By Boxing Bob Newman
Photo: Boxing Bob Newman
Much has been written about the passing of WBC “President For Life,” Don José Sulaimán Chagnón. Sulaiman died yesterday at UCLA Medical Center at 82, of complications following heart surgery. Most of it seems to have been lifted from the same one or two sources and slapped together for print. I wanted to put together, in some cohesive fashion, my thoughts on this “force of nature” in the tumultuous world of boxing.
Don Jose, or Don Pepe as he was called by those close to him, was an easy mark for criticism. Most powerful people are. Be it out of jealousy or justified, that’s what happens when you’re at the top. Sulaiman was at the top of his profession as president of the World Boxing Council for thirty eight years. His climb was relatively rapid once he entered the world of professional boxing. But prior to joining the WBC in 1968, Sulaiman’s journey was one of persistence, and dedication.
Born on May 30, 1931 in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico to immigrant parents, his father Elias coming from Lebanon. As a young boy, Sulaiman was immediately attracted to boxing among other sports and soon plied his way through the sport in various capacities- donning the gloves himself, managing, promoting, officiating and eventually joining the young organization known as the world boxing council in 1968. In seven short years, Sulaiman was elected president at the 1975 WBC convention in Tunisia and has never looked back since. At the Cancun convention in 2010, Don Jose was recognized by the Guinness book of world records as the longest serving president of a sporting organization at 35 years.
No presidential administration ever serves without scandal, turmoil, or criticism and the Sulaiman administration had its share over his eventual thirty eight years in office. Those moments have been well and overly documented. What got little coverage were the good deeds, the philanthropy, and the beneficial moves for the betterment of boxing. During his tenure, Sulaiman oversaw:
-The changing of weigh-ins to 24 hours before the fight to allow the boxers to rehydrate
-The reduction of title fight rounds from fifteen to twelve in an attempt to reduce injuries often sustained during the latter rounds in which fatigue is at its most severe
-The addition of the fourth strand of rope in the boxing ring to minimize injury to the fighter’s head and neck during a knockdown
-The addition of interval weight classes (ie. Super Featherweight) to allow fighters a chance to compete for titles at a more comfortable weight without disadvantage
-Open scoring after the fourth and eighth rounds of title fights so the audience knows how the judge are seeing the fight
-Establishing brain injury research at UCLA medical center
-Creating a pension fund for retired boxers in need, which raised $1,000,000 in its first event with Hublot Watches in October 2012 in Las Vegas.
-Establishing World Boxing Cares- the benevolent arm of the WBC which donates everything from medical supplies to the sick, especially terminally ill children, to boxing gear from boxing gyms having fallen on hard times- often with the help of former and current champs
Sulaiman also brought the Council back from the brink of doom, like a Phoenix from the ashes, after it declared bankruptcy following a legal battle in 1998. Despite that setback, the WBC came back even stronger than ever to become the most powerful and largest sanctioning body in the sport, with some 164 member countries.
His 2007 induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the non-participants category drew criticism from many observers of the sport, but then again, each class sees members inducted of whom fans often ask, “Why is he getting inducted?” For the non fighters- the Non-Participants and Observers- it’s about the impact one has made on the sport. Regardless of the views of some- he garnered respect, even from his rivals. WBA President Gilberto Mendoza, Vice President Gilberto Jesus Mendoza and other members of the directorate flew to Canastota, New York to attend that year’s inductions and pay tribute to Sulaiman, to which he reacted with great surprise and appreciation. Mendoza Jr. stated “Don Jose is a man from whom we have all learned a great deal. He is to be respected and admired for the work he has done in boxing.” WBC board members would have fun at his expense though. Just prior to his opening remarks at every convention, a silent poll would be taken with each member submitting their guess on paper, as to how long Sulaiman’s speech would last. The person who guessed to the closest minute, the length of Sulaiman’s often long winded oratory was the winner. Don Jose would laugh and take it in stride. Such was his passion.
Love him or hate him, Jose Sulaiman made an impact. This writer interviewed him on several occasions. He spoke from the heart, impassioned about his sport and those in it- from promoters, television networks, rival organizations and the fighters themselves. He crowed about the safety of the fighters being first and foremost in his heart, the fighters like his children. At the recent WBC convention in Bangkok, Executive Secretary Mauricio Sulaiman explained, “I often felt jealous of the attention my father gave to the boxers. He was so dedicated to them.”
Sulaiman had been dreaming of the WBC World Cup in recent years. It would be a series of mini tournaments in several weight classes pitting ranked fighters from all over the world against each other to determine the #1 challenger to the title in that weight class. The culmination of that dream was about to come to fruition this past few months with several events being scheduled in various weight classes. Due to Sulaiman’s surgery and long recovery, the shows were all put on indefinite hold.
Was Jose Sulaiman tenacious? You bet. Dedicated to the sport he loved? Without a doubt. Was he unconventional? Perhaps. Then again, what is conventional in the irregularly regulated sport of boxing? There are so many contradictory rules and disagreements in this sport, who is to say who’s right and who’s wrong? In keeping with the theme song that accompanied slideshows at the annual conventions, he did it his way. As he often did during the portion of the WBC convention where members of boxing’s fraternity were remembered, we now sound the bell for a count of ten in remembering and paying respect to him. Don José Sulaimán Chagnón is survived by his six children- Jose, Lucy, Hector, Fernando, Mauricio and Claudia and his loving wife of over fifty years Martha.
Fightnews.com would like to extend condolences to the Sulaiman family and the members of the WBC.
Descanse en paz Don Jose.