Rating the Risk: Ogden on the Boxing Scandal
Last week, the Georgian rugby team made headlines in Britain after European rugby officials denied the country a chance to be part of the Six Nations after recent stellar performances on the continent. The judgement was deemed unjust by many, due to the Georgians having consistently given even the titans of the sport a run for their money and sent everyone else packing. This week, Georgian sport made the British papers once again, but this time in boxing...and this time with something that, far from venerating Georgian athletes in Europe, could see Georgian fighters never compete on the continent again.
I should immediately admit that I have a personal stake in this story, since the article which ran in The Sun was investigated and put together by myself and a friend of mine on Fleet Street. I have had loose relations with the Professional Boxing Federation of Georgia since 2011, nothing beyond training in their gym, but I felt compelled to report their corruption when I fully learned of it, as well as give something of a more personal explanation here.
In brief, the Georgian Boxing Federation fakes the online records of its fighters in order to convince British and European promoters that their boxers are more experienced and capable than they really are. Bouts that are organized to raise the profiles of up-and-coming British or European fighters and build public interest, the principle job of every boxing promoter, will typically be fought against low-risk opposition, much of which is dredged from Eastern Europe. Many Eastern Europeans are known for being tough but not overly dangerous, and so the home fighter in Britain, Germany or Denmark can enjoy the support of their crowd of local fans while remaining confident that the fighter in the ring with them will not pose a serious challenge...although naturally, none of them would ever imagine that their opponent's record is almost entirely fake. For anyone interested enough to learn exactly how the scam is carried out, read the original article in The Sun.
Our boxer source within the Federation (who bravely stepped forward to tell the truth) told us that fellow Georgian fighters freely admit that they will feign harm in the early rounds and allow themselves to be counted out by the referee; whether they feign a knockout or are indeed iced in earnest, they still get paid at the end of the night. At this point you may be wondering what the harm in all this is; after all, the European and British fans still get to cheer their fighter onto victory over an unknown foreigner who still receives their pay despite the boos and jeers. If they are aware of the chance they are taking, then what's the danger?
The risk is, our source confirmed, that no Georgian fighters receive mandatory medical checks before flying off to fight against trained, prepared, and dangerous opposition, and the Georgian Federation routinely supplies the European and British boxing authorities with fabricated medical documents.
I remember meeting with one Georgian boxer in the gym a few years ago who would have spoken English, Russian and his native language well if he hadn't been slurring his words so heavily. 'Punch-drunk', they call it, and I remember thinking that he simply wouldn't have passed a mandatory brain scan in Britain, Germany or the USA.
This is especially frightening since last year saw Nick Blackwell, a well-prepared and very experienced British middleweight, collapse after a bout with a bleed on the brain, while Mike Towell, a Scottish welterweight, died from fighting with an undiagnosed brain condition; proof if proof were needed (and it isn't, not in a sport in which the objective is to hit someone else very hard in the head) that medical checks are beyond essential. Former undisputed heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis once said “You play football, you play tennis; you don't play boxing.” One punch can be enough to end, or at least irreversibly change, a life.
As well as drawing the attention of British and European promoters, our article also caused a reaction in Georgia, with a Georgian-language version appearing on sportall.ge and Rustavi 2, the biggest TV channel in the country, running a segment on it, even interviewing the President of the Georgian Boxing Federation and one of the Georgian fighters we exposed. The Ministry of Sport, despite not having any authority over the Federation, warned them to be far more careful in the future, but the Federation itself has denied all our accusations.
For our part, we are 100% confident in the information we gathered, and we have absolute faith in our source. But the Federation managers themselves are, of course, the only people who know the extent of their own activities. Personally, I take no satisfaction in having endangered the livelihoods of young men who need to earn money and believe that the only way of making a living is to go abroad and get battered, but I and cannot, and will not, apologise for preventing people from being exposed to unnecessary danger.
I am fully aware that the boxers themselves do not see things this way. Our source told us that one of their fellow fighters said that there is no risk since they just take a punch or two before lying down to fake a knockout; this way they have not taken a series of heavy blows, which normally forces a stoppage in the West. And yet I cannot but help think of Nick Blackwell last year, walking around the ring after his bout with Chris Eubank Jr.; defeated but not beaten as he grinned bashfully at his fans...only to drop to the canvas moments later as his brain began to bleed.
Mercifully, he recovered from the coma that followed, but Mike Towell, and many others over the years, have not been as lucky. The law of averages dictate that unprepared and untrained boxers with fake medical documentation are going to get seriously hurt fighting against determined opposition sooner rather than later.
Were I in a position to give any advice, I would also recommend that the Georgian Federation cease attempting to find our source, and consider that Boxrec expressed doubt in their records even before we exposed them for fakes. If our claims are untrue, the Federation should have no difficulty in producing the footage of the fake fights...although naturally, the longer this takes, the less legitimate it will appear. Furthermore, our accusations were not solely directed at Georgia, with Hungary, Bulgaria, Bosnia and some of the Baltic states also implicated. We set out to prove that the system of professional boxing is broken and can be exploited, not turn the screws on young Georgian men trying to make a living. However, nothing can be fixed if nobody is willing to admit that it's broken.
Boxing is a dangerous sport; not for nothing is it illegal in some countries throughout the world. It is inaccurate to say that the Georgian Professional Boxing Federation are playing with fire; they are, in fact, playing with young men's lives. After all, however dire the financial situation of young Georgians living in rural areas, nobody can provide for their family from a wheelchair or beyond the grave.
Cartoon: Brian Patrick Grady