Gervonta Davis mess highlights glaring hole in boxing regulation

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Gervonta Davis sits in his corner before the start of the second round of his super featherweight boxing championship bout against Ricardo Nunez on July 27, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The legendary New York-based sports writer Jimmy Cannon, a 2002 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, once referred to boxing as “the red-light district of sports.”

Cannon died at 64 years old in 1973, proof that what ails boxing now is not a recent occurrence.

Boxing is the most lawless of sports with the least amount of regulation. There is no central authority to enforce the rules, ensure fair play or mete out discipline.

The most recent example is the case of WBA lightweight champion Gervonta Davis, who was caught on video Saturday grabbing a woman by the throat, yanking her from her seat and forcefully escorting her out of a celebrity basketball game in Miami. A 14-second video of the incident posted to Twitter has been viewed more than seven million times.

The woman was later identified as Andretta Smothers, the mother of Davis’ daughter. A report on Tuesday indicated Davis turned himself into to Coral Gables, Florida, police, where he was arrested on charges of simple battery domestic violence.

While what Davis did was repulsive, what was seen on the video is far less egregious than what many other boxers have recently been accused of doing. 

The most glaring example of that is former light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev, who was arrested on June 9, 2018, and charged with assault by means of force likely to cause great bodily injury for punching a woman. The victim allegedly suffered a broken nose, a concussion and a displaced disc in her neck as a result of the attack.

Kovalev has fought four times since that incident, including in a mega-payday against Canelo Alvarez in November with no action from boxing officials taken against him. He’s made well more than $12 million in purse money in that time.

Kovalev hasn’t come under near the scrutiny for the incident that Davis has, though his alleged crime is significantly more serious. As bad of a look as it was for Davis, there is no report that Smothers was injured by what he did.

Kovalev benefited because there was no video of the incident, and he and his promoters would routinely decline to discuss the incident when they would meet the media before his fights. The Davis-Smothers incident was caught on video and posted publicly for all to see.

In June 2018, Sergey Kovalev was arrested and charged with assault by means of force likely to cause great bodily injury for punching a woman. (AP Photo/John Locher)

But both cases, and others like them, point out a major weakness facing boxing: There is no central authority that can rule on cases like these, as well as on more sport-specific issues that pop up regularly like drug testing and the way hands are wrapped, to mention two of dozens of inconsistencies from state to state in the U.S. and in countries around the world in the way the sport is regulated.

The Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) is a group of state boxing commissions and tribal commissions that have oversight on things such as suspension-tracking, rule-making and record-keeping. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the ability to act unilaterally.

Should Gervonta Davis lose a fight over battery charge?

Davis doesn’t have a fight scheduled and isn’t a licensed fighter at this point in Florida, so the Florida Athletic Commission doesn’t have authority over him. He’s likely to fight Leo Santa Cruz on Showtime in late spring or early summer, but even in the unlikely event he’s convicted in Florida before his next bout, the state where the fight is held most likely wouldn’t discipline him. There may be a state that declines the fight, but rest assured, there is one somewhere that will allow it and probably the vast majority of them would.

For instance, Kovalev’s charges were pending when he fought Alvarez in Las Vegas on Nov. 2. According to section 467.886 of the Nevada Athletic Commission regulations, “A person licensed by the Commission shall not engage in any activity that will bring disrepute to unarmed combat, including, but not limited to, associating with any person or entity if such an association brings disrepute to unarmed combat.”

That’s a wide regulation that takes in a lot of ground. Even though Kovalev was charged with a crime, allegedly punching a person, breaking that person’s nose and giving her a concussion certainly would seem to bring disrepute to the sport. Not only was no action taken, it wasn’t even publicly considered.

But Kovalev, like any other accused person in this country, is presumed innocent until proven guilty. And while it is significant that a license to fight is a privileged license and thus a conviction is not necessary for an athletic commission to impose discipline, commissions have been reluctant to discipline a fighter on a pending charge.

This, though, is exactly why Cannon decades ago called boxing the red-light district of sports. When videos of NFL players Ray Rice and Kareem Hunt hitting women were posted publicly, the NFL took stern action. Rice was initially suspended two games by the NFL but ultimately never played in the league again. Hunt was suspended for eight games last March and it cost him $503,529 in salary.

What Davis did on that video was repulsive and reprehensible, but is it worthy of him losing a fight? Well, if he fought only once instead of twice this year, it would cost him far more than it cost Hunt, since Davis’ purses are more than $500,000 per fight. 

There is no person or entity in boxing, though, to impose any type of discipline on Davis. If Kovalev wasn’t disciplined for what he did, there is no chance that Davis will be.

But the issue is much larger than whether action is taken against an individual.

Pathetic state of boxing regulation demands action

Boxing is a dangerous sport in which fighters can, and occasionally do, lose their lives. Given that, it’s galling that the regulation of it is half-assed in many states, at best. The fact that there isn’t a standard set of rules employed not only across the country but around the world is mind-boggling given the stakes.

California has one standard for what is allowed in a fighter’s hand wraps and Nevada has another. This shouldn’t be, but it is simply accepted as part of doing business in the sport.

There are no calls, and rightly so, for a federal commission to regulate boxing because the government has proven repeatedly over the years that it’s not all that good at doing the things it’s supposed to do, let alone getting involved in a sport that requires knowledge to regulate properly. But the least the ABC could do is to impose some sort of standards that are applicable to all fights in every state in the U.S.

But even if there were a federal commission that regulated boxing and it unexpectedly did a good job, it does nothing to help with fights beyond U.S. borders. Boxing is a worldwide sport and many major bouts are held beyond the shores here. There are Hall of Famers who never fought in the U.S.

This is a problem without a viable solution, but those with a vested interest in the sport’s long-term health need to come together to at least agree on basic standards that are in place for all bouts worldwide.

Davis’ actions toward Smothers sparked justifiable outrage, but we should also be outraged at the pathetic and inconsistent state of boxing regulation. Lives quite literally are on the line yet the sport just rolls on with antiquated and inadequate rules and oversight.

From that standpoint, it’s a red-light district, indeed.

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