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Fighting the good fight with Ali

Op-ed: I fought the good fight, for better regulations within the sport of boxing, with Muhammad Ali.

In September 2004, as chairman of the Legal Committee for the Association of Boxing Commissions and general counsel to the Association of Ringside Physicians, I was honored and privileged to be invited to testify before a congressional subcommittee at a hearing entitled Examining Professional Boxing: Are Further Reforms Necessary — as was Muhammad Ali.

The hearing room was packed with reporters, photographers and spectators — all anticipating the appearance of Ali. I could see flashes of light emanating from the anteroom where members of Congress were having their photos taken with The Champ. The legislators soon filed into the hearing room, taking their assigned seats in the two tiers they occupied. With the room then in complete silence, the anteroom door opened again, and Muhammad Ali walked over the threshold to the sounds of cameras furiously clicking.

I watched in awe, but also with overwhelming emotion, as Ali, in the company of his wife, Lonnie, and his attorney from Los Angeles (Ron DiNicola), shuffled, with one arm shaking uncontrollably, to the witness table. My beloved father had passed away three months earlier as a result of the insidious disease known as Parkinson's, and I swallowed hard three times in an effort to keep my emotions under control.

Ali was unable to verbalize his testimony in support of the pending legislation, which included the creation of a United States Boxing Commission; instead, his wife read his testimony and opening statement into the record. In part, Ali said:

For all its difficulties, boxing is still a wonderful sport. It still attracts men and women from all walks of life to reach for glory in the ring. For many, it is their first experience with hard work, determination and discipline. For still others, it remains the only way up and out from a life filled with bad choices, failure or worse.

Some say it is a miracle that a black boy named for a slave master and born in the segregated south can grow up and become one of the most recognized (and prettiest) men on the face of the earth. In truth, it is a miraculous story that springs from the deepest wells of America. And, in this case, boxing was the vehicle for my success.

This is not uncommon. Armed with the discipline they learned from boxing, many go on to achieve success or even greatness in other professions and raise children who do [also]. They become doctors, lawyers, teachers or even members of Congress. As in the case of my old friend Nelson Mandela, the courage instilled from boxing allows them to endure great hardship and become great leaders.

In sum, Mr. Chairman, there is nothing wrong with boxing that we cannot fix. I urge this subcommittee to seize this opportunity to complete the important work you have begun.

Following the presentation of testimony by the panel of witnesses of which I was a part, urging for greater regulations to combat "connivance, coercion and, all too often, corruption" in the sport, a congressman posed the following question: "If boxing is so fraught with all of these problems, and this is the way you want it, why shouldn't we enact legislation which would ban boxing in this country? Anyone of you want to answer that?"

I looked to my right, then to my left, and after noting that no one had indicated a desire to respond to the congressman's question, I raised my hand and said:

Congressman, in response to your question, I must first ask you a question: "Who are you referring to when you say, 'and this is the way you want it?' ... It certainly is not the way the regulators, ringside physicians and others who care about the health, safety and welfare of the fighters want it. As for the remainder of your inquiry, I respectfully defer to the eloquence of Mr. Ali."

There were no further questions.

Epilogue: Twice, after passing the Senate with unanimous affirmation, legislation providing for a United States Boxing Commission died in various House of Representatives committees. On the third and final effort, after passing the Senate with unanimous affirmation and making its way to the floor of the House of Representatives, by "voice vote," the measure passed with the "ayes" having it. However, a member of the House demanded a "roll call" vote. The chamber then cleared for lunch; and when the proceedings resumed, the House chamber was filled with more than 400 members. A roll call vote was taken; the measure failed by 19 votes.

The story goes that prior to the introduction of the legislation which would have provided for a United States Boxing Commission, Sen. John McCain was successful in defeating energy legislation sponsored by then House Majority Leader Tom Delay, and the death of the commission effort was political payback.

Regardless, Ali's legacy, including his advocacy regarding the need for a United States Boxing Commission, will be with us always and will continue to define him as "The Greatest."

Bruce C. Spizler (bspizler@gmail.com) is retired from the Maryland Attorney General's Office; he serves as general counsel, corporate secretary and a board member for the Association of Ringside Physicians.

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