|Tuesday, February 20
New WBO division: Dead weight
By Tim Graham
Special to ESPN.com
In the poorly acted but sometimes funny movie Major League, a fictitious Cleveland Indians owner sabotages her team in an attempt to limit attendance, break a lease and move the club to Florida. In one scene she presents to the front office a list of misfits they will invite to spring training.
"This guy's dead," one executive interjects.
"Then cross him off," she replies.
Growing up in Cleveland and watching the hapless Tribe stumble around every summer, I got a good chuckle out of that line. I found it fitting -- in a satirical sense.
What would have made the scene even funnier, however, is if it actually had happened.
Leave that to boxing.
It has been discovered recently that the World Boxing Organization had a corpse ranked in the top 10 of its super middleweight division for four months. Darrin Morris, who died last October of HIV-related meningitis at age 32, was No. 5 in the latest ratings (January) before the WBO adjusted them.
We all know boxing ratings are suspect, but this guy was a real stiff.
"I met Darrin in Detroit in 1999 and he was a good fighter," WBO president Francisco Valcarcel told the London Independent. "I have just been made aware of the problem, and I have instructed the ratings committee to remove him from the ratings, and I have launched an inquiry, and I will investigate why this young man stayed in the ratings when he was dead.
"It is sometimes hard to get all the information on boxers, and we obviously missed the fact that Darrin was dead. It is regrettable."
The WBO's web site now ambiguously says Morris has been dropped from the rankings because of "inactivity," much to the relief of James Butler, a living boxer who had been stuck one spot behind Morris for months. The slogan for the organization is "dignity, democracy, honesty." We should add idiocy.
There are additional factors that make this macabre oversight even worse than it appears on the surface.
Morris last fought in July of 1999 after nearly two years off. He beat Dave McCluskey, who competed with a pulse yet entered the ring with 14 wins in 84 fights.
Morris (28-2-1, 18 KOs) eventually appeared at No. 10 in the WBO's rankings nine months after his final bout. He slipped to No. 11 in July, but moved up two spots in August. He was No. 7 at the time of his death, but subsequently was promoted twice more.
Maybe it was a posthumous tribute. Or maybe the WBO thought Morris was merely enjoying some time off on the farm he had just bought.
Since the Independent broke this embarrassing story on Feb. 13 (two days before Bobby Lee was sentenced to 22 months in prison for corrupting the IBF's rankings), it has appeared in many major newspapers around the world and on several boxing Internet sites.
But when contacted on Monday, one-time Illinois Athletic Board commissioner and former boxing judge Gordon Volkman still hadn't heard Morris' morbid news.
Why is that peculiar? As the WBO's "fourth vice president," Volkman is one of only three men who rate the organization's boxers. The other two are Valcarcel and ratings committee chairman Luis Perez.
"He's dead? This surprises me," Volkman, 70, said from his home in suburban Chicago. "How did anybody know he's dead? This is the first that I've heard."
Valcarcel must really be getting to the bottom of this.
Volkman's incognizance sheds some light as to how Morris could appear in the WBO's latest rankings. If Volkman hadn't yet caught wind of the WBO's humbling predicament, which received much more publicity than any club fight or non-televised undercard bout, then how can anyone expect Volkman to effectively evaluate boxers?
"It's awfully hard to keep up with the ratings of some of these guys," Volkman said. "Every month, after every fight we advise fighters and managers to keep us updated on their records, when their next fight is, the condition they're in.
"Today's people expect us to keep up with these things, but there are more boxers than ever before. It's impossible. It's the only explanation I can give you."
Volkman isn't entirely to blame. He explained after he sends in his monthly ballot, the WBO uses it only as a recommendation before finalizing the ratings themselves in Puerto Rico.
"If he hasn't fought since October of 1999, the guy shouldn't have been ranked anyway, even if he were alive," said Greg Sirb, who monitors the sport as president of the Association of Boxing Commissions.
"The WBO is going to have to face the music on this. Somebody wasn't paying attention. I could see it happening for a month, but after one month he should be out of there."
Sirb added, however, there is little the ABC can do to punish the WBO over the Morris matter, although he plans to make a public statement about it this week.
Sirb has been in boxing long enough to know he should never say he has seen everything. But he hopes he never has to witness a similar scenario unfold again. The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which became federal law last year, mandates sanctioning bodies be more forthcoming with information regarding their ranking procedures.
"I think the one good thing is they have to disclose all the rankings on the Internet and explain the changes," Sirb said. "I know we're just in the infancy of putting that to good use, but as we go on that's going to be huge. Slowly but surely, I do believe, the rankings will iron themselves out because we're allowed to watch them.
"Last year you wouldn't even have known about (the Morris situation). It was tough to get rankings, let alone get an explanation."
This bizarre incident has nothing to do with corruption. No one had anything to gain by ranking a dead man.
But it only further confirms the triviality of championships and rankings.
Morris, based on the WBO's evaluation, was considered a worthy challenger to champion Joe Calzaghe. It's possible someone on a lark could have contacted Calzaghe's camp and worked out a fight. "Don't worry, champ. Our guy will lie down for you."
Poorly researched rankings are a significant reason why fighters routinely abandon their belts to box prominent colleagues in big-money matchups rather than defend their titles against some cadaver.
Would boxing fans watch Oscar De La Hoya fight Fernando Vargas with no belt at stake? You bet they would. Mike Tyson hasn't held a title for years, yet he remains the most influential fighter on the planet. Then there is the plethora of current champions the average fan wouldn't know if he shoveled dirt on him.
The fact Morris was ranked for so long postmortem also establishes the irrelevance of the WBO. Are people paying so little attention that nobody -- not a manager, promoter, trainer, fighter -- in Detroit (where Morris was born) or the Miami area (where Morris lived) noticed this blunder for 10 months?
It wasn't as if Morris was anonymous. He twice held minor world titles, had been ranked by the IBF and once was a sparring partner for Sugar Ray Leonard.
"He slipped through the cracks," Volkman said. "With the many different divisions that we have, it's impossible to keep up with everyone intelligently. We're going to have to do a better job.
"He's a lucky guy. It's hard to track who they're fighting and how they're doing."
Lucky guy? Is he serious? Lucky like what, road kill?
The only way Morris could have been luckier in death is if he had been rated the top contender. Perhaps if he had died in a different manner he could have done better.
No. 1 with a bullet.
ESPN.com boxing writer Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and The Ring Magazine, and formerly wrote for the Las Vegas Sun.