris Cloud’s Switched Gloves)

Junior middleweight Antonio Margarito finds out as soon as this week whether he’ll get his boxing license in Texas, but there have been two other seedy-seeming incidents overshadowed by that scandal. Although, as you’ll soon see, both are a bit related to Margarito.

In one case, the media has stayed on top of it: the so-called “glorified sparring session” between heavyweights Alexander Povetkin and Bruce Seldon that sounds like anything but. Rick Reeno of BoxingScene has led the way on the story, with Thomas Hauser jumping in this week at Ring to add significant new detail. There are still mysteries, however.

We’ve heard less about the case of light heavyweight Tavoris Cloud and his glove switcheroo prior to a bout with Glen Johnson, but we might as well revisit it because it hasn’t received much attention.

(BTW: It’s been an eventful period for kerfuffles of this sort, with boxers and boxing people running afoul of regulators. Last month, we had the whole Golden Boy/New York State suspension, which has apparently been resolved, even if we still don’t know for sure where some of the money went.)

“Glorified Sparring Session”


(Bruce Seldon at right after his last [official] bout, a knockout loss to Fres Oquendo at left; photo and an account of the fight via Cyberboxingzone)

So let’s have a look at all the media reports on this, and examine it in the context of existing regulations — and non-existing ones.

BoxingScene, as mentioned, was on this incident first, at least domestically. It’d be great if I spoke Russian, because second-hand accounts contain a lot of info that I can’t verify (like in the comments section here, where someone claims that Povetkin said in Russian media that he injured his right hand). Ruslan Chikov started it off here. He outlined the original contours of the July 29 bout, days after Povetkin pulled out of a bout with lineal division champion Wladimir Klitschko — no headgear, regular-sized gloves, referee, Povetkin knocked Seldon down three times before it was stopped in the fourth, Povetkin promoter Sauerland Event being left unawares.

What stuck out about this originally to me was the notion of sparring without headgear or larger gloves. I’ve not witnessed much sparring first-hand, but what I’ve seen had been with headgear and larger gloves, and what I’d watched on YouTube always included both elements. Upon researching the topic, I did find reports of sparring without headgear, but most accounts said boxers never go full-bore without it. The reason is that it would include greater risk of injury, like cuts that could spoil a real pro fight. What’s more, boxers in sparring usually back off an opponent who’s hurt anyway, per a story below. This question of going full-bore will become important momentarily.

Chikov includes this key passage, which we’ll also discuss in-depth in a moment:

This was as close to a legit contest as possible, but calling it an exhibition would rule out the involvement of the local commission, who probably would not have approved the fight between Povetkin and Seldon.

Reeno then took over the story, reporting here that the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission wasn’t aware of the bout until afterward and was investigating it. He also reported that Seldon was currently suspended as a result of failing a drug test.

Days later, Pennsylvania commission executive director Greg Sirb dismissed the whole thing as a “glorified sparring session” that was “part of a training program.” Beyond that, Sirb wouldn’t say much, which was fishy. He wouldn’t answer Reeno’s specific questions about it, other than to acknowledge that Povetkin trainer Teddy Atlas was in attendance. And Sirb would repeat this pattern with other journalists.

Atlas himself provided a description of what happened, from his point of view, to Maxboxing’s Steve Kim:

Just recently, Atlas staged what amounted to a live scrimmage in a private setting against former heavyweight titlist Bruce Seldon in New Jersey. “I wanted to give him a glorified sparring session with all the bells and whistles of a real fight and it’s a training session,” explained Atlas, of this fight which had the feel of a sanctioned fight. “At the end of the five-week training camp, we rented an arena, used small gloves, no headgear; we had a doctor there, a weigh-in; we had a judge. We had everything.”

So how did it go?

