Five years on: Mauricio Sulaiman interview

Mark Butcher
09/08/2019 6:43pm

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Mauricio Sulaiman became WBC president after his father Jose's passing in 2014. He shares his vision for the world body's future with Mark Butcher...

Amongst the most influential people in boxing, WBC President Mauricio Sulaiman is driven by a desire to better the sport and follow the torch of progress lit by his late father Jose.

On the younger Sulaiman’s shoulders rest a pressing weight of responsibility with boxing essentially drifting rudderless due to a lack of a sole, governing body. While other sanctioning organisations appear less motivated to reform, it’s often left to Mauricio and the WBC to lead innovation and charitable initiatives in a sport where politics and self-interest habitually cast a shadow.

Five years ago, Boxing Monthly talked to Sulaiman just after he had taken stewardship of the WBC from ‘Don Jose’, who had led the organisation for over 38 years and introduced a number of revolutionary measures before his passing in January 2014. Such big shoes to fill professionally and personally, Mauricio has nevertheless adapted well under scrutiny and reflected on this never-ending challenge over the phone from the WBC’s offices in Mexico City.

“It’s been a very complicated task, but at the same time it’s been the only thing that has kept me very close to my father, very emotionally stable, because when I’m doing boxing I feel like I’m with him,” Sulaiman told BM. “He left a very positive [legacy] and the doors open for me with many boxing players in the industry so I’ve been able to make good inroads. There’s so much interest, so many millions of dollars, playing with the decisions that we make, but if you take justice and the boxers’ welfare as your sole priority then your decisions will be appropriate.”

Fighter conduct remains vitally important to the WBC and Sulaiman took a dim view of heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder’s crass and repeated comments that he wants ‘a body on his record’. While Wilder probably doesn’t mean it, most likely selling a fight or playing mind games, his role as WBC heavyweight champion means greater responsibility is required.

“We have been in communication with him, in the two separate occasions with those regrettable comments. I had a long meeting with him in the dressing room and inside the ring after the [Dominic Breazeale] fight,” said Sulaiman. “I’ve known Wilder for a long time. He’s not a person who reflects on the words he has said. There’s a line that cannot be crossed, which has been crossed with the words that he said. I’m going to meet with him again. When you’re our champion, you represent our organisation so we’re talking with him and addressing the matter because it’s a direct representation of the WBC, the way a world champion behaves.”

Concerns about the prevalence of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) are at an all-time high due to a number of prominent test failures. Maddeningly, on these shores, the failed tests of British fighters are often brushed aside while overseas boxers are vilified for much the same offence. But there is little doubt this is a worldwide problem.

“The WBC started the clean boxing programme and we are making all these changes,” said Sulaiman. “All this is happening because of the WBC and our great work with VADA [Voluntary Anti-Doping Association]. We are committed to growing the clean boxing programme. It is expensive, it is difficult to control, but the more people testing, the more cleaner and greater the opportunity [to catch rule-breakers].

"Unfortunately, no other organisation does testing like we do. The British Boxing Board of Control does testing on all fighters, which is great, and I think those are the only two programmes in the boxing world. But money has to go to education and awareness because boxers are usually honourable and will not cheat, especially knowing that you can hurt your opponent. What we can do is just work and work to make it the cleanest and best sport possible.”

Boxing’s premier, non-heavyweight attraction Canelo Alvarez notoriously tested positive for Clenbuterol in 2018 delaying his rematch with Gennady Golovkin and casting doubt upon the Mexican’s numerous accolades. But, while this is a valid suspicion, the widespread availability of contaminated meat in Mexico remains an unnerving caveat for these failed tests – with Clenbuterol regularly sprinkled onto cattle food by unscrupulous farmers who hope to manufacture leaner meat and reduced body fat.

Elite Mexican fighters such as Erik Morales, Francisco Vargas and Luis Nery have also failed tests in similar circumstances. Morales, who now serves as a Congressman in his home state of Baja California, has tried to push legislation to regulate Mexico’s troubled meat industry. "We shouldn't have to worry about this. You be able to go out and not be worried about your livelihood just because you ate a steak or a taco," Morales recently told ESPN.com.

In this spirit, the WBC has tried to educate its rated, Mexican fighters about the dangers of meat consumption across their nation though sceptics feel ‘tainted meat’ is an easy escape clause for those who manipulate the system and test positive. But, as excuses go, this reason has more credibility than others.

“It’s a health issue in the country. We do try to make sure the fighters know there is a risk when you eat meat,” Sulaiman told BM. “Most of these fighters are from poor backgrounds. There are traditional meals in Mexico with meat, homemade cooked meals. That’s what happened to Francisco Vargas. He came home after training in Los Angeles to see his mother for a couple of days. She cooked for him; he had broth that contained Clenbuterol. When you have a high level athlete, it’s easier to force them not to eat meat, but to a fighter who is fortunate to have a meal it is hard to tell them to get a cook or eat fish [in Mexico].

