Boxing’s Weight Game: Our Legalized Cheat

Andre Ward v Edwin Rodriguez - Weigh In

by Paul Magno

Boxing’s ugly and dangerous taste for weight manipulation can be traced back to L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington DC, just six blocks from the Capitol, where about 100 law enforcement officials had sealed off the luxury hotel in overkill anticipation of a full-scale riot. The year was 1983.

Inside, a scuffle had broken out between members of the Michael Spinks entourage and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad’s team, which was reenforced by Muhammad’s buddies in the “Assassins,” a Brooklyn-based motorcycle “club.”

It had just been announced that the highly-anticipated Spinks-Muhammad rematch, for Spinks’ WBA light heavyweight title and scheduled for later that evening at the DC Armory, would be called off due to Muhammad’s inability to make the 175 lb. limit.

Earlier in the day, Muhammad, who had a notorious love-hate relationship with the scale, had weighed in 2.5 lbs. above the weight limit. Rather than use the commission-allotted two hours to drop the excess weight, he would claim that the scale was rigged, eat breakfast, and then take a nap back in his hotel room.

A deal was rapidly put together to save the event and to keep the event’s broadcaster, HBO, from losing their sizable monetary investment. The bout was changed from a 12-round championship contest to a 10-round non-title fight, with each fighter taking a 50% hit on their respective purses.

However, under the advice of trainer Eddie Futch, Spinks, who had scored a unanimous decision victory over Muhammad to win the title two years earlier, opted not to go along with the new deal.

The cancellation, announced shortly before the Armory doors were to open, sparked the near riot and also an initiative to change official weigh-ins to the day before the event.

Passed off as a safety procedure to prevent dehydrated fighters from entering the ring, the timing of the decision to move the weigh-in tells a different story.

As is usually the case in boxing, reform is slow and half-assed– unless the power brokers’ money is involved. In this case, the cancellation of Spinks-Muhammad II cost HBO a minor fortune and lost the promoters, as well as the venue owner, a sizable chunk of change.

A change had to be made to prevent something like this from happening again. And in this one, singular case– perhaps a first in the entire history of the sport– the reform was swift, decisive, and permanent.

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Thirty years later.

Boxing weigh-ins are usually about as eventful as any other bit of pre-fight publicity– except when a high-profile fight is threatened by a failure to make the agreed-upon weight limit.

On Friday, Edwin Rodriguez weighed-in two pounds over the 168 lb. limit for his shot at super middleweight champ Andre Ward on Saturday and was unwilling/unable to drop the excess poundage in the two hours given to him by the California commission.

As a consequence, the HBO-televised contest would be made into a non-title affair and Rodriguez would be fined 20% of his career-high million dollar purse, with half of that fine going to Ward. He would also be subjected to a second weigh-in on Saturday morning that could’ve caused a full cancellation if he had weighed more than 180 lbs.

And, as expected, the experts, pundits, and glassy-eyed keyboard-pounders of the boxing media philosophized on the “weight issue” in boxing and how to fix it. The solutions, also as expected, were merely variations of existing rules and regulations. For a sport that has become a regulatory horror show and a true inmates-running-the-asylum situation, there should be at least a few people in its media willing to think outside the box. There aren’t.

Weight manipulation is a major issue in the sport and, likely, the cause of many of boxing’s fatalities and near fatalities. Fighters who routinely compete below their natural body weight are playing an ugly game with their insides, putting themselves at risk of serious injury by dehydrating themselves and then, in the day or so between weigh-in and the fight, quickly re-hydrating to a much higher weight.

The primary danger to the fighter is in the increased vulnerability of the brain, slow to rebuild its jelly-like protective layer due to dehydration.

However, the benefits of this weight-fixing are obvious. Take notice of Arturo Gatti, who nearly killed Joey Gamache in a 2000 junior welterweight bout when he entered the ring as a middleweight, putting on 19 pounds between weigh-in Friday and fight night Saturday. You could also ask Miguel Cotto, who stopped DeMarcus Corley via TKO in 5 rounds in 2005 after adding 17 pounds to his frame in the 30 or so hours after the official weigh-in.

Almost everywhere, fighters are engaged in this legalized cheat. And in a sport where the most minute detail can make the difference between a win and a loss, it’s not hard to understand why a trainer and his fighter would enter into such an arrangement.

Really, it comes down to this– Do it and possibly get an advantage or don’t do it and be at a disadvantage against your opponent, who probably is playing the weight game.

Day-before weigh-ins have only been around for 30 years. Before that, the official weigh-ins were conducted on the same day of the fight. In some countries (For instance, in most non-governing body-sanctioned bouts in Mexico), weigh-ins still take place the morning of the event.

Those who preach fighter safety should rally behind the cause of fighters fighting within their own, natural (and healthy) weight range.

In an era overrun by strength and conditioning coaches who shove nutritional supplements down fighters’ throats and hook them up to all sorts of odd contraptions, the most basic rule of fighter safety is being ignored. They’d rather supplement the life force lost from a 190 lb. man fighting at 168 lbs. than insist that he not lose that life force in the first place. The logic is baffling. Almost like drilling a second hole in a sinking boat to let out the water from the first hole.

You can talk fines and penalties ’til you’re blue in the face, but nothing will change when there’s so much more incentive in trying to pull a boxing-supported fast one to get the upper hand on your opponent.

For the sake of the safety and well-being of the fighters, boxing needs to go back to same day weigh-in and make the athletes and trainers accountable for maintaining a reasonable weight. Fighters who can’t/won’t be professional and make their weight will be weeded out and ostracized by networks and promoters. It may result in a few last minute cancellations here and there, but in the long run, it will produce better ring performances and provide for increased safety in a sport where safety should always be the top priority.
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