“It validated, at least for me- and, at the end of the day, I’m the one who has to make the decision. I gotta live with it and be accountable for it- that I think maybe I made the right decision foregoing Klitschko right now,” stated Atlas. “Because, at the beginning, he [Povetkin] was a little tight, a little tentative; he was thinking more than he was doing; he was waiting for things to happen more than he was making things happen. Which I think experience will allow him to do that. [In] the early rounds, he wasn’t as good as he was later on. He got better as the rounds went on. The fourth round, he would up dropping Seldon a couple of times and the training session was stopped.”

Lastly, Hauser weighed in, providing a good deal of detail and some good analysis. There were 70-100 guests in attendance, for instance, and this wasn’t Povetkin’s first such “sparring session,” and there were three judges, two of whom were journalists who received pay for their work. That latter point is a can of worms all by itself. Boxing journalism is rife with conflicts of interest (I have my own, having written for Ring magazine, owned by Golden Boy Promotions; most boxing websites receive significant advertising funding from the promoters they cover; one news outlet features a publisher who actually manages boxers; several journalists receive reimbursement from promoters for providing broadcast analysis; etc.), but this one strikes me as particularly egregious. At least in most cases involving conflicts of interest, the payments from news subjects are indirect, and journalists are doing what amounts to their regular duties. This wasn’t even a journalism-related task that I can see — it was a whole ‘nother job entirely. But it remains a largely separate subject.

Looking at the Pennsylvania laws and regulations, based on what we know now, it’s difficult to see any violation of the rules. The closest it comes is related to the definition of “contest” versus “exhibition.” In a contest, according to the law, boxers are “earnestly striving to win.” In an exhibition, they are “not necessarily” doing so. It’s clear from the accounts that the boxers were earnestly striving to win, but they could have done so in an exhibition if they wanted. A contest is regulated more strictly than an exhibition.

The violation, then, is most likely not a legal one, but one of working around the rules and of custom, and it has dangerous implications.

If the argument is that Atlas wanted to test Povetkin in circumstances that approximated a real pro fight, then that’s what he should have given him — a real pro fight. With Seldon, that would not have been possible, as he was suspended, and PA would have likely honored that suspension.

Furthermore, a real pro fight would have come with additional regulations — almost all of them related to the safety of the boxers. If it’s true that, as Atlas said, there was a doctor in attendance, then that’s a good thing. But for pro bouts in PA, there are more requirements than that — there are requirements for a pre-fight medical exam, approved first aid equipment, a resuscitator and an ambulance on scene. None of that is really superfluous, especially if you consider that Seldon is 44 years old and has been knocked out in four of his last eight fights, and Povetkin is a prime top-5 heavyweight. Besides Seldon’s suspension, given his age and mileage, it’s unclear whether he would have been approved as an opponent for Povetkin in any number of jurisdictions, so it’s worse even than all that.

It’s disappointing that Atlas was involved in this. Hauser said Atlas falls under the category of “good boxing people,” and that he could probably regulate a fight better than any commission. And it’s true that Atlas, in his role as an ESPN2 commentator, frequently campaigns against mismatches and on behalf of boxer safety. He has been a good voice in boxing in that regard. But if this is how he regulates a fight, I’m not thinking he COULD do better than state regulators, because he DIDN’T in this case, unless someone reports that there was an ambulance outside the gym and all the other rules were observed. [UPDATE: Per friend of the site and contributor Andrew Harrison below, Atlas was quoted recently in Boxing News magazine saying there was an ambulance present. That’s another positive step, but there are many more health regulations required that it’s unclear were followed.] This was a mismatch that potentially jeopardized a boxer’s safety. If Atlas would do something like this, then yeah, it’s worrisome to think — as Hauser brings up — what someone less qualified or safety-minded might do.

