Without first attempting to contact Tyson, USA Boxing’s Dr. Charles Butler released the open letter later that evening. The letter was not shy about accusing Tyson and his company of essentially courting the fighter as an amateur.
“Mike, an athlete who is just turning 18 is too young for the world of professional boxing. The other promoters are not prematurely stalking our future Olympic stars at this time. You were a prodigy within USA Boxing in the early 1980s and understand the importance of our program; please don’t harm our 2016 Olympic team,” Dr. Butler said.
The former champion responded in a letter directly addressed to Dr. Butler on Thursday. The letter was released late Thursday to Maxboxing.com George Willis of the New York Post.
“I love my country and I love the liberties living in a democracy affords,” wrote Tyson. “These young fighters have worked diligently and deserve the right to pursue the best path they deem fit for themselves. Unfortunately, many of them can’t wait around for a very slim shot at Olympic glory. Our country hasn’t had a male boxing gold medalist since 2004, which could be why many young hopefuls decide to turn professional sooner. Of all the current champions, I believe you would be hard-pressed to find a former gold medalist. Many of these boxers are like me in that they are from poverty stricken communities and boxing is their only way to a better life. They have obligations beyond your personal vision for them. No one has the right to question the path a fighter chooses in pursuit of their American dream.”
Speaking exclusively to Maxboxing.com Friday morning, Tyson was perplexed by the accusations levied by USA Boxing and Dr. Butler.
“I don’t know. I have no idea,” Tyson said. “Probably somebody put them up to it, most likely, because I am sure they wouldn’t have singled me out for something so ludicrous and mundane such as that.”
It’s ironic that USA Boxing chose Tyson among the available promoters to pick on. Golden Boy Promotions signed Frankie Gomez at age 18 before he could enter the last Olympics. Top Rank Promotions got an exemption for top amateur Jose Benavidez Jr. to turn pro at 17. Where were the open letters then?
Mike Tyson is a perfect example of someone who was successful on a massive scale despite not having Olympic credentials, much less medals. A gifted amateur with a ferocious style more suited for the pros, Tyson did not make the Olympic team. However, instead of waiting four more years for the next Olympics, Tyson turned pro three months shy of his 19th birthday and went on to become the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history, making (and losing) some $300 million in the process. His experience and the guidance it could provide a young fighter are immeasurable.
“We want to be competitive and we want to increase our overall performance in the Olympic games,” USA Boxing Executive Director Anthony Bartkowski told ABC News, regarding the open letter to the press strategy. “This is a new strategy of trying to make sure our Olympic-aged athletes are not poached by promoters. In the past, USA Boxing was passive and just accepted it.”
The admonishment seems odd for three reasons.
1. Signing amateurs to become professional before competitors can is par for the course in boxing. Many in the industry understand politics is rampant not just at the professional level but starting in the amateurs. One fighter getting signed should not hurt USA Boxing’s program if it was a healthy one, both financially and in terms of how it nurtures talent.
2. AIBA, the international governing body for amateur boxing, has had a “semi-pro” league, the World Series of Boxing, going for over three years now. They also have expanded that into a professional promotional company run by AIBA, an inherent conflict of interest for the governing body. The WSB league is comprised of teams of international elite amateurs fighting five three-minute rounds without headgear, using pro rules and judging criteria. It’s not been without controversy: http://www.maxboxing.com/news/max-boxing-news/did-aiba-lie-to-the-world-series-of-boxing-fighters
In their first year, the fighters this writer spoke to were informed that AIBA/WSB lured them in contracts with the promise that the fights would not count against their pro records. AIBA/WSB failed to let any fighter know that the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) did not agree to that proposed idea. Consequently, any fighter who competed in the WSB under ABC jurisdiction has a pro record they may not like and they may not be aware of. Several quality amateurs were left with damaging records of 4-4 or 1-3, having believed what AIBA/WSB told them. USA Boxing, to my knowledge, has not intervened on the behalf of the boxers tainted by AIBA/WSB’s actions. Where is their open letter, Dr. Butler?
3. USA Boxing enjoyed one of the most talented classes in years for the 2012 Olympics. The team was full of fighters with great pro potential. Yet, the team failed to bring home a medal of any color for the first time in U.S. male Olympic boxing history.
Speaking with several sources connected to that team including some of the fighters, the number one problem the 2012 Olympic team faced was lack of funding. No money meant no travel abroad, which meant no international experience heading into the biggest fights of their lives. The training camp was reportedly short and not very comprehensive. Against Eurasian teams that are privately, corporately or state-funded and training year-round like a signed pro fighter would, its near impossible for under-funded U.S. teams to compete.
The truth is there is a myriad of problems with USA Boxing and this country’s amateur programs across the board. The building block of our sport needs leadership with a clear vision, a couple dozen amateur sponsors like the late Emanuel Steward, shepherding young hopefuls and, most importantly, money.
“Definitely more money into it and we need to protect the fighters. Fighters need to be protected inside and outside of the ring; you know what I mean? From a managing perspective,” advised Tyson.
One change, which is largely cosmetic, is to remove headgear for elite amateur competition, such as the Olympics, and change from computerized scoring to the pro system.
Tyson does not seem to agree with the idea that removing headgear is somehow better for the product.
“I don’t know, Gabe; these people, they are not proven in amateur boxing because amateur boxing is really going down the drain big time. They got guys not wearing headgear now. They are going to be punch-drunk before they even get to the pros; you know?”
