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Fighting for Boxers' Rights

An Interview with Eddie Mustafa Muhammad

by DAVE ZIRIN

Eddie Mustafa Muhammad is a former World Boxing Association (WBA) Light Heavyweight Champion who retired in 1988 with a lifetime mark of 50-8-1 (39 kayos). Today Mr. Muhammad is taking on a far bigger foe: the entrenched exploitation of fighters in Professional Boxing. Muhammad is the President and Founder of the Joint Association of Boxing (JAB). Affiliated with the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, JAB is attempting, and succeeding, at organizing a union in the world of Professional Boxing.

DAVE ZIRIN: When did JAB get started?

Eddie Mustafa Muhammad: All this happened last year. A lot of people know I am the type of person who don’t take stuff from nobody I walk the walk and talk the talk. What you see is what you get. So when an attorney named Walter Kane contacted me to discuss JAB, I jumped in there. I went there to organize and let them know what a union is all about.

DZ: Are you finding an audience?

EMM: So far we have 300- 350 fighters signed up on JAB union cards. I get calls from London to South Africa to Mexico. Some of the biggest promoters around the world want to contribute money to JAB. They say, "Champ you are doing a great job." But some want to see JAB destroyed because they want to keep stealing from the fighter. Boxing is corrupt, let’s get that out front. Why so corrupt? The promoters. The fighters don’t make it corrupt, the promoters do. Influencing judges to make crazy decisions. The fighters are just pawns. A lot of us are not educated on legalities and they want to keep us in that position. The promoters are the reason that boxing is the last major sport without a union. They don’t want these fighters to see what the networks are giving them. The promoter has his hand in the cookie jar and wants to keep it there.

DZ: What kind of response are you getting from the fighters for JAB, from club fighters to the biggest names?

EMM: The biggest names they really don’t need us because they can maintain on their own but the other 99% the 4, 6, or 8 rounders that don’t make it, they need us. The Lennox Lewis’, the Oscar de la Hoyas’, the Roy Jones’ don’t need us. They have been blessed to be great fighters and take care of their own welfare. What I need from those guys is an endorsement that this is something good for fighters to be a part of.

DZ: JAB is affiliated with The International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Other sports unions are independent of larger formations like the Teamsters.

EMM: Being a Teamster means an extra sense of strength and solidarity. (IBT President) James Hoffa treats us with ultimate respect and sees, as we do, that there is a need for protection of fighters. People have learned what a union is all about.

DZ: You have said that you are proud to be a union man. What in your mind is a ‘union man?

EMM: It means’ the blue-collar worker, the hard worker. Someone who stands up for rights and benefits, a pension, all those things that fighters don’t have. A union man means you have purpose. The other 99% of the fighters that don’t make it, that end their careers 8-16, we can make sure they are protected and keep their dignity. You are only as good as your last fight. The promoters are smart. They know the majority of fighters come from the inner city. They are not adept to understanding the intricacies and legalities of a contract and the promoters exploit that. That’s how it is. Whereas being in a union that can’t happen because unions stand up for the hard working individuals and we can’t be bought.

DZ: Why did you, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, throw yourself into this organizing effort.

EMM: First of all I was a world champion. Whatever I said, I’ve done. I can’t be bought. I will challenge anybody that exploits the fighter or exploits the game of boxing no matter who it is. You can be the biggest promoter in the world. I really don’t care. I’m coming after you. This is how I made my livelihood. This is how I got myself out of the inner city and made something of myself so I’m not going to sit around like other guys do and say we should do this and we should do that. I am not going to talk. I am going to do it. After fighting I trained successful 6 guys world champion. I get calls every day but I have to put that on the side to deal with the exploitation of the fighter. I have done everything in boxing. What more can I do except try to clean this up? In boxing, your next fight can always be your last. You can have a great family and all of a sudden you step in the ring and something happens. Who is going to take care of your family? Not the promoter. I don’t see anyone running to the aid of [disabled fighters] Gerald McClellan or Greg Page. Those guys gave their all-great fights? Now who is paying their bills? They have the right to benefits. But if they had a union before their mishaps happened, they would be in a different situation.

DZ: When you see a Greg Page or a Gerald McClellan, do you ever think the sport should just be banned?

EMM: No. This is what we do. But at the end of the day, when our fighting career is over, let’s have something to fall back on. Let’s have a pension. Let’s have medical benefits. Let’s have a retirement package. Let’s have a job waiting for us to keep our dignity. I don’t want charity helping me out. I want to be able to sustain for my own, provide for my family, without throwing a benefit and give me money. I don’t need that. James Brown had a record: Open the door and I’ll get in myself. That’s all I’m saying.

DZ: Have any promoters taken you on?

EMM: They’re not man enough to say it to my face. But there is back biting going on. No doubt about it. The doors are closed they talk about Eddie Mustafa Muhammad like he’s a dog but when the door is open and they take me face to face they want to embrace me but I can dig that because I can see right through you.

DZ: Do you see JAB as a union that would strike to win its demands?

EMM: You know what? We don’t want to do that but if promoters don’t cooperate we will have to take action. I don’t want to strike. All I’m trying to do is create a union for the fighters and their well-being. If any promoter is against this union then they are against a better life for the fighter. That’s all it is. Clear and simple. I am not trying to turn the fighter against the promoter. I am trying to establish something for them to fall back on. What’s wrong with that?

DZ: You guys would also have a most imposing picket line.

EMM: No doubt.

DZ: Other sports unions are notorious for not respecting the picket lines of service industry low paid workers. If the wait staff or custodians in a casino are on strike, would JAB respect their line?

EMM: We would have to honor their picket lines. The bottom line is that we are blue-collar workers. We are what is good for the fighters and I have already been out there on the picket line with other workers. I know how it works. I was asked to take part in sit-downs and I have done that. We are a family. We are Teamsters and we have a lot of strength in numbers.

DAVE ZIRIN can be reached at editor@pgpost.com. His sports writing can be read at www.edgeofsports.com.