Racist tweets, controversial scorecards and champions galore: WBA is failing boxing and its fans

·Combat columnist
·8 min read

The president of the World Boxing Association (WBA) told Yahoo Sports on Monday that the sanctioning body expanded the number of world titles it offers as a result of financial strains caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Gilbert Mendoza Jr. also disavowed racist tweets that were made by WBA judge Gloria Martinez Rizzo in which Rizzo, among other things, referred to former first lady Michelle Obama as “monkey face.” Mendoza said he hadn’t seen the tweets until after the scoring controversy arose over Rizzo’s card in a fight on Saturday in Minneapolis.

She has since deleted her Twitter account. Mendoza said racist tweets “are never appropriate” but said he wanted to talk personally to Rizzo before making any further comment.

He said he’d order a rematch of Saturday’s controversial welterweight title bout between Gabriel Maestre and Mykal Fox as well as conduct a review of the scoring. 

Rizzo’s score of 117-110 for Maestre ignited enormous controversy on social media. Judge John Mariano scored it 115-112 for Maestre, while David Singh had it 114-113.

Promoter Lou DiBella, a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, wrote on Twitter a day after the fight, “Incompetence of officials is a problem in boxing, but the robbery last night in #MaestreFox had nothing to do with incompetence. It was purposeful, foreseeable and emblematic of a corrupt, broken system.”

“I’m confused as you are,” Mendoza told Yahoo Sports. “I’m passionate about this sport. If you want to take that away from me, OK. I’m seeing all of this on social media saying I’m corrupt, they should file a RICO case, all this. I understand there is a lot of confusion and a lot of anger. I’m going to start working on it. I said last week we’re going to try to reduce the number of titles [we offer] and to make other changes. … But it’s difficult to see some of what people are saying.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 14: The WBA Super Middleweight Championship belt is seen during the official weigh-in at Madison Square Garden on December 14, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
The number of WBA championship belts has only grown in recent years. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

WBA president: Pandemic forced our hand

Sanctioning bodies have long been an issue, as well as a source of controversy in boxing. Unlike in mixed martial arts, where a promoter such as the UFC also serves as the de facto sanctioning body, that’s not the case in boxing.

In boxing, there are four major titles: The IBF, the WBA, the WBC and the WBO. If one boxer holds all four of them, he or she is referred to as the undisputed champion. If one boxer holds two or three, he or she is a unified champion.

The Maestre-Fox bout in Minneapolis on Saturday was for the interim WBA welterweight title. Jamal James won the WBA interim welterweight title on Aug. 8, 2020 in Los Angeles. Without fighting since, James was elevated from interim WBA champion to regular WBA champion. And on Sept. 6, 2020, Yordenis Ugas won a split decision over Abel Ramos in Los Angeles to become the WBA champion.

On Jan. 29, the WBA declared Pacquiao its champion in recess without giving him any advance notice or warning. Pacquiao had been the super WBA welterweight champion after beating Keith Thurman on July 20, 2019.

This is hard to follow for the people in the sport, like those who manage or promote the fighters. Imagine what it must be like for fans who simply want to know the stakes of what they’re watching.

It is, I told Mendoza, one of the many ways that is causing to fans to lose interest in boxing. Many watched the then-40-year-old Pacquiao defeat Thurman in a stunning performance, but then lose his belt without any notification before the organization had even awarded it to him. 

Imagine if an NFL team won a playoff game, but the next week the NFL ordered a new playoff game to be held.

It turns it into chaos and eventually, fans walk away from it. Mendoza said he gets that and sounded chastened as he said he’d try to be part of the solution and not the problem going forward.

Of course, he’s said that repeatedly in the past and taken no action. He’s only let it get worse.

“I don’t neglect those comments,” Mendoza said when Yahoo Sports told him the WBA’s actions were harming the integrity of the sport and turning away fans. “I’m looking for ways always to improve the sport. Boxing is affected by a lot of things. I’m not going to say all of them, but the things you mentioned, yes, I agree. I apologize publicly to Manny for what happened. There was a plan regarding that situation that changed because of the pandemic.”