But there’s a broader question as well related to the nature of sparring. California’s commission caught some hell for even raising the subject of a “sparring license” in the Margarito case, given that nobody had apparently ever heard of a sparring license in California, but between this incident and the Margarito one, it now looks to me like sparring is a wild gray area. No matter what anyone says, Povetkin-Seldon wasn’t a “glorified sparring session” — it was, in every way conceivable, a real pro fight, and the only thing that kept it from being legally labeled thusly is ambiguity in the law and fewer regulations. If you can “spar” like Povetkin and Seldon did, I’m not sure what would prevent nearly every pro-fight-in-every-way-but-name from being rendered this way, with far fewer restrictions than usual. It doesn’t seem easy to regulate sparring — do you specify headgear and glove size? do you put in requirements that people not go full-bore against a hurt opponent, and how to you measure it? are there enough inspectors in the world to monitor all the sparring? — and I doubt that unless someone dies in an event like this, there’s even any impetus for state regulators to change their rules.

I suppose that’s where the media comes in, with the notion that if you do something along these lines, it could be aired in public and people might not have nice things to say about it. And while journalists haven’t solved every mystery there is about what happened, it’s tremendously positive that BoxingScene and Ring have been giving it attention and asking at least some of the important questions.

Glove Switcheroo

(Tavoris Cloud and the black gloves, via FanHouse)

Man, this blog entry is gonna seem like a Reeno lovefest, but the guy’s done some important work here.

Reeno was first with the news that, prior to his light heavyweight bout with Glen Johnson, Tavoris Cloud switched gloves from the pair that had been agreed to by both sides — 10-ounce Everlasts that were red in color. The switcheroo black gloves were confiscated.

ESPN’s Dan Rafael reported that Johnson co-promoter Leon Margules noticed the difference as soon as Cloud entered the ring and objected. But nobody from Johnson’s camp apparently felt the need to hold things up with a big inspection or re-glove-switch, so the fight went on as planned. Rafael wrote that the gloves will be examined to make sure there were no foreign substances and were of the proper weight.

Next came a letter from an attorney for Johnson’s side, Pat English, laying out their concerns. And they sound like very valid concerns. The letter was addressed to Tim Lueckenhoff, head of the Association of Boxing Commissions, who also happens to be in charge in Missouri, the state where the fight was held. (Our friend and sometimes-contributor Carlos Acevedo wryly wondered whether this circumstance presented much cause for confidence in the ABC.) English explicitly raised the specter of Margarito and his loaded gloves:

I know for a fact that gloves can be altered and are in fact altered. This has been the topic of discussion at ABC meetings so I know that you are aware of this potential as well. Further, by ‘altered’  I do not mean simply by the camps – special orders can be made where the padding is realigned…

His switch in gloves was inexplicable and inexcusable, and the failure to notify the Johnson camp and to allow them to examine the  new gloves is the exact equivalent of allowing  hand wraps without an observer from the other side. The seriousness of this breach cannot be overstated, as we saw with Mr. Margarito.

The gloves, English said, were both a different color AND a different model. We’re starting to get into a potentially bad space here.

If Cloud’s side has spoken up on this, they haven’t done so anywhere in the media where I can find. However, an official with Everlast who also writes for some boxing websites, Ernest Gabion, provided some perspective in a forum where he goes by Eaner0919. It’s a little muddled to me — at one juncture it sounds like he thinks Cloud requested the glove switch, but then theorizes that the Missouri commission gave him the wrong pair…? At any rate, one valuable bit of information is that according to Gabion, the gloves Cloud switched to are considered less like “puncher’s gloves” than the original.

In the case of Povetkin-Seldon, it seems like additional details are likely to be more damning, not less. With Cloud-Johnson, there’s an easy solution that gets the Cloud team out of any major trouble: The second pair of gloves are virtually identical or less harmful in their weight and padding to the first pair, and there is no other irregularity about them. At minimum, it very much looks like proper procedure wasn’t followed, and that doesn’t reflect well on the Missouri Office of Athletics or Cloud’s team. But if, in the end, it had no impact on the fight’s outcome, then the harm is negligible.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough when the tests are complete — although, going by how long it took to get test results on Margarito’s gloves last year, maybe we won’t find out very soon at all.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.