TURLEY ON TUESDAY: Here to Stay – Maltese licensed boxing finds niche in UK market


In the UK and in particular London, Malta and the Maltese people have traditionally been associated with two things. The first is a relatively cheap Mediterranean holiday destination, popular with families and the elderly, the second is the criminal underworld. For most of the twentieth century until the area was cleaned up in the 90s, the brothels of Soho were run by Maltese mafiosi and figures such as the Messina brothers, Maltese Joe and Big Frank Misfud are firmly ensconced in the capital’s dark folklore.

Traditionally the fight game has maintained close links with gangs and gangsters so it could be viewed as fitting that the island is now enmeshed with our boxing scene. In spite of that, since its arrival on the UK scene in 2013 the Malta Boxing Commission has attracted widespread criticism, while also encountering a media blackout of its events by the press. Boxing News will not cover its shows, nor will the newspapers. In one of my previous roles, as a fight reporter for the now defunct BoxRec News website, I was specifically told by the editor not to write about MBC events or fighters. As a result it is rare to see them mentioned anywhere other than their own, often hyperbolic press releases. This has not helped endear them to a suspicious boxing public unused to more than one domestic sanctioning body. The view from the outside is of a sinister, insular, self-congratulatory organisation that is flaunting safety regulations and normal matchmaking standards, probably as some sort of money-making exercise.

But is that a fair judgement? As no-one else was doing it, I decided to investigate. Perhaps it might be time to explode some myths? Lets face it – as much as we have tried to ignore the elephant in the room, it clearly is not disappearing.

Firstly, anyone attending an MBC show expecting to find it hosted by suited, slick-haired hoodlums chewing toothpicks will sadly be disappointed. Promoted by a steadily growing band of UK entrepreneurs, the shows are largely manned by those who have previously, or in some cases still do work on British Boxing Board of Control events. However in contrast to BBBoC evenings, where few people are allowed to speak to the media without the prior permission of the General Secretary, Robert Smith, MBC officials present a relaxed and approachable demeanour. At the event I attended on May 2nd, I spent time chatting with the timekeeper, a referee, one of the evening’s judges and obviously several boxers.

Present at ringside from the beginning of the night until the end was the MBC and WBU Europe managing director Gianluca Di Caro. A publicist by trade and of Italian, not Maltese extraction, Mr Di Caro became involved in the noble art after handling the PR output of the great heavyweight Joe Frazier in Philadelphia in the 90s. He later moved on to work with former world cruiserweight champ Steve ‘USS’ Cunningham. Since then he has had roles with the WBF and returned to his home city of London to form a partnership with Johnny Eames at the Trad TKO gym. Mr Di Caro, known as ‘Rio’, welcomed the opportunity to explain about the MBC and what they are trying to achieve, beginning by telling me how the organisation was formed.

Gianluca Di Caro (right) pictured with former A star referee, Mickey Vann
Gianluca Di Caro (right) pictured with former A star referee, Mickey Vann

“Basically we were invited by the European Boxing Union to set up the Malta Boxing Commission. We went to Dublin for their AGM in 2011 and met up with Bob Logist and Enzo Macaposi .It was all sorted in a couple of days and that was that. The thing was there’d been problems in Malta and there still is problems in Malta. It’s a mentality of everyone trying to control everyone else all the time. It was a bit chaotic and so the EBU felt it needed to have some kind of structure.

At the time my business partner was Alex Zammit and as he was Maltese and an ex-Olympian they thought we’d be a good choice to run it. Unfortunately Alex turned out to be as bad as the rest of them and annoyed pretty much every boxer on the island! So it’s ended up more with me running it now.

But this is very important and a lot of people get this whole thing wrong. The MBC was never about doing boxing in England. It was originally a Maltese organisation for shows in Malta.”

Having established the MBC on the island, the idea of sanctioning fights in other parts of Europe, including the UK, only came about through coincidence, Di Caro explained.

“What happened was Ben ‘Duracell’ Jones, a TKO fighter who was WBO Europe super-featherweight champion had a fight booked in Spain and they’d sent the application in but because someone at the BBBoC was away they’d never sorted it. When the member of staff returned and looked at the application they told him it was too late, even though the application had gone in on time. You know, it was a big money fight and Ben was gutted. So I organised things from my end and sanctioned him via the MBC for that one, so he could still fight and have his payday.

“Coincidentally, not long after (October 2013) there was a TKO show at York Hall and we had two foreign fighters on the card (The Ozgul brothers, Siar and Onder). They were our own fighters and had sold £6500 worth of tickets each but again the Board made some sort of admin cock-up and said the applications hadn’t gone in in time. But they had! On that particular occasion, those two boys being on the bill was the difference between the show going ahead or being pulled. I spoke to Johnny about it and Johnny wasn’t happy with challenging the Board, but neither of us thought we could afford to take a twelve grand hit on the show just because a bloke from the BBBoC office had gone on holiday and hadn’t processed the application. So we went ahead with it.

