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Addressing the New York State Athletic Commission's controversy-filled past (Part 1)

As the New York State Athletic Commission prepares to regulate professional MMA, Mookie Alexander looks at some of the oft-criticized commission's most controversial boxing incidents over the past 16 years.

Al Bello/Getty Images

On September 1st, professional MMA events can officially be staged in the state of New York, who finally legalized the sport just a few months ago. The UFC will be headed to Madison Square Garden on November 12th, with plans to hold a Fight Night event somewhere upstate before the end of the year. The New York State Athletic Commission will be overseeing all MMA events, which theoretically is a massive sigh of relief given the truly frightening tales of unregulated amateur MMA in the state. They'll be in charge of appointing referees, judges, and other key officials as hop on board as the 50th and last state to regulate the sport.

Recently, the NYSAC was the subject of a major investigative report by the state's Inspector General, Catharine Leahy Scott. The report uncovered a slew of ethical violations and improper procedures. NYSAC's poor handling of the post-fight medicals for Dagestani heavyweight boxer Magomed Abdusalamov sparked the investigation, as Magomed's 2013 fight vs. Mike Perez proved to be a near-fatal bout. He is now speechless and partially paralyzed after a blood clot in his brain was followed by several strokes while in hospital. Abdusalamov was transported to Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan via taxi cab instead of either of the on-site ambulances at Madison Square Garden, and NYSAC doctors did not see any signs of neurological damage. Magomed's family has a current ongoing lawsuit against the commission, seeking $100 million in damages. One NYSAC chairperson resigned during the investigation, and her successor's resignation was made public after the report's release.

Unfortunately, this is just one of many controversies involving New York's often inept and corrupt regulatory body just within the 21st century. I think it's only fair, especially as it pertains to MMA fans who otherwise don't follow boxing, to chronicle NYSAC's less-than-sterling reputation. If you consider California and New Jersey as having the top athletic commissions, New York is a lot closer to Texas than California or New Jersey. Today's article will focus on three cases ranging in dates from 2000-2010, of which one led to a death (and a lawsuit), one led to permanent brain damage (and a lawsuit), and the other was possibly one of the most bizarre pieces of officiating in recent memory.

Arturo Gatti vs. Joey Gamache (February 26th, 2000, Manhattan)

Gatti had recently been on a bad losing run. A TKO loss to Angel Manfredy was followed up by two defeats to Ivan Robinson. To get himself back on track, Gatti had a series of fights that were tune-ups at best, and squash matches at worst. In early 2000, Gatti fought on HBO against Maine's Joey Gamache, a former champion at 130 lbs who had otherwise not fought anyone notable since a TKO defeat to Julio Cesar Chavez in 1996.

This non-title fight was contracted to be at 141 lbs, but on fight night, Gatti was literally two weight classes bigger than Gamache on HBO's unofficial fight night scales (160 to 146 lbs). The end result was a frighteningly brutal KO, which led to permanent brain damage for Gamache, who never fought again.

The actual matchmaking aside, the controversy came at the scales the day before the fight, and was the basis of Gamache's $5.5 million lawsuit. It was alleged by Gamache that Gatti had failed to make weight, but the commission otherwise gave him a pass. Gamache's trainer challenged the commission's weighing of Gatti, to which the commission's executive director Tony Russo, who in an unusual move took charge of the weigh-ins that day, told him to be quiet. Gamache also alleged that the NYSAC failed to enforce a state clause whereby fighters could not be separated by more than 11 pounds on the re-weigh 8 hours before the fight.

Famed boxing journalist Thomas Hauser was quoted as saying that "[The NYSAC] jumped [Gatti] on and off the scale very quickly. It seemed pretty clear to me that someone at the commission had been told in advance that there might be a problem and the response was, 'Don't worry about it.'" Of course, Gatti's camp disputed this and that Gatti was "at most" overweight by 1 pound.

Gatti was scheduled to testify in the case prior to his death on July 11th, 2009. Gamache was never awarded any monetary damages by the presiding judge, as he stated that the size disparity didn't cause the injuries, but did rule that the commission's handling of Gatti's weigh-in was improper. Gamache considered it a victory, even without the money.

As an aside, an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General prompted several resignations and firings that year, including that of Russo, who died before the judge's ruling on Gamache's lawsuit.

