By Paul Magno
Off in an apartment in Queens, New York, 27-year old underground boxing writer, Malcolm “Flash” Gordon, realized he was on to something bigger than big.
Known as a “sewer mongrel” and “beatnik pothead with body odor to boot” by those boxing scoundrels he outed in his writings, Gordon was a fixture on the New York City boxing circuit.
Standing out in front of Madison Square Garden and assorted other NYC venues, Gordon, along with a posse of true believers and well-wishers, sold his caustic “Flash Gordon’s Tonight’s Boxing Program & Weekly Newsletter,” a mimeographed fight program that provided spot-on boxing analysis and brutally honest criticisms of the sport’s shadier elements.
The fragile-looking, disheveled boxing writer labeled “The greatest anti-hero boxing ever had” by Bert Sugar, had almost ten years invested into the fight against boxing corruption and had made some dangerous enemies while self-publishing his boxing rants and cynical parodies of prominent boxing figures such as Don King and Bob Arum.
With his reach growing and his writings handed around among insiders like Playboy Magazines at a junior high school, Gordon was about to help uncover one of boxing’s biggest scandals and, in the process, forever change the face of the game.
It was 1976 and Gordon had noticed a weird feasting frenzy going on among small-time fight managers who, suddenly, were aligning themselves with Don King.
Gordon focused on this odd turn of events and the sudden prominence of several club fighters in the pages of the beloved and mainstream Ring Magazine.
Meanwhile, in the mega-polished world of network TV, 32-year old associate producer for ABC Sports, Alex Wallau, was getting the same queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach as Gordon.
Assigned with helping produce ABC’s The United States Boxing Championships, Wallau, himself a knowledgeable fight fan, was becoming increasingly worried about the quality of the fighters being drafted into the Don King-run tournament.
Concerned about Wallau’s findings and fueled by “Flash” Gordon’s red-hot rhetoric, ABC rounded up all organizing parties prior to the kick-off of the tourney in January, 1977 and had all of them give affidavits, affirming the honesty and integrity of the event.
Don King and two members of his self-appointed championship committee: John Ort, Associate Editor of Ring Magazine and New York State Athletic Commission chairman, James A. Farley Jr. swore that the tournament was on the level and that absolutely nothing shady was going on.
With that, the tournament to crown the “Best of the US” kicked off.
The United States Boxing Championships was the brainchild of infamous promoter, Don King.
Looking to take advantage of the patriotic Bicentennial mood, as well as the popularity of the Rocky movie and the great success of the 1976 Olympic boxing team, which brought home 5 gold medals, King conceived the tournament as a feel-good slam dunk and sold the idea to ABC Television.
The concept was simple–a US-based tournament in each weight class to crown undisputed American champions across the board.
King realized that in order to gain credibility for the tournament and acceptance from the corporate-types for such a large project, he had to reach out and make some partnerships for this venture.
In came Ring Magazine, the self-proclaimed “Bible of Boxing,” which had been seeing dwindling circulation numbers every year since 1962, but was still holding tight to an image of respectability.
“I needed their reputation and their ratings and their sanction to give validity and authority to the tournament,” King told Sports Illustrated in the planning stages of the tourney.
With the backing of Ring Magazine and the support of NY State Athletic Commission chairman, James A. Farley Jr., ABC ate up the idea and invested $1.5 million into King’s tournament, despite still having some reservations about dealing so closely with the controversial promoter.
Ring Magazine would be paid $70,000 for allowing King to use their rankings as the basis for the tournament structure and would also get much-needed publicity on network TV to help their sagging sales figures.
True to form, though, King would not be happy with a fair and even playing field.
With ABC network money in hand and the awesome bargaining chip of prime, network exposure, King leveraged his TV deal into forcing tournament participants to sign exclusive contracts with him as a requisite for entering the tournament.
King proudly boasted of only getting reimbursed production costs for his idea, but what he was actually doing was much bigger than mere ABC money. He was trying to corner the market by signing every US champion in every weight class to exclusive promotional and managerial deals.
Some fighters, such as Marvin Hagler, refused the deal and, as a result, were passed over.
When the dust settled and King had assembled his line-up of willing tournament participants, he had to justify the fact that many were hopelessly under-qualified club fighters or inactive journeymen. It was now time for Ring Magazine to re-pay the “favor” he had done for them.
Associate Editor, John Ort, who was head of the rankings board, suddenly started making some strange rankings decisions.
Inactive former middleweight and Texas policeman, Ike Fluellen, found himself ranked #10 in Ring Magazine and was even credited with two phantom victories in Mexico after signing a deal with a manager close to
King and the tournament.
The following month, as the tourney approached and without having even laced up the gloves, Fluellen found himself placed at a lofty #3. He was even awarded an honorable mention for the 1976 Progress Award of the Year.
Eleven fighters, in total, were found to have falsified records and unearned spots in Ring Magazine’s rankings just prior to the kick-off of the
ABC tournament, something which Ring Magazine editor and publisher, Nat Loubet, attributed to clerical errors and unsubstantiated records submitted by managers.
Still, the tournament began, fighting in unconventional venues, out of state commission jurisdiction, such as U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Lexington, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the Marion, Ohio Correctional Institution, where King had served four years for manslaughter.
The rankings scandal and ABC’s growing discomfort would likely have remained shelved if not for the Scott LeDoux-Johnny Boudreaux fight in the heavyweight portion of the tourney.
After losing a controversial decision to Boudreaux, LeDoux stormed the post-fight interview, creating a melee that would wind up knocking off Howard Cosell’s toupee on live, network TV.
LeDoux, who was one of the few non-King controlled fighters in the tourney, would also inform the press covering the contest, including a recovered Howard Cosell, that he was told he would lose the fight prior to arriving at the venue and that the tournament was rigged to favor only those with contractual ties to Don King and his associates, Al Braverman and Paddy Flood.
CBS, filming a segment on King for their Who’s Who show, captured the disturbance and, in an aggressive news piece by Dan Rather, released weeks later, would rip ABC, King, the tournament, and even CBS’s own involvement in the shady world of professional boxing.
The scathing indictment would send ABC Sports into a panic and, amidst the slow release of affidavits from tournament participants who insisted that rankings and paydays were offered in exchange for exclusive management deals and stories about various favors, including envelopes stuffed with cash, being delivered to the members of King’s tournament committee , ABC immediately canceled the United States Boxing Championships.
As is usually the case with boxing scandals, the truly guilty escaped justice with Don King passing the legal buck to his associates, allowing them to be sanctioned in his place.
Ring Magazine suffered few repercussions, forced to sacrifice much of their reputation, but then bringing in new staff to revamp their image.
They are back in the business of issuing rankings and, now, even issue “world” titles that are regarded by many as the only “legit” world titles in boxing.
Former NY State Athletic Commission Chairman, James Farley, was forced to relinquish his position. He would pass away nine years later from heart failure.
The big winners in the Ring Magazine Scandal would be the sanctioning bodies, who the networks would end up turning to as an authoritative source in the void created by Ring Magazine’s loss of credibility. The power given to the two sanctioning bodies, the WBC and WBA, would inspire the appearance of two more major sanctioning bodies- the IBF and WBO.
And Malcolm “Flash” Gordon, the underground boxing scribe who had been screaming to high heaven about the sleazy Don King tournament from the moment of its inception?
He would continue with his handmade, mimeographed boxing programs, an unsung hero in a sport which rarely recognizes those who love it the most.
Gordon would eventually give up his tiring, frustrating battle against boxing injustice.
Slipping into obscurity, Gordon would become a recluse and, by all accounts, give up all interest in boxing.