“That first one, I just did that to slap the Board’s face really. I felt they were being complacent and needed someone to stand up to them. I said in a press release that it was a one-off and that the Board needed to pull their socks up and stop treating young fighters like that. The Board do not employ the boxers. The boxers employ the Board and they need to start respecting the lads they’re working with. In those two cases, they were restricting them from earning a living totally unfairly.

“Anyway, after that the Board filed a report on it and they pissed me off straight away because they said it was unlicensed. We are a registered sanctioning body, recognised by everybody worldwide bar the British Boxing Board of Control. We are a member of the Association of Boxing Commissions, the BBBoC are not. That means we have to go by the same standards as Nevada and all the other members. They have no right to describe our events as unlicensed.

“The Board then tried to bring sanctions against TKO and Johnny Eames, but they had no case. We looked into it and found that half of their rules are illegal. They have no right to restrict boxers fighting for other organisations – Rule 412 that is. We challenged them on that and found that out very quickly. Basically the Board are a members only club but they’ve taken away the members’ voting rights. What people have to understand is that they are just a limited company and they have no more right to stage and sanction professional boxing here than anyone else. Under European law, there’s nothing they can do.

“So because we didn’t feel we were being listened to or having our grievances addressed, we continued. Yes, there’s been resistance. It’s not been easy, but we’re increasing our output. There were 8 MBC sanctioned shows in the UK in 2014 and we’ve done 12 already this year. It looks like we may well have done 40-50 by the time the year’s up.

“But you know, we’re not trying to compete with the Board, we’re just giving people a fair alternative.”

One of the most common concerns expressed the MBC is their policy on sanctioning fighters who have been denied permission to box by the BBBoC. Several MBC regulars have been refused British licences for medical or health reasons, leading to accusations that MBC shows are poorly regulated and unsafe.

“The thing is that I won’t stand any devious action by anybody who tries to prevent a boxer from earning a living.” Di Caro responded. “These kids work like mad for their opportunities and they should not be being punished for things that are outside their control. Now if we take Robin Deakin as an example, he had a record of 1 win, 49 defeats under the Board, but I’ve been there when that kid’s won fights. No question about it. Now I’ve spoken with BBBoC referees and apparently the instructions that BBBoC refs have is to favour the home corner, which by the way the MBC don’t do. So Robin’s got those losses but I know of at least two that were ridiculous. I even wrote a report on his fight against George Michael Carmen (York Hall December 2011) in which I said he’d been robbed and I didn’t even know Robin then.

“With the MBC, the boxers come first, whereas the British Boxing Board of Control are led by money, I believe. Now of course, in the case of somebody like Robin, the Board are within their rights, as a private members club, to say ‘we no longer want him as a member’ but when that membership affects his livelihood there is a legal obligation to do that on a fair and transparent basis. There’s plenty of boys out there racking up losses, but they’ve picked on him. Some people say it’s because of his style of fighting, but I don’t agree with that. Personally I think it’s because he’s outspoken. Robin’s never been shy about making a fuss in the media and the Board don’t like negative publicity.

“If somebody like Robin is fighting week in, week out as a paid opponent, he shouldn’t be punished by having his license withdrawn. He’s performing the role he’s supposed to perform. He’s doing a job which they encourage.

“You know, if you take Iain Weaver (another MBC licensed fighter, barred from the Board due to a cyst on the brain) as an example. He is licensed by California, Nevada State, Florida, Canada, New Jersey, Mexico and us. It’s only the BBBoC who won’t license him. I can tell you now, I know of four high profile British boxers that have an identical cyst to Iain. I don’t know why they’ve picked on Iain, but there really doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.

“What I’m finding is that there is no consistency. They will pick on Robin or Iain, but there’ll be someone else, exactly the same who they don’t even pull in once. This is one of the things we are trying to push for – clarity. These are the rules, be fair to the fighters. And if they won’t listen to us, we’ll just do it ourselves.

“People talk about medical standards, but our levels are actually higher than the BBBoC. Our safety precautions at events, our medical requirements are exactly the same as the Board’s. We have 4 neuro-surgeons who check the brain scans, unlike the Board who just use a doctor. We use specialists. So no-one can tell me that we aren’t stringent on that side of things. I go by the judgement of the neuro-surgeons. Not long ago (Irish super-welterweight) Lee Murtagh came to me but the scan showed he had a shadow on the brain and we refused his licence. If we were just handing licences out willy-nilly that wouldn’t have happened.

