Few boxing insiders expressed surprise that the head of the International Boxing Federation was indicted on charges he took payoffs to improve fighters' rankings.
"This bribe thing has been common knowledge for years," promoter Bob Arum said Thursday after IBF president Robert W. Lee Sr. and three group officials were accused of taking bribes from promoters and managers to manipulate rankings in a span of 13 years.
None of the promoters and boxers believed to be involved were named in the indictment, but it referred to a fight in which a heavyweight champion faced a previously unranked boxer in 1995.
There was only one such fight that year, when George Foreman defeated Axel Schulz to retain his title.
The 32-count indictment, issued Wednesday by a federal grand jury and unsealed Thursday after the arrest of Lee's son, includes charges of conspiracy, racketeering and money laundering.
"In the IBF, rankings were bought, not earned," federal prosecutor Robert F. Cleary said. "The defendants completely corrupted the IBF ranking system."
He said the bribes, totaling $338,000, started shortly after the IBF was founded in 1984 and affected rankings in 10 of the 15 weight classes, with larger payments made in the heavier divisions.
Indicted were Lee, 65; his son Robert Lee Jr., 38, a liaison to the president, both of Union County; former Virginia boxing commissioner Donald William Brennan, 86, a past president of the U.S. Boxing Association, which is now the IBF; and Francisco Fernandez of Colombia, an IBF commissioner. Each faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
The elder Lee was a New Jersey boxing commissioner until being removed from office in 1985 after a state panel ruled he violated ethics regulations. He denied the latest accusations after being released on $100,000 bond.
"I'm innocent of these outrageous charges," Lee said, declining to answer any questions.
Cleary would not say if a June raid on the Florida offices of promoter Don King was related to the investigation, and declined to say if King was a target. King today denied any involvement.
The inquiry began before a controversial draw in the Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis heavyweight title fight in March, which prompted New York law enforcement agencies to start their own investigations of the East Orange-based IBF. A rematch is scheduled Nov. 13 in Las Vegas.
Through their rankings, the IBF and the two other major sanctioning groups the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council play a large role in determining a boxer's opponents. Fighters with higher rankings usually get larger purses.
In Mexico City on Thursday, WBC president Jose Sulaiman said he has heard of bribery attempts to change rankings, but, "I have never heard in our case of anything like that."
The indictment said seven promoters and managers were involved, as well as te 23 boxers. They have not been charged, and the indictment refers to them only by number. However, the investigation is continuing.
Among the payments outlined in the indictment was $100,000 to the elder Lee and unnamed others in 1995 for a "special exception" in what is believed to be the Foreman-Schulz fight.
Foreman testified before the grand jury in April, but declined to discuss his testimony. Asked at the time if he had ever paid a kickback, he said, "No."
Foreman promoter Arum, who also testified, said Thursday that he did not pay Lee. He declined to share his suspicions about who did.
Schulz's promoter, Cedric Kushner, did not return messages seeking comment.
The indictments came amid an effort on Capitol Hill to regulate the fight business, including the creation of an objective and consistent written criteria for rankings.
"It is a fact that the ratings system in professional boxing has less credibility among athletes and their fans than any other ratings system in professional sports," said one sponsor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
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