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Friday, January 09, 2009
Losers by AKO: Round 2
As a New Commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission Begins Her Tenure, The Question is Begged as to Whether Two Former World Champions That Were Placed on Administrative Suspension by Her Predecessor Could Have Done Anything to Reclaim Their Boxing Licenses (Continued)
by Paul Stuart Haberman, Esq.
The Arguments Not Made on Behalf of Holyfield and Jones
What arguments could Evander Holyfield or Junior Jones have offered in support of a lawsuit against the Commission? While it would be difficult to show an “error of law” with regard to the Commission’s administrative suspensions, given the wide latitude that it has in administering them, one argument that could have been made was that their suspensions were “arbitrary and capricious.” With Holyfield and Jones, it appears that their early blessings, in terms of ability and talent, became their curses. An argument could be made that they were arbitrarily and with caprice held to a higher standard than the average opponent that is brought in to lose, a local ticket seller of limited capability to begin with, or a more lightly regarded world class contender or titleholder. Perhaps a statistical analysis could have been done of those who were not suspended in New York despite a number of particularly brutal or telling losses over the later portion of their careers. Indeed, Muhammad Ali had success in his lawsuit against the Commission by demonstrating that the basis provided for the denial of his license, his criminal conviction for evading the draft, was arbitrary and capricious after he was able to show that there were scores of individuals with criminal convictions that were granted licenses by the Commission prior to the denial of his application. Similarly, Holyfield or Jones could have attempted to document the losses taken in the later portion of the careers of other boxers that fought in New York around the same time that they were suspended. If a statistically remarkable amount of boxers showed an appreciable decline in their skill levels, but were granted licenses, perhaps a successful argument could have been made that the Commission acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner when it handed down their administrative suspensions.
Alternately, Holyfield and Jones could have also argued that their respective administrative suspensions lacked rational bases. Holyfield could have made the argument that he simply had a bad night against Larry Donald, himself a former Olympian and top 25 boxer at that time, and that the losses that he suffered prior to the Donald fight were to top flight competition and not to the heavyweight division’s peasant class. Jones, who had not fought in three years prior to his suspension, could have argued that his suspension lacked a rational basis, as it came about without as much as a single comeback fight to demonstrate what abilities he may have had left following his three-year hiatus from the ring.
Each of the above arguments could have been rebutted by the Commission by virtue of the fact that it is bestowed with the ability, under Section 1812 of the Unconsolidated Laws of New York, to “exercise its discretion” in determining whether a boxer has the “general fitness” to be given a license. With regard to a claim that it acted arbitrarily and capriciously with regard to Holyfield, the Commission could have argued that Holyfield, in showing porous defense, minimal offense, and marked lethargy in his loss to Donald, appeared wholly unable to compete any longer on a world class level in boxing and was a threat to his own well-being for as long as he continued to take on the caliber of boxer that he been facing for so many years. In short, the Commission could have stated that Holyfield no longer had the “general fitness” to continue boxing in New York State. Jones, the Commission could have argued, had lost to a boxer that was not on his level in his last match three years earlier, was only three years older at the time he was suspended, and generally appeared more vulnerable to a lesser caliber of boxers that had been the case earlier in his career. Thus, the Commission could have argued Jones was also a threat to his own well-being and that he too did not have the “general fitness” to continue boxing in New York State.
The rational basis arguments could have been rebutted on substantially similar grounds as the arbitrary and capricious arguments. Briefly, the Commission could have argued that it rationally exercised its discretion in finding, through its subjective observations, that Holyfield and Jones did not demonstrate the “general fitness” to box in New York State anymore. In support of their claims, the Commission could have submitted affidavits and sworn testimony on what its members, licensees, and other boxing insiders had observed with regard to each boxer in the months and years preceding their suspensions.
Even Winners Can Be Losers
Whether or not Holyfield and Jones could have succeeded in court on the merits of the above- proffered arguments, or others not advanced herein, a bigger nemesis faced each of them in the event that they lost their initial appeals to the Commission: Father Time. Lawsuits, barring early resolutions, take an appreciable amount of time to make their way through the New York State court system. At the time of their suspensions, Holyfield was already 43-years-old and Jones was 35. In boxing years, time was of the essence to each of their careers. Even if they had fought the decisions to administratively suspend them and won, they would have already lost additional months and years off of the tail end of their careers.
Whatever someone’s personal opinion is of whether or not Evander Holyfield or Junior Jones should have been cleared to continue boxing by the Commission, their administrative suspensions raise some intriguing questions about the powerful sway that the Commission can have over a boxer’s career. Taken to its logical extreme, if the Commission observes a single sparring session in which a formerly untouchable boxer takes an unusual beating, or someone overhears a single conversation during a night of boxing at the Roseland Ballroom where a once capable boxer sounds a little more garbled than he used to, the AKO can be scored against them with little chance of their winning a successful appeal of it. As Melvina Lathan, a long-time professional boxing judge, ventures deeper into her new position as the Chairwoman of the New York State Athletic Commission after replacing Ron Scott Stevens, the man who was ultimately responsible for suspending Holyfield and Jones, one has to wonder if she too will be inclined to take such powerful measures to hasten the end of the careers of other professional boxers. If so, who will be next on the chopping block? Perhaps it will be another aging legend or two. Or perhaps it will be a boxer that you manage or promote if he does not give Lathan and the Commission the right signals while fighting, sparring, or conversing in New York State’s gyms and fight venues. The moral of the story: Even if a veteran boxer protects himself at all times in New York, the administrative suspension can split his guard and end his career in a flash.
[This article will be published in the Spring 2009 issue of the New York State Bar Association's Entertainment and Sports Law Journal]
Paul Stuart Haberman, Esq. is an attorney at the New York law firm of Heidell, Pittoni, Murphy & Bach, L.L.P. He is also a New York State licensed boxing manager and the Chairman of the Sports Law Committee of the New York County Lawyers Association. Mr. Haberman represented Junior Jones’s manager back in 2006. Also available at http://www.8countnews.com (with footnotes). ©