The death of Beethavean Scottland (June 26th, 2001, Midtown Manhattan)

On a nationally televised Tuesday Night Fights card aboard a USS Intrepid ship off the Hudson River, Beethavean Scottland (20-7-2, 9 KOs) fought George Khalid Jones in a 175 lbs matchup, in which Scottland came in as a late replacement and otherwise was a 168 lbs fighter. In fact, the fight got made when Scottland's super middleweight opponent withdrew, and Scottland's team didn't want to turn down what was a career-best $8,000 payday.

Scottland was physically outmatched, skillwise he was extremely overmatched, thoroughly beaten, and brutally knocked out in the 10th and final round. Beethavean was breathing but unresponsive following the KO, fell into a coma, and succumbed to his injuries, which included a subdural hematoma, just a few days later.

Ringside analyst Max Kellerman repeatedly voiced his concern for Scottland's health, as referee Arthur Mercante Jr. didn't stop it sooner, and Scottland's corner let it continue. The New York Times' write-up on Scottland's death noted that his trainer had threatened to stop the fight after the 7th round, but Scottland begged to continue, and Adrian Davis obliged.

"[Scottland] is too tough for his own good. . . . This is how guys get seriously hurt. . . . I prefer referees who err on the side of caution," Kellerman said in round 5.

"Those are the cumulative punches that lead to things that you don't want to hear about after the fight," He later added in round 7.

(both quotes are from The New Yorker)

This is the post-fight recap, which shows just how much punishment Scottland absorbed. Note Kellerman's comments as the highlights play on the broadcast.

None of the three commission doctors at ringside intervened at the end of round 7. In fact, as Jack Newfield wrote in the republishing of his book, "The Life and Crimes of Don King: The Shame of Boxing in America", Dr. Rufus Sadler told a local reporter that night that Scottland's injuries were "probably not life-threatening." Kellerman said on-air that he felt "nauseated" and "sick" after the fatal knockout blow.

Mercante took the brunt of the criticism for letting an otherwise lopsided fight go on any further. As if to deflect any blame from himself, he told the media that "It's my understanding that he was injured more from being banged around in the elevator as they were trying to get him down to the ambulance." Thomas Hauser, who was at the fight, called that claim "nonsense." Mercante also said that he let the fight continue past the 7th because Scottland performed well in the 8th and 9th. The athletic commission would later be absolved of any legal liability in Scottland's death.

Scottland's widow filed a wrongful death claim which the state of New York settled for $150,000, 11 years after Beethavean's death. An original lawsuit against the three commission doctors was dismissed by a judge in 2005 on the grounds of her allegations being considered malpractice (as opposed to negligence), and statute of limitations had passed.

It's well known in the boxing community that Mercante has had a history of questionable refereeing decisions, including the outrageous ending to Pernell Whittaker's knockout win over Diosbelys Hurtado, which leads us to....

Yuri Foreman vs. Miguel Cotto: "Suck it up!" (June 5th, 2010, The Bronx)

Yankees Stadium played host to a title fight between WBA super welterweight champion Yuri Foreman and Puerto Rican superstar Miguel Cotto. Foreman came into the bout undefeated with a pro record of 28-0 (1 NC) but a paltry 8 KOs. Cotto had just been KO'd by Manny Pacquiao in a 145 lbs catchweight, which would be the last time he'd ever fight at the welterweight limit.

Foreman may have been the champion, but Cotto's resume was far superior and he was the rightful favorite. Yuri entered the bout wearing a brace on his right knee. With Cotto comfortably ahead on the scorecards halfway through the 12-round bout, disaster struck for Foreman. Just 45 seconds into round 7, Foreman's knee buckled and he went down without contact. Arthur Mercante Jr. asked Foreman if he was okay, and it can be clearly heard on HBO's broadcast that he told Foreman to "Walk it off, champ! Suck it up, kid!" Mercante gave Foreman 5 minutes to recover, but Yuri was back in business after 1 minute.

