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One man’s big fight to organize boxing

Creed, the seventh installment in Sylvester Stallone’s enormously successful Rocky series, has hit the big screen with a haymaker.

With Michael B. Jordan as promising fighter Adonis Johnson and Stallone working the corner, Creed is being heralded as an unlikely and surprisingly effective comeback for the nearly 40-year-old movie franchise. (Rocky first sprinted up those steps back in 1976.)

In reality, life for most professional fighters isn’t glamorous or lucrative, and it doesn’t include an inspiring ending. Although everyone from prominent U.S. Senators to current and former champs talks about their love of the sport and the need for structure and regulation, boxing is still dominated by a handful of promoters and personalities.

Paul Johnson of the underdog Boxers Organizing Committee continues to dream of a time when professional fighters are unionized and represented in the market place not by managers of varying degrees of professionalism and ethics, but by the power of collective bargaining in the tradition of the nation’s largest labor organizations.

Johnson’s vision is a bigger long shot than a real Rocky Balboa winning a title. But hear him out. At 66, the former professional club fighter from Minnesota has been promoting his idea for the past 20 years, and he’s drawn more than passing interest from the AFL-CIO, some high-profile elected officials, fight game experts — and plenty of boxers, too.

He wants to see boxing organized under a corporate umbrella similar to the UFC and the NFL, which while far from perfect have an enormous marketing advantage over professional prizefighting, which relies almost solely on individual personalities that aren’t always ready for prime time.

A lifelong union man, Johnson really wants to see a level of collective bargaining come into boxing that will result in much-needed medical insurance and a pension plan for fighters.

The current system, “can’t work. It can’t be sustained,” Johnson says. “I think we can get the federal government to support it 100 percent: a single, unified structure of professional boxing with a union where boxers have a voice.”

He believes the credibility of the sport, not always exactly rock solid on its best days, is at stake.

“I’ve been through the ropes, and I know what it takes to stand up,” he says. “Boxers need a voice.”

Maybe it’s the Tom Joad in him, but he believes something like a union ought to be looking out for the health and safety of the athletes. In this state, some of that responsibility falls under the jurisdiction of the Nevada Athletic Commission, but the focus is on fighters who are actively performing. The state agency isn’t designed to serve and protect every pug whoever fought a four-rounder.

The U.S. Senate’s biggest boxing fans, Nevada’s Harry Reid and Arizona’s John McCain, in recent years have offered legislation to create federal oversight of the sport. The Professional Boxing Amendments Act would have strengthened “federal boxing law by improving the basic health and safety standards for professional boxers, establishing a centralized medical registry to be used by local commissions to protect boxers, reducing the arbitrary practices of sanctioning organizations, and enhancing the uniformity and basic standards for professional boxing contracts,” McCain said in 2012 following a controversial decision in the Bradley-Pacquiao championship fight in Las Vegas.

The bill died along with the fans’ outrage.

Johnson dreams even bigger for the tattered sport that still generates superstars but is increasingly overshadowed by the UFC’s appeal to a new generation of fans. He believes sanctioned championship tournaments could be marketed as a way of replacing the multiple title belts offered by various private sanctioning bodies, some of which themselves have shadowed histories. (Johnson can be contacted at johnson4042@aol.com.)

“If they unionize, first of all they get a voice,” Johnson, 66, says. “It’s democracy in the workplace. The only way a capitalist system will work is if you have free, strong unions for employees. That’s my belief. We think that boxers should have a voice in the industry of professional boxing.”

In the long run, the former middleweight says, it would benefit everybody, including the fans who are having an increasingly difficult time caring about the titleholders, top contenders, and undercard entertainers.

John L. Smith is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and a fourth-generation Nevadan. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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