Club fight nights feature under-age boxers

November 24, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
The I-Team takes an inside look at the most exclusive private clubs in San Francisco and their controversial fight nights. The main attraction involves amateur boxers as young as 8 years old, and their parents are not allowed. Is it entertainment or exploitation?

There is a simple rule in amateur boxing -- like all youth sports -- no one is supposed to make money. Any funds from events go back into the sport, for the kids. However, in this case, there is big money being made by the private clubs, the matchmakers who bring the young fighters, and the patrons who place their illegal bets.

Welcome to fight night at San Francisco's City Club. Members pay $125 a ticket to dress up in tuxedos and gowns, enjoy an open bar, eat filet mignon? and dessert? Served ringside, while watching kids, many from low-income families fight.

"The kids that come from underprivileged families, they're the ones with the desire and the hunger to do it," said Todd Jones, parent of a boxer.

Executives at the City Club refused to be interviewed about their event, but the I-Team spoke with the man who arranged a private show and others at the University Club. Gary Sullenger coaches at Concord's Community Youth Center or CYC. He brings young fighters from there and other boxing clubs around Northern California. These boys are 10 and 11.

"Are people that maybe have better funds and ways and means using it as a form of entertainment? Yeah. Are they doing any damage to the kids? I don't think so," said Sullenger.

But the event violates several rules of amateur boxing -- among them, no ring girls allowed.

An announcer is heard saying, "Oh, Abby. If you're doing things like you're doing to me to everybody else, you're going to be a happy lady."

Noyes: "Is that really the best environment for an 11-year-old?"

Sullenger: "I don't know that it's the perfect environment for an 11-year-old, but I think that the pros outweigh the cons."

Sullenger says his fighters need every chance to get experience in the ring, even if it means adhering to the City Club's no parents allowed rule.

Noyes: "The parents aren't allowed though, right?"

Benito Garcia (Sacramento boxing coach): "No, that's a private show for the rich people."

"It's just wrong. I mean, it should be obvious that there's something wrong with that set-up," said Oscar Ortiz, a Napa County Sheriff's sergeant who runs the Silver Gloves Tournament, a more traditional amateur boxing event that encourages parents to attend.

"If you're the coach, I'm not going to loan you my boxer or my child and you're going to take him to a show that I can't go to, that's like no, you know, I want to cheer my child on," said Ortiz.

Then there's the California State Athletic Commission rule that says, "no amateur boxing contest shall be held in conjunction with vaudeville shows, dances or entertainments of any sort."

"That's what we'd refer to as an illegal event. That's an illegal event," said Che Guevara, an inspector with the athletic commission.

We showed our undercover video of the City Club event 10 days ago to the state's lead inspector. He says the athletic commission is stretched thin with so many fights up and down the state.

"It matters to us, we don't want to see it. We come to work every day to stop things like that. It's not that nobody's watching, it's just we can't get 'em all," said Guevara.

Robert Salinas is a long-time youth boxing coach who is critical of the private shows. He says money is corrupting the sport.

Salinas: "It's supposed to be run by the Amateur USA Boxing Organization."

Noyes: "No money being made."

Salinas: "No money being made."

Noyes: "Is there money being made?"

Salinas: "Oh, there's money being made."

The City Club took in about $20,000 in ticket sales for this one event. They paid the CYC about $10,000 to bring the fighters and the ring. After expenses, officials at the youth center say they cleared $4,000 to $5,000 and that the money will go back into their programs. But other matchmakers are getting a personal pay day.

Sonny Marson has arranged fights at the Olympic Club for the past 18 years. It is a similar event with the tuxedos and alcohol and amateur fighters. There, the youngest is usually 17.

Noyes: "How much do you get paid?"

Marson: "A buck and a half. They take care of me."

Noyes: "Fifteen hundred, you're saying?"

Marson: "About that."

