Mauricio Sulaiman: The Green Lives on

Mark Butcher
25/04/2015 9:00pm

The iconic green and gold WBC championship belt is forever associated with boxing’s elite fighters. Legends like Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Julio Cesar Chavez have all worn that unmistakable leather strap around their waists on their path to greatness and, for so many fighters, the WBC belt still remains ‘the’ title to win.

The Mexican-based World Boxing Council is now under new stewardship but its President carries a familiar name. Mauricio Sulaimán followed his late father as the head of boxing’s most powerful sanctioning body after Jose Sulaimán passed away in Los Angeles in January after a long illness. The loss of ‘Don Jose’ was a crushing blow to the Sulaimán family; to them he was far more than a boxing politico and powerbroker, but the beloved head of a closely-knit family. 

“It has been very difficult,” Mauricio told Boxing Monthly over the phone while he was conducting WBC business in New York City. “My father was always the most influential figure in my life. Ever since I was a kid I adored him and wanted to be like him and that is how I got involved with the WBC, to spend time with my father. My first boxing memory was at three years old. I heard a loud noise so walked downstairs and saw two huge men standing in the living room of my home. It was Muhammad Ali and Don King.

“So many great champions visited my home but also many fine amateur boxers and prelim fighters who had dreams (a young Julio Cesar Chavez was among them turning up in a t-shirt full of holes to press his case). Many of these boxers did not make it but they all shared the same passion and dream of one day being WBC champion. My father always treated each boxer the same. If you were Muhammad Ali or a four-round boxer you were a champion in his mind.”

Jose Sulaimán was a polarizing figure in boxing – and fiercely criticised for a perceived closeness to shock-haired promoter King - yet he was also responsible for many positive changes in the sport. Sulaimán reduced championship fights from 15 rounds to the safer 12-round distance, brought weigh-ins the day before a fight to reduce the effects of dehydration and refused to sanction title fights in apartheid South Africa. Yet he was noted more for debatable political decisions that are hardly unique among sanctioning bodies.

“Once you get a media label, it is very difficult to overturn,” said Mauricio, who is also CEO of the family business in Mexico City. “I grew up listening and reading so many attacks which had no foundation. My father’s decisions were always based on what he thought was right. He understood he was not in a popularity contest. Sometimes what is right is not popular, but people have to balance the good and the bad and make their own judgment. Of course, he made mistakes, we all do. He was human. But he was always trying to find justice and had an extreme motivation to change world boxing. The WBC has open books and registration that is filed every year with the IRS in the US. Every single expense has to be credited to our activity in the sport.”

No other sanctioning body has done more to promote fighter safety and contributed to the financial support of the sport’s fallen heroes. It has numerous charitable initiatives including the ‘WBC Cares’ programme and, through the WBC, the Mexican Health Minister has recently approved free health insurance to all Mexican fighters, their families and anyone else involved in the boxing industry. A programme established by the world’s second richest man Carlos Slim aids 27 ex-WBC champìons who have fallen on hard times.

“Mr. Slim saw (former world welterweight champion) Jose ‘Mantequilla’ Napoles in the crowd (at a WBC event) and said, ‘Oh my god, he was my hero, my inspiration’ but could see ‘Mantequilla’ was not well. My father explained the situation of many former heroes who, for one reason or another, live in difficulty,” said Mauricio. “So Mr. Slim approved a lifetime pension and lifetime medical insurance to 25 former champions and two widows of former champions. Jose Napoles, Carlos Zarate and Lupe Pintor are among those who benefit.”

The WBC has championed open scoring and instant replay in its contests. Not everyone is convinced by these particular initiatives, but Sulaimán is, naturally, passionate about both. Indeed, open scoring is now a fixture worldwide for the WBC with some important exceptions.

“Open scoring has been used in over 3,500 fights all over the world,” said Sulaimán. “Only Texas and Arkansas have accepted its use in the US, but we have used it in Mexico, Japan, Thailand and all over Europe. Some have concerns that the drama is lost, but the priority for this rule is justice. A boxer who is fighting without knowing the scores often says he would try a different strategy if he knew he was down. Now there is no excuse. After four rounds and eight rounds they know where the fight stands and we have found it is much more exciting. This is another step into giving transparency to boxing.”

Additional titles from the same sanctioning body only add confusion and Sulaimán is keen to point out that the WBC’s ‘Gold Belt’ (awarded to Floyd Mayweather for his win over Canelo Alvarez) and the organisation’s ‘Diamond Belt’ are created to celebrate a special event, funded by sponsors and not actual titles.

Official ratings are another endless source of dispute. Mexican fighters have always received favourable rankings from the WBC, but Sulaimán insisted this is a result of high talent levels within the country of his birth. “There is the perception that the Mexican gets favouritism, but I am more than happy to discuss, in an open panel, every single rating case,” he said. “Mexico has the second highest number of world champions so naturally Mexican boxers are of the world’s elite. It is a very subjective topic. There are so many things to take into consideration, record, activity, level of opposition, but if there is ever a panel I would be so happy to address them.”

His pride in his father’s achievements is palpable and the younger Sulaimán hopes to carry forth the presidential baton for the betterment of boxing. “We need to bring back respectability to the sport, work together,” said Sulaimán. “Promoters, TV stations, sponsors are all against each other instead of fighting to make a common benefit for the sport. We want TV stations to show boxing on free television and not only pay-per-view. To develop certain medical measures and look into problems with doping and growth hormones, which are a concern. Everything has to be for the good of the boxer and the sport. I hope everybody compares me to my father because in that way I have to keep the highest standards possible.”

INSIDE THE GLOVES

The WBC is striving to make boxing gloves safer. It wants to ban dangerous gloves that have been used for over 30 rounds. After repeated use, the padding inside gloves is gradually removed therefore putting the health of fighters at risk.

“We have tested over 50 brands and checked the quality and resistance of the materials. We have found that many countries use gloves over and over in fights,” said WBC President Mauricio Sulaimán. “There is no way of tracking how many rounds a glove has been used in so we developed a system with labels inside the glove.

“Every time a glove is used the boxing commissioner must mark or cut the label and once there are no more unused labels in the glove it cannot be used in a fight. It is going to take a long time to take this initiative worldwide, but it is a starting point. We are also planning on finishing the use of horse hair materials in gloves and have an ongoing programme with posters and materials to show glove tampering is a criminal action.”