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State commission's oversight of sport is criticized

Special report: Promoters and others say California State Athletic Commission has added risk to a perilous sport.

September 25, 2009|Lance Pugmire

The last time Staples Center was filled to capacity for a prominent fight that attracted a national television audience, the insistence of one observant trainer saved the California State Athletic Commission from potentially suffering more than embarrassment.

That was the night two hardened, plaster-caked inserts were to be wrapped into the hands of Antonio Margarito as he prepared to defend his world welterweight title against Shane Mosley.

"I know for a fact that if I wouldn't have been there saying something, he would've walked right into that ring," said Nazim Richardson, Mosley's veteran trainer.

How could something so dangerous come so close to happening?

It's a question that's often been asked since that incident, which took place in January.

As another championship bout comes to Staples, Saturday's world heavyweight title fight between champion Vitali Klitschko and Riverside's Cris Arreola, there is increasing concern about the organization that sanctions the state's boxing and mixed martial arts bouts.

State Athletic Commission inspector Che Guevara was looking on as Margarito's hands were wrapped by his trainer, Javier Capetillo. Richardson, as the opponent's trainer, was allowed to observe too. And when he squeezed one of Margarito's wraps, he told Guevara it felt hard inside.

The inspector's reaction? "He was trying to keep the job moving," Richardson recalled. "It was like what I was saying was new to him, that no one had ever raised these questions to him, and he was obviously in an uncomfortable situation."

Richardson said Guevara felt the same taped hand and said, "It feels all right to me."

Only after the boxer's hands were unwrapped at Richardson's urging were the inserts discovered. They had been hidden under knuckle pads atop Margarito's fists, and experts say they would have extracted plenty of extra damage.

Mosley ended up winning the bout by technical knockout in the ninth round, and weeks later the commission revoked the boxing licenses of Margarito and trainer Capetillo.

But boxing promoters, matchmakers and others closely associated with the fight game told The Times the commission is not providing proper oversight, adding risk to an already dangerous sport.

"I've complained that [commission representatives] were unprofessional and risking the health of my fighters and my business," said Alex Camponovo, lead matchmaker for Thompson Boxing Promotions, which routinely stages shows at the Ontario Doubletree Hotel and other Southland venues.

Camponovo said two Thompson shows this year were disrupted when commission-assigned physicians failed to show up. State rules require pre-weigh-in physicals for boxers the day before a fight. Regulators say the exams are important because boxers can severely weaken themselves trying to make weight.

In one case, Camponovo said a Sept. 11 card proceeded even though the 14 boxers who fought had physicals less than three hours before the first bell.

"Things are falling through the cracks that should never fall through the cracks," said promoter Roy Englebrecht, who stages monthly "Battle in the Ballroom" cards at the Irvine Marriott.

In June, an Englebrecht card was jeopardized when one of two ringside doctors and one of three judges failed to show.

"No one got hurt, thank goodness," Englebrecht said. "If the doctor would've had to leave with an injured fighter, I would've had to stop my show."

Englebrecht and others are pushing hard for new leadership with comprehensive knowledge of the sport.

"Unfortunately, the commission has been a ship for most of the last year without a captain," he said. "There's no one pulling together and establishing a working system."

The commission was without an executive officer from last November until June, and is still without a permanent replacement following the resignation of Armando Garcia after a sexual harassment complaint. Dave Thornton, former director of the state medical board, has been the interim executive officer.

Thornton was embroiled in controversy this summer when the contents of a July 22 letter he wrote became public.

The letter warned that a fighter on a March 7 mixed martial arts card in Tulare had been allowed to fight without an HIV blood detection screening and after he tested positive for hepatitis C.

The letter urged anyone who had been in contact with a fighter on that card to be tested. However, the advisory was not distributed to the fighters or promoters, lead promoter Al Joslin said.

One fighter on the card, Preston Scharf, told The Times, "It's scary. There's blood, you know. . . . The sport is high risk all the way around.

"That's why we pay the state. We're supposed to be protected."

Shelly Matlock, promoter Joslin's wife, said the long-delayed hepatitis C revelation showed the commission is "overwhelmed [and] overtaxed . . . with all the [job] cuts, the furlough Fridays and the stress.

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