The Naval Academy boxer's passion for pugilism carried into his lawmaking days as McCain worked tirelessly to help pass The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, pushed for the pardoning of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and participated in a recent Cleveland Clinic brain trauma study.
Boxing is a better sport because of John McCain.
The U.S. senator from Arizona, who died Saturday after a protracted battle with brain cancer, was a boxer himself at the Naval Academy and maintained a love of boxing throughout his life as both a fan and a champion of the sport.
McCain attended live fights whenever his busy schedule allowed for it. And while he loved the action, he didn’t like what he perceived to be the dark side of boxing.
“When I was with HBO Boxing,” Promoter Lou DiBella said, “Senator McCain would watch a fight, the scoring would be horrible and I’d get a call from him. He’d say, ‘Did you watch the fight the other night? How did that happen?’
“He was a hardcore fan. He loved the sport and wanted to see it get better.”
That was the motivation behind the McCain-sponsored Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which Congress passed in 2000.
The Ali Act is meant to protect the interests of boxers. According to the text of the bill, “The purposes of this Act are (1) to protect the rights and welfare of professional boxers on an interstate basis by preventing certain exploitive, oppressive, and unethical business practices; (2) to assist State boxing commissions in their efforts to provide more effective public oversight of the sport; and (3) to promote honorable competition in professional boxing and enhance the overall integrity of the industry.”
“The Ali Act is about fairness and responsibility,” McCain said after the Senate approved the act in 1998 and then sent it to the House. “It seeks to prevent coercive business practices which hurt boxers, and require more responsible conduct on behalf of promoters and ratings organizations.
“I am extremely pleased that the Senate has approved this measure to protect the interests of boxers, named after the legendary champion who did so much for the sport.”
The Ali Act allowed for financial transparency in boxing that didn’t exist before, allowing boxers to know all of the various revenue streams that were available to those involved in the promotions of the shows they appeared on.
The problem is that without a national boxing commission, no entity exists to enforce the regulations on a national level. Nevertheless, the Ali Act set standards never before established.
“No one really enforces it, though,” DiBella said. “That frustrated Sen. McCain. He tried to establish a national commission but didn’t get enough traction. We need a national commission if for nothing else than health and safety.
“I think the fact the act is on the books is important, though. People are woken.”
“ Senator McCain cared about the welfare of the fighters. Hopefully somebody under him or around will take up where he left off. ” Former World Champion Austin Trout on the passing of Sen. John McCain
McCain for years also pushed for the pardon of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who, because he was black, was unjustly convicted and jailed on trumped up charges of transporting a woman over state lines for immoral purposes more than a century ago.
President Trump finally pardoned Johnson in May.
“President Trump’s action … finally closes a shameful chapter in our nation’s history and marks a milestone that the American people can and should be proud of,” McCain said in a written statement released that day.
McCain never lost his zeal for boxing and other dangerous sports or his desire to see them evolve. As recently as April 2016, he attended a news conference in Washington, D.C., at which the Cleveland Clinic brain trauma study was outlined.
The senator at the news conference encouraged the NFL to take part in the study because of the obvious brain-trauma dangers of that sport.
A number of prominent athletes spoke, including former 154-pound world champion Austin Trout, who is among many boxers who regularly have their brains scanned as part of the years-long study.
“I talked about my experiences with the Cleveland brain clinic, my take on the risk of brain injuries” Trout said. “The idea was to raise awareness of these problems, to tell people in government, ‘If you love sports, you have to take care of the athletes.’
“I remember thanking Senator McCain specifically for being behind the brain injury movement. My impression of him is that he knew his boxing, knew his boxing history. He was very engaged, very professional.”
Boxing has few champions among people with great influence, like McCain. And it’s difficult to imagine politicians mired in the prevailing turmoil in Washington will take up the cause of boxing regulation.
“Senator McCain cared about the welfare of the fighters,” Trout said. “Hopefully somebody under him or around will take up where he left off.”
- Austin Trout