Oh, but there is much more. Check under "grants" on the Olympic Club Web site and there is Marson's boxing club, M&M. In addition to the $1,500, the Olympic Club Foundation pays Marson $20,000, and all he does is arrange fighters for a single event. Under amateur rules, Marson's supposed to put any proceeds back into boxing.

Noyes: "When you're paid the money from the Olympic Club, do you put it back into boxing, or is that your fee?"

Marson: "Well, it goes into my club."

Noyes: "You have a club?"

Marson: "Yeah, M&M Boxing Club."

Noyes: "You have any kids in your club?"

Marson: "No."

Marson is also not shy about illegal gambling at the Olympic Club fight night.

Marson: "They're all tuxed out and stuff and get drunk and act like idiots."

Noyes: "Is there betting on the fights?"

Marson: "Oh, well, you know what, yeah I would say so. Yeah, you see these guys, man."

Marson explains that when a club member wants to place a bet, they wave color-coded towels for the red or blue corner. You can see the towels waving on video shot by amateur coach Ramona Gatto, and you can hear a club member approach her, just before her boxer's bout.

"I say I'm the trainer of that young man over there. 'Is he good?' Yeah, he's good. 'Is he, is he going to win?' Yeah, I think he is. 'Well, we're going to bet on him -- $2,000 on red,'" explained Gatto. After her fighter took the decision, she says another member approached. "One of them as we're coming by reached out and grabs me and I look down and he's like, 'Your boy won, won us money, we want to give you some money,' [and] peels off $500."

The I-Team spoke with several fighters who saw the betting at the Olympic Club. Some even profited themselves.

"Yeah, all I was thinking was look at this drunk guy. Cool, you're going to give me money, OK, I'll take it, especially I was one of those underprivileged kids who coudn't afford the gym," said amateur boxer Fernando Solis.

Noyes: "Amateur events like this in private clubs, are they allowed under state law to gamble?"

Guevara: "No, no."

Noyes: "No gambling's allowed."

Guevara: "It's immoral. It's not right."

The Olympic Club sent a statement late Monday that reads in part, "this event complies with all federal, state, and local laws and the Olympic Club takes all available measures to protect the interests of these athletes."

The I-Team interviewed the head of the local committee of USA Boxing. Jerry Maxwell is supposed to be enforcing the rules. He has attended several of the annual Olympic Club fight nights, but Maxwell somehow does not know about the illegal betting.

Noyes: "Is there betting?"

Maxwell: "No, I don't know. If they do, I don't know, in private, if they do it on their own, I don't know."

Noyes: "But is it, is it that apparent? I mean can you see the money changing hands?"

Marson: "Oh sure."

Noyes: "Oh, you see the money."

Marson: "Oh yeah, they don't hide anything."

Amateur coaches like Gatto are worried about what has become of the sport and what effect the problems in boxing might have on these kids looking for a way up in life.

"These are our children. These are our children and we have a responsibility to protect them and take care of them and not let anyone use them or abuse them, because that's what's happening, they're abusing them, and that can't happen," said Gatto.

The Olympic Club sent a statement to ABC7 late Monday that reads, in part, "This event complies with all federal, dtate, and local laws and the Olympic Club takes all available measures to protect the interests of these athletes."

But it is no consolation to the executive board of the San Francisco National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"This is despicable," said the Rev. Amos Brown of the Third Street Baptist Church.

After watching ABC7's undercover video, Brown, the San Francisco NAACP president, railed against the private fights during his Sunday sermon.

"We ought to be disturbed this morning that we have children, not maybe from your family, but children out of our community where fat cats are making money and gambling on your children in the city and county of San Francisco," said Brown.

ABC7 has also gotten a reaction from the San Francisco Police Department; they have launched an investigation into the fights.

For more details about what goes on inside the private shows, read the I-Team blog.

The San Francisco Police Department has contacted ABC7 News to say they are investigating what was uncovered.

Tuesday at 6:00 p.m. we will look at how boxing has become the trendy workout, but it comes with a danger -- a serious danger -- when the rules are not followed.


Load Comments