For their first fight, Danny and Walter Kane went to the Aqueduct racetrack with their father and watched Roberto Duran pummel Sugar Ray Leonard over 15 rounds on the big screen. In the crowd, Duran’s fans, dressed in white suits, walked the aisles booking bets. There was cigar smoke. Pushing, shoving. Mass testosterone. The Kane boys were hooked.
Today, Danny is president of the Teamsters Local 202 in the Bronx. Walter is a labor attorney who represents the city’s Teamsters. Together, they are behind one of the biggest efforts to unionize prizefighters, some of the only athletes still working without an organization.
“The boxing industry has been racing downhill fast,” says Danny. “Fighters need representation more then ever.”
As individual contractors, fighters often have to battle for highly taxed prize money and against uncompromising promoters to scrape together a living. While silk-pajama fighters like Roy Jones, Jr., and Lennox Lewis have cashed in on unprecedented purses recently, experts estimate that most of the country’s “journeyman” fighters continue to slug for the same contracts they did 20 years ago, at about $100 or $150 a round–without long-term health insurance (promoters only cover them for the night of the fight), a pension or a guarantee of legal representation should their promoters rip them off.
“We have no one to stand behind us,” said two-time world champ contender Raul Frank during a recent workout at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. He relies on his wife’s job for health insurance, and welcomes a union. “The rich promoters keep on getting richer; the fighters are still penniless.”
Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason’s, says Frank is one of the luckier ones. During his years in the business, Silverglade has watched fighters, many of them on welfare, share Medicaid cards to get health benefits. If a union needs a place to organize, Silverglade offers space at Gleason’s, which claims 700 members.
“We need this in boxing,” he says. “Sometimes a kid will sign his life away to a promoter for $1,000. Everyone always takes the money. Many of these guys have never seen $1,000 in their lives.”
With this in mind, the Kanes teamed up with Brownsville-born former champ Eddie “The Flame” Mustafa Muhammad in March to create the Joint Association of Boxers (JAB), the first ever trade union for boxers.
The effort has quickly built momentum. In early May, James Hoffa, Jr.’s 1.4 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters took them on as an affiliate. “Every other sport is organized; now the boxers will be organized,” said Hoffa, an avid sports fan, at a press conference announcing the partnership.
By the middle of May, the organizers claimed to have more than 200 signed union cards, and some big name supporters, most notably the great Muhammad Ali, who wrote to Mustafa Muhammad: “I believe that a boxers union would greatly improve conditions in which boxers often find themselves.”
With a dozen gyms in New York City alone drawing hundreds of members each, there are still a lot of boxers to reach out to–and a lot of details to sort out.
The biggest issue: how the union will support itself. “We’re discussing a number of options,” says Walter, such as funneling a portion of the fighters’ contracts to the union. “If you’re making $100 a round now, and we get you $110, I don’t think anyone will whine about giving the union $2 of that,” he says. Other union perks, he adds, would include “legal representation and political juice,” and job assistance from the Teamsters should a fighter decide to quit the sport.
The union organizers also hope the plan will help revive the entire sport. In the 1920s, boxing was second only to baseball as the country’s most popular pastime, and New York City was its Mecca. As often as three nights a week, fans would fill now-forgotten and defunct arenas like the 23,000-seat Bronx Velodrome in Marble Hill and the 10,000-seat Coney Island Velodrome.
Now, there are only a handful of fights in New York each year, and they are poorly organized events often tucked away in the basement ballrooms of hotels.
JAB’s creators believe their efforts can make the sport viable again–particularly if the Teamsters’ image induces corporate sponsors to pump more money into boxing, as they expect.
“The industry’s in the shitter,” says New York-based promoter Lou DiBella. “A union certainly can’t hurt anything.”
The organized boxers expect to face their first test–judged by ticket sales–in July, when unbeaten junior welterweight prospect Ishe Smith becomes the first Teamster to step into the ring, wearing the JAB logo on his trunks.
“Trust me, there’s gonna be a lot of Teamsters in that crowd,” says Walter Kane. “We got a big family.”