New WBC president trying to change perception of sanctioning bodies

Kevin Iole
New WBC president trying to change perception of sanctioning bodies

LAS VEGAS – Mauricio Sulaiman's eyes moistened and darted frequently to the floor. It was still difficult for him to talk about his father without getting emotional.

Jose Sulaiman, the longtime president of the WBC, died of heart disease at 82 years old in January.

He'd been extremely close with his six children, and every day he was in the hospital at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, they were there at his bedside, comforting him in his final days as they awaited the inevitable.

Four months later, Mauricio Sulaiman has succeeded his father as the president of the WBC and is presiding over major WBC title fights in back-to-back weeks. Floyd Mayweather and Marcos Maidana fought for the WBC welterweight belt on May 3 in Las Vegas. On Saturday at the Galen Center in Los Angeles, Chris Arreola will face Bermane Stiverne for the vacant WBC heavyweight championship.

In some ways, it's heady times for the 44-year-old Sulaiman, a boxing lifer who also serves as the chief executive officer of Controles Graficos, the long-time family business in Mexico.

All of the greats of boxing of the last 50 years, stars such as Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya, made the pilgrimage to the Sulaiman home.

Mauricio Sulaiman remembers when he was very young seeing a teenaged boy in tattered clothing, obviously very poor, calling on his father to ask for his help in earning a better slot in the ratings. That boy, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., would go on to become the biggest boxing star in Mexico history.

As any son would be, Sulaiman is fiercely proud of his father for having become a significant figure in boxing. But his father's success, which landed him a slot in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, didn't come without a lot of pain.

For years, the media assaulted Jose Sulaiman, called him a criminal, questioned his character and ethics and compared him to an organized crime figure.

Even on the day of his death, a major boxing website classlessly referred to Jose Sulaiman as "reviled" in its obituary.

Jose Sulaiman was not a perfect man, as his son is the first to admit. He made many mistakes running the WBC.

But he also took an inordinate share of criticism for mistakes, real and imagined, that he made during his run as the head of the most significant sanctioning body in the world.

"I suffered a lot over the things I would read about my father," Mauricio Sulaiman said, turning his eyes to the floor. "To hear what they said about him at public events … I would take all of it very personally. My father understood that criticism was a part of the job. He didn't like it, but he understood it. But sometimes, it was so tough, it crossed a line. It was very personal and hateful.

"Sometimes, it was positive and trying to outline a mistake, but it was so often difficult to read and to listen to. This was my father. This was the man I loved and admired and respected, and these people making these personal criticisms, they didn't know him and didn't know the kind of man he was, and it hurt."

Jose Sulaiman was president of the WBC for 38 years and made thousands of decisions in that time. Many were correct; some, as his son concedes, were not.

But there is one common denominator, he insisted, about all of his father's mistakes.

"No mistake he made was with bad intentions or for personal gain," Mauricio Sulaiman said. "He lasted 38 years as president because he had no [financial] interest in the sport. He was not profiting from the sport, despite what anyone might have said or say now. The boxing world is the only one where the organization does not control the events."

The promoters, television networks and the fighters have the possibility to earn money from a fight, he pointed out. But the only income the sanctioning body receives is the sanction fee for a fight that the promoters and the fighters pay. That money, he said, goes back into running the organization and the president does not personally profit.

Sanctioning fees are three percent of a fighter's purse, though it is capped at $300,000.

Where the WBC, and the other major sanctioning bodies, have gotten into trouble is with the proliferation of titles and their frequently unfair rankings. Fighters who are in the good graces of the WBC or who are signed with promoters who are cozy with the sanctioning body often receive better rankings than those who are not.

When the modern sport of boxing began, there were eight weight classes: Flyweight (112 pounds), bantamweight (118), featherweight (126), lightweight (135), welterweight (147), middleweight (160), light heavyweight (175) and heavyweight (176 and over).

But now there are nine additional weight classes. While that expansion of the number of belts has made it confusing and taken the luster off of what it means to be a world champion, it was done for safety reasons, Mauricio Sulaiman said.

As an example, a boxer who weighed 165 and couldn't get down to the 160-pound middleweight limit was then forced to fight at the 175-pound light heavyweight division. That would often give the bigger man an advantage. As a result, the super middleweight division, with a limit of 168 pounds, was created.

Even worse, though, is the proliferation of other belts. The WBC has many regional titles, such as the NABF and the youth belt, but Sulaiman said those are misunderstood. And he said that the Diamond belt and the Gold belt that the WBC awarded in recent cases were funded by sponsors and were given to add a bit of prestige to a big event and for no other reason.

The gold belt was made with real gold and Ferrari leather, Sulaiman said, and was awarded to Mayweather when he defeated Canelo Alvarez.

He said the Diamond belt cost roughly $60,000 to make, while he said the Gold belt cost $135,000.

"People think we're doing this and awarding these belts to create confusion and to profit and that is wrong," he said. "With the Gold belt, nobody pays for the Gold belt. We went out and found a sponsor, which is the Mexico Tourism Board, and they paid for the belt. There were no additional charges to the fighters. Nothing. It was just a way to celebrate one of the biggest fights, commercially, that had been made.

"The Diamond belt, same thing. It is a trophy to celebrate a good event."

Sanctioning bodies often draw the ire of fans and media by stripping fighters and not allowing unification fights. Sulaiman said the WBC has always been willing to participate in championship unification bouts and said it would make a sincere effort to keep doing so in the future.

In addition, he said the organization wants to step up its support of safety measures. He said 100 percent of the money the WBC takes in goes back to boxing.

"Boxing is a hobby for us; not a profession," he said.

The WBC, through its WBC Cares program, has donated at least $10 million to medical research as well as to needy people in boxing, he said.

"We donate the money through the WBC Cares program to people in boxing who are in need; maybe a fighter's child, or a trainer who comes upon hard times, things like that," he said. "A lot of people don't understand that in boxing, less than one percent of people really make money. So many fighters are so poor, managers, trainers, all the people who are in the gyms day after day. They don't make money and they end up at 60, 70 years old living on their own without anything.

"We are always there to try to help these kinds of people and we have thousands of examples."

He's also spearheading an effort to make boxing gloves safer and to ban gloves that are dangerous. He is working to begin a tracking program so that a glove is never used for more than 30 rounds.

After 30 rounds, the padding can be moved and the punching area becomes mostly fist.

It's an example of the type of work that Sulaiman wants to define his tenure.

It's a good start, and even though he's likely never going to win over the cynics, it doesn't obscure the fact that it is good and important work.

Sanctioning bodies in general and the WBC in particular are far from perfect. But the WBC under Mauricio Sulaiman is beginning to take on a progressive feel that only bodes well for the future.

Time will tell and he'll have to back his words with actions, but his early days as president are promising, indeed.