AIBA executive director Tom Virgets (ATR)
(ATR) The sport of boxing needs a reformed international federation says Tom Virgets, now on the job for five months as AIBA executive director.
In an interview at the AIBA offices in Lausanne in July, Virgets talked about the challenges faced by the federation in the aftermath of a leadership upheaval in 2017. The IOC has suspended payments and communications to the federation and says boxing could lose its spot at the Tokyo Olympics without substantial changes.
In response, AIBA has submitted an extensive Foundation Plan to the IOC this month. The plan addresses the concerns that have been raised by the IOC, covering all aspects of the federation, finance, doping control, refereeing and governance.
Virgets says interim president Gafur Rakhimov “has the best interests of AIBA as interim president”. He credits Rakhimov with successfully negotiating with creditors to spare the federation from bankruptcy under deals struck by former president C.K. Wu, Wu resigned under pressure late in 2017 but still remains IOC member in Chinese Taipei.
Proof of Reforms Needed
The IOC President says AIBA’s fate for Tokyo 2020 depends on whether the federation adopts significant reforms when it meets in Moscow this November.
Virgets, a Louisiana native, is a boxing veteran who has trained and coached amateur and professional fighters. He’s been an athletics director for universities, including the U.S. Naval Academy. He retired from the academy in March to move to Lausanne and captain the staff of AIBA at its headquarters at the Maison du Sport International. Virgets says the staff has been cut in size by half as a response to finance issues.
Virgets says the money woes for AIBA stem in part from plans for expansion and new programs launched 10 years ago.
“We moved forward with a bunch of programs without having a solid foundation to ensure their success. And as a result of that I think the weight of this program when we really started having challenges, such as finances and all, it just imploded on itself,” he said.
He says this included AIBA initiatives in professional boxing, such as the World Series of Boxing and a boxing academy in Kazakhstan.
“Just many, many initiatives that on paper were great ideas, but you can’t execute unless you have sound business plans that are actually being assessed and actually being researched.
“I’ve always said one of the problems AIBA had was we tried to move forward with a lot of for-profit programs with a non-profit mindset and you just can’t do that. If you want to be in the for-profit, then the primary goal has to be to find a way to make money off of these. That wasn’t necessarily always the goal. Sometimes, the goal was – once again like the non-profit mindset – and that is to include the greatest number of people in the greatest number of activities and worry about money as a secondary consideration. We did way too much of that,” he says.
Federation-wide Review Needed
Virgets says AIBA will review all its activities as it moves ahead with its Foundation Plan.
A World Series of Boxing match (WSB)
“Everything will be on the table down the road, but right now we’re saying let’s cement a solid foundation and make sure that we have good governance, we have good fiscal responsibility, and good policies and procedures in place that are going to ensure that we stay within budgets and that we stay within our means.
“We want to make sure that we have not left our primary responsibility and that is our members and our federations and ensuring that, if we move forward with a program, it is not at the expense of our grassroots. We must not forget who we are,” he says.
Virgets says AIBA should consider its main purpose for the sport of boxing: governance.
“Our mission statement says that we are going to govern the sport of boxing in all its forms. It didn’t say we were going to be the promoters of boxing, the managers of professional boxers, etc. We were going to be a governing body. That’s what we do and that’s what we do well.
“As we moved forward we became a competing body against professional managers, trainers, promoters, and all the other professional organizations. And what we should have done is we should have been an integrating body where we brought the expertise of governance. And this is what we have to offer that no other individual group could ever do,” Virgets says.
“I believe that this is where AIBA has its strength. If we focus on the governance aspects of the sport, we have a chance of being that governing body. If we try to be the promoter or manager of boxers on this end, then we become the competitor of the sport. Well, you
can’t be the competitor and a governor. If it’s governance, then that’s what we should do. And our mission statement says that we’re going to govern the sport of boxing in all of its forms and that’s where I would like to see this going.”
Virgets says the governance of AIBA should extend to all the professional organizations in the sport, such as the World Boxing Council or World Boxing Association.
One Umbrella for All
“A unified governing body would do more for the sport of boxing than anything else. And for the boxers. If you have a unified governing body, now the boxers, instead of right now, if I’m a boxer and I have to, let’s say, sue a manager or trainer, I don’t have the money to do that. So he automatically has total control over my contract in that he can hold me accountable to meeting the responsibilities, but unless I have reached that point where I’m making the million-dollar bouts, well I have no avenue for grievance. Well, this is something a governing body, like AIBA, can provide.
“If they’re part of AIBA, then they’re part of the CAS. So there are things there. A unified body can then bring together the right groups to ensure that there are appropriate ranking systems for boxing,” he says
Vigets says these changes could lead to better financial rewards for boxers. He says most of the world’s boxers do not fair well under the current business model.
“So what ends up happening is managers protect their boxers by having them fight guys with huge records who couldn’t beat a pillow. But the bottom line is that the system is designed that way and so, in the end, what happens is the top 25 boxers in the world make 90% of the money.
“And then you’ve got, what, maybe 3,000 boxers below that are making less than $20,000 a year. Most of them would qualify for welfare and stuff, because they just don’t have these opportunities,” he says.
“If you bring all these groups together and you start having AIBA as the center focus of governance, not competition, but governance, then what you can do is the pool of truly good boxers can be expanded and then consistency in terms of having bouts on television and the right caste system can grow.
“I want promoters to make 10 times the money they’re making right now. I want the boxer to make 10 times more. I want 10 times the number of boxers making a living out of boxing,” Virgets declares.
“I want AIBA to be the governing body of all this and I want us to be able to include it. And our focus is to grow the sport of boxing and to make it viable for a much larger population to have a career. We have so many great boxers that come up through our Olympic programs and our World Championships – who just fade away, because there’s not opportunity. There’s not a way for them to make a living. Many of these are still developing and could be world champions.
“The answer lies in the new governance of AIBA. The answer lies in that we have the possibility and the capability of being held accountable. We’re held accountable by the IOC. We’re held accountable by a membership," he says.
Virgets says AIBA should consider a way to eliminate the numerous world championships amidst professional boxing. He entertains the idea of a World Cup style of championship.
“Think about if we had a legitimate World Cup setup. Thirty-two of the top countries in the world going down to 16, to eight, to four, to two, to a champion. Why can’t that be done in boxing?
“Forget pro or amateur – it doesn’t matter. Country. Team. Putting it together under governance of AIBA. Going to a World Cup. Think about how important that would be to countries all over the world if we got together with television and all these other groups and we made that happen,” he says.
As the governing body for the entire sport of boxing, Virgets says AIBA could make it work.
“First thing we got to do is get them all to the table. And then we got to sit down and we got to start saying, ‘Ok, let’s talk about money.’ Because that’s what drives all this stuff. So let’s talk about money.
“Now, AIBA’s interest is governance. We’ll make money if everybody makes money. But our interest is in governance. Their interest is money. Let’s all get to the table and let’s take a look at the numbers.
“How can we make a program, under the governance of AIBA, work in the best interests of every one of you so that everyone profits? Every other sport can do it. Why can’t boxing?
“In my mind the reason why boxing has never been able to do it, is because they’ve never been able to sit down at a table with a common goal. They’ve always sat down at the table with a competitive goal.
“So how do we bring us all together and figure it out? You know, as we say in the Navy, we say what? ‘A rising tide lifts all ships.’
“That’s what I want. I want to see a rising tide lift all the ships of boxing and I want to see boxing once again have its Golden Age. And the only way we’re going to get there is working together,” Virgets says.
Reported by Ed Hula.
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