In a nasty squabble that reflects Colorado's status as a state in limbo as far as professional boxing is concerned, Denver's biggest promoter, Andy Lee, has been suspended.
It's not as if Lee had been accused of fixing fights or bamboozling boxers out of their paydays; he was suspended for six months on August 28 for relatively minor infractions of rules. And he claims that the suspension was the result of personal animosity between him and Woody Kislowski, head of the all-volunteer Colorado Boxing Alliance.
"I think a big part of this is personal and has nothing to do with boxing," says Lee. "Woody's been busting my balls for a long time now."
The blow to local boxing comes as the state is in the midst of the latest attempt by boxing enthusiasts to set up an official regulatory agency so that Colorado can comply with a recent federal law aimed at cleaning up the fight game ("The Money Punch," November 13, 1997). And because Colorado is one of only five states that lacks a state-sanctioned boxing commission, Lee's punishment was meted out by officials of the Nebraska Athletic Commission --after the Nebraskans consulted with Kislowski and other CBA members.
Kislowski insists that Lee's suspension, which followed an incident involving an unscheduled match between kickboxers, had nothing to do with their personal clashes. "The bottom line is that I have zero authority," says Kislowski. "Although the CBA's role has become more significant in recent months, it's still the Nebraska commissioners' call. Andy and I were good friends, but we're on opposite sides of the fence, and my job with the CBA is to call him when I think he's violating the rules. Andy has had a hard time accepting that feedback, direction and sometimes criticism."
Longtime CBA member Ed Walsh says Lee's suspension was not the result of one incident.
"In all fairness," says Walsh, "Andy carried the torch of boxing for years in this town. Every Denver fighter owes him a debt of gratitude. As a result, Andy had a line of credit with the CBA which we allowed to go well into overdraft. Andy didn't do anything egregious, really--he was just unwilling to go along with the program. His attitude towards the CBA ranged from cavalier to truculent, and that's why he got bumped."
But the power struggle puts Denver's immediate boxing future in jeopardy, because Lee has been responsible for an estimated 95 percent of the metro area's boxing cards since 1990.
"Andy Lee put Denver on the map as far as boxing is concerned," says Radine Tovar, wife and manager of Colorado lightweight champion Tito "TNT" Tovar of Denver. "There wouldn't even be a CBA without him. This suspension is a wake-up call, not only for Andy, but for the CBA and the fighters as well. But I'm afraid that without Andy, fights will dry up here in Denver. I can't imagine that other promoters are going to fill the void in his absence."
She may be right. Larry Lawson, president of Power Promotions, which stages fights in Cripple Creek, says he doesn't want to step on any toes in Lee's absence.
"If Andy wasn't under suspension," says Lawson, "I wouldn't go into Denver to promote a fight. With his suspension, I might entertain offers to come up there. Still, I'd have to think about it beforehand, because I've got enough respect for Andy not to go into an area that he's worked so hard to develop."
"I've got no problem with the CBA," continues Lawson, who promotes bouts in Colorado and Nevada. "The CBA is trying to run clean, safe shows, and in my experience, it's handled itself well and has helped stabilize boxing in this state."
While Lee is widely acknowledged as having developed the fight game in Denver, the only thing he's developed with the CBA, and Kislowski in particular, is enmity. The federal Professional Boxing Safety Act was passed in 1997 in hopes of cleaning up a sport that the bill's sponsor, Arizona Republican senator John McCain, called "the red-light district of sports." The law requires every state that wants to hold bouts to set up its own commission. Those that don't, like Colorado, which hasn't had a commission since scandal forced the dismantling of the last one in 1977, must bring in outside commissioners to sanction fights. These outside commissioners are also responsible for suspending fighters and promoters, but they often consult with local groups like the CBA before taking action. That puts the CBA at odds with promoters.
Lee's suspension comes at a time when things are looking brighter for a Colorado boxing commission. Rene Ramirez, director of the state Office of Policy and Research, previously put the price tag on a boxing commission at close to $300,000, but that scared off lawmakers from approving a commission last spring. However, after attending several fights, Ramirez says that he now sees the importance of a Colorado commission and that his original cost estimate may have been too high. He says his office will submit a revised application for a boxing commission to a legislative panel on October 15.
"Certainly, we're impressed with the CBA's commitment to providing a safe environment for the fighters and the public," says Ramirez.
The only person who wound up judged unsafe was Lee, at least according to Ed Avila, deputy inspector for the Nebraska State Athletic Commission, which has overseen Colorado fights in the past year.
"Part of our role is to try to eliminate the bending of rules by promoters" says Avila, who has supervised several of Lee's cards. "The CBA does that on a local level, and we follow up when necessary. I think the CBA has bent over backwards to accommodate Mr. Lee in the past. But they've told him very clearly that he needs to clean up his act. Lee signed agreements before every show to follow certain guidelines. But he ignored many of those compliance issues.
"A good example would be that he had boxers coming in on the day of fights. These are main-event fighters we're talking about. And there were times when these advertised fighters didn't show. If people pay to see Denver play Green Bay and they end up seeing Denver play Tampa Bay, there's a problem. The bottom line is that the guy is lackadaisical, and I reported that back to my superior, who in turn talked to the president of the Association of Boxing Commissions. They agreed that a suspension was in order."
Lee argues that some things are simply out of his control. "The big problem with boxing is that things always change," he says. "A lot of fighters will cancel at the last minute. I guess at the last show I shouldn't have signed the contract. But I felt like I was backed into a corner and didn't have any choice."
The fight on August 6, at the former Blake Street Baseball Club, got ugly. Lee, reportedly short on fighters to fill his card, decided to add a kickboxing match to the program. Kislowski nixed the match, saying that the CBA didn't have anyone on hand who was knowledgeable enough to sanction it and that there could be liability problems if a kickboxer were hurt. Lee had the ring announcer explain that the kickboxing was being canceled because of Kislowski's unwillingness to sanction the fight. Kislowski was booed loudly by the crowd, and numerous witnesses say he and Lee got into a shouting match at the club. That was the last card Lee put on before the suspension.
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"There was no hearing and no due process," says Lee. "It was a thunderbolt out of the blue sky."
But even some CBA members acknowledge that Lee is not entirely to blame.
"In all honesty, the CBA has to share part of the responsibility for what happened," Walsh says. "As individuals, we all know this guy and are, or were, friends with him. As a result, I think we gave him the benefit of the doubt for too long. Our friendship resulted in a reluctance to act. And Andy pulled a couple bait-and-switches on us that we should have called him on. But we didn't want to cancel a show on the day of the fight when tickets had been sold and people had flown in from out of town. It went too far, and we should have done something sooner."
Radine Tovar agrees that the CBA should share part of the blame for Lee's problems. "Andy Lee has done almost fifty shows, and now they're suspending him?" asks Tovar. "I don't know what rules Andy's supposedly broken. Maybe they're just using him as an example. But if they are, the CBA people have to hold everyone to the same standard. If he serves his suspension and then comes back and is up to his same old tricks, that will make the CBA look even worse. It's like a kid who gets away with stealing candy. Then he gets bold and steals a bike, then a VCR and finally he gets caught stealing a car. You should have called him out for stealing the candy right away instead of letting it slide."
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