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Boxing commissions give workout to tribal sovereignty

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ONEIDA, N. Y. - After the roaring ended in the large white tent by the Turning Stone Casino, promoters of the crowd-pleasing Ali-Frazier fight claimed victory over a horde of critics. It was also a win for tribal sovereignty.

When the hugely hyped and bad-mouthed match up between the daughters of boxing greats Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was called a success by some of the sport's leading figures, tribal boxing commissions could claim another coup for their rapidly growing national role. As creations of tribal government, the commissions are gaining a footing on par with state sports regulators and are actively trying to build a better reputation.

Five tribal commissions are now fully accredited members of the national Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) along with 47 state, three territorial, and seven Canadian bodies. Because of reciprocity, rulings by the tribal regulators, such as medical suspensions, are adopted by all the other commissions.

ABC President Greg Sirb said the tribal commissions "are regarded as co-equal, no question about it." Sirb attended the much-touted bout June 8, along with a roster of boxing legends in town for the annual induction weekend at the nearby International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Impetus for tribal commissions comes from the rapidly growing popularity of American Indian casinos as venues for matches. Many tribes without these regulatory bodies sponsor boxing, but under federal law, their fights are regulated by state commissions. Starting with the Mashantucket Pequots in 1996, tribes have been deciding to run the show themselves.

"Just the fact that the opportunity is there is reason for a tribal government to take advantage of it," said Jerry Boyle of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Commission.

The Mohegans sponsored boxing matches from 1996 to 1998 under a memorandum of understanding with the State Boxing Commission, but they decided they'd have more flexibility on their own, Boyle said. In 1998, a tribal ordinance set up an Athletic Unit within its Gaming Commission and gained ABC recognition. So far the tribal body has regulated eight or nine boxing cards or programs with multiple bouts, he said.

The Oneida Nation set up its Athletic Commission in July 1998 because "the state was dragging its feet" on the Turning Stone's fight schedule, Commission Chairman Clint Hill said. The casino wanted to put on a fight in mid-July with Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson. "We had two weeks to organize our own commission and our own regulators and we were able to do that."

The nation adopted state regulations but made them stricter, Hill said. "We feel our regulations should at least meet, or exceed, state regulations."

As an example, ABC President Sirb cited a fight on the Ali-Frazier card. When super middleweight Lionel Ortiz lost to Omar Sheika by a knockout, the Oneida Commission doctor placed him on an automatic 30-day medical suspension. The commission notified a central information service called Fight-fax, which all other ABC members consult before approving a match up. To come off suspension, Ortiz will have to submit a satisfactory medical report to the Oneida Commission.

"This is actually a lot more common than it sounds," Mohegan Commissioner Boyle said. "On a normal night we suspend three or four boxers."

This approach is winning the tribal commissions a good name in the boxing world. "So far for the most part, we've had no trouble, especially with the Oneida Commission," Sirb said. "They've improved 100 percent."

At the Boxing Hall of Fame, the famous referee Arthur Mercante Jr., praised the Pequot and Mohegan bodies. "I'm giving a seminar at the Mohegan Sun for referees."

The Miccosukee Athletic Commission also runs an active and well-reputed program, Sirb said.

The fifth ABC tribal member, the San Juan Pueblo in New Mexico, has just joined, Sirb said, adding that two others are going through the accreditation process.

More tribes are bound to follow, Boyle said, citing wide interest among the California nations now setting up casinos. "Boxing in California is just exploding because of the Indian casinos."

Boxing fans at the Hall of Fame soiree credited the tribal casinos with bringing matches to areas like Connecticut and upstate New York that saw them very rarely. Boyle added that the older arenas in Atlantic City actually were losing matches to the tribes.

Although more generous contracts played a major role, the tribal casinos also offered newer and larger arenas. "Foxwoods has a very nice theater that seats 1500," Boyle said. "Its bingo hall seats 4000. We're going to explode on the scene with a 10,000 seat sports arena."

The Mohegans plan to mark opening their arena in late September or early October with a big boxing event possibly matching the world champions from several of the splintered boxing federations, he said.

The Mohegans also are thinking of taking other sports under their wing, although an early foray into college basketball is rousing a regional controversy. Central Connecticut State University tentatively is scheduled to play national contender University of Massachusetts at the new arena in mid-December, but the National Collegiate Athletic Association has raised objections over the gaming connection.

"That's a touchy subject," Boyle said. "It's up in the air over the NCAA's fairly hard line about mixing college sports with any type of gaming activity."

The tribal connection is definitely giving a boost to women's boxing, however. The excitement over the match between Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde has the Oneida Commission thinking of further female bouts.

"I would like to see more women boxing here at Turning Stone," Hill said. "They do bring in the crowds."

He noted that the Oneidas gave both Frazier and Ali a boost in their careers, sponsoring two fights for each, including a joint appearance on a card earlier this year billed as the "March to Destiny."

Their eight-round fight before a viscerally moved, near sell-out crowd made up in spirit what it lacked in technical skill and refuted critics who predicted a two-round fiasco. Ali won on a split decision, as one judge marked it a draw. ("It was a draw," declared long-time boxing promoter and Hall of Famer Lou Duva at ringside)

"The women put on a more vigorous show than the men did," Hill said.

Among celebrities and boxing legends in the audience were several ranking women boxers who complained that their solid records were being overshadowed by the untested "daddy's little girls." But afterward some of them admitted their cause might have been helped by the show. (At a reported $200,000 each, the purse was the largest ever paid to women boxers.)

"At least it didn't hurt us," said women's heavyweight contender Kisha Snow. "It didn't send us back to the Stone Age."

Jackie Tonawanda, a legendary veteran of women's boxing, was even more emphatic. Standing out in a red jacket at ringside, she shouted to the press after the match, "How'd you like that? Don't believe everything you read!"