Will Legislation Strangle Boxing in Brooklyn?

Will Legislation Strangle Boxing in Brooklyn?

Daniel Jacobs (left) punches Sergio Mora during the WBA Middleweight Championship on September 9, 2016, in Reading, Pennsylvania.

SourceDrew Hallowell/Getty

Why you should care

Because sometimes, safety regulations kill. 

The “Miracle Man” stalks the ring, nodding to the crowd as if they should have known better. The fifth knockdown did the trick for Danny Jacobs — the cancer-surviving, Brooklyn-born World Boxing Association middleweight champion of the world who has just finished off Sergio Mora in the seventh round with a flurry of hooks. If the bout had been held in Jacobs’ hometown venue, the Barclays Center, where it was supposed to take place, rather than in Reading, Pennsylvania, the fans would have been aware. Danny Jacobs can’t wait to get home.

For the first time since Mike Tyson terrorized the sports world, there’s tangible excitement surrounding boxing in Brooklyn. From teenage chatter on the subway to the delicatessen debates of cane-bound Boerum Hill lifers, the sweet science feels like it’s nearly back. Title fights — absent in the borough since 1931 — returned in 2012 at Mikhail Prokhorov’s state-of-the-art Barclays, now the premier boxing stage on the East Coast. But as demand grows and main events sell out, some insiders worry that a well-intentioned law passed last spring in Albany, 150 miles up the Hudson River, may kill the sport’s Empire State revival and KO the dreams of New York’s brightest young stars who want to make pro debuts in their own hometown. Brooklyn loves Fight Night: A boroughwide boxing renaissance — or a new dark age — will commence shortly.

If we can’t hold small events throughout the city, boxing in New York is finished.

Lou DiBella, founder and CEO, DiBella Entertainment

The dark cloud hanging over boxing actually was seeded by a different combat sport — mixed martial arts. After years of lobbying by MMA’s most prominent promotion company — the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a subsidiary of William Morris Endeavor — New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law a bill that legalized mixed martial arts in the state. The law, which took effect on September 1, also revamped oversight of boxing, raising the minimum general insurance coverage from $10,000 to $50,000 per fighter — a necessary bump that’s consistent with other states. But the law introduced an unprecedented requirement: $1 million minimum coverage per fighter for life-threatening brain injuries. To date, no boxing promoter has found an insurance provider approved to carry the new policy, which means that a law intended to protect fighters essentially has killed boxing in New York State.

For athletes like Richardson Hitchins, 19, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, trains at a local gym - Atlas Cops & Kids - and plans to turn pro in 2017, a home debut is no longer an option. “I was talking to DiBella [Entertainment] and Top Rank,” says Hitchins, who was a late cut from the USA Olympic team. (Instead, the dual citizen represented Haiti in Rio.) “It’d be great to fight for DiBella, but New York promoters can’t touch me.” Ideally, Hitchins would fight most of his cards in New York, just like his idols Danny Jacobs and Marcus Browne, the U.S. National Boxing Council light heavyweight champ. But for now, he’s looking elsewhere to earn a living.

DiBella Entertainment, which was founded by Brooklyn-born and -bred Lou DiBella, is the most active fight-promotion company in New York and current promoter of World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder. DiBella always is on the hunt for homegrown stars, but he tells OZY that Brooklyn’s talent pool has been drained by the insurance issues. “If we can’t hold small events throughout the city,” DiBella says, “boxing in New York is finished.” It takes years for most boxers to appear on main-event cards like the ones at Barclays Center. Young professional fighters need time to develop a following on the local circuit before proving they’re capable of commanding the big stage. “With the new laws, we’ll be able to pay the huge premium for occasional main events,” DiBella says. “But they’ve put a complete halt on grassroots shows. It’s unheard of.”

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Danny Jacobs and his 3-year-old son, Nathaniel, at the Starrett City Boxing Club in Brooklyn.

Source Craig Warga/Getty

Those roots dig deep in Brooklyn, where boxing history dates back 135 years. From 1882 to 1931, 37 world title fights and countless showings by champs like Joe Gans, Ring magazine’s greatest lightweight fighter of all time and the first African-American world champion, were hosted in the City of Churches. The Golden Gloves, a city-wide amateur tournament that began in 1927, quickly became a source of pride for New Yorkers, especially in Brooklyn. In 90 years, the tourney has produced more professional champions than the Olympics. Brooklyn’s blue-collar immigrant community — mostly Irish, Italian, Hispanic and African-American — flocked to the ring. “Boxing is a poor man’s sport,” says Eric Kelly, a four-time amateur national champion–turned–celebrity trainer. “Most people aren’t meant for this, and not everyone should try.”

Prime-time cards are returning to New York City for the first time since welterweight contender and local star Errol Spence headlined the opening of Coney Island’s Ford Amphitheater on August 21. After canceling the rest of DBE’s 2016 schedule, DiBella has teamed with Mayweather Promotions to co-promote a card at Barclays on January 14, and Jacobs is set to fight at Madison Square Garden in March. But a few marquee bouts can only do so much to grow the sport. With the Barclays glory of athletes like Jacobs and former WBA welterweight champ Paulie Malignaggi, there was a sense that a self-sustaining path had been cleared. “Boxing was hot as a pistol until August,” DiBella says. “Something shady took place at the New York State Athletic Commission, and I’ve requested a federal investigation into what went on.”

For its part, the Athletic Commission has denied any wrongdoing. “The New York State Athletic Commission is charged with implementing the law, and has done so through an open and transparent process,” Laz Benitez, director of public information at the New York Department of State, told OZY. “Any allegations to the contrary are unfounded.”

Down in Alexandria, Virginia, Hitchins is weighing his options, focused and prepared for whenever the time comes to sign the dotted line. The young Olympian with dreams of making his professional debut at the same site as his Golden Gloves championship — Barclays Center — might not be able to wait for New York much longer. “Hopefully, we’ll get over this hump,” Hitchins says. “Either way, we’re bringing Brooklyn back.”

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