The WSB theory, put forth by AIBA, is that, by removing headgear and using a pro criteria, the fights will have more action, raise fighter’s profiles thus buzz about amateur boxing will return. But the problem is not a flashier product but a failing infrastructure.
“Professional rules in the amateurs never made amateur boxing more glamorous. The fact that the amateur boxers had to throw a lot of punches, that makes boxing really exciting. Based on the amateur rules [which do not reward body punching], they aren’t going to do much punching. And they aren’t going to throw much punches the way things are scored now,” said Tyson, referring to amateur boxing’s controversial computerized scoring. “Look at 1984. In 1984, the fighters threw a lot of punches. It was exciting. The pace of amateur boxing has really slowed down. So them saying I am hurting amateur boxing is ludicrous.”
Our last American gold medal winner, Andre Ward, took nearly 30 years old to make his first million dollars and has yet to capture national mainstream attention. And as 2012 proved, getting there does not guarantee winning. While USA Boxing and Butler were quick to shoot down Tyson’s signing of Lubin, he will likely do more for the young fighter’s development and overall buzz than USA Boxing can. Olympic boxing is not what it was in the ‘80s or even the ‘90s.
Tuesday’s open letter to Tyson from Dr. Butler feels more like a failed opportunity. USA Boxing could use a passionate spokesman the fans trust. Both the people running the organization and its fighters could learn from Tyson and his vast experience in the sport. Instead, Dr. Butler chose to ostracize him.
“Listen, the real problem, I don’t think anyone cares. I don’t think they care,” said Tyson. “It’s all about money. And I believe the boxing program in the amateurs doesn’t have enough money to have an effective program to have time to develop a shiny star in the amateurs. They aren’t going to invest no money. All the money is in amateur baseball, amateur basketball and all that stuff. And I need you to understand this: our professional basketball players play in the Olympics. Can you imagine me at my height in 1988 fighting the best amateurs in the world? Can you imagine that? Why would they do that in every other sport?”
“Money,” I offered.
“Exactly. It all comes down to money,” said Tyson. “They don’t care about the athletes. So I don’t want to hear no stuff that people care about the athletes. They don’t care about the athletes. I sign this one guy, Erickson Lubin, great fighter - and they made a big thing about it.”
Mike Tyson is the American dream. That rare exception who was discovered to have an extraordinary talent for fighting at an early age by people who had the ability to help foster that gift to its fullest potential on every level. In Tyson’s case, that savior was Cus D’Amato. Steward was another legendary amateur benefactor, teaching and funding his own team and sponsoring many great fighters the world over. Those kinds of teachers and sponsors are rare in boxing these days.
“This is what it is: we don’t have enough amateur boxing clubs around,” observed Tyson. “Before [in any major city] you would have 50 clubs or something. Now, we don’t have those clubs no more. We need to build amateur boxing clubs. In a city, you could find 50 clubs. You can’t find them no more. You can’t find one amateur boxing club in the state of Nevada [Tyson makes his home in Henderson]. How many amateur clubs do we have in the state of Nevada? You can’t even name one.”
Since the days since Tyson and Evander Holyfield were at the top of their games, American fans have yearned for another homegrown champion. For a while, we wondered where the heavyweight talent went. But a closer look shows a dearth of talent in many divisions. Some theorize that the talent at heavyweight went to basketball, football or even MMA. But there is another possible answer to lack of depth in regard to both amateur fighters and programs that support them.
In 2013, we are 42 years, $45 million in arrests and about a trillion dollars into the U.S.-led drug war. That’s arrests, not deaths, as a result. The damage to communities across this country, not to mention Central and South America, is hard to truly quantify beyond costs and arrest statistics. In this world ravaged by the drug war, neighborhoods filled with community centers or amateur boxing clubs are a thing of the past. Generations of families, fathers who could have taught sons, sons who could have grown up to be contenders ended up dead, physically in jail or in a prison of addiction due to the living genocide that is the drug war and the resulting Prison Industrial Complex. If we want to rebuild boxing from the amateur ground up, we first have to take a long look at how and why the inner city communities that have been slowly decimated over decades.
“Gabe, you are so right,” said Tyson when I posited the theory to him. “The drug business, it killed the communities. It just devastated our communities. Whole generations have just been wiped out by the drug epidemic. It’s just…aw, man. I don’t even know what to say about that one. We’re a drug nation. This is a drug nation. No one takes more drugs than this nation. No more kills more people than this nation with violence, drugs, illiteracy. You know, if you think about it, we’re the fattest and the dumbest people in the civilized world. Ain’t that something?”
To Tyson, the answer to the problem that is the United States of America Amateur Boxing program, a once proud and dominant force now holding on like an old pug past his prime, begins with unity. In essence, fix the problem not the blame because, ultimately, it’s about helping to recreate and build on what Steward and D’Amato did for Tyson, Tommy Hearns and so many others: turning young men with few alternatives into men of self-respect and dignity. Squabbling over who gets to sign who misses the point completely.
“We need more programs. Look at how few amateur programs there are. It’s not like in 1984 when there were hundreds of them all over the place. It’s just not what it used to be. If we don’t have good amateur fighters, we will never have good professional fighters. That’s why they are not doing well unlike the Eastern Europeans, who have great amateur programs. The former Soviet Union bloc, they have great amateur programs. That’s why they are the most successful amateurs in the world.”
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