“When 109 football players test positive in a [Under-17 football] World Cup in Mexico [2011] that itself tells you what the problem is.”

BM recently interviewed WBC Diamond champion Callum Smith who confessed his surprise that he didn’t receive a direct shot when the organisation’s 168lbs title became vacant. Smith believed the WBC Diamond belt ensured a tilt at the main title yet Anthony Dirrell and Avni Yildirim faced off instead (with the former winning on a contested tenth-round technical decision that will result in a rematch). So what exactly does the WBC Diamond belt mean; is it merely a decorative award or does it give the likes of Smith leverage?

“The Diamond belt – specifically [for] Callum Smith – was something that the WBC provided in support of the World Boxing Super Series so he won the Diamond belt [W12 Erik Skoglund] and participated in the WBSS as Diamond champion. Since then we have not heard a single word from Callum Smith in regards to his career. We have a series of fights coming up in that division, but we respect and list him as the Diamond champion of the division and he can participate as such.”

Sulaiman then paused to consider further. “You make a good point…I’m going to reach out to Callum because he’s one of my favourite fighters. He’s such a great influence outside of the ring. All the Smiths are a beautiful family. They share the WBC’s social responsibility views, they do a lot of work with autism and that’s basically what boxing is all about. Yes, [2020] would be ideal and we will fully support Callum Smith to fight as Diamond champion against the WBC champion.”

The WBC is known for its innovations that have changed the direction of the sport – most notably reducing championship fights from 15 to 12 rounds in December 1982 immediately after Duk Koo Kim lost his life in the 14th round against Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini. The decision to reduce distances to a maximum, 12-round duration, "..will change boxing history because it will prevent boxers from suffering irreparable injuries," WBC spokesman Alfredo Lamazont told the Associated Press in Mexico City almost 37 years ago.

Among recent initiatives, the revamped WBC weight management programme has proven a hugely positive step for boxing. There are now 30-day, 14-day and 7-day weigh-ins where fighters must be no more than 10%, 5% and 3% over their championship weight respectively. Boxers are weighed from the time of signing the contract and later at the arena on fight night with a limit of a 10% gain from the official weigh-in the previous day. Penalties, initially, are administrative such as fines and warnings. Random weight checks will follow with a recommendation that fighters never weigh more than 20% over their chosen weight category.

The organisation is continuing to trial new methods to advance the sport in terms of best practice and safety. “We are developing a device along with the [judges’] noise cancelling headphones. This comes with a camera so we are going to specifically see what the judges are watching,” said Sulaiman. “This could lead to something interesting because you’re going to get the view exactly from the judge. We have a diversity of other ideas – like the 30-second signal, which makes fighters know there are 30 seconds left in the round, and usually they pick up the action and create a very interesting innovation.

“It has to be a specific noise, which cannot be confused with a bell like a buzzer. We have [trialled] it in Mexico for two years with ring announcers saying, “30” so that action picks up quite nicely. Everybody knows there is 30 seconds left so it has been a positive. It will be implemented in some fights internationally and we’ll see where it goes.

“We’re going to start a process to be much more aggressive against clinching and holding. One thing is to use it as a technique, a strategy, and the other is [to abuse it]. Just as we’ve been battling the rabbit punch and the problems it creates, we will also be going up against the clinching and hugging - to be swapped for fighting.”

Moves to launch the WBC University continue apace, with the long-term aim to educate and elevate officiating standards in the sport and perhaps open doors to new talent. “It’s a [real] university. Anyone can take the specification,” said Sulaiman. “For judges, it has three levels - basic, medium and expert. This could lead to finding new officials from [around] the world. You know everyone who is in boxing starts from being a fan then you become a boxer, a judge, a referee, a commissioner, but you have boxing in your heart. So anyone can come and become part of this system, which will certainly be of the highest level of competency.”

With PEDs, fragmented titles and other impediments, boxing will always be the most imperfect of sports, but in Sulaiman’s opinion another, less controllable, issue is the biggest danger to the fight game today.

“The biggest problem right now is that the promoters need to work with each other. The fans need to see the big fights,” he said. “And with so many different platforms of television and media some of the great fights could be in jeopardy. Not being made because of the competition. That is a great danger. The fans are eager to see the big fights happen. I’m just concerned that the platforms will get in the way.”

As Sulaiman reflects on five years in charge, one wonders what Don Jose would have made of his son’s presidential progress. “He left everything for us. He had so many ideas, so many plans, so many programmes that we’re continuing to execute. He left a very solid organisation with people who share his values and his principles,” said Mauricio.

“The Board of Governors is highly respectful of his memory and Jose Sulaiman is a motivation to all of us at the WBC. So we’re just trying to carry on, continue his legacy the same way he taught us so I’m sure he’s very happy and knows we’re doing the best we can to continue his path.

“The hopes are to continue being a united organisation, to continue working for the betterment of the sport and to see the great fights happen in the ring.”

A version of this article appeared in the July issue of Boxing Monthly magazine.