“Of course Lee was upset by that, so to help him out we’ve given him a job as a referee. We wanted to help him to stay involved because he loves the sport. I can tell you right now there is no-one boxing on the MBC who has failed their medical. Not one. People talk about Robin. Robin’s medicals are perfect. 100%. (Cruiserweight) Jerome Haywood was told he’d failed a brain scan by the BBBoC but I can assure you his brain scan results are perfect. I don’t know why the Board are treating boys like this, but it’s awful. It almost seems to be a personal dislike for someone that shapes the decision.

“Another thing I can’t stand is when the Board won’t license someone who’s just come out of prison, like Jody Meikle. You know down the years boxing has been such a positive force in the life of troubled young men and you can’t take that away from them just because they made a mistake. For a lot of these lads, boxing is their only hope of staying out of jail. So for me, the Board are wrong on that, like they are on many things. Every time they make that sort of decision I will license that fighter because I think it’s the right thing to do.

“Another example – we’ve got 13 time world kickboxing champion Marlon Hunt boxing on our shows, because the Board would only licence him to box if he stopped kick-boxing. Why do you have to restrict a young man like that? Why shouldn’t he be able to compete in two disciplines professionally if he chooses to? It’s pointless and it’s petty.”

Finally we moved on to discuss the calibre of titles won on MBC sanctioned events. Frequently boxers who were barely area level when fighting on Board shows are winning ‘international’ or even versions of ‘world’ titles on their cards and very often bouts listed as title fights are simply prospect v journeymen contests.

“Firstly some of the world titles, like the WBU(v) ones, they’re not ours. It’s a bit of confusing situation but there are two WBUs at the moment. We’ve got the real one and there’s also the WBU(v), which is the German version. Anyway, just now it’s actually quite rare to get world titles contested on our shows.

“Now on our show tonight we’ve got Siar Ozgul fighting Matt Scriven for the MBC international title. Now OK, Matt’s a journeyman, but he’s a very good fighter. The point is that so far he’s been helping others to build their careers and he asked for this opportunity. Matt’s not coming down to carry Siar, he’s coming to win.

“Perhaps the name of the belt is misleading for people but you need to remember that the MBC international title is our starting title, so it’s the equivalent of a Masters or maybe an area belt on a BBBoC show. Malta belts can only be fought for by Maltese boxers, but the international is for all nationalities. No-one can tell me that you never see prospect v journeyman for a minor title on a Board show. I’ve seen it hundreds of times myself, so why should the MBC be held to a higher standard?

“I know what these titles mean to the kids. For some of them it might be the highest level they ever achieve. So for that reason they’re important and we will continue to offer them.”

And the future? Where will the MBC go from here?

“Obviously as we develop we hope to attract some real star boxers. We’ve got a top amateur turning over with us soon. The boxers are the important ones, not us. People find it hard to believe but at the moment I make a little loss every show we do. I do it for love. Really. I’m not interested in competing with the Board. I’m getting these kids fights they would never get otherwise. And promoters are starting to pay attention. It costs £4000 less to sanction an event through us. We’ve got sixteen promoters we’re working with at the moment and quite a few more that are interested. I can’t say too much right now, but there’s some big names who’ll be promoting with us in the near future and we’re in negotiations over signing up some very exciting fighters too.

The bottom line is this. We’re here. We’re not going to go away. I gave the Board a chance but I’ve dug my heels in now. We want to encourage boxing and remove all the silly restrictions. The MBC is here to stay.”

There can be no doubt that Mr DiCaro speaks very passionately about the sport. It is also difficult to argue with much of his reasoning. From a legal standpoint the MBC certainly seems to have as much right to operate on these shores as the Board and the two will have to find a way to co-exist for the immediate future.

Despite saying he was not interested in competing with the BBBoC, Mr Di Caro must privately recognise that if his organisation continues to grow in size and popularity it will inevitably be seen in that context. For now, while all the biggest promoters and boxers fight only on Board sanctioned events it is a competition he cannot win, but for reasons that I am unable to reveal here, it is very likely that shortly that picture will change. If, as seems likely, within the next few years some of the bigger names in UK boxing start to operate under the MBC banner, then the face of the sport in this country will be changed forever.

That shift will be highly significant, perhaps the most significant development since the formation of the Board itself in 1929. Whether it improves British boxing or serves simply to fragment it, only time will tell.

 

My book ‘Journeymen, The Other Side of the Boxing Business” is available in kindle or hardback from bookshops and Amazon, now.

My next book, ‘Wiped Out? The Jerome Wilson Story’ is now available for pre-order