The fight resumed with Foreman still hobbling, Cotto searching for the finish, and then with 1:40 left, he collapsed in a heap again. Mercante let out a loud "Awwww shit!" before calling for time. Jim Lampley said during the broadcast, "Foreman is done. There's no way he can continue." Again, Mercante told Foreman to "suck it up." He initially called for the doctor but no check-up was done. Foreman wanted to fight on, and sure enough he saw out the 7th, but lost his mouthpiece with 1 minute left and didn't get it reinserted until after the bell.

Amazingly, the fight continued into round 8, but trainer Joe Grier saw no improvement in Foreman's performance or his knee, and threw in the towel. Grier also stepped into the ring, which is normally a disqualification. Fight over, right? Wrong. Technically, throwing in the towel is not an automatic stoppage -- only the referee or doctor can stop the fight -- so Mercante had every right not to honor it. However, Grier told the commission inspector that he wanted to stop it, the inspector was set to inform Mercante of Grier's decision, but amidst the chaotic scenes, Mercante ordered everyone out and away from the ring. His back was away from Foreman's corner but said that the corner didn't throw the towel.

"I saw the inspector coming up the steps, but the inspector can't stop the fight," Mercante said afterwards. "And why let a champion lose his title on disqualification?"

"You're fighting hard," Mercante said to Foreman. "I don't want to see a move like that. Suck it up. Walk it off."

Grier followed proper procedure and yet the referee insisted the fight continue, even with Foreman fighting on one leg and with less than zero chance of victory. Michael Buffer told the crowd that the towel was thrown from an "outside source," which was inaccurate. Round 9 was a quick one, as Cotto dropped a substantially weakened Foreman with a left hook to the body, and Mercante finally called it a night. Foreman's wife was furious with Mercante and had a brief verbal confrontation in the dressing room.

Foreman, whose knee problems traced back to a (never corrected) injury suffered when he was 15, was diagnosed with a torn ACL and meniscus, which required reconstructive surgery. He lost his next fight to Pawel Wolak in 2011, and hasn't had another matchup with a relevant opponent since then.

To wrap this up, this was Mercante's defense for letting an increasingly immobile Foreman fight.

"There was no need to stop the fight. They were in the middle of a great fight. That's what the fans came to see."

A perplexed Grier told the NY Daily News his thoughts on the whole ordeal.

"I wanted to stop it but Arthur made it very clear to me that only he could stop it," Grier said. "Mercante didn't want to hear anything from anyone."

"I didn't know if it was ego, him saying that only he could stop the fight or if he was affected by the fight being in the stadium, but it was very confusing. Who knows the fighter better than the corner? He was fighting on one leg. I was trying to protect him from getting seriously injured."

It should be noted that in neither instance did Mercante ever consult a ringside physician to check on Foreman's knee. Rule 33 of the Association of Boxing Commissions states the following:

A case of accidental injury is when someone or something other than an opponent injures a boxer.

The Referee must immediately declare that an Accidental Injury has occurred. In these cases the Referee
will have the clock stopped and attend to the injury.

When the Referee declares that an accidental injury has occurred the Four (4) Round Rule will be applied. The Referee must consult with the Ringside Physician in all accidental injury cases.

The Referee in conjunction with the Ringside Physician will determine the length of time needed to evaluate the affected boxer and his or her suitability to continue.

If the injured boxer is not adversely affected and their chance of winning has not been seriously jeopardized because of the injury, the bout may be allowed to continue after the time allotted by the Referee.

Bold emphasis is mine. There was no consulting with a ringside physician, as Mercante didn't deem Foreman's (proven) serious knee injury to actually be serious.

Mercante's decisions that night drew criticism from both New Jersey commissioner Larry Hazzard and Nevada Athletic Commission's Dr. Margaret Goodman. Hazzard in particular took aim at what he deemed a systemic failure on the part of the NYSAC. Melvina Lathan, then the chairwoman of the NYSAC, said that Mercante did "a remarkable job" and "responded appropriately."

As of 2016, Mercante is still licensed to referee in the state of New York, and also occasionally pops up at events in Connecticut.

Everything that transpired from rounds 7-9 can be seen starting at the 35:05 mark of the video.

Next week we will have part 2 of this series examine the drug-testing fiasco surrounding Erik Morales vs. Danny Garcia II, the timing of the decision to license Antonio Margarito for his rematch against Cotto, and the sanctioning of Danny Garcia vs. Rod Salka.