He was both loved and loathed during his lifetime, but in the end there was no denying Jose Sulaiman’s place in the history of the punch-for-pay business.
Sulaiman, the president, seemingly for life, of the World Boxing Council (WBC), passed away recently at age 82. He had been hospitalized since October with a heart condition and his passing was more or less expected. Still, nobody believed he was gone until his son Mauricio confirmed his demise.
Sulaiman seemed destined to rule the WBC for eons. He joined the then five-year-old WBC in 1968 and was elected president of the boxing organization in December 1975, a post he held until his death. Before ruling the WBC with an iron glove, Sulaiman spent his early years in the sport, albeit in different capacities. Born in Mexico in 1931, Sulaiman briefly boxed as an amateur before earning his keep as a promoter, referee and judge.
It was as president of the WBC that Sulaiman carved a permanent (although not entirely positive) niche in boxing. It was under his tenure that championship fights were reduced from 15 to 12 rounds. Sulaiman pushed for the reform in 1983, following the tragic death of Korean Deuk Koo Kim in the hands of then World Boxing Association (WBA) lightweight champ Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Amid the absence of medical studies to justify the reduction of the rounds, and reports that television networks were the ones who really wanted the title fights reduced to accommodate more advertisements, Sulaiman successfully rallied fellow boxing officials to shorten the duration of each title bout. The other sanctioning bodies (WBA, IBF, and WBO) eventually followed Sulaiman’s lead.
It was also Sulaiman who orchestrated the change of the schedule of the weigh-in for the boxers, a switch that was medically supported. In the past, boxers tipped the scales in the morning of the fight and those who encountered weight problems often showed up dehydrated on the evening of the fight. Sulaiman moved for the holding of the weigh-in a day before the fight to give the boxers 24 hours to rehydrate.
However, while Sulaiman undeniably accomplished a lot of good things for the sport, there were also several drawbacks under his rule. Throughout Sulaiman’s tenure, he was accused of favoring several boxers (particularly Mexican boxers) and rewarding them with lofty and undeserved world rankings. Sulaiman was closely identified with ex-convict turned promoter Don King and the latter’s fighters greatly benefited from Sulaiman’s generosity. Sulaiman was harpooned by the media when he initially refused to recognize James “Buster” Douglas’ 10th round knockout win over Mike Tyson in February 1990 for the heavyweight title. King tried to argue that Douglas should have been counted out when he was knocked down in the 8th round and Sulaiman actually bought the crap.
Sulaiman’s penchant to ignore his own rules ultimately led to the WBC’s bankruptcy in 2004. In 1998, after Roy Jones Jr. gave up the WBC light heavyweight belt, the WBC directed German Graciano Rocchiagiani and Michael Nunn to contest the vacant belt. Rocchiagiani defeated Nunn in March 1998, but when Jones had a change of heart and wanted his WBC belt back, Sulaiman blatantly skirted with the rules and reinstated the popular Jones as WBC light heavyweight champ. Rocchiagiani sued and the court ordered the WBC to pay the fighter $30 million in damages in 2003. The WBC filed for bankruptcy immediately thereafter (to be given a chance to reconstruct its finances) and negotiated a successful settlement with Rocchiagiani in July 2004. Had a settlement not been reached with Rocchiagiani, the WBC would be six-feet under the ground today.
It was also under Sulaiman that the WBC introduced several “bastard” divisions and international/regional titles that were only meant to resuscitate the organization’s dwindling coffers.
Not everything was pretty and rosy for the WBC under Sulaiman, but he would have not been president of the organization that long if he didn’t get some things right.
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