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Lathan is on the job!

Story by Matt Richardson
Photo by David Greene

New York boxing fans remember the time well, unfortunately.

There was a period from the end of the former decade to the beginning of the current one where it seemed as if nothing could go right when it came to boxing in “The Big Apple.”

There was the first Lennox Lewis – Evander Holyfield debacle in March of 1999 at Madison Square Garden when everyone in the arena except the three ringside judges thought Lewis won a clear decision.

The result was a draw.

Then, barely a year later, after an alleged botched weigh-in the day before their fight, Arturo Gatti would go on to brutally knock out Joey Gamache in, essentially, a fight between a middleweight and a junior welterweight.  That two-round blowout also took place at the Garden.

Gamache, meanwhile, never fought again.

In June 2001, 14 months after the Gatti-Gamache bout, super middleweight Beethaeven Scotland would be knocked out and subsequently pass away from injuries sustained in a one-sided fight against George Khalid Jones on board the Intrepid in mid-town Manhattan.

While not as controversial as the situations with Gamache and Holyfield (refereeing is, after all, very subjective and open to criticism) a boxing death in New York unequivocally damaged the sports appeal and credibility.

It was a welcome fresh breath of air, then, when Ron Scott Stevens became the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission in 2003.  Stevens (unlike many of his predecessors) had an ingrained knowledge of the sport that helped him regulate from both experience and conscience.  He knew the sport, the characters and the venues and thus provided an atmosphere that was conducive to regulating a professional boxing show.

So it was with understandable apprehension when boxing fans discovered that Stevens was booted from his job last summer and replaced by Commissioner Melvina Lathan.  The NYSAC Chairperson is a political appointee and boxing fans had the right to be leery of the replacement of a generally accepted competent official for no substantial reason.  Would Lathan be able to keep the ship on track?  Or would the state of boxing in the state subvert back to the way it was earlier in the decade?

While still barely six months into her reign (the chairperson serves in three-year time periods), it appears as if Lathan has done her job.

And she has done it well.  She has already regulated the Joe Calzaghe – Roy Jones Junior card last November at the Garden in addition to numerous other smaller local cards and it has gone smoothly.

“It was quite easy,” Lathan would tell Fightnews of the transition from commissioner to chairperson.  In an exclusive interview conducted in her freshly painted, bright light pink office, Lathan said the new position is something she both welcomed and became accustomed to quickly.

“When you’re surrounded by good people the transition is easy,” she explained.  “And it’s not exactly like I’m a neophyte.  I do know the boxing game well.”

A boxing judge from 1991 to 2008, Lathan was also one of three commissioners’ for two years before becoming the chairperson.  Even her husband was a doctor for the athletic commission for a four year period earlier in the decade.  Lathan has both the experience and knowledge of the sport necessary for her new role.  It’s certainly something she needs as the state of the sport encounters new changes.  One of those changes Lathan may have to deal with is the regulation of another sport: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), which is currently illegal in the state.

“Why not,” Lathan asked rhetorically when confronted about the sport’s potential entry into New York.  “It’s really major.  If it’s allowed in New York State then we’d certainly welcome it and regulate it,” she said.  There is current legislation underway in Albany to help push the sport towards being enacted.  Another vote is expected in March or April.

“I really would like it to happen,” she continued.  “Once it’s legalized we’re prepared to regulate it.  We have great resources all ready and hopefully it passes.”

Even if that means MMA competes with boxing for attention and revenue?

“I think they’re two different sports,” Lathan said.  “You can’t compare the two; they’re totally different.  Allowing MMA in New York would mean many things.  It would mean many of the fighters could practice their craft in their own home state…the smokers would die out if you legalize it.  If the sport is legalized here it would bring them above ground.  And the financial aspect is large.  It would be a major boon to the economy.”

Moving on to another potential hot topic, Lathan said she would be open to following New Jersey’s lead in allowing the use of instant replay in New York.  “Sure, I would consider it,” she said.  “I don’t have a problem with it.  I think it could be utilized but it has to be perfected.  There’s also nothing wrong with taking the time and looking at something after the fact and making the decisions.  But if we do use instant replay, it does have to be finely honed.”

There are some basic, yet important, goals Lathan and her team, including executive director Ruth Noemi Colon, intends to complete.  This includes major seminars for all officials, including a tri-state seminar for judges.  It also means providing fighters better access to their medical records electronically and, just some simple stuff like updating the commission’s website, posting an up to date schedule on the site, etc.  And, Lathan says as she holds up a copy of a rule-book filled with post-it notes, it wouldn’t hurt to update the rules and regulations either.

“We want it to be a boxing state and maintain the status quo…maintain our medical efforts because that’s important to me,” Lathan said.  “Because at the end of the day it’s the fighters we work for.”

Asked if she was concerned that, like Stevens before her, she could lose her job due to the dynamics of local politics, Lathan took a pragmatic approach.  “It doesn’t bother me,” she said.  “If you worry about that you can’t do your job.  There are still many things to be done.  Life is like a series of steps anyway.  You complete one phase and keep moving.”

Given time to think about it, a few days later, Lathan fleshed out her thoughts on her new job.  “I feel that it's an honor for me to serve New York State and my boxing family at the request of our Governor,” she said.

“I just love boxing.  I love the boxing family.  It’s part of my life.  It’s hard to imagine my life without it.  When my time is up, will I be sad?  Perhaps, but I'm old enough and humbled enough to know that nothing in life is guaranteed...not even life itself.  So, I give my all to whatever I do during whatever time I have.”

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