(L-R) Gabriel Maestre won a close unanimous decision over Mykal Fox to win the interim WBA welterweight title on Saturday in Minneapolis. (Sean Michael Ham/Premier Boxing Champions)
(L-R) Gabriel Maestre won a close unanimous decision over Mykal Fox to win the interim WBA welterweight title on Saturday in Minneapolis. (Sean Michael Ham/Premier Boxing Champions)

Another fight night, another new WBA champion

Yahoo Sports also challenged Mendoza on why Maestre, who entered Saturday’s bout with a 3-0 record, is even qualified to fight for a world title. He’s in a division with elite fighters like Pacquiao, Errol Spence Jr., Terence Crawford, Thurman, Shawn Porter, Jaron Ennis and Ugas and managed to qualify for a title fight.

Yes, Maestre is 34 years old and in his four pro fights fought opponents with records of 20-0, 27-5-1, 16-4-1 and 22-2. He was also successful as an amateur, but it’s still galling that he was able to fight for a title so quickly.

He was a good amateur, but he was nowhere near the caliber of Vasiliy Lomachenko, a two-time gold medalist who was 396-1 as an amateur. Lomachenko should be the exception, not the rule. But Maestre’s case isn’t the only one of the WBA doing that in the last year.

On Aug. 8, 2020, on the same card in which James won his belt at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, 2-0 David Morrell won the interim WBA super middleweight title.

Morrell was an excellent amateur, but beating Yendris Rodriguez Valdez in his pro debut and Quinton Rankin in his second fight should not qualify one for a title fight, especially at just 22 years old.

But Mendoza laid some of the blame for that on the promoters and the TV networks.

“If a promoter comes to us and wants us to sanction a fight [for a title], if we don’t do it, you know they’re going to go to one of the other ones and one of them will sanction it,” Mendoza said. “You know that promoters rule this sport. … And you can’t deny that the TV [networks] have the promoters in the bag. They want title fights.”

What the TV networks should want rather than title fights is compelling, competitive, evenly matched and action-filled fights. If it happens to be for a title, all the better.

Mendoza: Controversy is never going to go away entirely

Mendoza said the WBA planned to take a look at all of its actions and hoped to improve. He said he’ll announce a plan next week to vastly reduce the number of titles it awards. He said one of his ideas is to put eight-man tournaments together like what the World Boxing Super Series does to try to find a top contender to have that person fight its champion.

He admitted that the WBA began sanctioning more fights for titles last year because of financial issues brought on by the pandemic.

“I won’t lie to you and yes, during the pandemic, we did that because it was a way to help us remain sustainable,” Mendoza said. “But there are a lot of things we do that people don’t see.”

One of those, he said, is the creation of a boxing academy in Medellin, Colombia, which is attempting to train new referees, judges and trainers, as well as creating opportunities for boxers.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 21: (L-R) Manny Pacquiao, WBA president Gilberto Mendoza and Keith Thurman pose for the media during a press conference at Gotham Hall in preparation for their upcoming fight on May 21, 2019 in New York City. Pacquiao and Thurman will meet for the world welterweight championship title on July 20, in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by J. Yim/Getty Images)
(L-R) Manny Pacquiao, WBA president Gilberto Mendoza and Keith Thurman pose for the media on May 21, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by J. Yim/Getty Images)

He said one way to eliminate controversies over scoring is by training and bringing in more and better judges.

“Controversy is never going to go away entirely over [scoring] no matter if you have the three best judges in the world working every fight, because everyone has their opinion of what they see,” he said. “But there are fights that, yes, deserve to be questioned. We want to make the sport better and if we can bring in better trained and more knowledgeable judges and referees, that will help in that regard.”

State athletic commissions need to tighten their regulations regarding sanctioning organizations and be vigilant about holding them accountable. The Association of Boxing Commissions needs to be heard on the many abuses not just by the WBA but by the other three organizations.

The sanctioning bodies need to fundamentally change how they operate and, frankly, I’m hugely skeptical that they will. Despite Mendoza’s reasoned responses to difficult questions, we’ll probably be here again in six months, and a year, and 18 months.

The heads of all four sanctioning bodies need to understand that they’re shrinking the pie, and if they keep committing these atrocities upon the sport, the pie is eventually going to cease to exist.

The WBA is the most egregious of all of them, though. And despite Mendoza’s vow, no one will believe him until serious, substantive action is taken.

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