Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Interview with WBF President Howard Goldberg

When is a Sanctioning Body Not a Bad Word?
When it’s the World Boxing Federation
By Alex Pierpaoli
originally published 12/31/13 on

Ask almost any fight fan what they think is boxing's biggest problem and the discussion will very quickly turn towards the sanctioning bodies that control the sport. Whether it's their rankings, their cushy relationships with certain promoters or nations, or the abundance of titles, there's plenty for a fight fan to complain about. But as we say goodbye to one of the best years that boxing has seen in a while there is also one sanctioning body that is carving out a spot for itself as something refreshingly different.

Based in South Africa, the World Boxing Federation President Howard Goldberg expresses the same opinions you'll hear from diehard fans of prizefighting. "I think the legitimate boxing fan is becoming a little irritated with the magnitude of different titles and of meaningless tiles. When you have an interim silver title what the hell does it mean?"

Goldberg's organization, re-structured from top to bottom and re-established in 2009, is more interested in championships that mean something to both fan and fighter. "We have three titles," Goldberg says. "The World, the Intercontinental and the Regional. Those are our titles, full stop."

Perhaps the biggest cause of eye-rolling for the fight-fan is the dreaded interim title belt, and Goldberg agrees it's not a practice his WBF wants to indulge in. "Under very, very exceptional circumstances.
We have done it once, but it’s not common practice and our policy is not to do it…It’s not our policy to speak poorly about other organizations it is our policy to be the best we can be."

So what is it that makes the WBF differ from the sport's alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies?

"Transparency, honesty, trying to bring back legitimacy to boxing, keeping the abundance of titles down to a minimum," Goldberg theorizes. "Nothing under the table with the WBF, what you see is what you get. We have open rules meetings…We’re not fickle, we’re not false. We are honorable…That’s not to say we’re perfect…we do need to represent ourselves better with promoters. We are trying to bring back legitimacy with boxing, we think we’ve already done that with women and we’d like to do it with the men."

In 2013 the WBF sanctioned 28 women's championship bouts and in November Jennifer Salinas defeated Yolis Franco to win the WBF Super Bantamweight Title in Bolivia and what followed was nothing short of thrilling. 

"We had a show with 15,000 people," Goldberg exclaimed. "Afterwards, she walked in the street with her belt around her waist with about 3 thousand people following her." And it is that sort of connection with the public that boxing benefits from tremendously.

It is in the rating of fighters where sanctioning bodies often open themselves up to criticism. Nothing gets a fight-fan's blood boiling like when unheralded fighters suddenly receive choice positions in the rankings because of their political connections rather than due to fistic merit. But the WBF stands firm against such occurrences.

"We use BoxRec which is independent and we sometimes use the IBO ratings because they are independent. What we do is go mainly by BoxRec…we don’t want people to come to us asking for favors. We don’t want manipulations of ratings for certain promoters. We want objectivity…There’s no manipulation, no favors, it is what it is."

The issue of fighter safety is another that Goldberg treats with the utmost seriousness, especially in a year like 2013 when heavyweight Magohmed Abdulsalamov and featherweight Jose Carmona were permanently disabled in high profile bouts and Frankie Leal died due to injuries suffered in a prize-fight in October.

Goldberg described The Punishment Index as a method used on the African continent to gauge the amount of damage a fighter sustains in each bout and one that works well when sensible, competent officials are using it. In each fight the amount of punishment a fighter sustains is given a score and depending on the successive damage taken in fights, a boxer can be sent to undergo a brain scan or be forced to take time off from fighting and sparring to recover from really damaging brutal fights.

"We do believe in the Punishment Index," Goldberg explains. "There should be monitoring…especially those who lose weight dramatically before a fight.  Most of the time it’s fighters who dehydrate and lose the fluid around the brain[who suffer serious damage]. The world needs to tighten up on regulations. I’d rather be proactive than reactive. The fact of the matter is that boxing is a brutal sport, it’s a tough sport and people know that when they get involved."

Goldberg believes that so much of the danger inherent in boxing can be reduced, but never entirely eliminated, by having attentive, humane cornermen and excellent referees.

"The bottom line is we need sensible people in the corners who have their fighter’s best interest—medical best interest—at heart."

Over the years, Goldberg has worked in the sport in numerous capacities and on one occasion as a referee he stopped a fight when one boxer was receiving too much punishment. "After six or seven rounds of one-sided traffic I went to the corner and said this fight is over. They looked at me and said what are you talking about? You’ve lost every round badly without really being hurt…his face was a total mess…That corner was very cross at the time but the next day they thanked me for stopping the fight." 

For Goldberg, being proactive rather than reactive in the area of fighter safety is an absolute must, even when it comes down to how he advises the referees in WBF contests. 

"You stop the fight too soon rather than too late," Goldberg instructs them. "If you stop a fight too soon and the public wants to hang you I’ll handle it…If you stop it too early I will back you, if you stop it too late I won't back you."

The WBF works as hard as possible to insure that the utmost in medical attention is paid to the fighters despite the inherent risk in such a bruising contact sport.

"My first question is, are the fighters licensed…do they have insurance in case anything happens? Do you have an ambulance at the event, without an ambulance we don’t go ahead. Have you consulted the nearest neurosurgical hospital to let them know?
What I do is I personally phone the hospital to double-check. Are you aware there is a boxing event happening. In the event of something happening are you ready…We try to be as cautious as we can."

Boxing will always have fights that end tragically and bouts that leave the combatants permanently damaged but Goldberg's goal is to reduce the chances of such things to a minimum.

"It’s no different from rock climbing," Goldberg describes. "You’ve got these crazy guys who climb these straight mountains. Well, they’ve got equipment now which is incredibly expensive and incredibly safe but there are fatalities on the mountain. So boxing is the same. It’s a dangerous sport, we know that. But let’s put the equipment into place and make it as safe as we can knowing that occasionally something is not going to go 100 percent correctly."

As to its president, the WBF's Howard Goldberg comes to boxing after working as a primary school principal and in his youth he was a talented chess player. The connection between the strategy applied in chess as compared to the sweet science is certainly not one that is lost on him.

"It’s a very strategic sport, boxing. You need to counter styles… it’s not just about punching it’s about thinking…If he leads with a jab how am I going to counter it. Absolutely, there’s a connection." Goldberg is also aware of the affinity both Klitschko brothers have for the game of chess and joked about his prospects against the Ukrainian heavies and challenging either of them to a game. 

"If I beat you at chess," Goldberg postulated jokingly, "will you fight for our title? They’re quite good players but in my youth I was a good player."

Based in South Africa, the WBF is front and center for a lot of exceptional boxing talent. Currently, in the cruiserweight division alone there are 3 South African boxers in the top dozen fighters in the world. And fighters like flyweight Moruti Mthalane and featherweight Simpiwe Vetyeka are South Africans who made significant gains in 2013.

"South Africa has great fighters," Goldberg said. "The sad thing about South Africa is that we’ve got terrible administrators…If we can get our administration right in South Africa it will be great but that’s easier said than done."

South Africa is certainly not alone in laying claim to its share of terrible administrators but as to the administration of professional prizefighting, the World Boxing Federation is changing what people think about sanctioning bodies.

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